The novel’s protagonist, the Madame Bovary of the title. A country girl educated in a convent and married to Charles Bovary at a young age, she harbors idealistic romantic illusions, covets sophistication, sensuality, and passion, and lapses into fits of extreme boredom and depression when her life fails to match the sentimental novels she treasures. She has a daughter, Berthe, but lacks maternal instincts and is often annoyed with the child. Occasionally, guilt or a memory of her simple childhood causes her to repent, and she becomes devoutly religious and dedicates herself to her husband and child. Such fits of conscience are short-lived. Emma’s desire for passion and pleasure leads her into extramarital affairs with Rodolphe and Leon. In addition, she runs up enormous debts against her husband’s property and commits suicide when she realizes she will be unable to repay them.
A country doctor, kind, but simple, dull, and unremarkable. Charles is a terrible doctor who manages simple cases decently but is incapable of performing difficult operations. For example, when he tries to operate on Hippolyte’s leg, it develops gangrene and has to be removed. Charles dotes on his wife, Emma, who can do no wrong in his eyes. Only his mother holds as much sway over him as his wife, and even she loses control over him after his marriage. Despite his deep love for Emma, he doesn’t understand her. Her looks and dress captivate him, but he remains oblivious to her personality. His adoration of her often leads him to act with baffling innocence. He fails to detect her extramarital affairs with Rodolphe and Leon, which are so poorly concealed that they become the subjects of town gossip. When Emma begins to run up debts, he grants her power of attorney over all his property, an act that leads to his financial ruin. After Emma’s suicide, he learns of her infidelities and, soon after, dies a broken man.
The apothecary at Yonville; a pompous, self-impressed man of the bourgeois class who helps Charles become established as a doctor in the town. Homais is superficial and obnoxious. He loves to hear himself talk, and his lengthy commentaries are filled with clichés. His pomposity can cause real harm, as when he encourages Charles to operate on Hippolyte to disastrous effect. An irreligious man, Homais often argues with Bournisien, the town priest, claiming that religion and prayer are useless. Homais is the perfect embodiment of all the bourgeois values and characteristics that so disgust Flaubert and bore his heroine, Emma.
Emma’s friend in Yonville, who later becomes her lover. When Leon is a law clerk in Yonville, he shares many of Emma’s romantic preconceptions and her love for sentimental novels. He falls in love with her but moves away to Paris to study law, partly because he considers their love impossible as long as she remains married. When Emma meets him later in Rouen, his time in the city has made him more sure of himself. He now perceives Emma to be unsophisticated and thinks he can win her love. Although Emma believes him to be cosmopolitan, Flaubert presents him as awkward and full of himself. Drawn to his newfound urban sophistication, Emma begins an affair with him. At first, they succeed in living up to one another’s romantic ideals. However, as the affair progresses, Emma and Leon grow increasingly bored and disgusted with one another. He cannot help her when she is in monetary distress and makes excuses for failing to help her financially. Leon marries shortly after Emma’s death.
Emma’s first lover, a wealthy landowner with an estate near Yonville. Rodolphe is shrewd, selfish, and manipulative. He has had scores of lovers and believes Emma to be no more sincere than any of them. He plots his seduction of Emma with strategic precision, begins an affair with her, and then abandons her when he becomes bored of her romantic fancies and emotional demands.
A sly, sinister merchant and moneylender in Yonville who leads Emma into debt, financial ruin, and eventually suicide by playing on her weakness for luxury and extravagance. Lheureux is a bit of a devil figure who tempts people with luxuries they can’t afford and knows just when to appear with his requests for money and promises of more loans.
The town priest in Yonville, Bournisien tends to focus more on worldly matters than on spiritual ones. He often argues with Homais about the value of religion, but seems incapable of grasping deep spiritual problems.
The crippled servant at the inn in Yonville. Under pressure from Emma and Homais, Charles attempts to operate on Hippolyte’s club foot. The operation fails, gangrene sets in, and Hippolyte loses his leg.
Charles and Emma’s daughter, who is condemned to a life of poverty by her mother’s financial excesses and her parents’ deaths.
The tax collector in Yonville. Binet takes his meals regularly at the Lion d’Or inn. He is quiet, and amuses himself by making napkin rings on the lathe in his attic.
Leon’s first employer, the well-to-do lawyer in Yonville. When Emma seeks his help with her financial hardship, he offers his assistance in return for sexual favors—an offer she angrily declines.
Emma’s father, a simple, essentially kindly farmer with a weakness for drink. He is devoted both to Emma and to the memory of his first wife, whom he loved deeply.
An esteemed doctor from Rouen who is called in after Emma takes arsenic at the end of the novel. He is coldly analytical and condescending to his inferiors, but he is brilliant and competent, and he feels a real sympathy for his patients.
A bitter, conservative woman who spoiled her son Charles as a youth and disapproves of his marriage to Emma. She sees through Emma’s lies and tries to get Charles to rein in his wife’s excessive spending, but she rarely succeeds.
Homais’s assistant. Justin is young, impressionable, and simple. He falls terribly in love with Emma and unwittingly gives her access to the arsenic that she uses to commit suicide.
Charles’s first wife. She realizes that Charles is enamored with Emma. Soon after having this realization, she dies from the shock of having all her property stolen by her lawyer.