Part 1, Chapter 1 (1088-94)
Charles Bovary is a bumpkin at school, but diligent. Father once an army surgeon; married for money. They live on a farm. Mother embittered. Upbringing – father a Rousseauist, mother fawns. Charles passes officier de santé exams on second try. Uni life agrees with him. Mother finds him a good practice in Tostes, and a rich wife, Heloise, who bosses him like mother.
Questions/comments: why start with Charles? Well, I suppose we need to know what's in him. What will Emma have to work with? Not a helluva lot, it seems – the parents are a work of art, with dad a second-rate retailer of Revolutionary primitivist ideals. Charles doesn't measure up even to that nonsense.
Part 1, Chapter 2 (1094-99)
Charles sets farmer Rouault's leg. Meets R's daughter Emma, and comes back often. Charles' jealous wife searches Emma's past – convent, uppity. Charles finds out that Heloise's fortune is bogus after lawyer bilks her. She promptly dies of a stroke.
Questions/comments: Circumstance, opportunity is almost fiendish in its appeal to the pedestrian instincts of such characters as Charles – they're passive, just take what comes their way.
Part 1, Chapter 3 (1099-1102)
Rouault visits Charles to pay his fee and condole. Charles visits Rouault, falls in love with Emma. Dad is pleased – she's grown too good for her surroundings. Emma wants a romantic torchlight wedding, but they get a traditional one with a party.
Questions/comments: Same comment as for Ch. 2 – opportunity accepted. Emma, we see, is budding romantic – this wedding establishes the pattern; she ends up accepting the commonly done thing, the cultural script, custom and tradition.
Part 1, Chapters 4-5 (1103-08)
Wedding fun; Charles ecstatic, Emma happy. They return to Tostes; new home described minutely. Heloise's old wedding bouquet induces brooding, but it passes. Charles contentedly excited, doting; Emma disappointed in fairy-tale "passion."
Questions/comments: GF determined to describe everything in minute detail. Why? It's more than authorial pride, I think – he sees realism as a duty. To understand Emma's reality, I suppose, is to know her plight. In this sense, the descriptions of homes and locales, etc. is loaded towards sympathy with her.
Part 1, Chapter 6 (1108-11)
Emma recalls convent -- aesthete, loved religion of sorrow, mystery. Old maid's ballads and romance novels, Scott. Mother died, Emma rebelled against convent rules. Home again, she grew tired of routine; Charles didn't compare to romance books.
Questions/comments: Emma's memories, a precocious aesthete, or rather a sensualist, sentimentalist! Emma loves the mystery-suggestive surface of things. I can't really blame her for this – it's just who she is. Mention the Augustinian context: signs leading us onwards to spiritual understanding. But of course it doesn't work that way here – the written influences, etc., just lead to rebellion, dissatisfaction with dull, insightless authority.
Part 1, Chapter 7 (1111-15)
After honeymoon? Emma grows detached from contented, worshipful Charles, wishes she had inspiring man to introduce her to variety, passion. Resents Charles' jealous mother. Why did she marry? Invitation to ball at Marquis d'Andervilliers!
Questions/comments: The first of several instances in a pattern of hopes raised and dashed that wears her down eventually. Emma's detached and resentful stance against poor Charles, who has no interiority and can't recognize anyone else's, gives way to hope in the form of an invitation beyond her station: "betters."
Part 1, Chapter 8 (1115-21)
Emma delighted with chateau, aristos. Charles a klutz, but the experience rivals her romance books. Ignored, but "Vicomte" dances with her. Going home, Emma is disillusioned by contrast. Fires maid, snipes at Charles, as memories of ball fade.
Questions/comments: Emma's ecstasy gives way to stark disillusionment, a rage that causes her to mistreat others.
Part 1, Chapter 9 (1121-28)
Emma dreams of Paris via capital maps, reads. Winter unbearable; gives up music, etc. Moody extremes, isolation > illness. At Rouen, Charles' prof suggests scene-change. To Yonville. Emma burns Heloise's bouquet; is pregnant when they move.
Questions/comments: Neither Charles nor his professor can conceive of a woman having an inner life in anything other than purely "medical" terms: basically, this is like the American Mitchell's "rest cure" about which Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote so well. Pregnancy is brought in in that stark way it often is: a sudden question mark, a game-changer. How will this inflect Emma's emotional path?
Part 2, Chapters 1-2 (1128-38)
Yonville market town near Rouen. Innkeeper Lefrançois, tax man Binet, apothecary Homais. At Lion d'Or, Homais' boarder Léon (lawyer's clerk) bonds with Emma over sentimental novels, platitudes. At home, Emma ruminates, but has hope.
