Story Skeleton—Madame Bovary

Plot point breakdown and structural analysis and summary of MADAME BOVARY by Gustave Flaubert

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.


By Michelle Barker 

The best novel ever written?

High praise surrounds Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary. It has been called “perfect” by many great authors, a novel that approaches poetry, and “the best novel ever written.” While Flaubert took five years to write it and famously labored over every word in his search for le mot juste, it isn’t just the language that hits the mark; it’s also his realistic depiction of human nature. 

The novel was controversial when it came out in 1857. Flaubert had to stand trial on obscenity charges on the grounds that the book promoted licentious behavior and undermined the institution of marriage—which makes me wonder if any of the authorities actually read it. Flaubert was acquitted, arguing that the book depicted the consequences of immorality rather than endorsing it—which is exactly true. 

By 1857, the romantic movement in literature had seen its heyday. Flaubert rode the wave toward realism, a movement that aimed to show things in a more unadorned way. Together with Dickens, Balzac, and George Eliot, he is considered one of the founders of the genre of realism. 

But there’s a lot of irony in what he does here. He uses beautiful language to describe mediocrity and chooses a romantic character to reveal the tragic results of unbridled romanticism—and he does so with unflinching honesty. He blames Emma Bovary’s tendency to romanticize life on the fact that she reads too many novels—while writing a novel about it. 

I’ve heard people say this is a hard novel to read. It might be because none of the characters are likable, but I think it’s also because it hits a little too close to home. When Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” what he really meant was that Madame Bovary is all of us. Her chronic dissatisfaction with life is humanity’s default setting. 

As a wife, Emma Bovary is your basic nightmare: she lives beyond her means, is perpetually unhappy, and cheats on her husband. She is the embodiment of wanting what you don’t have and a fabulous illustration of the popular dictum fuck around and find out. She’s a cautionary tale about the grass always being greener: never happy where she is, always imagining that other people are somehow having a better time than she is. One can almost imagine Mark Zuckerberg studying this novel as a template for Facebook. 

Even though this is almost entirely Emma’s story, it is book-ended by Charles, her husband. She doesn’t get a voice until she becomes Madame Bovary. It’s almost as though she isn’t worth listening to until she’s married. But even though it is her marriage to Charles that gives her a voice, that’s not the event that sets her on the path to self-destruction. 

Flaubert divides the novel into three parts.

  • Part I: Charles meets and marries Emma and they live in Tostes.
  • Part II: They move to Yonville-l’Abbaye, and Emma meets Léon and Rodolphe.
  • Part III: Emma renews her relationship with Léon, her life falls apart, and she commits suicide.

Narrative Goal

While there are two main characters in this novel—Charles and Emma—Emma is the clear protagonist. She’s the one who has the significant narrative goal. But Flaubert is doing something interesting with goals. Charles gets what he wants quickly and then settles into a life of mediocrity, never really wanting anything—or rather, wanting what he already has. Emma, on the other hand, yearns for a life of wealth and excitement that she can never have as Madame Bovary, so she is doomed to perpetual dissatisfaction. Hers is a tragic trajectory. When she finally realizes that what she had was pretty good, it’s too late. 

Flaubert presents us with two choices: being happy with your lot even if it’s mediocre or striving for a life you can never have which causes you to be perpetually unhappy with what you do have. 

Charles is the embodiment of mediocrity. He barely makes it through medical school and then works as an average provincial doctor. His first wife is chosen by his mother. The only desire he fashions for himself is to marry Emma, which he achieves early in the novel after his first wife dies. After that, he fades into the routine of daily life and has to be reminded to aspire to something greater—and when he does, it’s a disaster. 

While Emma does have a narrative goal (to live a life of wealth and glamor) this novel is a tragedy, so the action is driven more by her fatal flaw, which is to romanticize the lives of others and create perpetual dissatisfaction for herself. The reader doesn’t really want to see her get what she wants, because we already know she will tire of it in due course. Instead, we root for her to come to her senses. Her husband is at heart a good man, and she has a young daughter whom she consistently ignores—but a settled married life as a young mother is not in the cards for Emma. 

So, the trajectory in a nutshell is: When Emma attends a ball at a luxurious estate, she becomes dissatisfied with her lot and embarks on a series of adulterous affairs and out-of-control spending in an attempt to attain the life she glimpsed at that party. She must somehow find a way to stop this behavior, or she will lose her husband and daughter, the family’s social standing, and all of their belongings.

