The novel begins at the village school, where a new student has just arrived. He is Charles Bovary, the son of a former army surgeon and his wife, who lives on a small farm. After observing Charles on his first day at school, we follow him as he grows up. Charles’s father, who manages money poorly and philanders with “all the village harlots,” has long since lost the respect of his wife, who lavishes her effusive affections on Charles instead. Despite the ridiculous way she spoils him, Charles remains an unremarkable child—good-natured, but lazy and unimaginative. Eventually, his parents send him off to medical school, where he regularly skips classes and plays dominoes instead of studying. His laziness causes him to fail his first attempt at the medical exam, a failure concealed from his father until years later. After retaking the exam, he passes and becomes a doctor. His mother arranges for him to practice in the village of Tostes. She also finds him a wife—Heloise Dubuc, a wealthy widow, years older than Charles. Heloise gives Charles little love but plenty of nagging and scolding.
One night, Charles is called from his bed at 4 A.M. to set a simple fracture at a distant farm. He admires the patient’s daughter, a young woman named Emma, who was raised in a convent and is unhappy with country life. Struck by her beauty, he returns to visit her father, Rouault, far more often than necessary while his leg heals. Heloise grows suspicious and asks around about Rouault’s daughter, who, she hears, is prone to putting on airs. Jealous of Emma’s looks and good breeding, Heloise forces Charles to promise never to go there again. He agrees but learns soon after that Heloise’s lawyer has stolen most of Heloise’s money, and that Heloise lied about her wealth before the wedding. Charles’s parents argue violently about this development, and Heloise, shocked and humiliated, dies suddenly, a week later.
After Heloise’s death, Charles befriends Rouault and often visits his farm. He spends time with Emma, watching her work or chatting with her about her boredom in the country. Although he pays no attention to the meaning of her words, Charles soon finds himself in love with Emma, and Rouault, a heavy drinker who has mismanaged his farm, agrees to give his daughter to this meek but kind and well-mannered physician. After consenting, Rouault instructs Charles to wait outside while he goes to the house to ask Emma. He alerts Charles to her agreement with a pre-arranged signal, a shutter banged against the wall. The couple must wait for Charles’s mourning period to pass. They bide the time planning the wedding. Emma wants a romantic midnight wedding, but in the end she is forced to settle for a more traditional ceremony, with raucous celebration.
In spring, when Charles’s mourning period for his first wife has ended, he marries Emma. The wedding is a huge event all around Rouault’s farm, and the guests come dressed in fancy clothes that they are not used to. After the wedding, they all return to the farm in a long and festive procession that stretches out “like one long coloured scarf that undulated across the fields.” They consume a massive all-night feast that includes an incredibly elaborate three-tiered wedding cake. The next day, after the wedding night, Charles is obviously overjoyed. Emma takes her loss of virginity calmly and coolly in stride. As the couple departs for their home in Tostes, Rouault reminisces about the happiness of his own wedding day.
Back in Tostes, Emma inspects her new home, where she makes Charles remove his dead wife’s dried bridal bouquet from the bedroom. As Emma plans further small improvements to the house, Charles dotes on her in a daze of love and happiness. Emma, on the other hand, feels strangely dissatisfied by her new life—she always expected marriage to lead her to romantic bliss. Instead, she feels that her life has fallen short of the high expectations she received from romantic novels: “Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.”
Emma remembers life in the convent where she was educated. At first, she threw herself into religious life, treating religion with the same passion she devoted to reading romantic novels and listening to ballads of love. When her mother died, she immersed herself even more passionately into her grief. It pleased her to think of herself as an example of pure melancholy. But she soon grew tired of mourning and eventually left the convent. For a while, she enjoyed life on her father’s farm, but she soon found herself bored and disgusted with her life. In this state of disillusionment, she first met Charles, but he did not provide the happy escape for which she had hoped.
During her honeymoon in Tostes, Emma feels disappointed not to be in a romantic chalet in Switzerland. She finds her husband dull and uninspiring and begins to resent his lack of interest in a more passionate life. Charles continues to love Emma. His mother visits and hates Emma for having won his love. After she leaves, Emma tries to love Charles, but disappointment lingers. She wonders why she ever got married. Then, one of Charles’s patients, the Marquis d’Andervilliers, invites the Bovarys to a ball at his mansion.
