Madame Bovary


Madame Bovary - Part I, Chapter I

We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a "new
fellow," not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant
carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and
every one rose as if just surprised at his work.

The head-master made a sign to us to sit down. Then, turning to
the class-master, he said to him in a low voice--

"Monsieur Roger, here is a pupil whom I recommend to your care;
he'll be in the second. If his work and conduct are satisfactory,
he will go into one of the upper classes, as becomes his age."

The "new fellow," standing in the corner behind the door so that
he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and
taller than any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead
like a village chorister's; he looked reliable, but very ill at
ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school
jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight
about the arm-holes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red
wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings,
looked out from beneath yellow trousers, drawn tight by braces,
He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.

We began repeating the lesson. He listened with all his ears, as
attentive as if at a sermon, not daring even to cross his legs or
lean on his elbow; and when at two o'clock the bell rang, the
master was obliged to tell him to fall into line with the rest of

When we came back to work, we were in the habit of throwing our
caps on the ground so as to have our hands more free; we used
from the door to toss them under the form, so that they hit
against the wall and made a lot of dust: it was "the thing."

But, whether he had not noticed the trick, or did not dare to
attempt it, the "new fellow," was still holding his cap on his
knees even after prayers were over. It was one of those
head-gears of composite order, in which we can find traces of the
bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap, and cotton
night-cap; one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness
has depths of expression, like an imbecile's face. Oval,
stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round knobs; then
came in succession lozenges of velvet and rabbit-skin separated
by a red band; after that a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard
polygon covered with complicated braiding, from which hung, at
the end of a long thin cord, small twisted gold threads in the
manner of a tassel. The cap was new; its peak shone.

"Rise," said the master.

He stood up; his cap fell. The whole class began to laugh. He
stooped to pick it up. A neighbor knocked it down again with his
elbow; he picked it up once more.

"Get rid of your helmet," said the master, who was a bit of a

There was a burst of laughter from the boys, which so thoroughly
put the poor lad out of countenance that he did not know whether
to keep his cap in his hand, leave it on the ground, or put it on
his head. He sat down again and placed it on his knee.

"Rise," repeated the master, "and tell me your name."

The new boy articulated in a stammering voice an unintelligible


The same sputtering of syllables was heard, drowned by the
tittering of the class.

"Louder!" cried the master; "louder!"

The "new fellow" then took a supreme resolution, opened an
inordinately large mouth, and shouted at the top of his voice as
if calling someone in the word "Charbovari."

A hubbub broke out, rose in crescendo with bursts of shrill
voices (they yelled, barked, stamped, repeated "Charbovari!
Charbovari"), then died away into single notes, growing quieter
only with great difficulty, and now and again suddenly
recommencing along the line of a form whence rose here and there,
like a damp cracker going off, a stifled laugh.

However, amid a rain of impositions, order was gradually
re-established in the class; and the master having succeeded in
catching the name of "Charles Bovary," having had it dictated to
him, spelt out, and re-read, at once ordered the poor devil to go
and sit down on the punishment form at the foot of the master's
desk. He got up, but before going hesitated.

"What are you looking for?" asked the master.

"My c-a-p," timidly said the "new fellow," casting troubled looks
round him.

"Five hundred lines for all the class!" shouted in a furious
voice stopped, like the Quos ego*, a fresh outburst. "Silence!"
continued the master indignantly, wiping his brow with his
handkerchief, which he had just taken from his cap. "As to you,
'new boy,' you will conjugate 'ridiculus sum'** twenty times."

Then, in a gentler tone, "Come, you'll find your cap again; it
hasn't been stolen."

*A quotation from the Aeneid signifying a threat.

**I am ridiculous.

Quiet was restored. Heads bent over desks, and the "new fellow"
remained for two hours in an exemplary attitude, although from
time to time some paper pellet flipped from the tip of a pen came
bang in his face. But he wiped his face with one hand and
continued motionless, his eyes lowered.

