Study Guide

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary Introduction

You've probably heard of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Maybe it’s because you caught a re-run of some old French movie version of it super late one night, or perhaps you’ve seen a beat-up copy of it lying around from your parents’ school days. Why is it so famous? Well, first of all, the book made a huge splash when it was first published. The novel originally appeared in installments in a magazine called La Revue de Paris in 1856, which caught the eye of the censors. As a result, Flaubert was put on trial in January of 1857 for obscenity; the novel seemed too risqué for the tastes of the government. The trial actually had the opposite effect to the one the authorities had hoped for; after Flaubert was acquitted, the book became a smash hit.

After its tempestuous birth, Madame Bovary continued to make waves in the literary scene. It’s seen as one of the best examples of the Realist novel (see more in "Genre"), and its influence was strongly felt in the decades that followed. In the novel, Flaubert takes us to a level of intimacy and familiarity with his characters that was unimaginable before he came along; even if we don’t like the characters or don’t think they’re doing the right thing, we still feel incredibly close to them.

Even today, Flaubert’s masterpiece is still going strong. In 2007, a book called The Top Ten polled 125 famous authors for their top 10 books of all time and constructed a master list from all of their input. Madame Bovary came in second place, a most impressive finish, only behind Anna Karenina.

What is Madame Bovary About and Why Should I Care?

Sex and the Provincial Village: Take One

The year is 1857. Carrie Bradshaw, Charlotte York, Miranda Hobbes, and Samantha Jones are in a small village in France. Lights, camera, action!

CARRIE: Boy, this sure ain’t New York.

CHARLOTTE: I like it – it’s quaint. Look at those chickens!

MIRANDA: Quaint? Quaint? I need wireless.

SAMANTHA: Hmm, look at the tight pants on that farm boy.

CARRIE: Where are the stores?

CHARLOTTE: Oh dear – where’s the restroom?

MIRANDA: Where is the $#(*&$! wireless!

SAMANTHA: Farm boy! Come back! Farm boy! Don’t be scared!

CARRIE: (voice over) It was then that I realized that rural France and I weren’t meant to be together. You can take a girl out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the girl.

Luckily for Carrie and her friends, Sex and the Provincial Village isn’t happening any time soon. However, their frustrations in Yonville-l’Abbaye might not be so dissimilar to those of Emma Bovary. Though Emma’s not actually from a big city, she feels like her real place is in Paris, which at her time considered itself the center of the universe. Being in Tostes and Yonville severely cramps her style.

Unlike the other women in the book, Emma is concerned with fashion, sex, and excitement. However, in the world that she lives in, simply going from man to man in the quest for perfect happiness is not an option; Emma is restricted by polite society’s rules and by her marriage to Charles, and her retail therapy is constantly threatened by debt and ruination. All the same, we can see the similarities between Emma and her savvy New York descendants – Emma, perhaps, is not just a nineteenth century woman stuck in the wrong town and the wrong marriage, but a very modern woman stuck in the wrong century.

Madame Bovary Resources

Movie or TV Productions

2001 TV Version (UK)
The most recent production of the novel.

1991 film (France)
This is probably the most popular version, starring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert.

1949 film (US)
Here’s a 1949 version, directed by Vincente Minelli (father of Liza).

1933 film (France)
This is the first Madame Bovary version to make it to the big screen!

Videos

1991 film trailer
This trailer has a fascinating chocolate commercial vibe to it…we love it.

Images

Ah, Gustave!
A particularly charming cartoon of Flaubert.

Emma and Charles
An image from the 1991 film.

Emma and Admirers
An image from the classic 1949 film.

Other

Madame Bovary online
Here’s the link to the e-text at the illustrious Project Gutenberg site.

Flaubert Bio
The lowdown on our friend Flaubert…