We first meet Charles Bovary at fifteen years of age when his thrifty parents send him to school. On his first day Charles' classmates mock his ill-fitting clothes and awkward hat. Charles, thoroughly confused by the social codes of the classroom, blunders when the teacher asks for his name. The teacher commands him to speak louder and after several attempts he cries out "Charbovari!" which causes the class to erupt in laughter.
Charles' father, Monsieur Charles-Denis-Barholome Bovary, had been an army surgeon's aide but left the service following a conscription scandal. He then married a merchant's daughter who came with a dowry. He lived off his wife's income for several years during which time he developed a taste for the finer things in life. Charles' father tried several different careers but the years of easy living had made him lazy. At the age of 45, disgusted with mankind and resolved to bitterness, he took his wife to a village on the border of Normandy and Picardy where living was inexpensive and he could eschew work in general. His wife, tender and caring in her youth, grew to be a nervous and nagging woman who spoiled their only child despite the elder Bovary's insistence that the boy be subject to strict discipline. Charles' mother insisted that the boy be properly educated and when Charles was twelve the aged local priest was engaged to tutor him in Latin. Charles was a good learner and he went to the lycee in Rouen. Although he did not distinguish himself he worked hard and maintained an average standing. Before he finished the lycee, however, his parents sent him to medical school. The lessons were above his level but he went to class and took copious notes. Gradually he stopped attending and began passing time in the cafes playing dominoes. He learned to drink and even came to know love. He failed his first examination to become an officer de sante [a licensed medical man without a M.D.] but passed on the second attempt. His mother secured a position for him in Tostes, a small village in the region and arranged for a 45 year-old widow with twelve hundred francs a year to be his wife. Charles' wife, formerly Madame Heloise Dubuc, was thin and unattractive. She suffered from numerous neurosis and insecurities and jealously ruled over her younger husband.
Late one night Charles is called to treat a man with a broken leg. The man is the owner of a farm called Les Bertaux fifteen miles distant. After a long, cold ride Charles arrives at the farm which he observes to be clean and well equipped. He learns from his young guide that the owner, Monsieur Rouault, has broken his leg and though his wife has been dead for two years his unmarried daughter keeps house for him. This young woman, characterized by her blue dress, greets Monsieur Bovary and leads him through the kitchen to the upstairs where Monsieur Rouault, a man of about fifty years, lies moaning in his bed. The fracture is easily set and the man's daughter, Madamoiselle Emma, helps by sewing pads for the splints. Charles notices her perfectly shaped fingernails and her beautiful eyes that looked upon him with fearless candor. She fixes Charles a meal and they converse awhile before he leaves. Although he says he will return in three days, Charles returns the very next day to check on his patient and then regularly over the weeks as the bone heals. Without quite knowing why, Charles derives great pleasure from his visits to Les Bertaux and he becomes a familiar face at the farm. His wife, however, learns of the farmer's pretty, educated daughter. She accuses Charles of preferring this "city girl" and Charles discontinues his visits. His home life, particularly his wife and mother's nagging, seems drab and constricting by comparison. Early that Spring Heloise Bovary's notary flees the country with most of her money and a subsequent investigation reveals that her supposed fortune is a lie. The elder Bovary's are enraged but Charles dutifully defends his wife. Soon afterward, however, she takes ill and dies.
Analysis of Chapters 1-2
The novel begins with a narrator who, in the guise of one of Charles' fellow students, discusses Charles' first day at the lycee. This narrator disappears soon afterward, however, and is replaced by the omniscient narrator that will tell the rest of the story in free indirect discourse. This style of writing is one of Flaubert's great innovations in the novel and allows him to be the author of the story without being its narrator. The older Bovary is characterized as having an excess of character and self-reliance but little inclination for work whereas his son is characterized as hard working but lacking any distinguishing personality or confidence. This generational divide is representative of the French bourgeoisie culture of the mid-nineteenth century in which the practicality of the marketplace supplanted the attempt to unify the aspirations of the romantics and the society at large. It's important to understand that Charles, though he studies medicine, does not become a doctor but rather an officer de sante - a much less distinguished title. Thus, he is more of a technician than a scientist. He is, however, a capable technician and his successful treatment of Monsieur Roulaut's leg opens the door to his relationship with that family. Though the title suggests that she will be the focus of the story, we first meet Emma through Charles' oblique observations. Our knowledge of her is restricted to the simplest details. The first part of Charles' life is steered by women, first his mother and then his first wife. Though she is nagging and jealous Charles proves his loyalty when he sticks by her side following her financial disaster.
Madame Bovary: Novel Summary: Part I - Chapter 1- 2