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The book opens with a glimpse of Charles Bovary as a shy fifteen-year-old on his first day at a new school. It's an experience you can probably identify with-being in a new place for the first time, aware that everyone is watching and waiting to see what you're like. Charles' clothes are too tight for him, and he's too nervous even to hang up his cap like his fellow students. When the teacher asks him his name, he can barely open his mouth, and in his confusion he finally shouts out "Charbovari" (a country hick's way of saying Charles Bovary). You also see that his attempt to be a serious student saves him from being placed in a lower grade, even though he doesn't seem particularly intelligent.
These opening pages are told from the point of view of one of Charles Bovary's fellow students. This anonymous narrator disappears midway through the first chapter. The abrupt shift in point of view is one of Flaubert's many innovations as a novelist. He will use this first-person narrator ("we") only at the beginning. For most of the novel, he uses the style indirect libre (free, indirect style) in order to create the illusion of an absent narrator. For example, instead of saying, "Emma wanted some fruit," he will say, "Some fruit would be nice." This impliesindirectly-that the idea of eating fruit originated with Emma, not with Flaubert. This "absent" narrator creates an illusion of objectivity and detachment. You will come across many examples of this style as you read.
In a flashback, you learn about Charles' childhood and the relationship between his parents. His father had begun his career as an army doctor but was involved in a scandal and was dismissed. He married Charles' mother for her money, but ended up squandering most of it on women and alcohol. After their money had run out, the couple moved to a small farm where they tried, with little success, to settle down peacefully.
At first, Charles' mother tolerated her husband's affairs, but after a few years she became bitter and disillusioned. When Charles was born, she focused her hopes on him and fantasized that he'd become a successful lawyer or engineer. Charles' youth was ultimately dominated by his mother-a foreshadowing of what his marriages to Heloise and Emma would be like.
NOTE: PROVINCIAL SETTING
Notice that Flaubert gives you many details about the rural setting in which Madame Bovary takes place. Charles grows up in the country, then attends secondary school in Rouen, the main city of the province of Normandy to the northwest of Paris. The lower middle-class characters (members of the petit [small] bourgeoisie) represent what Flaubert detested most in life: smugness, vulgarity, greed, and ignorance. They aspired to money, power, and respectability-not to art or beauty.
After attending the lycee (high school) in Rouen-where the novel begins-Charles enrolls in medical school. He is a mediocre student and is overwhelmed by the amount of work required of him. Not surprisingly, he fails his final exams, but his mother blames this on the examiner and refuses to face up to her son's inadequacies. Charles returns to medical school, works harder, and finally manages to pass the tests.
His mother finds him a position as a doctor in the town of Tostes. She also finds him a wife-the ugly, middle-aged widow, Heloise Dubuc, whose main asset is her small yearly income. Heloise is a dominating shrew-much like Charles' mother-who forces her tastes on her young husband. Because of her jealousy, she spies on him when women patients come to his office.
NOTE: CHARLES BOVARY
Charles is a weak-willed person who's easily controlled by other people, especially women. He's not very bright and must work hard at everything in order to succeed. He seems to have no particular interest in medicine, yet he becomes a doctor-no doubt to please his mother. Similarly, he has little feeling for Heloise, yet marries her anyway. Would you marry someone you didn't love in order to please your parents? Or would you enter a career just because someone else wanted it for you? Since Charles gives in on both accounts, what conclusions can you draw about his character?