Places: Madame Bovary

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1857 (English translation, 1886)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Rouen

*Rouen Madame Bovary (rew-AN). City in Normandy where Emma Bovary is educated in a convent school. The home of Gustave Flaubert in his youth, Rouen represents Emma’s first moment of happiness–one that she later regrets. After her first lover abandons her, she returns to Rouen to attend an opera that she hopes will distract her and be a source of healing. This visit to Rouen serves as a transition between the second and third parts of the novel. At the opera Emma again meets the young Léon Dupuis, whom she met in Tostes. The affair they conduct in Rouen effectively replaces the spectacle they have both come to see. However, Rouen proves to be no different for Emma than Tostes, as Léon, too, abandons her.


*Tostes (tahst). Town south of Rouen that proves to be an ideal place for Dr. Charles Bovary to set up his medical practice and live a married life with his first wife, Héloïse, who soon dies. Emma Rouault marries him–and becomes “Madame Bovary”–but finds life in Tostes to be boring. Her only moment of relief comes when she is invited to a ball at a nearby château that symbolizes her ideal. This interval of happiness only serves to emphasize the general tedium that Emma experiences in Tostes and the disappointment she feels in her married state. To make her happy, her husband leaves his medical practice in Tostes and goes to Yonville-l’Abbaye, which he hopes will become their promised land.


*Yonville-l’Abbaye (YAHN-veel lah-BAY). Town near Tostes to which the Bovarys move in the hope of finding a better life for Emma Bovary. After entering the town and meeting its leading residents, who gather at the town inn to greet their new doctor and his wife, Emma spends most of her time talking about literature with the young Léon Dupuis and the life they have seen idealized in their readings. However, this romantic ideal is in strong contrast to the reality of Yonville. Described in great detail at the beginning of the second part of the novel, Yonville is situated in the region where Normandy, Picardy, and the Ile-de-France meet, a region characterized by poor soil and a people resistant to change. It is said to be a bastard part of France. This description echoes the meeting of the three main places of the novel and its three parts.

Flaubert describes Yonville in far more detail than he does Tostes and singles out the town’s civil and religious authorities for criticism. Yonville’s church, for example, uncharacteristically bears no proper name, and although it has been recently renovated, it remains in a state of disrepair. Just as Emma replaces Héloïse and Yonville replaces Tostes in the narrative, so does the pharmacy replace the church as the center of community activity, and its pharmacist becomes the town’s new priest and doctor. For this reason, Yonville turns out not to be a good place for Charles to practice medicine. As a solution to Emma’s boredom, the town offers Emma distraction in the form of two men who will become her lovers, Léon with whom she will eventually carry on an affair in Rouen, and Rodolphe Boulanger, who enters her life only because he has sought out the new Yonville doctor to care for one of his workers.

Yonville, thus introduced as a solution to Emma’s discontent in Tostes, will itself be replaced by Rouen in the third part of her search for a place in which to satisfy her desire.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Emma Bovary. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. Includes excerpts from reviews and articles (some contemporaneous with the novel), as well as ten essays that analyze the heroine in light of twentieth century and feminist perspectives and understanding. Extensive bibliography.Bloom, Harold, ed. Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. An excellent and balanced collection of some of the best and most provocative essays published in the last third of the twentieth century. Topics range from thematic to linguistic and from deconstructionist to psychoanalytical.Fairlie, Alison. Flaubert: “Madame Bovary.” London: Arnold, 1962. A well-written, sensitive, and insightful interpretation that provides a thorough examination of the themes, characters, narrative structure, style, and importance of the masterpiece.Gans, Eric. “Madame Bovary”: The End of Romance. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A brief but very good introduction that covers the work’s essential points, influence, and critical reception. Also places it in its historical and sociological context.Giraud, Raymond, ed. Flaubert: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Includes essays dealing with Flaubert’s literary theories and his other works. Also reprints several stimulating pieces on the novel (two not translated elsewhere) that include a perceptive reading by the poet Charles Baudelaire and thoughtful character analyses by Martin Turnell and Jean Rousset.
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