Flaubert, Gustave

views updated May 14 2018

Gustave Flaubert

BORN: 1821, Rouen, France

DIED: 1880, Croisset, France


GENRE: Fiction, drama

Madame Bovary (1857)
Salammbô (1863)
Sentimental Education (1870)


The most influential French novelist of the nineteenth century, Flaubert is remembered primarily for the stylistic precision and dispassionate rendering of psychological detail found in his masterpiece, Madame Bovary (1857). Although his strict objectivity is often associated with the realist and naturalist movements, he objected to this classification, and his artistry indeed defies such easy categorization. Flaubert struggled throughout his career to overcome a romantic tendency toward fantastic imaginings and love of the exotic past. A meticulous craftsman, he aimed to achieve a prose style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.”

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Tumultuous Century in French History France during the nineteenth century was a place of frequent political turmoil and intrigue. The monarchy had only recently been removed from power during the French Revolution, in the final years of the eighteenth century. A republic was established in its place, though the country eventually came under the control of military leader Napoléon Bonaparte, who declared himself emperor and whose tyrannical and imperialist rule was in many ways not unlike the monarchy that had recently been deposed. After Napoléon was removed from power in 1815, an official monarchy was established once again, though the royal family's power was no longer absolute. This resulted in a period of relative peace during the 1830s and 1840s; however, the dissatisfaction of the working class—who for the most part were not able to vote, since they did not own property—erupted in 1848 with another revolution. Once again the vacuum of power left in the newly established republic led to a single leader with extensive powers, and once again his name was Napoléon: Louis Napoléon, nephew of the former emperor. He ruled from 1852 until 1870, when he was removed from power and yet another republic—known as the Third Republic—was established. These tumultuous times inevitably informed Flaubert's writing, most notably in his last novel, Sentimental Education (1870).

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France, where his father was chief surgeon and clinical professor at the city hospital, the Hôtel Dieu, and his mother was a well-known woman from a provincial bourgeois (middle-class) family. Flaubert lived with his parents, brother Achille, and sister Caroline in an apartment at the hospital. As a youth he attended the College Royal de Rouen, traveled with his family throughout France, and spent summer vacations at Trouville. It was in Trouville that he first met Maria-Elisa Schlesinger, a married woman for whom he harbored a lifelong infatuation and who deeply influenced the character and direction of Sentimental Education. Although Flaubert was interested in literature and began to write at an early age, upon receiving his baccalaureate he honored his parents' wishes and reluctantly began law school in Paris. In 1844 his studies were disrupted when he experienced the first attack of what is now believed to have been epilepsy. As a result, he abandoned his plans for a law career and devoted himself to writing. Both his father and sister died in 1846, and the author, his mother, and his infant niece moved to the family home at Croisset, near Rouen. Except for several trips abroad and to Paris, including one to that city in 1848 to observe the February Revolution “from the point of view of art,” Flaubert remained at Croisset until his death.

Madame Bovary Often described as a satire on romantic beliefs and the provincial bourgeoisie, Madame Bovary relates the story of Emma Bovary, a bored housewife whose dreams of romantic love, primarily gathered from popular novels, are unfulfilled by her marriage to a simple country doctor. She attempts to realize her fantasies through love affairs with a local landowner and a law clerk, and later through extravagant purchases. Unable to pay her debts and unwilling to bear her disgrace or conform to bourgeois values, she commits suicide. This novel, Flaubert's first to be published despite years of writing and several completed manuscripts, initially appeared in installments in La Revue de Paris. Although serious critics immediately recognized in Madame Bovary a work of immense significance, the French government censored publication of the Revue. Flaubert, his printer, and his publisher were tried together for blasphemy and offending public morals. All were eventually acquitted, and both Flaubert and Madame Bovary acquired a certain notoriety. Flaubert came to resent the fame of Madame Bovary, which completely overshadowed his later works, saying he wished to buy all the copies, “throw them into the fire and never hear of the book again.”

