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Emma Bovary, the wife of Charles and mother of Berthe, is the protagonist of the novel. She has adulterous affairs with Rodolphe and Leon. In order to maintain a luxurious life-style with her lovers, she falls deep into debt and cannot repay the amount in time. To escape social disgrace, she swallows arsenic and dies. Her life is one of exuberant romanticism curbed by the grind of reality.
Emma's antagonist is herself, especially her indulgence in romanticism that blinds her morally and mentally. Her romantic fervor does not allow her to see through a calculating Rodolphe, a shrewd Lheureux, or a weak Leon.
(Lheureux's villainy also qualifies him as a minor antagonist to Emma. Additionally, Rodolphe and Leon at times exhibit antagonistic characteristics towards Emma. All three of them, however, play upon her romantic nature.)
Despite the novel being structured in three sections, with the middle section being the longest, the single climactic event that brings about the final tragedy is the royal notice served on Emma to pay the sum total of three-hundred and twenty francs or be deprived of all her material possessions. This notice causes Emma to panic. She offers to compromise herself to Rodolphe and even begs the help of Monsieur Guillaumin. Another event that reaches climactic proportions is Rodolphe's letter to Emma, in which he informs her that he is leaving La Huchette. Her desire to commit suicide at that point foreshadows the final outcome.
Undoubtedly, the Bovarys story is one of tragedy; the novel closes with Emma's suicide, followed by Charles' death, and their daughter's destitution. The triumphs of Homais and Lheureux, who profit from the misfortunes of others, lend a tone of pessimism to the book.