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Free Study Guide-Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert-Free Book Notes
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The novel opens with a description of the school days of Charles Bovary. The fifteen year-old boy stands out in class, for he is clumsy and does not fit in with his boisterous classmates. A detailed account is given of the mismatched and unfashionable clothes he wears. His classmates are quick to notice his provincial origins and begin to tease him. The teacher comes to his defense, and the class settles down to work. Charles appears to be a serious student; he applies himself diligently to all the lessons, perhaps in order to make up for the lack of study in his early years, but he is never really successful.

Charles' father had served as an assistant surgeon in the army. He had been forced to resign in 1812 after being implicated in a scandal. Being physically attractive, he had used his charms to persuade a merchant's daughter to marry him. She had brought Bovary a large dowry, and in the years immediately following his marriage, he had lived off his wife's money. When his father-in- law died, leaving practically nothing, he plunged into business but failed. He also attempted to settle down to life in the country and finally chose a village on the borders of Caux and Picardy. His wife, who had once lavished her affection on him, began to feel embittered towards him. She was practical minded and took charge of the accounts.

Charles' birth was a welcome distraction for both parents. The mother was over-indulgent and protective, while the father tried to fit the child into his "manly ideal of boyhood." The child, being mild-mannered, had preferred his mother's company. At the age of twelve, the curé (parish priest) took him under his wings, and Charles' studies began. Eventually, Charles was sent to school in Rouen, where he led a balanced student life.

In accordance with his parents' wishes, Charles goes on to study medicine. Having been an average student all his life, he is unable to cope with the demanding curriculum. On his first try, he fails the examination at medical school. On the second attempt, he manages to pass and sets up a practice in Tostes, France. His mother marries him off to a forty-five year old widow, who has a fairly good annual income. Charles' fanciful notions regarding marriage are reduced to nothing, for "his wife was master." She checks all his activities and constantly demands his attention. It is against this backdrop that Charles' medical practice grows.


Flaubert first introduces Charles Bovary through the use of the first-person plural, "we." The reader observes Charles through the eyes of his classmates, and it is not a pleasant picture. He is the clumsy, provincial boy who is easy to tease and taunt. For whatever reason, Flaubert discontinues this kind of first-person narrative mid-way through the chapter and takes up a third-person omniscient voice to sketch Charles' family background. Charles' father, Monsieur Charles Denis Bartholomé Bovary, is presented as a social misfit. He uses his charms to marry a wife with a generous dowry, but cannot apply himself to any occupation for long. His wife, who feels cheated by her husband, dotes on Charles, their only son. In fact, she "kept him tied to her apron strings" in a domineering manner. Charles' close affinity to his mother foreshadows the course his life will take; he will be dominated by his wife as well.

Charles' classmates observe some key characteristics of boy that will continue to haunt him as a man. Although he is a somewhat diligent student, he has no natural aptitude for learning. In medical school, he flunks the examination on his first try. He continues to struggle with financial matters throughout his life. Charles also reveals he has no backbone, for he tolerates the taunts of his fellow classmates. This character trait will also greatly influence his life. He readily accepts the marriage arranged by his mother to Héloïse Dubuc, but it is a very unhappy one. She successfully controls every aspect of his being, revealing his spineless character. Charles' attitude during his first marriage prepares the reader for his second marriage to Emma, in which Charles also exhibits no control.

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