Later Work After Madame Bovary, Flaubert sought a new subject that would be far from the bourgeois provincial setting over which he had labored so long. Once again turning to the past, he traveled to Carthage to gather material for Salammbô (1863), a historical novel whose exotic subject matter and opulent setting are reminiscent of the romantic tradition but whose descriptive technique is rigorously objective. In 1859, well into the writing of Salammbô, he wrote to Ernest Feydeau: “The deeper I plunge into antiquity, the more I feel the need to do something modern, and inside my head I'm cooking up a whole crew of characters.” Commentators agree that this “crew of characters” ultimately became the cast of Sentimental Education. Although not as well known or as widely read as Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education is currently regarded as one of his greatest achievements, both for its commentary on French life in the nineteenth century and for what it reveals, through its autobiographical content, about one of the greatest writers of France.

Flaubert was burdened in his last years by financial difficulties and personal sorrow resulting from the deaths of his mother and several close friends. He was also saddened by the feeling that his works were generally misunderstood. He enjoyed close friendships with many prominent contemporaries, however, including George Sand, Ivan Turgenev, Henry James, and Guy de Maupassant, the latter serving as his literary apprentice. A complex personality, obsessed with his art, Flaubert is perhaps best understood through his voluminous Correspondence (published 1894–1899). In these candid and spontaneous letters, Flaubert chronicles his developing literary philosophy and the meticulous research and writing of his works.

Works in Literary Context

Flaubert's name has long been linked to realism, and Madame Bovary has long figured as a sacred text of literary “mimesis” (the representation of reality). Flau-bert's lesser-known The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1895) uses autobiography as both theme and inspiration to tell the story of a fourth-century Christian hermit. The novel revisits other common Flaubertian themes, including destruction and creation.

Realism The earliest recorded use of the term realism came in a Parisian periodical of 1826. Having defined it as a “literary doctrine … that would lead to the imitation not of artistic masterpieces but of the originals that nature offers us,” the journalist added that realism “might well emerge … as the literature of the nineteenth century, the literature of truth.” Realism was not to achieve wide currency until the 1850s, however, and then it would be used in conjunction with a certain style in painting, in particular the paintings of Gustave Courbet. Realism was rarely used without the epithet sordid or vulgar. Despite the fact that Flaubert refused to think of himself as a realist, his name has been long associated with realism. In fact, Madame Bovary figures often as its canonical text. In fact, Flaubert's descriptions in this novel were considered so grotesquely realistic that the government charged both the author and the publisher with immorality (though both parties were acquitted).

Flaubert believed writers must write about observed, actual facts, which relates to the devotion to science indicative of this period. In this sense, he was very much a realist. He wished the writer to be, like the scientist, objective, impartial, and impersonal. Flaubert was also a Platonist who believed in the Socratic dictum that the True, the Beautiful, and the Good are one. He was convinced that if the writer presented the true through the beautiful, his work would also be morally good.

Social Criticism Although Flaubert sought to depict objective reality in his works, themes of social criticism are apparent as well, with a clear reflection of specific attitudes regarding social class. In Madame Bovary, the ambition and vanity of Emma Bovary leads her to live beyond her means; many see this as a condemnation of the bourgeois middle class of the period, many of whom envied the life of aristocrats but still had to work for a living. Likewise, ambition becomes the downfall of Emma's husband, Charles, who is a doctor. He is convinced by a colleague to attempt a risky and unnecessary surgery that could possibly expand his reputation; the surgery is disastrous, however, and the patient loses a leg. Flaubert also depicts the complicity of merchants and moneylenders in creating an atmosphere of unhappiness through the character of Monsieur Lheureux. He convinces Emma to buy unnecessary goods on credit, which leads to a destructive cycle of debt from which she never escapes.


Flaubert's famous contemporaries include:

Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893): Flaubert's protégé, Maupassant is considered one of the first, and greatest, modern short-story writers. His stories often feature intricate and clever plot twists and sudden, unexpected endings.

Harriet Tubman (1821–1913): African American abolitionist and Union spy during the United States Civil War; Tubman rescued more than seventy slaves using a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. In the postwar era, Tubman struggled for women's suffrage.

