The book begins in a French rural classroom. The headmaster has introduced a shy, slightly countrified new student called Charles Bovary, who arouses the other students’ contempt with his earnestness, odd manners, and unusual style of dress. The fifteen-year-old Charles is only now entering school for the first time. His father is a disgraced former army soldier, a hedonistic and dramatic man who married Charles’ mother for her large dowry. We learn that he ate through his wife’s fortune in a few years and then moved with her to the country, where his bad temper and profligate habits left them with little money or pleasure.
In these early descriptions of Charles and his father, the novel introduces two contrasting male archetypes. There is the dull, mild, sweet man, who impresses no one but who performs his duties faithfully, and the dazzling, sociable man who impresses everyone but who, in his selfishness, brings misfortune to those closest to him. So far, we only know the dull, unsociable aspect of Charles. But in the character of his father, charm is clearly divorced from goodness.
As the years pass, Charles’ mother (the elder Madame Bovary) grows bitter and angry. After some years, Charles is born. His father tries to raise him in a harsh, manly way, but his mother coddles and loves him, and entertains great hopes for him. Charles is a “naturally peaceful,” fun-loving child who spends his days exploring the village. After turning 12, he receives a sleepy, sporadic education from the village curé (a parish priest). A few years later, his mother insists that he be sent away to school in Rouen.
Charles has no capacity for the trappings of manliness, the ostentatious toughness that both made and ruined his father. He is not interested in appearing one way or another: he likes simply being out in the world and seeing what it has to offer. His attention is directed outward, not inward.
Charles is a relatively hard-working, well-behaved, unremarkable school boy. After some years, his parents enroll him in medical school. His classes confuse and exhaust him, but he works hard, “grinding away in perfect ignorance.” Little by little, though, he stops going to the mysterious classes and instead spends all his time playing dominoes in dark taverns, a deviation that gives him a thrilling sense of freedom.
Charles has almost no ambition or self-regard, but a relatively strong sense of duty. He is not bothered by the contempt of others, nor by any sense of intellectual inferiority. He obeys his mother’s wishes out of kindness and respect. He is not a dullard: he loves freedom and excitement, but he doesn’t feel entitled to them.
Charles fails his medical exams, but he studies hard for the next round and manages to pass. His mother, the elder Madame Bovary, sends him off, newly licensed, to a village called Tostes, where he becomes the country doctor. Charles' mother also finds him a wife, a wealthy, unattractive middle-aged woman named Héloïse Dubuc. Charles discovers that he does not enjoy marriage. His wife is demanding, controlling, and needy, and he does not love her.
His mother’s disappointment and hurt feelings have more weight, for Charles, than his own pleasure, so he obeys her wishes. Charles does not come to marriage with any expectations or demands. He experiences marriage, and then draws his conclusions: an inductive method that proceeds from detail to abstraction.