In the evening, at preparation, he pulled out his pens from his
desk, arranged his small belongings, and carefully ruled his
paper. We saw him working conscientiously, looking up every word
in the dictionary, and taking the greatest pains. Thanks, no
doubt, to the willingness he showed, he had not to go down to the
class below. But though he knew his rules passably, he had little
finish in composition. It was the cure of his village who had
taught him his first Latin; his parents, from motives of economy,
having sent him to school as late as possible.

His father, Monsieur Charles Denis Bartolome Bovary, retired
assistant-surgeon-major, compromised about 1812 in certain
conscription scandals, and forced at this time to leave the
service, had taken advantage of his fine figure to get hold of a
dowry of sixty thousand francs that offered in the person of a
hosier's daughter who had fallen in love with his good looks. A
fine man, a great talker, making his spurs ring as he walked,
wearing whiskers that ran into his moustache, his fingers always
garnished with rings and dressed in loud colours, he had the dash
of a military man with the easy go of a commercial traveller.

Once married, he lived for three or four years on his wife's
fortune, dining well, rising late, smoking long porcelain pipes,
not coming in at night till after the theatre, and haunting
cafes. The father-in-law died, leaving little; he was indignant
at this, "went in for the business," lost some money in it, then
retired to the country, where he thought he would make money.

But, as he knew no more about farming than calico, as he rode his
horses instead of sending them to plough, drank his cider in
bottle instead of selling it in cask, ate the finest poultry in
his farmyard, and greased his hunting-boots with the fat of his
pigs, he was not long in finding out that he would do better to
give up all speculation.

For two hundred francs a year he managed to live on the border of
the provinces of Caux and Picardy, in a kind of place half farm,
half private house; and here, soured, eaten up with regrets,
cursing his luck, jealous of everyone, he shut himself up at the
age of forty-five, sick of men, he said, and determined to live
at peace.

His wife had adored him once on a time; she had bored him with a
thousand servilities that had only estranged him the more. Lively
once, expansive and affectionate, in growing older she had become
(after the fashion of wine that, exposed to air, turns to
vinegar) ill-tempered, grumbling, irritable. She had suffered so
much without complaint at first, until she had seem him going
after all the village drabs, and until a score of bad houses sent
him back to her at night, weary, stinking drunk. Then her pride
revolted. After that she was silent, burying her anger in a dumb
stoicism that she maintained till her death. She was constantly
going about looking after business matters. She called on the
lawyers, the president, remembered when bills fell due, got them
renewed, and at home ironed, sewed, washed, looked after the
workmen, paid the accounts, while he, troubling himself about
nothing, eternally besotted in sleepy sulkiness, whence he only
roused himself to say disagreeable things to her, sat smoking by
the fire and spitting into the cinders.

When she had a child, it had to be sent out to nurse. When he
came home, the lad was spoilt as if he were a prince. His mother
stuffed him with jam; his father let him run about barefoot, and,
playing the philosopher, even said he might as well go about
quite naked like the young of animals. As opposed to the maternal
ideas, he had a certain virile idea of childhood on which he
sought to mould his son, wishing him to be brought up hardily,
like a Spartan, to give him a strong constitution. He sent him to
bed without any fire, taught him to drink off large draughts of
rum and to jeer at religious processions. But, peaceable by
nature, the lad answered only poorly to his notions. His mother
always kept him near her; she cut out cardboard for him, told him
tales, entertained him with endless monologues full of melancholy
gaiety and charming nonsense. In her life's isolation she
centered on the child's head all her shattered, broken little
vanities. She dreamed of high station; she already saw him, tall,
handsome, clever, settled as an engineer or in the law. She
taught him to read, and even, on an old piano, she had taught him
two or three little songs. But to all this Monsieur Bovary,
caring little for letters, said, "It was not worth while. Would
they ever have the means to send him to a public school, to buy
him a practice, or start him in business? Besides, with cheek a
man always gets on in the world." Madame Bovary bit her lips, and
the child knocked about the village.