Plot Points

Because the achievement of Charles’ goal forms Emma’s stasis, it’s worth breaking down their two trajectories separately to see what Flaubert has done with the structure.

Charles’ Narrative Trajectory

Part I begins with Charles as an average and somewhat ridiculous school-aged boy (stasis). He bumbles through his early years as a Mama’s boy, isn’t especially smart or charming or good-looking, and marries a widow who is quite a bit older than he is but is purported to have money (although this turns out not to be true). 

He receives a call in the middle of the night to set a farmer’s broken leg—and that farmer is Emma’s father. The first time we see Emma is through Charles’ eyes, i.e. from the idealized perspective of an admirer. But while he flirts with her, he isn’t free to pursue her (his goal) until his wife dies suddenly. This death is his inciting incident because now his goal is possible. 

After his mourning period is over (rising action), he marries Emma—and achieves the climax of his trajectory. This resolution forms the beginning of Emma’s stasis. Charles is set aside as the focal character and Emma takes center stage.

Emma’s Narrative Trajectory

Stasis and Inciting Incident

Already we get a glimpse of things to come when Emma wants a torchlit procession at midnight for her wedding but gets a feast in a cart-shed instead. Almost immediately, marriage does not live up to her romantic expectations. Charles’ house needs repainting, the garden is scraggly, and all the things Emma had read in romantic novels about love—bliss, passion, ecstasy— seem to be wrong. Marriage is just another in a series of life promises that fall short of what she imagined. So much for happily ever after. 

But Emma’s story doesn’t swing into high gear until the couple receives an invitation to a ball at the mansion of the Marquis d’Andervilliers, one of Charles’ patients. This is her inciting incident that allows her romantic motivation to crystallize into a goal. The enchanted evening gives Emma a glimpse of the kind of life she’s read about in novels, and it makes her even more disillusioned by the circumstances she’s stuck in—including the man she married. But she can still strive to live the storybook life she’s dreamed of.

Rising Action

The more Emma thinks about this evening (and she fixates on it), the unhappier she becomes. She starts to measure time by its distance away from that night. She can’t look at Charles the same way anymore. There’s nothing inherently wrong with him. He’s honest, hard-working, a good man. But he’s bovine. He makes noise when he eats. He gains weight. There’s no elegance about him. He’s plodding.  

Emma’s unhappiness causes her to become so physically ill that Charles decides they should move elsewhere. And then she discovers she’s pregnant. As she packs their things for the move, she finds her bridal bouquet and, in a significant and symbolic gesture, throws it into the fire. 

The move to Yonville-l’Abbaye begins Part II of the novel and signals the advent of the next big dream for Emma. Maybe a change in location will be the thing to lift her life out of its dreadful boredom. Sure enough, when she meets Léon and discovers he too has an affinity for romantic novels, it seems like things might finally turn around. Over regular dinners at the house of Homais, the local apothecary, they develop an affinity for one another—to the point where people in town gossip that they’re having an affair. 

But as soon as Léon makes any move toward consummating this relationship, Emma steps away, embracing a romantic view of herself as a devoted wife and mother—a huge contradiction, seeing as how she barely communicates with either her husband or her child. She pretends to be thrifty but in fact craves luxury. When Lheureux, a shopkeeper in town, mentions that he can procure almost anything she might want and lend her money if she needs it, Flaubert plants a seed that will bear significant fruit as the novel progresses. 

Eventually, Léon loses any hope of having a romantic relationship with Emma and leaves town.


After Léon leaves, the ennui of Emma’s life becomes almost unbearable. She spends all her time daydreaming about him, but not quite him: “a taller, handsomer, a more delightful, and a vaguer Léon.” She regrets not having taken up with him when she had the chance. She throws herself into trivialities—buys things from Lheureux, changes her hair, decides to learn Italian but doesn’t pursue it. 

Then Rodolphe Boulanger shows up, a wealthy landowner whose servant needs a doctor, and he is immediately smitten by Emma. He can see that she’s bored. But unlike Léon who was actually a decent person, Rodolphe is a charming but calculating con artist—the sort of man who wants what he can’t have but then, once he gets it, tires of it quickly. As he plots how to seduce Emma, he’s already wondering how he’ll shake her off after he’s had enough of her. 

