Study Guide

Madame Bovary Setting

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Tostes, Yonville-l’Abbaye, and Rouen, France

Unlike many of the other famous French novels of the nineteenth century that you might encounter (such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérablesor Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot), which more often than not take place in the booming, magical, romantic metropolis of Paris, Madame Bovary is planted firmly in the French provinces. This is actually a significant part of the novel; Emma, our heroine, spends much of her time lamenting the fact that she’s stuck in the sleepy little towns of Tostes and Yonville. The biggest city she ever gets to is Rouen, a smallish city famous primarily for its beautiful cathedral.

Emma’s provincial surroundings make her feel even more trapped and unhappy in her marriage; she feels as though there’s nothing to do but care for her home and child (which, for a woman, was pretty much true at that time). Emma has a feeling that she’s meant for the big city, as though her beauty and charm are wasted in small towns. Rodolphe actually notes a similar thing, saying that she’s as elegant as a fashionable Paris lady.

In the novel, Paris itself represents the culmination of all of Emma’s dreams – she imagines that life there is everything she longs for it to be, with beautiful things, beautiful people, and beautiful feelings. What she has instead is dull small town life, and her bitterness about its limitations contributes largely to her discontent.

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