Madame Bovary begins when Charles Bovary is a young boy, unable to fit in at his new school and ridiculed by his new classmates. As a child, and later when he grows into a young man, Charles is mediocre and dull. He fails his first medical exam and only barely manages to become a second-rate country doctor. His mother marries him off to a widow who dies soon afterward, leaving Charles much less money than he expected.
Charles soon falls in love with Emma, the daughter of a patient, and the two decide to marry. After an elaborate wedding, they set up house in Tostes, where Charles has his practice. But marriage doesn’t live up to Emma’s romantic expectations. Ever since she lived in a convent as a young girl, she has dreamed of love and marriage as a solution to all her problems. After she attends an extravagant ball at the home of a wealthy nobleman, she begins to dream constantly of a more sophisticated life. She grows bored and depressed when she compares her fantasies to the humdrum reality of village life, and eventually her listlessness makes her ill. When Emma becomes pregnant, Charles decides to move to a different town in hopes of reviving her health.
In the new town of Yonville, the Bovarys meet Homais, the town pharmacist, a pompous windbag who loves to hear himself speak. Emma also meets Leon, a law clerk, who, like her, is bored with rural life and loves to escape through romantic novels. When Emma gives birth to her daughter Berthe, motherhood disappoints her—she had desired a son—and she continues to be despondent. Romantic feelings blossom between Emma and Leon. However, when Emma realizes that Leon loves her, she feels guilty and throws herself into the role of a dutiful wife. Leon grows tired of waiting and, believing that he can never possess Emma, departs to study law in Paris. His departure makes Emma miserable.
Soon, at an agricultural fair, a wealthy neighbor named Rodolphe, who is attracted by Emma’s beauty, declares his love to her. He seduces her, and they begin having a passionate affair. Emma is often indiscreet, and the townspeople all gossip about her. Charles, however, suspects nothing. His adoration for his wife and his stupidity combine to blind him to her indiscretions. His professional reputation, meanwhile, suffers a severe blow when he and Homais attempt an experimental surgical technique to treat a club-footed man named Hippolyte and end up having to call in another doctor to amputate the leg. Disgusted with her husband’s incompetence, Emma throws herself even more passionately into her affair with Rodolphe. She borrows money to buy him gifts and suggests that they run off together and take little Berthe with them. Soon enough, though, the jaded and worldly Rodolphe has grown bored of Emma’s demanding affections. Refusing to elope with her, he leaves her. Heartbroken, Emma grows desperately ill and nearly dies.
By the time Emma recovers, Charles is in financial trouble from having to borrow money to pay off Emma’s debts and to pay for her treatment. Still, he decides to take Emma to the opera in the nearby city of Rouen. There, they encounter Leon. This meeting rekindles the old romantic flame between Emma and Leon, and this time the two embark on a love affair. As Emma continues sneaking off to Rouen to meet Leon, she also grows deeper and deeper in debt to the moneylender Lheureux, who lends her more and more money at exaggerated interest rates. She grows increasingly careless in conducting her affair with Leon. As a result, on several occasions, her acquaintances nearly discover her infidelity.
Over time, Emma grows bored with Leon. Not knowing how to abandon him, she instead becomes increasingly demanding. Meanwhile, her debts mount daily. Eventually, Lheureux orders the seizure of Emma’s property to compensate for the debt she has accumulated. Terrified of Charles finding out, she frantically tries to raise the money that she needs, appealing to Leon and to all the town’s businessmen. Eventually, she even attempts to prostitute herself by offering to get back together with Rodolphe if he will give her the money she needs. He refuses, and, driven to despair, she commits suicide by eating arsenic. She dies in horrible agony.
For a while, Charles idealizes the memory of his wife. Eventually, though, he finds her letters from Rodolphe and Leon, and he is forced to confront the truth. He dies alone in his garden, and Berthe is sent off to work in a cotton mill.