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Madame Bovary | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Plot Summary

Professor Bill Yarrow of Joliet Junior College explains the plot summary of Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Charles Bovary is introduced in Madame Bovary as a dull, awkward, and shy teenager. Charles struggles through his years of schooling, failing his first medical exams but finally passing them and becoming a doctor. He weds a widow through a marriage arranged by his mother, and he moves with his new bride to a village where he will practice medicine.

While visiting a patient in a nearby town, Charles meets the patient's daughter, Emma, and grows fond of her. After his wife dies unexpectedly, he proposes marriage to Emma, who agrees. Charles is smitten with Emma and loves her unconditionally, but Emma quickly grows disenchanted because marriage is nothing like what she has read about in novels. She grows resentful of Charles, finding one thing after another to dislike about him—he is a perpetual disappointment to her, no matter how much he dotes on her. She spends much of her waking life lost in fantasies, a situation which is further exacerbated by a visit to an aristocratic ball where Emma falls in love with the wealth and grandeur. After the ball Emma grows sickly, and Charles decides to move to a different town in the hopes that a change of scenery and climate will benefit her. At the same time, Emma discovers she is pregnant and later gives birth to a girl whom she names Berthe.

The new town much resembles the old one, and Emma grows bored once more—until she meets Léon Dupuis, who shares her love of books and also feels bored with small-town life. Their feelings for each other grow, but neither is able to act on them. Eventually, Léon moves away to Paris, and his absence fills Emma with regret and longing.

Soon, she meets another man named Rodolphe Boulanger, who owns a nearby estate. This time, both he and Emma are bolder in the expression of their feelings, though their aims are different—Rodolphe merely wants to seduce her, while Emma wants to fall in love and run away with him. Their affair is passionate but doomed, since Rodolphe has no real feelings for Emma beyond physical desire, and he grows weary of her emotional demands. He sends her a letter calling things off, which sends Emma spiraling back into illness, as well as a new bad habit—spending money.

She begins to accrue debt when the manipulative Monsieur Lheureux takes advantage of her naïveté to sell her things she does not need. At the same time, she decides she might be able to love Charles if only he were more famous and wealthy, and so she (along with the town pharmacist, Monsieur Homais) convinces him to perform a new operation on a man with a club-foot, which results in the man's having to have his leg amputated, much to Charles's shame and embarrassment.

At an opera performance in the nearby city of Rouen, Charles and Emma run into Léon. Emboldened by her recent affair with Rodolphe, Emma takes up with Léon again in earnest, and they consummate their love in a moving carriage. She deceives Charles into paying for music lessons in Rouen so she has an excuse to visit Léon as often as she likes. But reality sets in once again, as Emma and Léon are forced to see beyond their fantasies into the person each really is, and they begin to grow bored with each other.

Emma's spending grows out of control, mirroring her spiraling immorality. Though she has managed to hide her financial situation from Charles, one day she receives a notice that she must pay her debts or the family's assets will be seized. Frantically, Emma begs Léon, Rodolphe, the town lawyer, and the tax collector for money, but they all refuse to help her. In a panic, she convinces Homais's servant to let her into his shop, where she eats arsenic in an attempt to kill herself. Though Charles tries to save her, she dies that night.

After her death, Charles is laden with grief and misery, as well as saddled by Emma's debts. He also discovers her affairs when he finds her old love letters, and he dies in poverty soon thereafter. Their daughter is sent away to live with a poor aunt and work in a mill.

Madame Bovary Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Charles Bovary becomes a doctor and marries Emma.

Rising Action

2 Emma becomes pregnant and grows bored of her marriage.

3 Family moves to Yonville; Emma gives birth and meets Léon.

4 Emma has affairs with Léon and Rodolphe.


5 Emma falls deeper into debt.

Falling Action

6 Emma commits suicide.


7 Charles discovers Emma's infidelities and passes away.

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