This is a book about the middle class: none of its characters are either poverty-stricken or fantastically hoity-toity. Even Rodolphe, the richest character, is not exactly an aristocrat. Instead, he is simply a well-to-do guy, who still has bourgeois sensibilities. Flaubert is careful to show us all elements of the middle-class condition; we have Homais, who strives to rise above his class; Charles, who’s content with what he has; Emma, who longs to be a great lady; and Léon, who’s discontented but inactive. In showing us the troubles of the bourgeoisie, Flaubert paints a portrait of a very specific class at a very specific time in history.
Flaubert takes us straight into the minds of our characters, revealing everything they think and feel to us. This is our best resource for getting to know them; he’s unflinching and direct in showing us their deepest desires. We also hear a lot of opinions from characters like Homais and Father Bournisien. Rather than learning anything from the words spewing from Homais’s mouth (most of which are kind of nonsense anyway), we learn a lot about his personality from the arrogant way in which he holds forth.
Actions do indeed speak louder than words here. We see characters say one thing and do another over and over again, thus betraying their real personalities. The first example that springs to mind is Homais’s abandonment of Emma’s deathbed; he chooses to take the doctors to lunch at his house to try and curry favor with them, instead of staying with his supposed friend, Charles, in his moment of need. We might also look to Rodolphe, who keeps reassuring Emma that he will run away with her, but actually balks at the last minute, and instead runs away by himself. We can only judge the characters by what they do, rather than what they say.
Many of the names in Madame Bovary comment aptly upon the nature of the characters. "Bovary," for example, is a play on "bovine," or cow-like. That is indeed what Charles is – he’s a placid herd animal, who’s always willing to go along with the status quo. Notably, Rodolphe comments on how everyone calls Emma by that name, but it’s not hers. Monsieur Homais’s name also offers some commentary upon him; it sounds unmistakably like the French words "homme, mais," which translate to "a man, but…" Homais is exactly that; he’s certainly a real guy, but he also has some startlingly inhuman traits. Finally, Lheureux, or "l’heureux," means "happy man" in French, which is just what the money-lending merchant is – his gazillions of francs give him joy, despite the sorrow he causes.