We meet Charles, then Emma and, soon enough, we see them set up their first household in Tostes. Everything may seem peachy from the outside, but we can sense trouble coming. Charles is all like, "Whoohoo! Marriage is awesome!" while Emma’s feelings are more along the lines of "Meh." This is never a good sign for a relationship.
Uh oh. Just as we’d feared, Emma is not going to give in and settle with her small-town life – at least, not without a fight. She’s encouraged by a visit to the palatial home of the Comte d’Andervilliers, where she learns that some people do live the opulent life she dreams of.
With the appearance of an eligible, romantic, adequately handsome young man, Emma suddenly has something to be excited about. We’ve already seen how easily encouraged she is – and this new development leads her to believe that her fantasy life is actually closer than she’d previously thought. She ponders taking action, like running away with Léon, but doesn’t actually do anything about it.
Léon is out of the picture, but Rodolphe shows up soon enough – and it doesn’t take him long to convince Emma to become his mistress. This is an important tipping-point; after she gives in to Rodolphe’s advances, Emma’s character changes. Instead of just wishing that things would happen, she begins to make them happen, by whatever means possible.
After their awkward reunion at the opera, Emma and Léon finally get their feelings out in the open. Emma, whose tendency towards recklessness we already witnessed in her affair with Rodolphe, becomes truly foolhardy, taking risks that make our blood pressure rise. Her lack of caution is notable, not only in her relationship with Léon, but in her financial decisions. The novel is clearly building to some kind of fever pitch here.
That fever pitch we mentioned? This is it. Everything in Emma’s life comes crashing down around her when Monsieur Lheureux sends a collection agency after her. Her shock and desperation mount as she attempts to find the payback money – suddenly, all the mistakes she made earlier are back with a vengeance. Instead of everything working out, as it usually does in a novel’s denouement, all of Emma’s problems present themselves with renewed strength.
You can’t get any more conclusive than this resolution: practically everyone is dead. Though it’s final, it’s certainly not clear-cut; though Emma dies due to her own foolish actions, we don’t necessarily condemn her, and even though Charles’s neglect of Berthe verges on criminal, we don’t judge him, either. Righteous morality would have been the easy way out for this novel – but Flaubert doesn’t take that route. Instead, he allows us, the readers, to see the impact that the actions of a single person can have on the lives of others, and make our own decisions about it.