Questions/comments: Okay, hope-inducer #2: Léon the Naïve. Consider closely exactly what draws Emma and this young man together: what is the ground of their affinity? I'd say they've found in those sentimental books and ideas an objective correlative for their own perfectly unoriginal longings for something better.
Part 2, Chapter 3 (1139-45)
Léon surprised at his performance with Emma. Homais helps Charles get set up; money worries. Emma hopes for male child – freer! Berthe. Bovary's parents visit. Léon goes with Emma to nurse's home; stroll along river afterwards; rumors.
Questions/comments: This chapter renders Emma's thoughts about gender – her desire for a male child makes sense. She and Léon cause some rumors to float about – typical small town, everybody knows everybody and people will be talking. Partly that's moralism, partly it's that they have nothing better to do. Flaubert does a good job of delivering to us, especially, just how oppressive life could be in a little town.
Part 2, Chapters 4-5 (1145-53)
In winter, sight of Léon through window stirs Emma. At Homais' place, Emma bonds with Léon over books, fashion while Charles dozes. Léon lacks courage, but Emma's discontent grows. She laments her "fate," guesses Léon's feelings. Trying to compensate by being ideal wife, she rages inwardly, weeps, etc. Then, draper-moneylender Lheureux shows up!
Questions/comments: More bonding with Léon over that sentimental and idealistic stuff – have a look at some of it. This is a good chapter to examine the psychological process of compensation as denial that GF so often attributes to Emma. Emma is like an actress playing a role, but inwardly she is going crazy with frustration and desire. Monsieur Lheureux's timing is, of course, perfect, almost diabolical – he represents the vapidity of materialist culture at its worst: an endless succession of things to which we can attach our desires. But these things don't lead up and out; they just lead in a circle chaining us to our pettiest, objectified desires.
Part 2, Chapter 6 (1153-61)
Church bells -- Emma recalls convent, heads for church. Abbé Bournisien scolds catechism class. Emma asks for spiritual aid, but he doesn't understand, advises tea. Emma shoves Berthe, causing her to fall. Timid Léon decides on Paris law study.
Questions/comments: Church bells – as George Herbert says, "something understood"? No, not in this novel – Emma's old aestheticism comes to a false rescue. The Abbé is a one-dimensional man, has absolutely nothing to offer Emma except some dietary advice. Stomachs, not souls, are his concern. This is an almost Voltairean portrait of the Catholic Church at the local level coming from GF.
Part 2, Chapter 7 (1161-66)
Emma mourns Léon, reproaches herself. Illness as at Tostes. Rodolphe Boulanger brings servant to see Charles. He is drawn to Emma. How to seduce her? A worldly fellow, he plans.
Questions/comments: Emma relapses into illness, and now we're introduced to a new sort of consciousness: the wily cad Rodolphe. He's a sexual predator, and nothing more, whatever his capacity to cover nature with artifice. A perfect embodiment of the sharklike environment GF is describing: assume others are wicked or shallow, and treat them accordingly. The objectification Rodolphe practices almost makes us appreciate plodding, kind Charles. Almost.
Part 2, Chapter 8 (1166-80)
Agricultural Show for Prefecture of Seine-Inférieure at Yonville! Medals, exhibits, food, speeches extolling Louis Philippe's post-Bourbon July Monarchy (1830-48; abdicated, fol. by Louis Nap. III's 2nd Rep/Empire to 1870)! Rodolphe pursues Emma here; his pseudo-revolutionary, libertine hints alternating with patriotic-economic talk of Prefect's rep. Wet fireworks don't dampen Emma's interest, Homais writes fine account of the day.
Questions/comments: Well, it doesn't get any better than this – a show! But the boring speeches are masterfully interwoven with Rodolphe's sleazy, slick courting of Emma. Worth looking at for GF's skill with dialogue at cross-purposes. While the pol pitches vapid patriotism, R serves up an enticingly spiced bowl of nothing to Emma.
Part 2, Chapters 9-10 (1181-92)
Six weeks pass, as Rodolphe planned: he's exploiting her frailties, situation. He suggests riding; Charles agrees. Emma easily seduced, goes home joyful like a romantic heroine: "J'ai un amant!" Covert letters, trips to R's farmhouse, then Charles' garden for prudence's sake. R's cynicism tempered by Emma's beauty; she is not cynical but loves him. Guilt eventually drives Emma to play the self-sacrificing model wife and mother again.
Questions/comments: Focus on the mild resistance and easy seduction scene here. Yet Emma is transcendent, one with her romance heroines after this banal experience. Rodolphe's thoughts are rather interesting, too – the difference between how he processes her appeal, and she his. But Emma's guilt soon reasserts itself – she'll never cut the mustard with Nietzsche!
