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Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary

Author:Gustave Flaubert


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.”
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  We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a “newfellow,” not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying alarge desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as ifjust surprised at his work.

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

  “Monsieur Roger, here is a pupil whom I recommend to your care; he’ll bein the second. If his work and conduct are satisfactory, he will go intoone of the upper classes, as becomes his age.”

  The “new fellow,” standing in the corner behind the door so that hecould hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and tallerthan any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead like a villagechorister’s; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he wasnot broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with blackbuttons must have been tight about the arm-holes, and showed at theopening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, inblue stockings, looked out from beneath yellow trousers, drawn tight bybraces, He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.

  We began repeating the lesson. He listened with all his ears, asattentive as if at a sermon, not daring even to cross his legs or leanon his elbow; and when at two o’clock the bell rang, the master wasobliged to tell him to fall into line with the rest of us.

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

  But, whether he had not noticed the trick, or did not dare to attemptit, the “new fellow,” was still holding his cap on his knees even afterprayers were over. It was one of those head-gears of composite order, inwhich we can find traces of the bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskincap, and cotton night-cap; one of those poor things, in fine, whosedumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face. Oval,stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round knobs; then came insuccession lozenges of velvet and rabbit-skin separated by a red band;after that a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered withcomplicated 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 topick it up. A neighbor knocked it down again with his elbow; he pickedit up once more.

  “Get rid of your helmet,” said the master, who was a bit of a wag.

  There was a burst of laughter from the boys, which so thoroughly put thepoor lad out of countenance that he did not know whether to keep his capin his hand, leave it on the ground, or put it on his head. He sat downagain 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 name.


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

  “Louder!” cried the master; “louder!”

  The “new fellow” then took a supreme resolution, opened an inordinatelylarge mouth, and shouted at the top of his voice as if calling someonein the word “Charbovari.”

  A hubbub broke out, rose in crescendo with bursts of shrill voices

theyyelled, barked, stamped, repeated “Charbovari! Charbovari”

, then diedaway into single notes, growing quieter only with great difficulty, andnow and again suddenly recommencing along the line of a form whence rosehere and there, like a damp cracker going off, a stifled laugh.

  However, amid a rain of impositions, order was gradually re-establishedin 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 format 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 roundhim.

  “Five hundred lines for all the class!” shouted in a furious voicestopped, like the Quos ego*, a fresh outburst. “Silence!” continued themaster indignantly, wiping his brow with his handkerchief, which hehad 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’tbeen stolen.”

  *A quotation from the Aeneid signifying a threat.

  **I am ridiculous.

  Quiet was restored. Heads bent over desks, and the “new fellow” remainedfor two hours in an exemplary attitude, although from time to time somepaper pellet flipped from the tip of a pen came bang in his face. But hewiped 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 himworking conscientiously, looking up every word in the dictionary, andtaking the greatest pains. Thanks, no doubt, to the willingness heshowed, he had not to go down to the class below. But though he knew hisrules passably, he had little finish in composition. It was the cureof his village who had taught him his first Latin; his parents, frommotives of economy, having sent him to school as late as possible.

  His father, Monsieur Charles Denis Bartolome Bovary, retiredassistant-surgeon-major, compromised about 1812 in certain conscriptionscandals, and forced at this time to leave the service, had takenadvantage of his fine figure to get hold of a dowry of sixty thousandfrancs that offered in the person of a hosier’s daughter who had fallenin love with his good looks. A fine man, a great talker, making hisspurs 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 commercialtraveller.

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

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

  For two hundred francs a year he managed to live on the border ofthe provinces of Caux and Picardy, in a kind of place half farm, halfprivate house; and here, soured, eaten up with regrets, cursing hisluck, 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 athousand servilities that had only estranged him the more. Lively once,expansive and affectionate, in growing older she had become

after thefashion of wine that, exposed to air, turns to vinegar

ill-tempered,grumbling, irritable. She had suffered so much without complaint atfirst, until she had seem him going after all the village drabs, anduntil 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. Shecalled on the lawyers, the president, remembered when bills fell due,got them renewed, and at home ironed, sewed, washed, looked after theworkmen, paid the accounts, while he, troubling himself about nothing,eternally besotted in sleepy sulkiness, whence he only roused himselfto say disagreeable things to her, sat smoking by the fire and spittinginto 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 himwith jam; his father let him run about barefoot, and, playing thephilosopher, even said he might as well go about quite naked like theyoung of animals. As opposed to the maternal ideas, he had a certainvirile idea of childhood on which he sought to mould his son, wishinghim to be brought up hardily, like a Spartan, to give him a strongconstitution. He sent him to bed without any fire, taught him to drinkoff large draughts of rum and to jeer at religious processions. But,peaceable by nature, the lad answered only poorly to his notions. Hismother always kept him near her; she cut out cardboard for him, told himtales, entertained him with endless monologues full of melancholy gaietyand charming nonsense. In her life’s isolation she centered on thechild’s head all her shattered, broken little vanities. She dreamed ofhigh station; she already saw him, tall, handsome, clever, settled asan engineer or in the law. She taught him to read, and even, on an oldpiano, she had taught him two or three little songs. But to all thisMonsieur Bovary, caring little for letters, said, “It was not worthwhile. Would they ever have the means to send him to a public school, tobuy him a practice, or start him in business? Besides, with cheek a manalways gets on in the world.” Madame Bovary bit her lips, and the childknocked about the village.