The scene at the agricultural fair when Rodolphe declares his love for Emma while an official is giving a speech about manure and pigs is masterful. Flaubert interweaves two separate strands of dialogue to create fabulous irony. 

Flaubert has prepared the reader for Emma’s colossal misstep at the midpoint. She spent so long pining over her missed chance with Léon, she’s not going to mess it up this time. And indeed, Charles unwittingly facilitates the adultery by insisting she go riding with Rodolphe. She throws herself headlong into this affair, ignoring her family and buying luxurious things from Lheureux that she cannot afford. She idealizes Rodolphe into a man he most certainly is not and sets him up as the crutch in her life, the planet around which she orbits, the thing that makes her life worth living. But we know the truth about him. We know this relationship is doomed.

Rising Action

As expected, Rodolphe cools to Emma and she begins to feel guilty about cheating on her husband. In an attempt to renew her commitment to Charles and boost his career, she encourages him to perform an extremely risky and unnecessary operation on Hippolyte, the stableman who was born with a clubfoot. If it succeeds, it will make Charles famous. Hippolyte manages just fine with his disability but he is pushed by Homais and other townspeople into agreeing to the operation. But it is an abject failure. Hippolyte develops gangrene and his leg must be amputated. Instead of being famous, Charles becomes infamous, and Emma’s opinion of him as incompetent is reinforced. 

She makes plans to take her daughter and run away with Rodolphe—which he pretends to be on board with. But at the last minute he writes her a letter breaking off their affair. When she sees his carriage drive off, she becomes so ill she nearly dies. In order to pay for her consultations with specialists, Charles must borrow money from Lheureux at a high rate of interest. 

When Emma finally recovers, she throws herself into Catholicism. This is familiar territory for her. She went to convent school as a teenager and romanticizes that period in her life. Naturally, it doesn’t live up to her impossible and idealized expectations. Homais suggests Charles should take Emma to the opera in Rouen to make her feel better, and he does. Once again, ironically, it is Charles who facilitates her next affair. 

We move into Part III of the novel, where Emma bumps into Léon at the opera and their feelings for each other are rekindled. So much for Catholicism. Emma makes a lame attempt to resist him by writing a letter explaining why she can’t have an affair with him, but that goes out the window (literally) when they hire a carriage to drive them around all day and stay in the back with the drapes drawn. 

But Flaubert is busy planting more seeds, reminding us that any possibility of victory in this story will be false and short-lived. When Emma returns to Yonville, there is death and there are debts. Charles’ father has died; Homais and his assistant Justin have a huge argument because Justin has taken the key to the storeroom where the arsenic is kept; and Lheureux comes around looking for money to settle what is becoming an alarmingly long list of debts. 

Emma becomes obsessed with Léon in much the same way she did with Rodolphe, setting him up as the center of her life. But the romance with Léon soon loses its initial spark—as romances are wont to do—and Emma “[rediscovers] in adultery all the banalities of marriage.” Boom. The novel is worth reading for that line alone. 

Léon is a disappointment. And here is the crux of her (and humanity’s) existential dilemma: “What caused this inadequacy in her life? Why did everything she leaned on instantaneously decay? … There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile concealed a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight.” 

She has had erotic bliss and luxuries and—surprise (no surprise)—they turn out not to be enough. Could it be that plodding, ordinary Charles has had the answer all along? Emma, however, is not blessed with that kind of insight. Instead, Lheureux talks her into borrowing more money, because surely money will solve everything.

A Brief False Victory

Eventually a debt collector shows up and things become dire. Emma borrows more money from Lheureux and sells her old gloves and hats and other household items, but it’s not enough. A court order arrives stating that she must come up with an exorbitant sum or the family will lose everything. In desperation, she turns to Rodolphe for help—to the point of offering herself in exchange for money—and it almost seems like he might help her. It’s undoubtedly the case that he could. But that’s it for the glimmer of false victory: he doesn’t. 

Emma’s daydreams and romantic illusions have officially come crashing down around her. Fuck around and find out indeed.

Tragic Climax

At her wits’ end, Emma goes to the apothecary where she begs Justin to open the storeroom for her. Without really thinking it through, she shovels a bunch of arsenic into her mouth and imagines she will swoon into a peaceful death the way all tragic heroines do. But that is not the way one dies from arsenic. Committed to realism right to the end, Flaubert shows us the gruesome reality of such a death. It’s awful, and there’s nothing anyone can do except watch her suffer.