He went after the labourers, drove away with clods of earth the
ravens that were flying about. He ate blackberries along the
hedges, minded the geese with a long switch, went haymaking
during harvest, ran about in the woods, played hop-scotch under
the church porch on rainy days, and at great fetes begged the
beadle to let him toll the bells, that he might hang all his
weight on the long rope and feel himself borne upward by it in
its swing. Meanwhile he grew like an oak; he was strong on hand,
fresh of colour.

When he was twelve years old his mother had her own way; he began
lessons. The cure took him in hand; but the lessons were so short
and irregular that they could not be of much use. They were given
at spare moments in the sacristy, standing up, hurriedly, between
a baptism and a burial; or else the cure, if he had not to go
out, sent for his pupil after the Angelus*. They went up to his
room and settled down; the flies and moths fluttered round the
candle. It was close, the child fell asleep, and the good man,
beginning to doze with his hands on his stomach, was soon snoring
with his mouth wide open. On other occasions, when Monsieur le
Cure, on his way back after administering the viaticum to some
sick person in the neighbourhood, caught sight of Charles playing
about the fields, he called him, lectured him for a quarter of an
hour and took advantage of the occasion to make him conjugate his
verb at the foot of a tree. The rain interrupted them or an
acquaintance passed. All the same he was always pleased with him,
and even said the "young man" had a very good memory.

*A devotion said at morning, noon, and evening, at the sound of a
bell. Here, the evening prayer.

Charles could not go on like this. Madame Bovary took strong
steps. Ashamed, or rather tired out, Monsieur Bovary gave in
without a struggle, and they waited one year longer, so that the
lad should take his first communion.

Six months more passed, and the year after Charles was finally
sent to school at Rouen, where his father took him towards the
end of October, at the time of the St. Romain fair.

It would now be impossible for any of us to remember anything
about him. He was a youth of even temperament, who played in
playtime, worked in school-hours, was attentive in class, slept
well in the dormitory, and ate well in the refectory. He had in
loco parentis* a wholesale ironmonger in the Rue Ganterie, who
took him out once a month on Sundays after his shop was shut,
sent him for a walk on the quay to look at the boats, and then
brought him back to college at seven o'clock before supper. Every
Thursday evening he wrote a long letter to his mother with red
ink and three wafers; then he went over his history note-books,
or read an old volume of "Anarchasis" that was knocking about the
study. When he went for walks he talked to the servant, who, like
himself, came from the country.

*In place of a parent.

By dint of hard work he kept always about the middle of the
class; once even he got a certificate in natural history. But at
the end of his third year his parents withdrew him from the
school to make him study medicine, convinced that he could even
take his degree by himself.

His mother chose a room for him on the fourth floor of a dyer's
she knew, overlooking the Eau-de-Robec. She made arrangements for
his board, got him furniture, table and two chairs, sent home for
an old cherry-tree bedstead, and bought besides a small cast-iron
stove with the supply of wood that was to warm the poor child.

Then at the end of a week she departed, after a thousand
injunctions to be good now that he was going to be left to

The syllabus that he read on the notice-board stunned him;
lectures on anatomy, lectures on pathology, lectures on
physiology, lectures on pharmacy, lectures on botany and clinical
medicine, and therapeutics, without counting hygiene and materia
medica--all names of whose etymologies he was ignorant, and that
were to him as so many doors to sanctuaries filled with
magnificent darkness.

He understood nothing of it all; it was all very well to listen--
he did not follow. Still he worked; he had bound note-books, he
attended all the courses, never missed a single lecture. He did
his little daily task like a mill-horse, who goes round and round
with his eyes bandaged, not knowing what work he is doing.

