Charles Bovary is a pretty dull guy. He has an average career, no ambition, and has already been through an unhappy marriage of convenience to a harpy-like widow. With wife # 1 out of the way, however, he’s free to marry again – and soon enough, he finds a gorgeous, exciting girl named Emma Rouault.
Emma, a convent-educated farm girl with a head full of romantic fantasies and ideals, is willing to do anything to get off her father’s farm, so she and Charles end up married in short order. The couple moves first to a tiny town called Tostes, where Charles, a kind of low-grade doctor, sets up a medical practice. Soon enough, though, Emma is bored, sick of Charles, and incredibly depressed.
The couple attends a ball given by a local aristocrat; there, Emma gets a glimpse of the opulent lifestyle she longs for. Her depression worsens after this life-changing event, and the young couple moves to a slightly larger town, Yonville-l’Abbaye, in an attempt to make her feel better.
Emma, who is pregnant during the move, is slightly soothed by her friendship with another young person, Léon Dupuis, a clerk in Yonville. Léon lives with the family of Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacist. Monsieur Homais also quickly befriends the Bovarys for his own reasons.
After Emma has her baby, Berthe, she and Léon grow even closer. Slowly, they both realize that they’re in love – but they’re both too shy to do anything about it. Léon moves away to Paris to study, and Emma, left alone, falls back into a slump.
However, her unhappiness doesn’t last too long this time – she quickly meets another handsome bachelor, Rodolphe Boulanger. He’s quite a womanizer, and he decides to take Emma as his mistress. It doesn’t take much convincing to win her over, and Emma quickly succumbs to the temptations of adultery.
Emma starts taking out huge loans from a local merchant, and quickly slides into debt. However, she doesn’t care; all that matters to her is Rodolphe. They have a tumultuous relationship for two years, but it eventually comes to a dramatic stop. Rodolphe is bored with Emma, and he abandons her just as they’re supposed to run away together. He goes the super-wussy route of writing her a break-up letter, and doesn’t even deliver it himself.
This devastates Emma. She goes into shock and her health declines rapidly. Charles doesn’t know what to do; mostly, he just prescribes odd and useless medications. The Bovary family’s finances get even worse, and Charles is forced to take out additional loans. Emma slowly starts to recover. As a treat, Monsieur Homais suggests that Charles take the little lady to the opera in Rouen, the nearest city. It turns out to be a fateful trip.
At the theatre, Charles and Emma happen to run into Léon, who has finished law school and moved to Rouen. He’s become more worldly and is no longer afraid of Emma. They fling themselves into a passionate affair. She grows craftier and craftier, and figures out different schemes to visit the city to see her lover.
However, after a while, even this affair starts to peter out. Emma’s money troubles get worse and worse, as does her relationship with Léon. One day when she returns to Yonville, she discovers that she owes an incredibly huge sum of money, and can’t possibly pay it back. Disaster!
Emma rushes around, attempting to borrow cash from everyone she knows. The answer everywhere is "no." She tries Léon, to no avail; she even goes back to Rodolphe to ask him to take her back (and pay off her debt), but has no luck with anyone. Desperate, afraid to tell Charles, and completely hopeless, Emma gives in to her despair and poisons herself by taking arsenic. She dies a truly gruesome death, as her friends and family look on in horror.
After Emma’s death, things go even more downhill for Charles and little Berthe. They’re totally broke. And their finances are made even worse by the fact that Charles, who’s still in love with his dead wife despite the proof of her adultery, refuses to sell any of Emma’s extravagant possessions. He dies, poverty-stricken and lonely. Berthe is sent to live with her grandmother, who then dies as well. The young girl finally ends up living with a poor aunt, working as a child laborer in a cotton mill.
Ironically, the only character to achieve a happy ending is the determined, obnoxious, over-ambitious, and undeserving apothecary, Monsieur Homais.