Although enchanted by the atmosphere of wealth and luxury at the ball, Emma is embarrassed by her husband, whom she views as a clumsy, unsophisticated oaf. She is surrounded by wealthy, elegant noblemen and women, among them an old man who was one of Marie Antoinette’s lovers. When the ballroom gets too hot, a servant breaks the windows to let in the air. Emma looks outside and sees peasants gawking in; she is reminded of her life on the farm, which now feels a world away. A viscount dances with her, and she feels as though she has been cheated out of the life for which she was born. On the way home, the same viscount passes them on the road and drops a cigar box, which Emma keeps. Back in Tostes, Emma is angry with everyone around her.
Fixated on her cigar case and her fashionable ladies’ magazines, Emma sinks into fantasies of high society life in Paris, growing despondent and miserable and venting her self-pity by acting sullen and capricious with her husband. Although Charles’s business prospers, Emma grows increasingly irritated with his poor manners and dullness. As her restlessness, boredom, and depression intensify, she becomes physically ill. In an effort to cure her, Charles decides that they should move to Yonville, a town in need of a doctor. Before the move, Emma learns that she is pregnant. While packing, she throws her dried bridal bouquet into the fire and watches it burn.
Part Two begins with a description of Yonville-l’Abbaye, the town to which the Bovarys are moving. The most notable features of the town are the Lion d’Or inn, the pharmacy of Monsieur Homais, and the graveyard, where the gravedigger, Lestiboudois, also grows potatoes. The village folk await the arrival of the evening coach. It arrives late, carrying Charles and Emma. The delay has occured because Emma’s little dog escaped and ran away during the journey.
Charles’s correspondent in Yonville, a pompous, obnoxious apothecary named Homais, dines at the inn with the newly arrived Bovarys. His boarder, a young law clerk named Leon, is invited to join them. While Charles and Homais discuss medicine, Emma and Leon spend much of the meal discovering their affinities. Emma learns that Leon also loves romantic novels and lofty ideals. Sharing these leanings, the two feel an immediate closeness and believe that their conversation is quite profound. When the Bovarys arrive at their new house, Emma hopes that her life will change for the better, and that her unhappiness will finally subside.
Leon thinks about Emma constantly. Charles’s medical practice gets off to a slow start, but Charles is excited about the coming of the baby. Finally, the baby is born. It is a girl, contrary to Emma’s wishes. They name her Berthe, and Charles’s parents stay with them for a month after the christening party. One day, Emma decides to visit the baby at the house of her wet nurse, who asks her for a few extra amenities. On the way there, Emma feels weak, so she asks Leon to accompany her. Rumors begin to spread through the village that they are having an affair. After the visit to the nurse’s house, Emma and Leon go for a walk by the river, during which they feel passionately romantic toward each other.
During the winter, the Bovarys often go to Homais’s house on Sunday evenings. Here, Emma and Leon develop a strong rapport. Each feels powerfully attracted to the other, but neither has the courage to admit to the feeling. They exchange little gifts, and the townspeople are sure they are lovers.
Emma watches Leon, Homais, and Charles and decides that her husband is so unremarkable thathe disgusts her. She realizes that Leon loves her, and the next time they meet, they both are shy and awkward, unsure of how to proceed. Emma is constantly nervous, and she begins to lose weight. She fancies herself a martyr, unable to give herself to love because of the restrictions of her marriage. She plays the part of the dutiful wife to Charles and brings her daughter, Berthe, back home from the wet nurse. Soon, however, Emma’s desire for Leon becomes much stronger than her desire to be virtuous, and she gives way to self-pity. She breaks down in tears, and blames Charles for all of her unhappiness. One day, a shopkeeper named Monsieur Lheureux hints to her that he is a moneylender, in case she should ever need a loan.
Emma hears the church bells tolling and decides to seek help at the church. The curate, Abbé Bournisien, preoccupied with his own problems and with a group of unruly boys in his catechism class, is oblivious to Emma’s deep distress. Soon afterward, in a fit of irritability, Emma pushes Berthe away from her, and the little girl falls and cuts herself. Emma claims that Berthe was playing and that she fell accidentally. Emma is frantic and shaken, but Charles eventually calms her.