To spare him expense his mother sent him every week by the
carrier a piece of veal baked in the oven, with which he lunched
when he came back from the hospital, while he sat kicking his
feet against the wall. After this he had to run off to lectures,
to the operation-room, to the hospital, and return to his home at
the other end of the town. In the evening, after the poor dinner
of his landlord, he went back to his room and set to work again
in his wet clothes, which smoked as he sat in front of the hot

On the fine summer evenings, at the time when the close streets
are empty, when the servants are playing shuttle-cock at the
doors, he opened his window and leaned out. The river, that makes
of this quarter of Rouen a wretched little Venice, flowed beneath
him, between the bridges and the railings, yellow, violet, or
blue. Working men, kneeling on the banks, washed their bare arms
in the water. On poles projecting from the attics, skeins of
cotton were drying in the air. Opposite, beyond the roots spread
the pure heaven with the red sun setting. How pleasant it must be
at home! How fresh under the beech-tree! And he expanded his
nostrils to breathe in the sweet odours of the country which did
not reach him.

He grew thin, his figure became taller, his face took a saddened
look that made it nearly interesting. Naturally, through
indifference, he abandoned all the resolutions he had made. Once
he missed a lecture; the next day all the lectures; and, enjoying
his idleness, little by little, he gave up work altogether. He
got into the habit of going to the public-house, and had a
passion for dominoes. To shut himself up every evening in the
dirty public room, to push about on marble tables the small sheep
bones with black dots, seemed to him a fine proof of his freedom,
which raised him in his own esteem. It was beginning to see life,
the sweetness of stolen pleasures; and when he entered, he put
his hand on the door-handle with a joy almost sensual. Then many
things hidden within him came out; he learnt couplets by heart
and sang them to his boon companions, became enthusiastic about
Beranger, learnt how to make punch, and, finally, how to make

Thanks to these preparatory labours, he failed completely in his
examination for an ordinary degree. He was expected home the same
night to celebrate his success. He started on foot, stopped at
the beginning of the village, sent for his mother, and told her
all. She excused him, threw the blame of his failure on the
injustice of the examiners, encouraged him a little, and took
upon herself to set matters straight. It was only five years
later that Monsieur Bovary knew the truth; it was old then, and
he accepted it. Moreover, he could not believe that a man born of
him could be a fool.

So Charles set to work again and crammed for his examination,
ceaselessly learning all the old questions by heart. He passed
pretty well. What a happy day for his mother! They gave a grand

Where should he go to practice? To Tostes, where there was only
one old doctor. For a long time Madame Bovary had been on the
look-out for his death, and the old fellow had barely been packed
off when Charles was installed, opposite his place, as his

But it was not everything to have brought up a son, to have had
him taught medicine, and discovered Tostes, where he could
practice it; he must have a wife. She found him one--the widow of
a bailiff at Dieppe--who was forty-five and had an income of
twelve hundred francs. Though she was ugly, as dry as a bone, her
face with as many pimples as the spring has buds, Madame Dubuc
had no lack of suitors. To attain her ends Madame Bovary had to
oust them all, and she even succeeded in very cleverly baffling
the intrigues of a port-butcher backed up by the priests.

Charles had seen in marriage the advent of an easier life,
thinking he would be more free to do as he liked with himself and
his money. But his wife was master; he had to say this and not
say that in company, to fast every Friday, dress as she liked,
harass at her bidding those patients who did not pay. She opened
his letter, watched his comings and goings, and listened at the
partition-wall when women came to consult him in his surgery.

She must have her chocolate every morning, attentions without
end. She constantly complained of her nerves, her chest, her
liver. The noise of footsteps made her ill; when people left her,
solitude became odious to her; if they came back, it was
doubtless to see her die. When Charles returned in the evening,
she stretched forth two long thin arms from beneath the sheets,
put them round his neck, and having made him sit down on the edge
of the bed, began to talk to him of her troubles: he was
neglecting her, he loved another. She had been warned she would
be unhappy; and she ended by asking him for a dose of medicine
and a little more love.


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Last modified: February 20, 2003