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Literature Study GuidesMadame BovaryPart 1 Chapters 1 3 Summary

Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Part 1, Chapters 1–3

Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Part 1, Chapters 1–3 of Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 | Summary


Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in three parts, further divided into chapters. For the purpose of analysis, this study guide groups some chapters together.


In Part 1, Chapter 1, Charles Bovary is a new student in his class. He is described by the narrator as "a country lad, about 15 years old, and much taller than any of us." Charles comes from an unhappy home—his drinking father married his mother for her dowry and constantly cheats on her. Charles's father has always been disappointed in him, since Charles is "naturally peaceful" rather than brutish. Charles is later sent off to medical school, where he struggles and initially fails his exams, having become more interested in going to the tavern and playing dominoes. Eventually he is able to retake his exams and passes. He becomes a doctor in a small nearby town, and his mother finds him a widow to marry. Charles and his controlling and demanding bride are unhappy from the start. His wife is "master"; she tells him how to dress, opens his letters, and complains constantly about her nerves.

Part 1, Chapter 2 begins one night as Charles and his wife hear a horse stop outside. The rider delivers a message to the doctor, begging him to come immediately to a nearby town to set a broken leg. Charles sets out for the town, and he is brought to the farmer who has broken his leg. After treating him, Charles stays to dine with the farmer's daughter, Emma. He notices her fine physical features, and the two share an awkward, charged moment when they bump into each other while looking for his riding crop. Charles returns to the house the next day to check on the farmer, and he continues to visit him twice a week. Charles's wife learns the patient has a young, educated daughter and jumps to the conclusion that Charles looks forward to the visits because of her. She makes him swear to stop visiting now that the farmer's leg is healing. Soon afterward, Charles's wife has a seizure and passes away suddenly, leaving him a widower.

In Part 1, Chapter 3, the farmer visits Charles to pay him for his services and reassures him his grief over losing his wife will pass. He invites Charles to visit him and Emma anytime. Charles begins to feel happy again and enjoys his new ability to come and go independently. He visits the farmer and Emma and develops a deepening friendship with Emma—soon he cannot stop thinking about her. The farmer notices Charles's interest in Emma and decides he would not mind a son-in-law if Charles were to propose. One day, before Charles can even ask the question, the farmer agrees to the marriage, as does Emma, and they begin to plan the wedding.


Flaubert spends a great deal of time laying the foundation of Charles's background. Charles is characterized from his childhood as complacent and pragmatic and as someone who practices little self-analysis since he is largely content. Even when he finds himself unhappy—such as with his marriage to his first wife—he takes no action to remedy the situation. Flaubert means to show Charles as a character who is largely content with life, even if it is disappointing; he is a man who would rather not resist his fate. Flaubert also establishes Charles as a character who, although he has no great aspirations, believes in fulfilling his obligations toward the people he loves. He shows this trait initially through his obedience to his mother in regard to Charles's occupation and marriage. Since Charles does not feel strongly about either, he obeys her out of a sense of duty. He finds happiness in the happiness of others.

Flaubert shifts the narrator's perspective as the story progresses, beginning with the viewpoint of Charles's classmates, which distances the reader from Charles initially. He then shifts to Charles's perspective and then follows Charles's gaze to view Emma more closely as she is introduced. This shift in narrative perspectives sharpens the distinction between Charles and the other characters. Charles is so ordinary, obedient, and diligent as to almost personify a blank, neutral slate. Flaubert contrasts Charles against his father, who is much more charming and imaginative. However, Flaubert is careful to show that boring characters such as Charles do not necessarily equate with bad characters, and that the more gregarious characters, such as Charles's father, can also be quite negative. The delayed introduction to Emma is meant to pique interest in her with a camera-like effect—catching a glimpse of her, the titular character, in the distance and then zooming in closer and closer. The effect is enhanced, given the contrast of two other Madame Bovarys: Charles's mother and his first wife.

Readers first get to know Charles and Emma in painstaking physical detail, which is true to Flaubert's realist style. Charles is described as "a country lad, about 15 years old, and much taller than any of us. He had his hair cut square across his forehead, like a village choirboy, looking sensible and extremely embarrassed." Charles is vaguely self-conscious about his appearance, yet has little control over it. His first interaction with his new peers and teacher at school also sets the impression of Charles as sweet, but bumbling, when he cannot follow the teacher's instructions while picking up his hat. Yet Charles does not grow angry or emotional, allowing Flaubert to establish Charles's steady, but clueless, character through his physicality. Emma is also primarily first presented to readers through her physical appearance and physical relationship with the world, as well, much as first impressions are often made through physical observations. Charles (and readers) first notice Emma's hands, and the narrator notes that "if she were beautiful, it was in her eyes ... they met your gaze openly, with an artless candor." This description presages Emma's constantly flirtatious attitude with men and also signals her yearning to be known. In his realist style, Flaubert creates the same kind of first impression readers might experience in real life, as well as hints at personality traits that will be revealed later.

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