Charles Bovary is a struggling doctor who marries a rich and unpleasant widow, Héloïse Dubuc, his mother has chosen for him.
Charles visits a local farm to help a farmer with a broken leg. Here he meets his daughter, Emma Rouault. He is instantly infatuated with her and visits them way more often than he should. That is, until Héloïse gets jealous and puts a stop to these visits. After Héloïse unexpectedly dies, Charles waits a certain amount of time before asking Emma's father for consent to marry. He says yes and Charles and Emma Marry.
After Emma and Charles marry, they move to Yonville where Emma soon has a daughter. Emma finds motherhood and her marriage dull and listless. She then meets Leon Dupuis, an intelligent, young law student. Emma ignores her liking toward Leon, while hiding her hatred for Charles. Leon soon goes to study in Paris after despair of gaining Emma's affection.
Sometime after Leon, Emma and Rodolphe Boulanger, a rich landowner, begin an affair after he invites her to go riding with him. He does this under the guise that it is for her health, unbeknownst to Charles. After four years, she insists they run away together, but last minute, Rodolphe backs out. This makes Emma fall deathly ill and turn to religion.
After Emma is almost fully recovered, Charles insists that they go to the opera. This reawakens Emma's passions and is where she re-encounters Leon. They begin an affair and hide it by faking Emma going to piano lessons. They both soon grow bored of each other, so Emma turns to purchasing luxury goods made on credit which puts her into massive debt.
After she is called to pay her debt, Emma begs several people, including Leon and Rodolphe, for money. They refuse her, so in despair, she swallows arsenic and kills herself. Charles loses himself to grief, so he quits working and starts selling his posessions to live, while the rest of his things are taken to pay off the debts caused by Emma. After finding Leon's and Rodolphe's love letters, he breaks down for good and dies. Berthe, their daughter, is sent to live with a grandmother, who soon dies. She is then sent to an aunt who sends her to work in a cotton factory.