Charles Bovary is a doofus coerced by his mother into being a doctor. He has no aspirations of his own, struggles through medical school by sheer force of will, muddles his way into a position as a country doctor, takes an older wife. One lucky night he is called to treat the broken leg of a local farmer, discovers the farmer's daughter Emma with her deep dark eyes that beguile everyone. The older wife dies (hmm, convenient. no whiff of murder though), and after an acceptable period, Charles marries Emma, taking her back to his provincial home where she begins to spend money to fill the gap in her soul she thought love would blossom in post-wedding.
She begins to loathe Charles, his muddy boots, his slurping of soup, his dull conversation, and finds solace in romance novels, plays. She badgers him to move to a bigger town, which they do, and she meets Leon, who proceeds to silently woo her and falls deeply for her but moves away before anything happens. After moving to the new town, she has a baby girl. She then meets the wealthy Rodolphe, who openly woos her and decides to take her as a mistress. Succumbing to this, she begins the first of her two adulteries. She also begins to borrow money to cover extravagant purchases, including a travel trunk and cloak which she plans to use on her journey toward freedom with Rodolphe. On the eve of their departure, R dismisses her, leaves her in the lurch.
The debts mount, Leon returns into her life, eventually things spiral out of control with an 8000 franc debt (nearly insurmountable) that she begs everyone for money to pay. Emma sneaks into the druggist's shop, shovels handfuls of poison into her mouth, sits back and awaits death. Charles is beside himself, cannot prevent the inevitable. She dies, he mourns, the daughter is in rags. Charles discovers the letters to Rodolphe, dies sitting in a chair in the garden. The daughter is reduced to poverty and living with Charles' mother.
Emma is a strong character, bemoaning the lot of women's role in life, dreaming and yearning for riches and romance. However, this is not the work of "perfect fiction" that Henry James claims.
Translated by Eleanor Marx-Aveling (daughter of Karl Marx)