Unsurprisingly, Rodolphe plans to abandon Emma on the day they are scheduled to elope. Although he finds her extremely attractive and enjoys the sexual pleasure of their relationship, he has no desire to tie himself dow. Besides, he has grown annoyed by her increasing romanticism, and he thinks it best to cut ties. As he thinks about how to break the news to her, Rodolphe remembers his many former mistresses and goes through a collection of tokens from each woman. Finally, Rodolphe decides to write Emma a letter to explain his decision. Even in the letter, Rodolphe is dishonest, claiming that because he loves her so intently, he cannot continue their relationship because he knows he will only cause her pain. Although it is a complete falsity, Rodolphe believes this excuse will satisfy Emma and her romantic notions. Rodolphe has the letter delivered to Emma hidden in a basket of apricots, a common method of correspondence between the couple.
Meanwhile, Emma has spent the day preparing for her eventual departure and is extremely excited by what her future might hold. When she receives the basket of apricots, she immediately searches for the letter and hurries to the attic to read it. Upon discovering that Rodolphe has abandoned her, she is simultaneously unbelieving and devastated. She almost jumps out of the attic window. Charles calls her, distracting her from her suicidal thoughts. Before going down to meet him, she drops the letter and then cannot find it. (The letter will remain hidden in its resting place for many years.) In the evening, Charles eats Rodolphe's apricots, unknowing (as usual) of the meaning behind them. When Emma sees Rodolphe's carriage heading out of town, she faints.
Emma is overcome with sadness and again falls into an illness after exclaiming that she wishes to see no one, not even her daughter. Emma suffers from a very high fever and is close to death for the next six weeks. Charles does not seem to be able to help her. He calls in doctors from neighboring regions, but none can cure her. When October arrives, Emma finally begins to recover.
Charles is extremely concerned about Emma's health, and his finances are in a very poor state as well. The doctors he calls in to try to heal Emma are very expensive, and Lheureux sends bills for Emma's excessive debts. With no other choice, Charles also borrows money from Lheureux, at a very high interest rate.
As Emma begins to recover, she believes she has had a religious awakening. She throws herself into the devout Catholicism of her childhood, praying constantly and forcing herself to behave kindly to her husband and child. Yet, following her usual pattern, Emma soon grows frustrated with this approach. Finding a lack of the desired ecstasy of religion, Emma recognizes that her kind of Catholicism cannot replace the feelings she had for Rodolphe and the happiness she felt when they were together. Despite her disappointment, Emma continues her religious behavior and is purposely kind to the people around her. In this kindness, Emma develops new friendships with people she had previously almost ignored. She grows to know Justin much better--over time, he has fallen deeply in love with her. Binet, the tax collector begins to make frequent social visits, as does Homais, who suggests Charles take Emma to Rouen to see an opera in order to lift her spirits.
Upon this suggestion, the priest and pharmacist argue over the morality of theater. The priest claims it is against religion, while Homais defends the art form. Eventually, believing he will be assisting his wife in overcoming her extreme illness, Charles decides to take her to see the opera, despite its cost.
In Rouen, Emma is eager to immerse herself in the sophistication of the city and the opera, and she is of course embarrassed by Charles's simple country ways. Despite her embarrassment, Emma greatly enjoys the opera and is caught up in its drama, romance, and beauty. During the intermission, Emma hears that Leon is in the audience and is shocked. Soon, Leon finds Charles and Emma and the three decide to skip the second half of the performance and go to a nearby cafÃ©. Emma is quite excited by this turn of events, and she is impressed by Leon's Parisian-influenced sophistication. At first, Leon makes fun of the opera, but when Charles mentions that Emma should stay in the city to see the second act, Leon immediately begins to sing its praises, claiming that the second half is the artistic triumph of the opera and cannot be missed. It is decided that Charles will return to Yonville and Emma will stay in Rouen overnight in order to see the second half of the performance the following day.
Emma's character is consistent in that she retains her romantic spirit and continues to feel trapped in a life she does not enjoy. Therefore, she is repeatedly creating romantic illusions and obsessing over ways to improve her life. She throws herself into the affair with Rodolphe with great force, but Rodolphe ends the relationship, which sparks suicidal thoughts (thoughts which foretell Emma's future).
Upon receiving Rodolphe's letter, Emma stays in character. She falls into a deep illness and lies on the brink of death before rediscovering her religion and attempting to discover happiness through devout Catholicism. Ultimately, religion does not please her either, and she yearns again for romance, love, and true ecstasy. Thus, when she meets Leon at the opera, Emma is quite ready to begin a new affair. Her cyclical lifestyle continues as she continues to switch between extreme unhappiness, embarrassment at her behavior, attempts at improvement, and romantic indulgence.
When Emma loses Rodolphe's letter in the attic, we might assume that Charles will eventually discover it and learn of her infidelities. But when he does find the letter, much later in the novel, he assumes that she and Rodolphe simply had a platonic relationship.
Emma's failures to improve her life have multiple causes. Clearly, she refuses to live the life she has been given or assumes she is supposed to have as a woman in her town. Thus she rejects those who she believes are holding her back as she strives for something better, although we must wonder if she could be content with any actual level of opulence for very long. At the same time, Emma is not the only source of blame. In truth, Emma's society is restricting indeed, despite the fact that most women seem to be content in it. And although Rodolphe blames the end of their affair on "fate," he is the one who chose to begin the relationship, he chose to continue it, and he chose to end it. Given her weak character, Emma's decisions were not thoughtful, and in that sense they were not her own; she had very little influence on the course of the relationship, and ultimately she was cast aside.
Although she is unhappy in her marriage, Emma cannot leave Charles without being able to rely on another source of financial support. Rodolphe's ending the affair leaves Emma with no other options, for now, and she is forced to return to Charles. It is thus convenient that she decides to try returning to the role of devoted wife and mother. Meanwhile, Rodolphe moves on, most likely to begin another affair. He leaves Emma behind without feeling very much regret or concern for her happiness.
In composing the scene in which Rodolphe writes to Emma, Flaubert capitalizes on Rodolphe's power of manipulation and Emma's gullible romanticism. The letter includes absurdly romantic sentiments with many exclamation points and forced elements of drama. Recalling the earlier prize for the best manure, Flaubert again emphasizes Rodolphe's insincerity by narrating Rodolphe's careful construction of the piece. Thus, when Rodolphe writes "fate is to blame!" he congratulates himself for his choice of phrase, thinking, "that's a word [i.e., fate] that always helps." This view behind the writer's craft makes it clear that Rodolphe's letter is completely dishonest and a final act of manipulation.
Whenever an author shows someone else composing a written document, readers should consider whether the author is making a statement about his own craft. We must wonder to what degree Flaubert sees his own novel as a falsehood rather than an expression of truths about people like Rodolphe, Charles, and Emma. Flaubert's work is even more carefully crafted than Rodolphe's letter, but his motive is not to manipulate the reader, is it?