The story begins with Charles, a young boy who is scorned by his peers in school. He lived a life of mediocrity and dullness even as he grew older, failing his first medical exam and ends up being a second rate doctor. His mother finds him a would-be rich wife, who dies leaving him less money than he expected. Soon afterwards, he meets and falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients and marries her. However, Emma grows disappointed as her new life of marriage failed to meet her cravings in life. She also felt the same even when she gave birth to Berthe, the Bovarys’ first child.
Soon, she starts a romantic affair with Leon, whom the couple met earlier, but felt guilty after finding out that he loved her. Leon, convinced that Emma would never love him back, goes to Paris to study law, leaving the latter miserable. Emma then meets Rodolphe, a wealthy neighbor, and begins a passionate affair with him and even borrows money from a merchant, Lheureux, to buy him gifts. Charles on the other hand, is in trouble for following the medical procedure suggested by Homais, a bourgeois who talks about things he doesn’t know anything about. The medical procedure leads to the amputation of a patient’s leg due to gangrene. After some time, Rodolphe grew bored of her and ends the relationship, leaving Emma very ill. After her recovery, they watch an opera in the nearby city of Rouen and again meet Leon.
Emma and Leon rekindle their love affair. This time, however, Emma and Leon grew tired of each other and decide to part ways. Meanwhile, Emma is unable to pay her debts even after pleading for help from both Rodolphe and Leon, forcing Lheureux to seize her properties. This causes Emma extreme sorrow and misery, which ultimately results in her committing suicide by swallowing arsenic. Charles, for a short while, preserves the memory of his wife, but soon discovers the love letters from her past affairs. He dies alone in his garden, struck with pain and agony, leaving their daughter Berthe to work in a cotton mill as an orphan.
Basically, there are many scenes in the story that could one way or another portray realism but possibly the best example is Emma’s affairs with Rodolphe and Leon. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, an act of adultery, which is common among families in the real world and committed by both the husband and the wife. In the story, the example used was the wife’s boredom and frustrations with her husband, who is unable to satisfy all aspects of her needs.
Charles’ laziness, mediocrity, and incompetence disappointed Emma as she yearned to live a life of higher status, something that he failed to give her thereby causing the latter to commit adulterous acts. The supposed union of Emma and Charles dissolved during their deaths leaving their only child, Berthe, a poor and helpless orphan. The dysfunctional family of three characters portrays a common scenario in the world and also conveys the message that ultimately, it is the children who suffer most.
One other theme the story depicts is the “showpiece of French realism.” The story took place in the 19th century France, a period where bourgeois or French people belonging to the middle class thrived. Emma was basically a bourgeois but was clearly dissatisfied with her status as she constantly wanted more. She clearly didn’t like this group of people and wanted to escape her apparent “prison” of being in the middle class. Her hatred for her class also possibly echoes the sentiments of the novel’s author, Gustave Flaubert.
This was further emphasized with the depiction of Homais as a pharmacist of the bourgeois class who spoke a lot about things he actually didn’t know of. Charles and Homais’ incompetence fuels Emma’s hatred for the bourgeois even more. Historically, these feelings toward the bourgeois became a growing trend among people in France during the 19th century so in a sense it depicted what the conditions of the people were and how they felt during that period.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. USA: Penguin Classics, 2002.