The publication in 1857 of Madame Bovary, with its vivid depictions of sex and adultery, incited a backlash of immorality charges. The novel tells the story of Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife bored and unfulfilled by marriage and motherhood. She embarks upon a series of affairs in search of passion and excitement, but is unable to achieve the splendid life for which she yearns. Instead, she finds herself trapped in a downward spiral that inexorably leads to ruin and self-destruction.
Along with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s tragic novel stands as a brilliant portrayal of infidelity, an incisive psychological portrait of a woman torn between duty and desire. Written with acute attention to telling detail, Madame Bovary not only exposes the emptiness of one woman’s bourgeois existence and failure to fill that void with fantasies, sex, and material objects. Emma’s thirst for life mirrors the universal human impulse for idealized fulfillment.