Émile Zola (1840–1902): Zola is remembered as both an important naturalist writer and a leader in radical French politics. In 1898 Zola came to the defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer who had been railroaded partly on anti-Semitic grounds; Zola's essay “j'accuse” (“I accuse”)—for which he was brought up on libel charges—remains one of the best examples of political agitation against institutionalized oppression.

William Henry Vanderbilt (1821–1885): American businessman, philanthropist, and wealthy son of Cornelius Vanderbilt. During his life, Vanderbilt was the richest man in the world as no living person, even the world's richest royalty, approached him in wealth at the time of his death.

Ivan Turgenev (1818–1883): In contrast to his contemporaries and fellow novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Turgenev lobbied for increased westernization of Russia. His views put him at odds with many of his countrymen, and he spent much time abroad, forging a close friendship with Flaubert during his time in Paris.

Victor Hugo (1802–1885): A leader of the French Romantic movement, Hugo was also a poet, playwright, politician, and essayist. He is best remembered today for his novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

Autobiography The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a difficult work to describe. It could be called a philosophical prose poem or a dramatic narration and dialogue. Flaubert's identification with Anthony is at the heart of this strange work. There can be little doubt that this is a portrait of the artist himself, of an obstinate artist who resisted all self-doubt and every temptation in order to remain faithful to his self-imposed mission to his text. It also reflects the fear of decadence that haunted the nineteenth century. This was the legacy of the historical relativism of the Enlightenment related to the comparative study of religions in Flaubert's day.

Works in Critical Context

Although some critics fault his pessimism, cold impersonality, and ruthless objectivity, it is universally acknowledged that Flaubert developed, through painstaking attention to detail and constant revision, an exquisite prose style that has served as a model for innumerable writers. Today, commentators consistently acknowledge Flaubert's contribution to the development of the novel, lauding Madame Bovary as one of the most important forces in creating the modern novel as a conscious art form. Recognized for its objective characterization, irony, narrative technique, and use of imagery and symbolism, Madame Bovary is almost universally hailed as Flaubert's masterpiece.

Madame Bovary Perhaps because of the notoriety that Madame Bovary earned upon its serial publication in 1856, the book enjoyed popular success. Its charms were not entirely lost on reviewers, either, with many popular figures—including Charles Baudelaire—commenting positively about the work. Critic Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve, writing in Causeries du Lundi, stated, “Madame Bovary is first and foremost a book, a carefully composed book, amply premeditated and totally coherent, in which nothing is left to chance and in which the author or, better, the painter does exactly what he intends to do from beginning to end.” An unsigned essayist from the Atlantic Monthly, writing in 1891—several years after the first English translations of the novel had appeared—contended, “The truth of Madame Bovary has stamped its impress deeply into literature, and the word ‘realism’ would have to be widely diverted from its simple and spontaneous meaning to exclude such a work from its category.” Harry Thurston Peck, in an 1895 essay for Bookman, offered this evaluation: “The vividness and truth of its every character, the compact and muscular form in which it is cast, the absolute perfection of its style, all raised it to the rank of a classic from the moment of its completion.” Critical opinion of the novel has only improved in the decades that followed, and it is widely recognized as one of the greatest novels ever written. Michael Dirda, in a 2004 review for the Washington Post, called the book “the most controlled and beautifully articulated formal masterpiece in the history of fiction,” and further stated that “if you've never read it, or if you've only worked through it in first-year college French, you need to sit down with this book as soon as possible. This is one of the summits of prose art, and not to know such a masterpiece is to live a diminished life.”

Nearly fifty American editions have been issued, while there have been more than a dozen different translations into English. T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound all found in Flaubert a master from whom a lesson in writing could be learned. Pound unabashedly proposed Flaubert to his compatriots as an example to be appreciated and followed: “America needs a Flaubert to generalize and register the national folly without a tender hand.” Joyce is said to have read everything by Flaubert that was in print and to have learned whole pages by heart.