Leon decides to go to Paris to study law. He loves Emma, but her sentiments make their romance impossible, and he is utterly bored in Yonville. He is also tempted by romantic adventures he suspects will await him in Paris. When he bids Emma farewell, they are both awkward and quiet, but they are both moved. After he leaves, Charles and Homais discuss the lures and difficulties of city life.
After Leon’s departure, Emma lapses into her old depression. She is moody, irritable, nervous, and miserable. She constantly dreams of Leon, and wishes that she would have given in to her love for him. In this state, she meets a rich and handsome landowner named Rodolphe Boulanger, who brings a servant to be treated by Charles. During the treatment, Justin, Homais’s assistant who is infatuated with Emma, faints from the sight of the blood. As Emma tends to him, Rodolphe is taken by her beauty and begins plotting to seduce her.
Yonville is astir with excitement for the annual agricultural fair, a festive, merry event featuring animals on display, speeches, and prizes. One of the prizes goes to an old and timid woman, Catherine Leroux, for fifty-four years of service on the same farm. Rodolphe takes Emma inside the empty town hall to watch the ceremony from the window; when they are alone, he confesses his love for her. The representative of the local prefect arrives and gives a speech about public morality. Rodolphe continues to speak of his love and to urge Emma to return his feelings. She tries to act as she thinks is proper for a married woman but can’t resist intertwining her fingers with his.
For six weeks, Rodolphe avoids Emma, calculating that his absence will make her long for him. When he visits her at last, she is cold to him, but quickly finds herself moved by his romantic language. When Charles arrives, Rodolphe offers to loan Emma a horse to ride. She demurs, but Charles later persuades her to accept the offer. Soon afterward, Emma and Rodolphe go for a ride together. In a beautiful forest glade, he again speaks of his love for her. At last, she gives in, and they make love. When she returns home, she is joyful, feeling that her life has at last become romantic. Emma and Rodolphe quickly begin a full-fledged affair; Emma begins sneaking away from home to see Rodolphe. She acts incautiously, neglecting her duties at home in her obsession for her new lover.
Emma and Rodolphe become more cautious, now meeting in the arbor in Emma’s garden rather than at Rodolphe’s house. Rodolphe quickly begins to tire of her; he finds her romantic idealism exhausting and loses interest in her. He continues the affair solely because of Emma’s beauty, but he urges her to act more cautiously. His attentions diminish, and she becomes less sure of his love. A letter from her father prompts a memory of her innocent childhood days. Emma begins to feel guilty and tries to redeem herself through sacrifice. She becomes cold to Rodolphe in order to end the affair, and she tries to force herself to love Charles.
Homais reads a paper praising a surgical procedure that will cure clubfoot. Under pressure from Emma (who hopes to help Charles’s career), Homais, and much of Yonville, the cautious Charles agrees to test this procedure on Hippolyte, a clubfooted servant at the inn. Although Hippolyte is more agile on his crippled leg than some men are on two healthy ones, he is talked into the operation by the townspeople. The attempt makes Charles a local celebrity—but it fails. Hippolyte’s leg develops gangrene and must be amputated. Emma judges Charles incompetent and feels disgusted by him. Although her affair with Rodolphe has slowed down considerably, she renews it now with even more passion than before.
Emma and Rodolphe’s affair begins where it left off. As Emma’s dissatisfaction with her marriage becomes even more pronounced, she begins to allude to the possibility of leaving Charles. Lheureux, the merchant and moneylender, begins to coax her into making extravagant and unwise purchases. She goes into debt to buy expensive gifts for her lover. Rodolphe, meanwhile, becomes still more easily annoyed by Emma’s romantic sentimentality and begins to lose patience with the affair. By now, Emma has been so careless that the whole town knows about her adultery. When Charles’s mother comes for a visit, she guesses it too. She and Emma fight, and Charles convinces Emma to apologize to his mother about the fight. After her apology, Emma is humiliated and begs Rodolphe to take her away. She plans to take Berthe with her. With the secret hope of running away with Rodolphe, she becomes more polite and much less irritable with Charles and his mother. The lovers finalize their plans. They decide that they will leave Yonville separately, then meet in Rouen. However, after a meeting in Emma’s garden, Rodolphe talks himself out of the idea.
