Madame Bovary is a study of human stupidity and the "romantic malady," the despair and unhappiness faced by those who are unwilling or unable to resolve the conflicts between their dreams and idealized aspirations and the real world; in modern terms, one might say it is a study of a neurosis. Furthermore, it examines middle-class conventions and the myth of progress, exposing weaknesses and hypocrisies, and it deals with the inability of the different characters to communicate with each other. In all of these aspects, this novel is as pertinent today as when it was written. The costumes and settings may change, but people do not, and human problems remain the same. As a matter of fact, some critics have pointed out the close relationship between Emma Bovary and the heroine of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, for provincial life is the same everywhere, and these two women, despite their differences, are afflicted by many similar problems and frustrations.
Flaubert's characters are all ordinary people and are very much like ourselves and our neighbors. Nothing about them is romanticized or exalted, so that it is possible for the reader to see himself in a new and harsher light, and he cannot avoid sympathetic identification with them. The people of Madame Bovary are limited intellectually and culturally; they are sometimes sincere and well-intentioned, sometimes petty and vulgar, sometimes pathetic and confused, and sometimes unaware of the most obvious things or unable to take the most obvious action. They are so true to life that there are readers who resent the novel because they resent the uncomplimentary view that they are forced to take of themselves.