Flaubert is perhaps the most well-known realist author, but he was hardly the only writer to produce classic works in that genre. Some others are:

Germinal (1885), a novel by Émile Zola. A writer of the naturalist school, which followed directly and built upon the tropes of realism, Zola's meticulous approach to his research and writing put even Flaubert to shame. In this, his thirteenth novel and widely acknowledged masterpiece, Zola tells the story of a French miners' strike in unrelentingly harsh and realistic terms.

Adam Bede (1859), a novel by George Eliot. The pen name of Mary Ann Evans, who used a male name to make sure her books would not be dismissed out of hand, Eliot was one of the most successful realist writers of the nineteenth century. This, her first published novel, tells a story of accusations of child murder set in a small rural village.

War and Peace (1869), a novel by Leo Tolstoy. Perhaps the best-known novel of all time, Tolstoy's first great masterpiece, which traces the fortunes of five Russian families during the Napoleonic wars, is also considered by some to be the pinnacle of realist literature.

“The Necklace” (1884), a short story by Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant was a protégé of Flaubert and took the latter's novelistic techniques and refined them to masterly usage in the short-story format. In this, the most well-known of his short stories, the author weaves a tale of middle-class aspirations and lost dreams and ends with one of his trademark twist endings.

Sentimental Education Flaubert encountered more critical woes with the publication of his novel Sentimental Education. During the writing process, he was tormented by doubts about the book. While he intended to sketch bourgeois characters, he scorned the bourgeoisie and feared his readers would too. He also doubted his ability to depict the characters effectively. Flaubert's many misgivings about Sentimental Education were realized immediately after the work's publication. Critics derided the book: They accused him, as they had with Madame Bovary, of baseness and vulgarity; questioned his morality; attacked the novel's descriptive passages as tedious and redundant; deplored the absence of a strong hero; labeled the narrative awkward and disjointed; resented Flaubert's exposure of illusions held dear about the political events of 1848; and even claimed that

Flaubert had lost forever what literary skills he may have once possessed. The reviews were so negative, in fact, that Flaubert suspected he was the victim of a plot to defame him. Yet modern scholars generally agree that the explanation is much simpler: Most readers were not ready for what appeared to them to be a novel in which subject, plot, and character were merely background features, and few could easily bear its despairing tone and bleak atmosphere.

Responses to Literature

  1. Gustave Flaubert has been called the master of “Art for Art's Sake.” Research the literary school of realism and the idea of “art for art's sake” and discuss Flaubert's work in those terms.
  2. Flaubert, it is said, was attempting to write realistically, to report what he saw, and to write with the beautiful precision of the language of science. Discuss how a work of literature can be said to resemble, in style, tone, rhythm, or diction, a piece of music or a work of science.
  3. Read Madame Bovary and discuss the various parallels between that novel and the short story “A Simple Heart.” In particular, examine the similarities and differences in the worldviews expressed in the two works.
  4. Discuss the reaction to Madame Bovary at the time of its publication and how critical opinion has changed over time. What does this tell you about the changes in society from the time of its publication onward?
  5. Investigate the lives of the French middle class during the nineteenth century. How strict was their class system? What moral standards did they follow?



Berg, William J., Michel Grimaud, and Georges Moskos. Saint/Oedipus: Psychocritical Approaches to Flaubert's Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 119: Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800–1860. Edited by Catharine Savage Brosman. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Ginsburg, Michal Peled. Flaubert Writing: A Study in Narrative Strategies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Green, Anne. Flaubert and the Historical Novel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Haig, Stirling. Flaubert and the Gift of Speech: Dialogue and Discourse in Four “Modern” Novels. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Knight, Diana. Flaubert's Characters: The Language of Illusion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

“Madame Bovary.” In Novels for Students, edited by Jennifer Smith. Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

“Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 185. Edited by Russel Whitaker and Kathy D. Darrow, 162–315. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007.

Porter, Laurence M., ed. Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

“A Simple Heart.” In Short Stories for Students. Vol. 6. Ed. Tim Akers. Detroit: Gale, 1999.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert the Master: A Critical and Biographical Study (1856–1880). New York: Atheneum, 1971.