Rodolphe has decided not to elope with Emma. The sexual pleasure she provides, he decides, will not be enough to offset the inconvenience and drain of being constantly in her company. As he contemplates the best way of telling her, he reminisces about his former mistresses. He then writes Emma a letter in which he says that because he loves her so much, he must break off their affair, because all he can offer her is pain. His letter is a fabrication, but he feels it will satisfy Emma and minimize the inconvenience to him of ending the affair. He has the letter delivered to Emma concealed at the bottom of a basket of apricots.
When Emma receives the letter, she is devastated. Reading the letter in the attic, she contemplates throwing herself out the window, but stops when she hears Charles calling her. In her agitated state, she leaves the letter there, forgetting to conceal it. That night, as Charles eats the apricots Rodolphe has sent, Emma sees Rodolphe’s carriage drive by on its way out of town, and she faints. She declares that she wants to see no one, not even her daughter. She develops a high fever and remains close to death for the next month and a half. Charles calls in doctors from all over the region, but none of them can cure her. By October, however, Emma begins to recover her health.
Charles has a number of worries. Emma’s ill health terrifies him, and his financial situation is becoming increasingly dire. The doctors are very expensive, and when Lheureux presents him with a list of Emma’s debts, Charles is forced to borrow the money from Lheureux at very high interest in order to pay them off. Meanwhile, Emma, who believes she has had a religious epiphany during her illness, rediscovers the Catholic fervor of her youth. She prays devoutly and is kinder to both Charles and Berthe. But her religion disappoints her. Although she is as passionately devoted to religious practice as she once was to Rodolphe, she finds it offers her none of the same ecstasies. She maintains her practice and kind demeanor, however, becoming friendly with the villagers, including Justin, who by now is completely in love with her. Other frequent visitors are the tax collector, Binet, who offers advice on uncorking cider bottles, and Homais, who suggests that Charles take Emma to the opera in Rouen. The priest and the pharmacist argue over whether or not the theater is moral—Bournisien claiming that it is irreligious and Homais defending it. Eventually, thinking it will benefit Emma’s health, Charles decides to take her to the opera.
At the opera, Emma finds herself again embarrassed by Charles’s unsophisticated behavior, preoccupied with the desire to seem cosmopolitan and aristocratic. But she enjoys the opera a great deal; it reminds her of the romantic novels of her youth and makes her think about events in her own life. At intermission, she is stunned to hear that Leon is in the crowd. She, Charles, and Leon go to a café. Charles and Leon talk, and Emma is highly impressed by the sophistication Leon has acquired since moving to Paris. Leon begins to ridicule the opera but when he learns that Emma might stay in Rouen in order to see the second half, he praises it rapturously. Charles suggests that Emma stay the next day to see the rest of the opera while he returns to Yonville.
Although Leon has all but forgotten Emma during his time at law school, seeing her again has reawakened his old feelings for her, and he goes to see her in her hotel while Charles is gone the next day. They have an intimate conversation about their discontent with life and the romantic nature of death. Finally, Leon confesses his love and kisses Emma. She refuses him, but he begs for another chance, and they agree to meet at the cathedral the next day. Emma then writes him a letter in which she explains that she cannot be his mistress. The next day, Leon goes to the cathedral at the appointed time, but Emma hangs back, hoping to avoid him and not to fall in love with him again. When she arrives, she gives the letter to Leon, but he does not read it. She takes up the offer of the church’s beadle for a tour of the building, but finally Leon pulls her away. They call for a carriage. The driver of the carriage is baffled that they would want to be driven about aimlessly, with all the curtains pulled tight, on such a pleasant day. They drive all day and into the evening, and the only sign of life from inside the carriage is a hand that emerges to throw the torn-up scraps of Emma’s letter into the wind.
Emma and Leon have spent so much time in their carriage that Emma has missed the coach back to Yonville. She takes a private cab to catch up with it. When she returns home, she is called urgently to Homais’s pharmacy, where Homais is having a massive fight with Justin because Justin has taken the key to a storeroom where arsenic is kept. Homais tells Emma that Charles’s father has died. Charles is in mourning, and his mother arrives for a long stay at their house in Yonville, much to Emma’s dismay. Lheureux appears with another list of debts and encourages Emma to obtain power of attorney over Charles’s finances in order to settle the debts. Charles naively believes his wife when she says that this would be the best approach, so he agrees. He even agrees to send her to Rouen for three days so that Leon can draw up the papers.
