Emma Bovary (boh-vah-REE), a sentimental young woman whose foolishly romantic ideas on life and love cause her to become dissatisfied with her humdrum husband and the circumstances of her married life. Her feelings of disillusionment lead her first into two desperate, hopeless love affairs and then to an agonizing and ugly death from arsenic poisoning. Filled with fiery, indefinite conceptions of love, which she is capable of translating only into gaudy bourgeois displays of materialism, she is unable to reconcile herself to a life of tedium as the wife of a country doctor. In her attempt to escape into a more exciting world of passion and dream, she drifts into shabby, sordid affairs with Rodolphe Bourlanger and Léon Dupuis. The first of these lovers, an older man, dominates the affair; the second, inexperienced and young, is dominated. Because Emma brings to both of these affairs little more than an insubstantial and frantic desire to escape her dull husband and the monotony of her life, the eventual collapse of her romantic dreams, the folly of her passionate surrender to passion and intrigue, and her death, brought on by false, empty pride, are inevitable.
Charles Bovary (shahrl), Emma’s well-meaning but docile and mediocre medical husband. An unimaginative clod without intelligence or insight, he is unable to understand, console, or satisfy the terrible needs of his wife. Every move he makes to become a more important figure in her sight is frustrated by his inadequacy as a lover and a doctor, for he is as much a failure in his practice as he is in his relations with Emma. Her suicide leaves him grief-stricken and financially ruined as the result of her extravagance. Soon after her death, he discovers in the secret drawer of her desk the love letters sent her by Rodolphe and Léon, and he learns of her infidelity for the first time. When he dies, the sum of twelve francs and seventy-five centimes is his only legacy to his small daughter.
Rodolphe Bourlanger (roh-DOHLF bewr-lahn-ZHAY), Emma Bovary’s first lover. A well-to-do bachelor and the owner of the Château La Huchette, he is a shrewd, suave, and brittle man with considerable knowledge of women and a taste for intrigue. Sensing the relationship between Emma and her husband, he makes friends with the Bovarys, sends them gifts of venison and fowls, and invites them to the chateau. On the pretext of concern for Emma’s health, he suggests that they go riding together. He finds Emma so easy a conquest that after a short time he begins to neglect her, partly out of boredom, partly because he cannot see in himself the Byronic image Emma has created in her imagination; she never sees Rodolphe as the loutish, vulgar man he is. After he writes her a letter of farewell, on the pretext that he is going on a long journey, Emma suffers a serious attack of brain fever.
Léon Dupuis (lay-OH[N] dew-PWEE), a young law clerk infatuated by Emma Bovary but without the courage to declare himself or to possess her. With him, she indulges herself in a progressively lascivious manner in her attempt to capture the excitement and passion of the romantic love she desires. Léon, because he lacks depth and maturity, merely intensifies Emma’s growing estrangement from her everyday world. When Léon, who never realizes the encouragement Emma offers him, goes off to continue his studies in Paris, she is filled with rage, hate, and unfulfilled desire, and a short time later she turns to Rodolphe Bourlanger. After that affair, she meets Léon once more in Rouen, and they become lovers. Oppressed by debts, living only for sensation, and realizing that she is pulling Léon down to her own degraded level, Emma ends the affair by committing suicide.
Monsieur Lheureux (lewr-REH), an unscrupulous, corrupt draper and moneylender who makes Emma the victim of his unsavory business deals by driving her deeper and deeper into debt. Her inability to repay the exorbitant loans he has made her in secret forces the issue of suicide upon her as her only escape from her baseless world.
Monsieur Homais (oh-MAY), a chemist, presented in a masterpiece of ironic characterization. A speaker in clichés, the possessor of a wholly trite “Scientific Outlook” on society, he regards himself as a modern man and a thinker. His pomposity and astoundingly superficial ideals become one of the remarkable facets of the novel, as Flaubert sketches the hypocrisy and mediocrity of Charles Bovary’s friend. Homais epitomizes the small-town promoter, raconteur, and self-styled liberal.
Hippolyte Tautain (ee-poh-LEET toh-TEH[N]), a mentally retarded, clubfooted boy operated on by Charles Bovary at the insistence of M. Homais, who wishes to bring greater glory to the region by proving the merits of a new surgical device. Bovary’s crude handling of the operation and the malpractice involved in the use of the device cause the boy to lose his leg. The episode provides Flaubert with an excellent commentary on both Homais and Bovary.
Théodore Rouault (tay-oh-DOHR rew-AHL), Emma Bovary’s father, a farmer. Charles Bovary first meets Emma when he is summoned to set Rouault’s broken leg.
Berthe Bovary (behrt), the neglected young daughter of Emma and Charles Bovary. Orphaned and left without an inheritance, she is sent to live with her father’s mother. When that woman dies, the child is turned over to the care of an aunt, who puts her to work in a cotton-spinning factory.
Captain Binet (bee-NAY), the tax collector in the town of Yonville-l’Abbaye.
Justin (zhews-TA[N]), the assistant in the shop of Mr. Homais. Emma persuades her young admirer to admit her to the room where poisons are kept. There, before horrified Justin can stop her, she secures a quantity of arsenic and eats it.
Madame Veuve Lefrançois
Madame Veuve Lefrançois (vehv leh-frah[n]-SWAH), the proprietress of the inn in Yonville-l’Abbaye. Hippolyte Tautain is the hostler at her establishment.
Félicité (fay-lee-see-TAY), the Bovarys’ maid.
Héloise Bovary (ayl-WAHZ), Charles Bovary’s first wife, a woman much older than he, who had deceived the Bovarys as to the amount of property she owned. Her death following a severe hemorrhage frees Charles from his nagging, domineering wife, and soon afterward he marries young Emma Rouault.