Dirda, Michael. Review of Madame Bovary. Washington Post, August 29, 2004: BW15.

Web sites

The Complete Review. “Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.” Retrieved August 6, 2008, from http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/flaubert/mbovary.htm. Last updated November 20, 2005.

Flaubert, Gustave

views updated May 29 2018


Nationality: French. Born: Rouen, 12 December 1821. Education: Collège Royal de Rouen, 1831-39 (expelled); baccalauréat, 1840; studied law at École de Droit, Paris, 1841-45. Career: Suffered a seizure in 1844 that left him in poor health. Lived with his family at Croisset, near Rouen after 1845 until his death (spent winters in Paris after 1856). Visited Egypt and the Near East, 1849-51. Publication of Madame Bovary in 1857 led to unsuccessful prosecution for indecency. Returned to North Africa, 1858; state pension, 1879. Award: Chevalier, Legion of Honor, 1866. Died: 8 May 1880.



Oeuvres complètes (includes correspondence). 35 vols., 1926-54.

Complete Works. 10 vols., 1926.

Oeuvres, edited by A. Thibaudet and R. Dumesnil. 2 vols., 1946-48.

Oeuvres complètes, edited by Bernard Masson. 1964.

Oeuvres complètes, edited by M. Bardèche. 16 vols., 1971-76.

Short Stories

Trois contes (includes "Un coeur simple", "La Légend de Saint Julien l'hospitalier", "Hérodias"). 1877; edited by S. de Sasy, 1973; as Three Tales (includes "A Simple Heart", "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller," and "Herodias"), 1903.


Madame Bovary. 1857; translated as Madame Bovary, 1881; numerous subsequent translations.

Salammbô. 1862; edited by P. Moreau, 1970; translated as Salammbô, 1886; numerous subsequent translations.

L'Education sentimentale. 1869; edited by C. Gothot-Mersch, 1985; as Sentimental Education, 1896; numerous subsequent translations.

La Tentation de Saint Antoine. 1874; edited by C. Gothot-Mersch, 1983; as The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895; numerous subsequent translations.

Bouvard et Pécuchet. 1881; edited by Alberto Cento, 1964; and by C. Gothot-Mersch, 1979; as Bouvard and Pecuchet, 1896; reprinted in part as Dictionnaire des idées reçues, edited by Lea Caminiti, 1966; as A Dictionary of Platitudes, edited by E.J. Fluck, 1954; as The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954.

Le première Education sentimentale. 1963; as The First Sentimental Education, 1972.


Le Candidat (produced 1874). 1874.

Le Château des coeurs, with Louis Bouilhet and Charles d'Osmoy (produced 1874). In Oeuvres complètes, 1910.


Par les champs et par les grèves. 1886.

Mémoires d'un fou. 1901.

Souvenirs, notes, et pensées intimes, edited by L. Chevally-Sabatier. 1965; and by J.P. Germain, 1987; as Intimate Notebook 1840-1841, edited by Francis Steegmuller, 1967.

November, edited by Francis Steegmuller. 1966.

Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour, edited by FrancisSteegmuller. 1972; as Voyage en Egypte: octobre 1849-juillet 1850, edited by Catherine Meyer, 1986.

Correspondance, edited by Jean Bruneau. 3 vols., 1973-91.

Letters, edited by Francis Steegmuller. 2 vols., 1980-82.

Correspondance, with George Sand, edited by Alphonse Jacobs.1981; as Flaubert-Sand: The Correspondence, 1993.

Flaubert and Turgenev: A Friendship in Letters: The Complete Correspondence, edited by Barbara Beaumont. 1985.

Carnets de travail, edited by Pierre-Marc de Biasi. 1988.

Flaubert-Ivan Turgenev: Correspondance, edited by AlexandreZviguilsky, 1989.

Cahier intime de jeunesse: souvenirs, notes et pensees intimes, edited by J.P. Germain. 1987.

