"Madame Bovary" is Gustave Flaubert's first published novel and is considered his masterpiece. The story focuses on a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Though the basic plot is rather simple, even archetypal, the novel's true art lies in its details and hidden patterns.
The novel was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors when it was first published, resulting in a trial in January 1857 that made the story notorious. After the acquittal on February 7, 1857, it became a bestseller when it was published as a book in April 1857, and now stands virtually unchallenged not only as a seminal work of Realism, but as one of the most influential novels ever written.
Emma is the novel's protagonist and is the main source of the novel's title (Charles's mother and his former wife are also referred to as Madame Bovary). She has a highly romanticized view of the world and craves beauty, wealth, passion, and high society. It is the disparity between these romantic ideals and the realities of her country life that drive most of the novel, most notably leading her into two extramarital love affairs as well as causing her to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt.
Emma is quite intelligent, but she never has a chance to develop her mind. As an adult, Emma's capacity for imagination is far greater than her capacity for analysis. She is observant about surface details, such as how people are dressed. As a result, Emma not only believes in the false fronts other people present to her, but she despises the very few people who are exactly as they appear to be.