In Rouen, Emma and Leon enjoy a passionate three-day “honeymoon,” making love in their hotel room, taking a boat out to an island, and romancing under the moonlight. One evening, the boatman tells them that a party of well-to-do young people had used the boat the day before; it turns out that Rodolphe was among them. Emma shudders, but quickly recovers herself, making arrangements for Leon to write to her when she returns to Yonville.
When Emma returns to Yonville, Leon begins inventing pretexts to visit her there. He neglects both his work and his friends in Rouen. Emma continues to sink deeper into debt to Lheureux and convinces Charles to let her take a weekly piano lesson in Rouen, secretly planning to see Leon on a regular basis.
Every Thursday, Emma travels to Rouen, where she sneaks through back alleys in poor neighborhoods to see her lover. She feels emotionally alive during her time with Leon and is anxious and withdrawn at home, even though she continues to act the part of the dutiful wife. Her relationship with Leon grows more intense with each encounter, and the two begin to view one another as characters in a romantic novel. She develops a familiar routine of going to visit him and returning in the carriage to Yonville. On the road between Rouen and Yonville, she periodically encounters a deformed, blind beggar who terrifies her with his lurid, horrible song. At home, Charles nearly discovers the affair when he meets Emma’s alleged piano teacher and finds that the teacher does not know Emma’s name. But Emma shows him forged receipts from the lessons, and Charles is easily convinced that nothing untoward has occurred.
As a means of paying her mounting debts, Lheureux convinces Emma, who has power of attorney over Charles’s property, to sell him some of Charles’s father’s estate at a loss. He also talks her into borrowing more and more money. When Charles’s mother arrives to look over the accounts, Emma has Lheureux forge a bill for a smaller amount of money than she has actually borrowed. Nonetheless, the elder Madame Bovary burns Emma’s power of attorney. Charles, however, soon agrees to sign a new one.
Emma is obsessed with her time with Leon, and with experiencing every kind of romantic pleasure. When she stays overnight with Leon in Rouen without telling Charles, she makes her husband feel foolish for worrying about her. From that moment on, she goes to see Leon whenever she feels like it, and he starts to become annoyed by her demands on his time.
One day when Emma is scheduled to be in Rouen, Homais pays Leon a visit and monopolizes his time. Emma is left waiting in the hotel room and becomes hysterically angry, accusing Leon of preferring Homais’s company to hers. She returns home in a rage, beginning to convince herself that Leon is not the man she thought he was. Emma starts to act domineeringly toward Leon, who reacts with resentment.
A debt collector surprises Emma with a visit, and the sheriff serves a legal notice against her. She borrows more money from Lheureux and begins a desperate campaign to raise money to pay her debts, even pawning many objects from Charles’s house in Yonville. All the while, she continues to spend decadently during her time with Leon, forcing him to entertain her opulently and providing him the money to do so. He becomes sick of her petulant extravagance, and she becomes disgusted with his reticence. Each of them is bored with their affair. She begins cavorting with unsavory company, even accompanying some vulgar clerks to a disreputable restaurant after a masquerade ball.
When Emma returns to Yonville after the masquerade, a court order awaits her, demanding that she pay 8,000 francs or lose all her property. She again goes to Lheureux for help, but he refuses to loan her any more money, sending her away. Lheureux hopes to foreclose on Charles’s estate and everything the Bovarys own.
Officers come to the Bovarys’ house to inventory their belongings, which they intend to seize to pay Emma’s debts. They leave a guard behind; Emma hides him in the attic to keep the development secret from Charles. She schemes and plans to raise the 8,000 francs. The bankers in Rouen refuse to loan her the money, however, and Leon angrily refuses to steal the money from his employer. However, he does halfheartedly agree to try to raise the money from among his friends and bring it to her in Yonville. Upon her return home, Emma gives her very last five-franc piece to the blind beggar. She finds that a public notice has been posted in Yonville announcing the auction of the Bovarys’ belongings.