Part 2, Chapter 11 (1192-1200)
Emma and Homais spur Charles to advance career by operating on servant Hippolyte's clubfoot. Gangrene sets in. A better doctor amputates. Homais distances himself; Emma is disgusted with despondent Charles, forgives herself for adultery.
Questions/comments: Nothing like a botched surgery to liven things up. "Losing!" GF's medical descriptions are impressive. Charles is an idiot, so Emma excuses all her bad behavior – not one of her finer moments in the novel. Nice portrait of a more respectable country doctor – see his matter-of-fact amputation job.
Part 2, Chapters 12-13 (1200-15)
Affair renews intensely. Emma's self-pity makes her easy prey for Lheureux. Rodolphe tires of her. Bovary's mother visits; Emma begs R to take her away. And Berthe? Emma's exotic hopes surge. R delays; they plan to meet in Rouen; thence to Paris and Genoa. But R cynically calculates it's too much trouble; musing about past loves, he writes to Emma that he prefers to save her rep. Sight of R's departing carriage causes her to fall seriously ill for 43 days. By October, Emma improves.
Questions/comments: Emma's self-pity is nauseating here, and Lheureux's timing is again impeccable. Focus on how predictably the whole elopement plan falls apart, with Rodolphe's letter-box musings leading him back to the stony narcissism that defines him. Emma suffers her third bout of illness – this time it's quite serious.
Part 2, Chapters 14-15 (1215-27)
Charles worries about Emma, money. Lheureux presents bill; Charles borrows at 6%. Emma recovers, becomes devout. To Rouen theater for variety: she's annoyed with Charles' oafishness, but loves Donizetti's Scott-based Lucia di Lammermoor. Léon's there! Charles must go home, but insists that Emma go to the opera again with newly sophisticated Léon.
Questions/comments: Money asserts itself – again, Lheureux's baneful influence. Charles is ensnared, too. Emma's turn to religion is again in vain. And the theater episode simply defies belief – Charles can't figure out why he shouldn't leave a young man alone with his flighty, susceptible wife. The man belongs in a Chaucerian farce, except that he's so nice!
Part 3, Chapter 1
Léon’s experience in Paris has made him somewhat worldly, sophisticated here in Rouen. He stops by to see Emma at her hotel. They talk for quite a while, Léon kisses her, and they agree to meet in private at the Cathedral tomorrow. Emma shows up late, the two end up on a tour of the church, and finally spend private time together in a carriage. Emma misses her Hirondelle back to Yonville, but gets a hack to catch up with it.
Part 3, Chapters 2-4
Bovary's father has died. Emma goes through the motions, which satisfies grieving Charles, whose mother comes to visit. Lheureux presents Emma with unpaid bills and sells her more expensive goods, convincing her to get power of attorney from Charles. She goes to Rouen to have Léon draw up the papers, and they spend much time together there; the affair grows more serious. Emma is more and more ensnared by Lheureux, takes piano lessons in Rouen – a ruse to visit Léon, of course.
Part 3, Chapters 5-6
Emma and Léon idealize, sentimentalize each other. Emma disappears into fantasy, no patience with Charles. Piano teacher doesn’t recall Emma’s name; Lheureux spots her, gains leverage. Emma continues to spend and borrow from Lhereux in a cycle of desperation. She becomes frustrated with Léon, who doesn’t understand her extravagant demands on his affections. Things worsen at home, and Charles sets out after her when she forgets to let him know she’s going to Rouen. Homais visits Rouen, Emma angry with Léon for spending time with him; back in Yonville, she fumes, then stops idealizing him. Things turn mostly physical; Emma tries to control Léon even more. Sheriff serves notice about debt; more borrowing from Lhereux, hopeless attempts at economy. Charles worries about Emma’s domestic failures. Léon tires of her extravagance; she becomes decadent, corrupt. Court order to pay 8,000 francs. Lhereux refuses to help this time.
Questions/comments: Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! The two lovers are deceiving themselves, sentimentalizing what they’re up to and who they are; the materialization of Emma’s airy fantasies is commodities – fine stuff brought to you directly from the U of SCP, Yonville. Lheureux has a field day now that he suspects her adulterousness. Emma's turn to religion is again in vain, and her tastes run to the corrupt and decadent; even Léon is tired of her. What makes her common is that her efforts tend to go in the most predictable destinations.
Part 3, Chapter 7
Sheriff's officers inventory household; Emma resents Charles’ very innocence. Rouen’s bankers won’t help, nor will Léon. Public auction notice; lawyer Guillaumin wants sexual favors to help; she refuses. What about Rodolphe? She plans unreflectively to prostitute herself with him.
Questions/comments: The law closes in on Emma (and Charles), and there’s no help anywhere. Illusions are just about entirely stripped away at this point, with Emma more or less resorting to an attempt at prostitution.
