Emma is introduced as a country girl who catches the eye of the town doctor, Charles Bovary. When she was young, she was sent to be educated in a convent after her mother died. Everything she learns about life and love comes from reading novels, and leads her to harbor unrealistic expectations that lead to dissatisfaction. By turns bored, depressed, and infatuated, she never seems to be able to face the realities of her life. She finds motherhood and marriage to be disillusioning, and embarks on a number of disappointing affairs. Emma's inability to face reality causes her to fall into a deep, secretive debt, which leads to her suicide when forced to confront it.
The novel follows Charles from his childhood to his death, and documents his placid, kind, but naïve character. He does not have any great ambitions, but he is devoted to his wife, Emma—though he does not seem to understand or realize the depths of her unhappiness in their marriage. He is naïve about her affairs and accrual of debt, and dies grief-stricken and destitute after he discovers her love letters from other men.
Homais is one of the first neighbors in Yonville that Emma and Charles meet, and he quickly embeds himself in their lives, though he is most impressed by himself. His encouragement of Charles is usually self-serving, in the hopes that he can ride his coattails and become famous. In many ways he represents the self-serving middle class that Flaubert despised. He considers himself a man of science and reason; often arguing with anyone who will listen that religion is useless. Despite his shortcomings, the novel ends with his winning the Legion of Honor.
Léon, a law clerk, is immediately smitten with Emma upon their first meeting. They share a mutual interest in romance and similar feelings of boredom. Though they do not act on their feelings at first, they are later reunited in Rouen and consummate their affair. But soon reality sets in, and neither can live up to the ideals they first saw in each other.
Rodolphe, a wealthy estate owner, boldly seduces Emma in a way that Léon could not. He tells Emma what she wants to hear in order to have her. He does not love Emma but pretends that he does so he can get what he wants. Once he grows weary of her sentimentality, he dumps her. When she returns to beg him for money, he refuses to help her.
Monsieur Lheureux plays an insidious role in Emma's life and death—he manipulates her naiveté about money into a growing pile of debt with him, to the point at which Emma cannot figure out where all her money has gone.