At the age of fifteen, Charles Bovary struck his schoolmates as a shy and clumsy country lad. He did not have great intelligence or wit but was a diligent and industrious student. He was quiet; however, he mixed well with the other boys.
His father was a former army surgeon who had been forced to leave the service as a result of some scandal. He was a handsome and unscrupulous man who had married Charles' mother in order to get his hands on her large dowry. After the marriage, he wasted most of the money in foolish speculations, drinking, and amorous affairs. He had always been a cruel and unfaithful husband. In middle age he continued to mistreat his wife and was a bitter, stern, and boastful man. He and his wife eventually acquired and lived on a small farm.
Charles' mother had once loved her husband deeply, but her unfortunate marriage had cooled this affection and had turned her youthful gaiety and optimism into nervous moodiness and spite.
After their son's birth, the two Bovarys had often clashed about his rearing, and Charles' boyhood was one of inconsistencies and contradictions. His mother had been overly fond and doting, while his father had attempted to inure him to the rigors of life through austere treatment.
Eventually Charles was sent to a secondary school and then studied medicine. Although he worked hard at first, his lack of great intelligence and a natural tendency to laziness caused him to fail his examinations. His mother attributed this to unfairness on the part of the examiners, and the news was kept a secret from his father. The following semester, after much hard work, Charles was able to pass. While at the university he had his first real taste of freedom and engaged in several typical student adventures.
After he became a doctor, Charles' mother found him a practice in the village of Tostes, and a wealthy wife in Heloise, an ugly widow who was several years older than he. Charles had hoped that marriage would bring him freedom, but soon found his wife to be as grasping and domineering as his mother had been. Nevertheless, his medical practice prospered.
Flaubert is presenting in rapid sketches the essential nature and characteristics of some of the background figures and is preparing us for later actions. For example, it is important to see from the very beginning that Charles is a rather ordinary person with no special talents. He must work exceptionally hard for anything that he achieves. Furthermore, we see that Charles is easily ruled by his mother and later by his wife. He is obedient, diligent, and hard working, but possesses no natural talents.
Flaubert is going to present a novel about the provincial middle-class society. He is interested in this first chapter with presenting a basic picture of the typical country background against which the story takes place.
Note the tremendous contrast between Charles and his father. The father has a dash of charm and imagination that is missing in Charles. The son is more closely aligned with his mother, whose main concern is with meeting the bills and getting by in life.
Charles' first marriage is very important in relationship to his later marriage with Emma. First, we see that his wife is able to make him walk a tight line. She is easily able to control him even though she possesses none of the "loveliness" of Emma. She was a real shrew who made life very difficult and unpleasant for Charles. She is so antagonistic that Charles will naturally be more receptive to Emma's charms.