Madame Bovary (First Edition) by Gustave Flaubert



2015-06-26 10:38:10

Madame Bovary is the first published novel by Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). The work was first serialised in Revue de Paris in 1856, and first published in book form in 1857 by Michael Levy, Paris. Background

Flaubert had been challenged by friends to take a typical and not particularly interesting subject and render it interesting, without anything unusual occurring.

Madame Bovary took five years to write. This could be particularly representative of Flaubert’s famed perfectionism. He would painstakingly edit and edit his work in search of ‘le mot juste’ – the perfect word, and rejected all vague and cliched phrases.

After its publication in La Revue de Paris in 1856, Flaubert and the publisher were attacked for indecency and obscenity by the government. This was partly a political attack on the very liberal newspaper by the government. The trial had the effect of making the book notorious, and its first publication in book form became a bestseller.

It is considered by many to be a masterpiece, and a defining work of Realist fiction.

Plot, Characters, Themes

The novel is set in provincial France. Charles Bovary is a good but not ambitious man. He becomes a doctor, and his mother sets him up with a rich unpleasant widow whom he marries. Charles later meets a beautiful woman called Emma Rouault, who dreams of luxury and romance due to reading popular novels.

After Charles’s wife died, he begins courting Emma, and they are married. The focus of the novel switches here to Emma. Charles shows himself to be well intentioned but boring, and Emma becomes disillusioned with married life. She has a daughter, and again becomes bored with this element of her life.

At this point she becomes besotted with an intelligent young law student. She resists temptation and congratulates herself.

A rich landowner decides to seduce Emma. They begin an affair which last for four years. They make a plan to run away together, but the landowner wanted nothing so serious and ends the relationship. Emma falls deathly ill in her shock and grief.

When her health is recovered, she meets the law student again and begins an affair with him. The affair is passionate, but soon become bored with each other. Emma satisfies her yearnings for excitement by purchasing huge numbers of luxury items on credit, and signs away Charles’s estate to a merchant. When the debt is called in, Emma begs for money from her previous lovers, who refuse. She swallows arsenic and dies a more painful death than the romantic image she had envisioned. Charles grows mad and reclusive with grief, attempts to keep Emma’s memory alive, stops working and sells his possessions. He eventually finds love letters from her two affairs, dies, and their daughter is left to work in a cotton mill.

The novel can be seen to characterise a battle between Romanticism and Realism. Emma Bovary could be considered the epitome of a Romantic, who faced with a realist world that denies her unrealistic fantasies, becomes dissatisfied. Flaubert does not comment on the moral character of his heroine, yet the novel provides a contemptuous portrait of the complacent and smug bourgeois society Flaubert observed in his time.


Flaubert is acknowledged as one of the greatest Western novelists, and significant to the Realist movement.

See main article: Gustave Flaubert rare books and memorabilia

Notable auction sales and collecting tips

After the Revue de Paris serialisation of Madame Bovary, Flaubert edited the text heavily. Previously suppressed passages were added, paragraph division and punctuation played around with, and Flaubert’s perfectionism allowed to reform and recast the finished novel. Due to this, the first book form of Madame Bovary (1857, Michel Levy, Paris) contains more true an impression of Flaubert’s desired result. It cannot be considered the very first publication of the text as the serialised version came prior, however, it is more available, more true to Flaubert as a writer, and remains extremely valuable.

They are worth infinitely more in their original paper wraps than if rebound, so it is not recommended to restore copies. Their worth also increases hugely if they are signed by Flaubert, particularly when inscribed to significant contemporaries.

Inscribed first editions were sold by Christie’s for €26,650 in November 2007, $28,200 in October 2001, and by Sothebys for €34,800 in May 2006, €38,400 in June 2007.

An unsigned copy was sold by Christie’s for $25,850 in April 2001.

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