Charles’ devastation at Emma’s death is part of the tragedy at the end. He loved her. He never suspected her of having an affair. Even when he finds Rodolphe’s last letter, he thinks the best of her. But this, too, is a form of illusion. 

The story shifts mostly back to Charles as he lives through the wreckage that Emma left behind. There are still creditors. The way Emma lived has ruined Charles financially. When at last he discovers all the letters exchanged between Emma and both Léon and Rodolphe, he can no longer deny reality. He dies shortly afterwards and poor Berthe, now an orphan, gets passed on to various relatives before ending up working in a cotton mill. 

Life goes on. Emma fades away, and the book ends with the success of Homais, the apothecary—the character who most fully symbolizes the bourgeoisie in the novel. Vive la médiocrité. One can only admire Flaubert for his commitment to harsh reality right to the end.

What’s in a name

Flaubert’s choice of the name Bovary is no accident. Charles is like a cow, the most mediocre animal imaginable. The fact that Emma acquires the name Bovary when what she wants is an extraordinary and sophisticated life only heightens the irony that abounds in this novel. She is doomed to disillusionment, doomed to navigate the abyss between the life she desires and the one she’s stuck with. 

What’s also interesting is the way Flaubert moves between referring to his protagonist as Emma or Madame Bovary. The title of Madame reminds the reader that Emma is married (since she seems to forget rather frequently). It is her formal position in society and a key source of her unhappiness. It also becomes ironic depending on where it appears. Her proper name, Emma, is more intimate. 

The fact that the title of the book is Madame Bovary and not Emma Bovary is also significant. Emma’s marriage (and perhaps marriage in general) is where romantic fantasy does battle with harsh reality.

Point of View

One of the many things that makes this novel noteworthy is what Flaubert does with point of view and how he manages to make us willing to follow his unlikable characters to the end. 

Take whatever you thought you knew about point of view and throw it out the window. Flaubert does largely what he wants in this novel. He begins with the plural “we” to show Charles from the perspective of his classmates. The novel then shifts to an omniscient voice. Readers remain more or less in Charles’ head until he marries Emma, and then the novel shifts to show us the world mostly through Emma’s eyes. But not entirely. Flaubert moves around when it suits him. Sometimes the voice is objective, but he often uses free indirect discourse (as Jane Austen does in Pride and Prejudice) to deliver Emma’s thoughts and feelings. He varies the tone depending on her mood. He captures the pomposity of Homais, a character who embodies everything about the bourgeoisie that Flaubert despised. He shows us the calculated scheming of Rodolphe. 

Mostly the author seems to sympathize with Emma’s plight, but there were many times in the novel where I had the sense that he hated his characters. In 1857, he wrote to Leroyer de Chantepie that he did not intend to give his own opinion about any of them: “The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him.” But I think it comes through nonetheless. 

Flaubert uses point of view as a sharp and manipulative tool (which is what it is) to keep readers on their toes. He doesn’t make this easy. We’re not allowed to hate Charles without also feeling sorry for him. We’re not allowed to scorn Emma without also recognizing ourselves in her, at least to some extent. We’re not allowed to turn up our noses at mediocrity without also realizing that Emma could have had a pretty good life if she’d accepted it, that she was a crap wife and a crap mother—but can we really blame her for rejecting mediocrity and wanting something more? No, we can’t. Rodolphe’s rejection of her is heartbreaking. Emma’s financial desperation is full of tension. Her suicide is horrific. We are fully engaged with this deeply flawed character even though she leaves both chaos and financial ruin in her wake.

Why Madame Bovary is a classic

“I have just spent a good week,” Flaubert wrote to a friend while he was working on Madame Bovary, “alone like a hermit and calm as a god. I abandoned myself to a frenzy of literature. I got up at midday, I went to bed at four in the morning; I have written eight pages.” 

What author cannot relate to this sentiment? The struggle is real. But it is also one of the reasons this novel has endured for so long. The language is stunning. Flaubert’s hard work paid off. But I think Madame Bovary also endures because of how deeply human Flaubert’s characters are. He doesn’t shy away from human emotion at its worst. We see ourselves in Emma whether we want to or not. Her tragedy—that she cannot be content with what she has—is what our entire consumer society is built upon. Her illusions of what other people’s airbrushed lives are like form the beating heart of social media, magazines, romance novels, and Hollywood. 

No wonder the novel still resonates.

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