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

  When he was twelve years old his mother had her own way; he beganlessons. The cure took him in hand; but the lessons were so short andirregular that they could not be of much use. They were given at sparemoments in the sacristy, standing up, hurriedly, between a baptism anda burial; or else the cure, if he had not to go out, sent for his pupilafter the Angelus*. They went up to his room and settled down; theflies and moths fluttered round the candle. It was close, the childfell asleep, and the good man, beginning to doze with his hands on hisstomach, was soon snoring with his mouth wide open. On other occasions,when Monsieur le Cure, on his way back after administering the viaticumto some sick person in the neighbourhood, caught sight of Charlesplaying about the fields, he called him, lectured him for a quarter ofan hour and took advantage of the occasion to make him conjugate hisverb at the foot of a tree. The rain interrupted them or an acquaintancepassed. 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 soundof 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 astruggle, and they waited one year longer, so that the lad should takehis first communion.

  Six months more passed, and the year after Charles was finally sent toschool 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 inschool-hours, was attentive in class, slept well in the dormitory,and ate well in the refectory. He had in loco parentis* a wholesaleironmonger in the Rue Ganterie, who took him out once a month on Sundaysafter his shop was shut, sent him for a walk on the quay to look atthe boats, and then brought him back to college at seven o’clock beforesupper. Every Thursday evening he wrote a long letter to his mother withred ink and three wafers; then he went over his history note-books, orread an old volume of “Anarchasis” that was knocking about the study.When he went for walks he talked to the servant, who, like himself, camefrom the country.

  *In place of a parent.

  By dint of hard work he kept always about the middle of the class; onceeven he got a certificate in natural history. But at the end of histhird year his parents withdrew him from the school to make him studymedicine, 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 sheknew, overlooking the Eau-de-Robec. She made arrangements for hisboard, got him furniture, table and two chairs, sent home for an oldcherry-tree bedstead, and bought besides a small cast-iron stove withthe supply of wood that was to warm the poor child.

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

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

  He understood nothing of it all; it was all very well to listen--he didnot follow. Still he worked; he had bound note-books, he attended allthe courses, never missed a single lecture. He did his little daily tasklike a mill-horse, who goes round and round with his eyes bandaged, notknowing what work he is doing.

  To spare him expense his mother sent him every week by the carrier apiece of veal baked in the oven, with which he lunched when he came backfrom 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 thehospital, and return to his home at the other end of the town. In theevening, after the poor dinner of his landlord, he went back to hisroom and set to work again in his wet clothes, which smoked as he sat infront of the hot stove.

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

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

  Thanks to these preparatory labours, he failed completely in hisexamination for an ordinary degree. He was expected home the same nightto celebrate his success. He started on foot, stopped at the beginningof the village, sent for his mother, and told her all. She excusedhim, 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 wasold then, and he accepted it. Moreover, he could not believe that a manborn 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 prettywell. What a happy day for his mother! They gave a grand dinner.

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

  But it was not everything to have brought up a son, to have had himtaught medicine, and discovered Tostes, where he could practice it;he must have a wife. She found him one--the widow of a bailiff atDieppe--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 asthe spring has buds, Madame Dubuc had no lack of suitors. To attain herends Madame Bovary had to oust them all, and she even succeeded invery cleverly baffling the intrigues of a port-butcher backed up by thepriests.

  Charles had seen in marriage the advent of an easier life, thinking hewould be more free to do as he liked with himself and his money. But hiswife was master; he had to say this and not say that in company, to fastevery Friday, dress as she liked, harass at her bidding those patientswho 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 hissurgery.

  She must have her chocolate every morning, attentions without end. Sheconstantly complained of her nerves, her chest, her liver. The noise offootsteps made her ill; when people left her, solitude became odious toher; if they came back, it was doubtless to see her die. When Charlesreturned in the evening, she stretched forth two long thin arms frombeneath the sheets, put them round his neck, and having made him sitdown on the edge of the bed, began to talk to him of her troubles: hewas neglecting her, he loved another. She had been warned she would beunhappy; and she ended by asking him for a dose of medicine and a littlemore love.