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.
Throughout the novel, Emma undergoes ethical development cyclically. She tends to switch from romantic indulgence to dissatisfaction, misery, and illness to moral resolve, and then begins the cycle again with a new romantic indulgence. This cycle is evident in her relationship with Rodolphe. After Rodolphe cuts off their affair, she becomes religious. Her insincere piety gives way to romantic yearnings, and when she meets Leon at the opera, she is ready to renew their fledgling romance. This cycle, however, cannot last forever, and when she receives Rodolphe’s letter, her suicidal thoughts darkly foreshadow her future. Another element of foreshadowing in this scene is never fully realized, however. Emma discards Rodolphe’s note carelessly unconcealed in the attic, but trustworthy Charles never suspects her infidelities, and, even when he later finds the note, he naively reckons it refers to platonic friendship.
Although this emotional cycle may seem like a reason to condemn Emma, her heartbreak and subsequent illness are in some ways a product of the society in which she lives. Rodolphe himself blames the end of their affair on “fate,” but Rodolphe does have control over the end of the love affair. As a wealthy man, he has much more power than Emma. As a woman with no way to support herself, Emma can’t gain freedom by leaving Charles, nor does she have the means to pursue Rodolphe. Furthermore, Rodolphe’s life of ease, combined with his status as a man, allows him great sexual liberty. He has had so many lovers that he is detached and cold. As a result, he can abandon Emma with no great feelings of regret.