Part 3, Chapter 8
Rodolphe won’t lend. No further options, so Emma makes Justin let her into Homais’ store. She swallows arsenic, goes home contented. Charles finally learns about confiscation, and finds Emma in bed; she gives him a letter to read tomorrow. Nausea sets in, and Charles reads the letter early. Doctors and priests can’t help; she dies painfully in a few hours.
Questions/comments: Consider how accurate the poisoning effects are; Flaubert evidently knew a lot about the subject, did his homework. Emma dies hard, since a heavy dose of arsenic isn’t an easy way to go. Arsenic is a heavy metal like lead and mercury, and the symptoms are horrifying to behold. “Acute exposures generally manifest with the cholera-like gastrointestinal symptoms of vomiting (often times bloody) and severe diarrhea (which may be rice-watery in character and often bloody); these patients will experience acute distress, dehydration (often), and hypovolemic shock.” Emedicine.
Part 3, Chapter 9-11
Charles slowly recovers from Emma's death. His mother assists. Emma's father too distraught to offer comfort. Priest and Homais keep vigil. Charles wants Emma buried in her wedding dress and quarrels with his mother about funeral expenses. Sexton Lestiboudois convinced grieving Justin has been stealing his potatoes. Creditors besiege Charles. Léon gets engaged, Charles writes that Emma would be pleased – he still doesn’t have a clue, even when he stumbles on an old letter from Rodolphe. Mother and servant leave, and Charles secludes himself. Homais shuns him as a social inferior. Finally, Charles finds letters from R and L and figures out what Emma was up to – he’s a broken man. He forgives guilty Rodolphe in Rouen, blaming “destiny.” Next day he dies in his garden. Property sold for creditors, Berthe sent to her grandmother, then to stay with a poor aunt. Berthe winds up working in a cotton mill. As for Homais, “il vient de recevoir la croix d’honneur.”
Questions/comments: The ending seems almost sneering in its matter-of-fact handling of the Bovary family’s devolution, downward mobility. It’s hard to forgive Charles for forgiving Rodolphe, and the economic sins and omissions of the parents are visited on Berthe. These final chapters take on the caste almost of an anti-bourgeois Grimm’s fairy tale, as commercial and social reality close in on the Bovarys and finally crush them like ants under someone’s boot. The amoral Homais is the only winner in this situation – he’s too shallow even to have a conscience, and he prospers. He’s a creature of his environment. After Emma’s gruesome death, old patterns reassert themselves for most of Yonville; only Charles seems transformed – I like him the better for it, but of course the change proves to be the death of him. It seems like a bit of a Romantic flourish on Flaubert’s part, but you could also say Charles is merely imitative in his love and admiration for Emma, so much so that he even copies her tastes. Emma’s rejection of the oppressive environment, we might say, makes her, too, a creature of it, but not an adaptable one – her attempts to break out of the mundane world surrounding her, to realize her true individuality or authenticity, come to nothing and she takes her husband and child down with her. In the end, it doesn’t matter. So that’s the upshot of Flaubert’s realist method: to render a banal, materialistic provincial society in exquisite detail, heaping contempt on its values and suggesting that there’s really no way out once you’re born into such a society.
Which brings us to the value of realism – its primary virtue is honesty in representation, an unsparing commitment to craft and to truth in analyzing and describing characters and their environments. Often there’s a political and critical edge to such work – consider George Orwell’s realistic accounts of the Spanish Civil War, or the element of realism in 1984, with its gritty portrayal of a fictional authoritarian regime not unlike the Soviet Union or perhaps Nazi Germany. But as for the mid-C19 realism represented by Flaubert, it has its defenders and detractors. Henry James, writing towards the end of the nineteenth century, insisted that people shouldn’t make too many demands on novelistic form or content because it’s the high privilege of novelistic fiction to capture and render life as it is, to embrace the world as best we can determine what it is, how it works. At the other end of the spectrum would be critics such as Oscar Wilde, always the lover of symbolism, comedy of manners, and in general any kind of art not tied to the doctrine that art consists in an “imitation of life.” Wilde can come across as sort of glib about such matters, but his dislike for most realism is insightful: he thought art and literature should help us realize our own imaginings, that it should enrich and ennoble life, give us visions of something and somewhere and someone better – not just show us “the way things are.” What ought they be like? That’s not just smugness or aristocratic posing on his part, or on the symbolists’, either – it’s a view going all the way back to Plato’s distrust of poets as “liars” who just follow their own inspiration or desires rather than rendering for us a vision of beautiful order by which to live. Of course, Plato thought this so-called world of appearances was itself already a pack of lies – even if you copied things as they seem to be, you’d still be lying, as far as he is concerned. But the C19 realist felt committed to describing things as they are, here at the material and social level. They did not idealize or prettify what they saw.