Stage 3 (Journeyman): Madame Bovary, chapter 1


Author: Gustave Flaubert

Retold by: Rachna Shah

The head-master strode into our classroom, a new student at his heels. He was a country lad of about fifteen years who seemed discomfited(1). While we recited our lessons, he stood in the corner of the room and listened intently.

After returning from the two o’clock prayers, we flung our caps onto the ground. He, on the other hand, still stubornly clutched his cap – a repugnant(2) one woven out of gold thread.

“Rise,” the master said. The boy stood up, but his cap fell. The class cachinnated(3) and when he stooped to pick it up, a neighbor knocked it down.

“Tell me your name,” the master ordered.

In a faltering voice, the boy responded an unintelligible(4) name. “Louder!”

“Charbovari!” He shouted. An uproar broke out.

When the master finally caught the name ‘Charles Bovary’, he ordered the boy to conjugate verbs, and quiet soon returned. While Charles proved himself to be a dedicated and indefatigable(5) student, his writing skills were poor — largely due to the fact that his parents had sent him to school as late as possible.

His father, Monsieur Charles Bovary, had been forced to leave the army. He had taken advantage of his position to marry a hosier’s(6) daughter. For three years, he lived recklessly on his wife’s fortune. But when his father-in-law died, he begrudgingly(7) retired to the country. Yet since he knew little about farming, he soon grew acrimonious (8) and embittered. His wife, once affectionate, had become weary and irritated with her stinking, drunk husband. While he sat smoking, she took care of both the business and housekeeping.

When she had a child, she indulged(9) him as though he was a prince. The father wanted to raise him like a Spartan, but the boy was complacent(10) by nature. His mother had long dreamed for him to be a man of high station, a lawyer or an engineer.

To this, Monsieur Bovary said, “It is not worthwhile.”

Madame Bovary held her tongue and the child roamed freely. When Charles was twelve years old, he began lessons, but they were so insufficient and irregular that his mother grew irascible(11). Worn out, Monsieur Bovary gave in, and Charles was sent to school. He was of placid(12) temperament: he played in playtime and worked in schooltime. He was always ranked in the middle of the class, but at the end of his third year his parents withdrew him so that he could study medicine.

While he understood nothing of it, he dedicated himself to work, like a mill-horse who goes round and round not knowing what work he is doing.

On summer evenings, he opened his window and leaned out. How delightful it must be at home! He thought. Enjoying his torpor(13), he soon gave up all work and failed his examination. When he returned home, his mother excused him, placing the blame of his failure on the examiners’ maltreatment. It was only five years later when Monsieur Bovary learned of the truth. Then, Charles crammed for his examination and performed well.

His mother had long decided that there would only be one place for him to practice: Tostes, where there was only one doctor. She had been on the lookout for his death. He had barely been entombed when Charles was installed as his successor. In much the same way, she quickly found him a wife – a widow of forty-five with an income of 1200 francs. Charles had envisioned(14) marriage as an easier life, but his wife was his master. Throughout the night, she would lament(15) and cry of how he neglected her.

One night, they were awakened by the sounds of a horse.

The man was quickly brought into the house, and he presented a letter to Charles. It urged him to come quickly to the Bertaux to heal a broken leg. Charles set out, the sky Acheronian(16). As he passed Vassonville, he came upon a boy sitting on the grass.

“Are you the doctor?” the child asked him.

Upon his answer, the child ran alongside him. Riding along, Charles gathered from his guide’s talk that Monsieur Rouault was one of the prosperous farmers in the area. His wife had been dead for two years and with him was only his daughter.

When they reached the sizable form, a young woman came to the door to receive them.

Charles went up the staircase to see his patient. He was a fat man of fifty, with white skin and blue eyes. By his side stood a large decanter(17) of brandy. As soon as he saw the doctor, he stopped his swearing and began to groan.

Thankfully, the fracture was a straightforward one. Charles made a splint while Mademoiselle Emma sewed some pads. As she sewed she pricked her fingers, which she then put in her mouth to suck. Charles was surprised at the whiteness of her nails. While her hands were not beautiful-perhaps not white enough-her eyes certainly were. Her look was frank and candid(18).

After bidding farewell to old Rouault, Charles returned to the room.

“Are you looking for anything?” she asked.

“My whip,” he answered.

Seeing that it had fallen to the floor, Mademoiselle Emma bent over to retrieve it. Out of politeness, Charles also made a dash for it, but as he stretched out his arm, he felt his breast brush against the back of the young girl bending beneath him. She quickly stood up, flushed, and hastily handed him his whip.

Instead of returning in three days, as he had promised, Charles went back the very next day.

He liked old Rouault, who called him his saviour. He liked the small wooden shoes of Mademoiselle Emma. She always accompanied him to the stairs and when his horse had not yet been brought around, she stayed there.

When Madame Bovary junior heard of this, she grew infuriated(19). “So this is why his face beams when he goes to see the invalid!”

She made him swear that he would never go to the Berteaux again. After much sobbing and many kisses, he acquiesced(20).

From time to time, Charles’s mother came to see them; she and the daughter-in-law endlessly nagged him.

Yet in the spring, a truth was revealed. Heloise’s noble estate did not exceed a value of one thousand crowns. She had lied! Monsieur Bovary the elder accused his wife of having cursed their son to a life of misfortune. Angrily, they came to Tostes. In tears, Heloise implored her husband to defend her from his parents; Charles tried, and his parents left indignantly.

A week after, as she was hanging up clothes in the yard, blood spewed from her mouth. The next day, she cried out “O God!”, gave a sigh, and fainted. She was dead!

When he returned from the cemetery, Charles leaned against the dinner table, where he stayed until night, buried in a sorrowful reverie. Alas! She had loved him after all!


1/discomfited(adj)-to feel uneasy or ill at ease; to feel out of place

2/repugnant(adj)-distasteful; cringeworthy, as if of bad taste; incompatible or in conflict with the norm

3/cachinnate(v)-to laugh to the extent that you are unable to stop; to giggle endlessly

4/unintelligible(adj)-describing something that is unable to be understood; unclear; incoherent

5/indefatigable(adj)-tireless; not yielding to fatigue or weariness; persistent

6/hosier(n)-a seller or manufacturer of stockings and socks

7/begrudgingly(adv)-to undertake a (necessary) course of action reluctantly; resentfully

8/acrimonious(adj)-bitter and unpleasant; angry; harsh

9/indulge(v)-to pamper or spoil someone; to allow an individual to partake in actions of pleasure

10/complacent(adj)-peaceable; content; not willing to partake in conflict

11/irascible(adj)-having the tendency to be easily angered; irritable; crabby

12/placid(adj)-of an even or calm temper; poised; calm and collected

13/torpor(n)-a time of hibernation in summer; sluggishness; laziness

14/envision(v)-to perceive or imagine something or someone in a certain way; to visualize; to picture

15/lament(n)-to cry; to express sorrow; to weep and mourn the loss of something

16/Acheronian(adj)-referring to the river Styx, a dark river devoid of light; gloomy and dismal

17/decanter(n)-an ornamental bottle used for serving wine or brandy, often made of glass

18/candid(adj)-frank; honest; straightforward and blunt

19/infuriated(adj)-angered on the spur of the moment; impatient; enraged (by something or someone)

20/acquiesce(v)-to agree to something, albeit reluctantly; to accept something silently

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