During her honeymoon, Emma is disappointed to be in a simple town rather than a romantic chalet in Switzerland. Emma thinks Charles is dull. She cannot understand his simple happiness, and she begins to resent his complacent behavior. Unknowing of Emma's despondency, Charles continues to love his new wife, and he believes he has truly found happiness.
Charles's mother visits their new home, and she and Emma immediately butt heads. Charles's mother resents the fact that he loves Emma, feeling jealous of her son's new wife. After her visit, Emma re-evaluates her approach and tries to fall in love with Charles, but she cannot do more than play the role of a happy wife; she cannot force happiness. Unable to access the passion she believed she would encounter in marriage, Emma wonders if she has made a serious mistake.
The Marquis d'Andervilliers, a patient of Charles, invites the couple to a ball at his mansion. Emma grows obsessed with the concept of the ball and with the luxury and wealth that she will witness. She imagines that the Marquis lives a perfect, ideal existence, and she dreams of living a similar life.
The ball lives up to Emma's expectations. She is amazed by the Marquis's wealth and by the opulence and luxury of the ball. While she is ecstatic to be a part of this luxurious event, Emma is embarrassed by Charles. In her eyes, her husband is clumsy and unsophisticated in comparison with the noblemen and cultured women who attend the event. At one point, Emma sees a servant open a window to cool the ballroom, and she catches a glimpse of peasants watching the ball. In seeing the peasants, Emma is reminded of the farm and the reality of her unsophisticated upbringing and current life. Later, Emma dances with the viscount and imagines the alternate parallel lives she might have led--filled with luxury, passion, and the fineness of expensive things. As Emma and Charles travel home, the viscount passes them, dropping a cigar box, which Emma keeps to remember the night and remind her of how happy she felt. After returning from the high of the ball, Emma grows despondent, depressed, and angry, now that she is back in Tostes with Charles and her dreary life.
Emma has grown obsessed with the concept of the luxurious life she believes she was meant to have. She begins to spend much of her time fantasizing about a better life. She reads innumerable ladies' magazines and obsesses over the viscount's cigar box. She also treats Charles with anger and contempt, because she largely blames him for the limits on her life. Emma obsesses so greatly over her unhappiness that she becomes physically ill.
Charles becomes very concerned about Emma's health and believes a move to another town will allow her a chance to heal. He decides that they will move to Yonville, a town that conveniently is in need of a doctor. Just before they make the move, Emma finds out that she is pregnant, and she is quite displeased. In a fit of anger and frustration at the simplicity of her life, Emma throws her dried bridal bouquet into the fire and watches it burn as she packs and prepares for the move.
The novel's perspective has now shifted almost totally to Emma's point of view. Thus, Charles's lack of refined manners and simple ways, evident before, are magnified now. Since Emma is very concerned about herself, her daily routine is painstakingly described. Since the routine is so simple compared to the viscount's, it is easy to see why Emma persuades herself that she should be thoroughly bored. Moreover, as Flaubert gives more and more attention to Emma's boredom, the novel generates a sense of realism. In this respect, the reader is free from the bounds of Emma's idealistic perspective, able to look sadly upon Emma's deteriorating mental condition.
The basic conflict in Emma's life is that she is entirely unsatisfied with her life and motivated to lead a better life, but she cannot create the ideal perfection she imagines. Emma's definition of happiness is, after all, inaccessible. She has always imagined a life of luxury and passion, but she is married to a simple, dull, middle-class farmer. Since she refuses to accept her situation, Emma grows increasingly restless and unhappy. Her obsession eventually leads to physical illness.
Flaubert's description of the viscount's ball and Emma's intense, dreamlike bliss during the event provides a perfect contrast with Emma's true life with its dull lack of luxury. Ironically, although Emma is intensely happy at the ball, she fails to realize that no one really notices her. Her brief, relationally meaningless dance with the viscount becomes a fantastically romantic interlude. Long after the ball is over, Emma holds fast to her memories of it as though her life depends on it, while she grows more and more resentful of her husband. Emma feels so bad about her situation that she makes herself sick with anger, frustration, and unhappiness. When Emma throws her bridal wreath into the fire, she symbolically is totally rejecting her marriage and the middle-class existence that she believes has prevented her from living the ideal life.
Finally, in this section, Flaubert examines Emma's past, which is just as simple and meager as Charles's. While at the ball, she remembers her life on the farm. Here Flaubert seems to be suggesting that a person like Emma, though she may desperately try, will never escape her humble beginnings.