This is one of those books that leaves you stunned after reading it. It's written around 170 years ago by Gustave Flaubert, but this story is timeless... It's about the longing for romance and passion of a woman who finds herself trapped in a monotone marriage.
“Pourquoi, mon Dieu ! me suis-je mariée ?” – Madame Bovary
Summary of Madame Bovary (I warn you: this is with spoilers)
The story begins when Charles Bovary was still a teenager, unable to adjust to his new school and laughed at by his new classmates. Eventually, after he finished his medical studies, he became a second-rate country doctor. His mother married him to a widow who died soon after. She was older than Charles, and he wasn’t in love with her, there was only jealousy and sadness from her side. I adored the manner in which Flaubert mentioned her death: “tandis que Charles avait le dos tourné pour fermer le rideau de la fenêtre, elle dit : « Ah ! mon Dieu ! » poussa
un soupir et s’évanouit. Elle était morte ! Quel étonnement ! ” :’D (in English: “while Charles had his back turned to close the curtain on the window, she said: “Ah! my God ! », let out a sigh and passed out. She was dead! How astonishing it is!)
In the last moments of the first Madame Bovary’s life, Charles met a beautiful young lady who’s the daughter of one of his patients. Even though his patient is already recovered and healthy, he still keeps coming to their farm, which made his wife jealous. Now that she’s dead, he allowed himself to fall in love with this young lady, whose name is Emma, and asks her to marry him. Emma said yes, and the newly wed couple settles in Tostes, a Norman village where Charles practices as a doctor. The reality of her marriage, however, is not as passionate as Emma expected… As a young girl, she dreamed of love and marriage as the solution to all of her problems. She read these novels in which the men were all romantic, in which the characters had fights full of emotions, in which there was passion between the two lovers. Whereas her marriage with Charles turns out to be monotone and boring. Charles, on the other hand, is happy. He’s married the woman of his dreams.
After an extravagant ball at the Marquis d’Andervilliers’s, Emma takes refuge in the memory of that evening and begins to dream of an ever more sophisticated life. She dreams of Paris, reads Balzac and Eugène Süe, is bored and depressed when she compares her fantasies to the reality of her monotonous life, and finally her apathy makes her sick. When Emma becomes pregnant, Charles decides to move to another city in the hopes of improving her health.
In Yonville-L’Abbaye, the Bovary couple meet Homais, the town pharmacist, a pompous talkative mill who listens to himself talk and Léon Dupuis, a notary’s clerk, who, like her, is bored with rural life. and loves to escape through romantic novels. They happen to have common tastes and when they talk with each other there’s a growing passion between them…
Eventually, Emma gives birth to her daughter Berthe. She actually wanted a son, so she continues to be depressed. The relationship she’s got with Léon is platonic and fun, but when she realises that Léon actually loves her, she feels guilty and gives herself the role of a devoted wife. She starts to spend a lot of borrowed money on expensive dresses and furniture (all on her husband’s name, of course). Léon gets tired of waiting and, believing that he will never be able to possess Emma, leaves to study law in Paris. Emma had feelings for him so she grows even sadder now that he left.
Not long after that, Emma lets herself be seduced by a wealthy neighbour named Rodolphe Boulanger, who’s attracted by her beauty. From the day Rodolphe met her, he’s had bad intentions. Emma thinks he truly loves her, and she is often indiscreet when she’s with him, so that all the locals chat about her. Charles, however, suspects nothing. His adoration for his wife and his stupidity combine to make him deaf to all gossip. His professional reputation suffers a blow when, urged on by Homais and Emma, he attempts surgery to treat the clubfoot from Hippolyte, the hostel’s stable boy, and ends up having to call another doctor to amputate the leg. (It went terribly wrong)
Disgusted with her husband’s incompetence, Emma throws herself even more passionately into her affair with Rodolphe who doesn’t treat her very nicely. She borrows more and more money to buy him gifts and suggests that they run away together and with Berthe to Italy. He nods softly. But, quite quickly, Rodolphe grew bored of Emma’s demanding affections. Refusing to run away with her, he leaves her with only a letter. If this was in our time, it would have felt like a break up with a simple text message. Desperate, Emma gets sick again and even thinks of killing herself.
When Emma regains a bit of strength, Charles is in financial difficulty: he has had to borrow money to pay his wife’s debts but also her treatment. However, he decides to take her to the opera in the nearby city of Rouen, to make her feel better. At first, Emma loves the opera, and just when Charles starts to enjoy it as well, Léon shows up. She basically forces her husband to leave the opera, just so she could talk with Léon again. Their meeting rekindles the old romantic flame between Emma and Léon, and this time they engage in a love affair. Emma gets drunk on her weekly trips to Rouen and she borrows more and more money at exaggerated interest rates from Mr. Lheureux (and her husband will have to pay these debts, of course). She is less and less discreet with Leon. So much so that on several occasions his acquaintances are on the verge of discovering Emma’s infidelity.
Over time, Emma gets bored with Léon and vice versa. Not knowing how to leave him, she is demanding more and more, as her debt swells day by day. Finally, Lheureux has Emma’s property seized to compensate for the debt she has accumulated. Terrified that Charles will find out about the situation, she tries desperately to raise the money she needs, calls on Leon and all the businessmen in town. Finally, she even tries to prostitute herself by offering to come back to Rodolphe if he gives her the money she needs. He refuses, and, pushed to the limit, she commits suicide by swallowing arsenic. She dies in horrible suffering in front of a distraught Charles who does not know what to do.
For a while, Charles idealized the memory of his wife, before discovering the letters of Rodolphe and Léon. Confronted with the truth, he breaks down for good. He dies of grief, and their daughter, Berthe, needs to live with an impoverished aunt, who sends her to work in a cotton mill.