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Emma Bovary is a romantic who exists in a dream world and longs to escape her middle-class, dull lifestyle. Throughout life, she has difficulty sticking with anything. As a youth, she spends times in a convent and at first dedicates herself to the study of religion. It is in the convent that she becomes enamored with the sensual and sentimental; but her dedication to a religious lifestyle quickly wanes. She returns to her father's farm to manage his affairs; she tires of farm life just as quickly. She marries Charles Bovary because she was bored with life on the farm. She soon finds her husband coarse and boring and wants more out of life than he can offer her.
Rodolphe is the first man that Emma actively seeks in Yonville. This charming, young bachelor is impressed with Emma's beauty and independence and offers her some excitement. With Rodolphe, Emma experiences the thrill of pure physical passion, but she longs for more. She tries to talk Rodolphe into running away with her. This desire may appear frivolous, but it is grounded in Emma's acute need for security. It is indeed ironic that every resource she depends on for emotional sustenance crumbles. When Rodolphe backs out of the affair, Emma is devastated. When she recovers from her depression, she becomes more reckless than ever. She borrows endlessly and Lheureux obliges, knowing fully well how to get his money back. She perfects her schemes and constantly has her way. She then attempts to dominate Leon, her second lover. Although he resents this, he is enraptured by her seductive prowess. When Emma's demands reach the financial dimension and she requests that he steal from his employer to help her, Leon breaks away from the relationship.
Realizing too late that Leon does not really love her, Emma visits Rodolphe. She wants to renew her relationship with him so that she will be able to settle her dues with Lheureux. In a way, she is prostituting herself. When Rodolphe denies her the money, her embittered heart can hold out no longer. She criticizes him for having used her. Financial devastation, combined with this second betrayal by Rodolphe, leaves Emma with only one option: death.
In choosing suicide, she displays her usual romantic shortsightedness. She assumes that death will gently overcome her in sleep after she has consumed arsenic. Instead, the process turns out to be drawn out and extremely painful for Emma and for her family.
Emma's attempt at reconciliation with God, as symbolized by her passionately kissing the crucifix, demonstrates that even in her dying moments, the sensualist in her is dominant. This has been her constant approach to life and religion. Throughout life, Emma gave herself to that which brought her pleasure. Deprived at the end of every source of pleasure, she sees no reason to live. Her character attains immortality because of its depiction as a fallible and vulnerable creature. Like the ordinary person, she is of common stock and desires more than what life offers her. This wish to change one's place in life is a common human tendency and a frequent theme in literature.
Charles is a perfect contrast to Emma. His manners are simple and coarse, typical of a country doctor. He has no real talent or ambition and is content to enjoy the simple things that life has to offer. The first time the reader encounters him, only one positive quality shines through: he is sincere and hard working. His first marriage to an older woman, arranged by his dominating mother, is one of convenience and does not last long due to her death. He marries Emma because he loves her dearly. In fact, he remains faithful to his wife until her death and beyond.
Charles is not an assertive person, so he is easily led by others. His mother, his first wife, and Emma all dominate him. In spite of her many demands, Charles is devoted to Emma and nurses her through every illness. To satisfy her, he even decides to try the club foot cure on Hippolyte. When the operation fails, Emma turns against Charles again to seek excitement outside the marriage. Naturally naïve and trusting, Charles sees nothing wrong in Emma's 'friendships' with Leon and Rodolphe. He even encourages her to go riding with Rodolphe to improve her health.
As a parent, Charles is more attentive to his daughter than Emma is. At Berthe's birth, Charles' joy is complete. He nurtures fond dreams about his daughter's future and his happy family life with Emma. With his wife's death, his financial ruin, and his discovery of Emma's love letters to Leon and Rodolphe, Charles realizes how black a future he has in front of him. He cannot tolerate the thought and soon dies a broken man.
All his life, Charles had been an undemanding, unimpressive, and unnoticed middle-class man. His death is handled in a most appropriate manner, for he dies quietly in the garden and is found by Berthe. There is hardly a soul to mourn his loss. Through Charles' pathetic existence, Flaubert brings to the fore the absolute banality of provincial life.
Leon is Emma's first 'distraction' after marriage. As the young- man-next-door, he appears to be shy, well mannered, and well liked by all in Yonville. He helps Homais' in the chemist shop and helps his wife with childcare and errands. When Emma talks to him, she learns that he shares her passion for reading and possesses a romantic, sentimental view of things like she. Emma's sophistication attracts Leon, just as his sensitivity draws her. Their relationship does not blossom at this the first stage, for Leon leaves for Paris to study law.
When they meet again, both Leon and Emma have vast experience behind them. Emma has had a disappointing affair with Rodolphe, and Leon has lived in the sophisticated capital city of Paris. Leon has overcome his past shyness and this time openly tells Emma of his attraction to her. Since Emma desires a lover again, an affair quickly develops. Their union is consummated in the cab after the visit to the Rouen Cathedral.
Leon, unlike Rodolphe, cannot dominate Emma. She is the one who controls the relationship. After awhile, Leon senses that he has lost his freedom to her and attempts to break away. Emma senses this distancing on Leon's part and wonders why everything she touches seems to decay. When Emma comes to him and begs for financial help to get her out of debt, Leon closes the relationship. He is apparently even unaware of Emma's death. The last time the reader hears of Leon is when Charles receives the announcement of his marriage.