My first impression of this book was that it was simply about a woman that was really bored and that Flaubert was a genius in that he was able to write such an enthralling book about such a dry topic - but the book goes a lot deeper than that, and to say that Emma's only flaw is that she is bored is to seriously undermine her character. It is not so much that Emma is bored (though in reality she is) it is just that she has such a desire to live life that when she married Charles, the local doctor, she simply did not know what she was getting into.
Now, before I go further into this book I should mention that Flaubert is a meticulous writer. He does not simply write a book, he actually paints a detailed picture using words. It is not only a shame that the version that I read was a translation, but that I am unable (at this time at least) to be able to read the book in its original language (being French). Being a painter and being an artistic author are two different things though because it is said that Flaubert would work each and every individual page of this story to make sure, at least to him, that it was perfect (and I can be a bit like that as well, though not so much with my commentaries, which generally come straight out of my head and into the computer), it makes Flaubert and artist in his own right.
Now, the problem with Emma is not simply that she was bored, but that she wanted so much more, but in wanting more she constantly made the wrong mistakes. She married Charles because he was a doctor, not because he was Charles, and when she discovered that the Charles whom she married was an unromantic and unambitious man, she quickly became bored. However, we also notice, particularly with the party that she went to, that she was enamoured with the high life, to the point that at one time she measured her days from the day she went to that particular party.
It was the fact that she married Charles for the belief that marrying a doctor would bring her glamour that was her major mistake. Pretty much everything else in the book, including the fact that she not only destroys herself, but she destroys Charles and her daughter as well, stems from this. This is the tragedy of the whole story, and it is a tragedy in the true sense of the word because we can see that the story is going to end badly and that every decision Emma makes moves the story to that rather disturbing ending.
There are two major things that come out of this: Emma's adultery and her addiction to credit. Somebody has moaned about why books that deal with adultery always end badly, and my response to that is because it is dealing with adultery. I could ask you to name a book where the protagonist of the story is a serial killer and he gets away with it, but then all you have to do is point to American Psycho, however the point of that book is not so much about the fact that the serial killer gets away with it, but rather the contradictions of the American dream (and there is a pretty big debate as to whether he actually is a serial killer, or whether it is all in his head).
The thing is that adultery is not good. Now I am not talking about anything consensual here (though marriages, or even relationships, working on such a consensual basis generally do not end happily ever after anyway) but I am talking about simply cheating on the person with whom you have taken a marriage vowel. I am not singling out any particular sex here because it works for both males and females in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. You make a vowel to each other that you will remain faithful to each other until death do you part, and thus by committing adultery you are basically breaking that vowel. The idea behind adultery is not sexual but rather the issue of being an oath breaker, which is why the Bible frowns on it so heavily (and you will probably find that a lot of religions and other cultures frown on it just as much, and even our secular society doesn't look too kindly on it either – at least if you get caught).
As for Emma, she was seduced. Not unwittingly, but willingly. She wanted more to her life than this boring doctor, so at first she flirts with Leon the lawyer, and then with the other guy who, out of the blue, packs up and leaves town without telling her. That was always his attention because he is what we would call these days a swinger. As for Leon, the guy simply became, as the book says, Emma's mistress. This was not the male dominating and seducing the female, this was the other way around, and when Emma really got into trouble she would hound and harrass him.
As for her real trouble: that was her debt. On top of her adultery she was also lured into living the lifestyle that she wanted that was far beyond her means, and she ended up having to pay off the debt with more debt, and continuing on down in that horrid spiral. Okay, in the days of Madame Bovary, lending was done more through loan sharks than through the Bank of America, but the effect was still the same. It was living beyond one's means and borrowing from the future to finance the present. However, when the future catches up with you you discover that not only that there is nothing left, but those that you love have been sold into slavery.