Emma goes to see the town lawyer, Guillaumin, who agrees to help her in return for sexual favors. Emma angrily refuses his offer and leaves. Charles has still not returned home and has no idea what is transpiring, but all the people of Yonville gossip and wonder what will happen. Two of the townswomen spy from an attic window as Emma goes to see Binet, the tax collector, in the attic where he is amusing himself by making napkin-rings on a lathe. They see Emma beg for more time to pay her taxes, then attempt to seduce Binet. When he rebuffs her, Emma decides to go to Rodolphe, hoping that what she believes is his love for her will enable her to get the money from him by offering herself in return.
Rodolphe is indeed aroused by the sight of Emma, but when he realizes the purpose of her visit, he becomes taciturn, and tells her he has no money available. Emma angrily leaves, realizing the full extent of her desperate situation. She goes to Homais’s apothecary shop, where she convinces Justin to let her into the cabinet where she knows the arsenic is kept. She eats a big handful of it straight from the bottle, then returns home, feeling at peace. Charles has learned about the auction and searches frantically for Emma. He finds her in bed, and she gives him a letter, ordering him not to open it until the next day.
At first, Emma feels nothing and imagines that she will just fall asleep and die. Then an inky taste fills her mouth, and she becomes violently ill, with a terrible pain in her stomach. Charles opens her letter and reads that she has poisoned herself. He and Homais desperately try to figure out what to do. Homais decides that they must analyze the poison and create an antidote. Emma is kind to Charles and little Berthe. Charles and Homais summon doctors from Rouen, including the famous doctor Larivière, but there is nothing to be done. The priest arrives to give her the sacrament. Charles weeps by Emma’s bedside, and Emma also weeps. The last sound she hears is that of the blind beggar singing underneath her window as she dies.
Charles is devastated by Emma’s death. He plans an extravagant funeral, with three coffins, and arranges for his wife to be buried in her wedding dress. Homais and Bournisien, the priest, come to watch over the body with Charles; they have an argument about the value of prayer and Charles rages against God. As Emma is being dressed for the funeral, a black liquid pours out of her mouth; later, Charles lifts her veil to look at her face, but utters a cry of horror. He asks Homais to cut away a lock of her hair, and Homais does so, leaving a bald patch in the midst of her hair.
Rouault, having received news that his daughter was ill, arrives in Yonville and discovers that Emma is dead. He attends the funeral along with Charles and the whole town, including Lheureux and Hippolyte, who wears his best false leg for the occasion. Justin does not attend, but visits Emma’s grave in the middle of the night to mourn privately.
One after another of Emma’s creditors contacts Charles, demanding payment of a staggering sum of money. Charles attempts to raise it, but learns that Emma has already collected all the money his patients owe him. He is forced to borrow more and more, and to sell articles from around the house. He continues to idealize his wife’s memory. When Leon is engaged to a well-bred young woman, Charles sends him a letter of congratulations, remarking that his wife would have been happy for him. Even when he encounters the letter from Rodolphe that Emma had left in the attic, he assumes that it refers to a platonic affection.
Charles lives alone with his wife’s memory. Even Homais becomes less intimate with him, in part because he is too busy waging a campaign to expel the blind beggar from the area. Homais is becoming an increasingly well-respected man who always keeps abreast of the latest developments in politics and medicine.
One day, Charles opens Emma’s desk and discovers her letters from Leon and Rodolphe. He is forced to confront the fact that Emma was unfaithful to him. He sinks into gloom and begins to keep even more to himself. He has been forced to sell nearly everything he owns in order to keep Emma’s creditors at bay, and his spirit is broken. One day, he goes to Rouen to sell his horse to raise more money, and he meets Rodolphe. They have a drink together. Rodolphe expresses feelings of guilt for his part in Charles’s ruin. Charles tells him that he knows the truth, but does not hold a grudge against Rodolphe. He blames fate for Emma’s behavior.
The next day, Charles dies in his garden. Everything he owned goes to the creditors, and Berthe is sent to live with his mother. When Charles’s mother dies, Berthe is dispatched to an impoverished aunt, and she is forced to work in a cotton mill. Homais, meanwhile, continues to thrive and is eventually awarded the Legion of Honor medal.