Early Writings, edited by Robert Berry Griffin. 1992.

Editor, Dernières chansons, by Louis Bouilhet. 1872.


Critical Studies:

Flaubert and Madame Bovary by Francis Steegmuller, 1947; Flaubert and the Art of Realism by Anthony Thorlby, 1956; On Reading Flaubert by Margaret G. Tillett, 1961; Flaubert: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Raymond D. Giraud, 1964; The Novels of Flaubert by Victor Brombert, 1966; Madame Bovary and the Critics edited by Benjamin F. Bart, 1966, Flaubert, 1967, and The Legendary Sources of Flaubert's Saint Julian, 1977, both by Bart; Flaubert by Stratton Buck, 1966; Flaubert by Enid Starkie, 2 vols., 1967-71; The Greatness of Flaubert by Maurice Nadeau, 1972; The Dossier of Flaubert's Un coeur simple by George A. Willenbrink, 1976; Flaubert and Henry James: A Study in Contrasts by David Gervais, 1978; A Concordance to Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet by Charles Carlut, 1980; Sartre and Flaubert by Hazel E. Barnes, 1981; The Family Idiot: Flaubert 1821-1857 by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Carol Cosman, 1981—; Flaubert and the Historical Novel by Anne Green, 1982; Saint/Oedipus: Psychocritical Approaches to Flaubert's Art by William J. Berg, 1982; Towards the Real Flaubert: A Study of Madame Bovary by Margaret Lowe, 1984; Flaubert and the Gift of Speech: Dialogue and Drama in Four Modern Novels, 1986, and The Madame Bovary Blues: The Pursuit of Illusion in Nineteenth Century French Fiction, 1987, both by Stirling Haig; The Hidden Life at Its Source: A Study of Flaubert's L'Education sentimentale by D.A. Williams, 1988; Flaubert: A Biography by Herbert Lottman, 1989; Flaubert by David Roe, 1989; Madame Bovary by Rosemary Lloyd, 1989; Flaubert, Trois contes by A.W. Raitt, 1991; Flaubert's Straight and Suspect Saints: The Unity of Trios Contes by Aimée Israel-Pelletier, 1991; Madame Bovary by Stephen Heath, 1992; Flaubert by Henri Troyat, translated by Joan Pinkham, 1992; The Script of Decadence: Essays on the Fictions of Flaubert and the Poetics of Romanticism by Eugenio Donato, 1993; The Script of Decadence: Essays on the Fictions of Flaubert and the Poetics of Romanticism by Eugenio Donato, 1993; The Dream Machine: Avian Imagery in Madame Bovary by Paul Andrew Tipper, 1994; Where Flaubert Lies: Chronology, Mythology and History by Claire Addison, 1996; Culture and the Literary Text: The Case of Flaubert's Madame Bovary by Anna V. Lambros, 1996; Description and Meaning in Three Novels by Gustave Flaubert by Carrada Biazzo Curry, 1997; Searching for Emma: Gustave Flaubert and Madame Bovary by Dacia Maraini, 1998; The King and the Adultress: A Psychoanalytical and Literary Reinterpretation of Madame Bovary and King Lear by Roberto Speziale-Bagliacca, 1998.

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Gustave Flaubert is often, and with good reason, called "the founder of the modern novel," in recognition of his development of a whole new aesthetic of prose fiction, widely accepted by his successors, to the elaboration of which he seems to have single-mindedly devoted his entire career. One does not, therefore, easily or often think of Flaubert as a significant contributor to the evolution of the modern short story. After all, he published only one thin volume of three short stories, seemingly a temporary respite in a career so insistently devoted to the novel. To the literary historian, Flaubert is primarily, and quite properly, a novelist and a theorist of the novel.

Interestingly enough, in all Flaubert's writing about the theory of fiction—most of which is in his voluminous correspondence—he never once says anything to differentiate the novel from the short story. Even while he was composing the three tales that made up the thin volume he published in 1877, under the title Trois contes (Three Tales), he freely discusses, with his various correspondents, the difficulties he was experiencing with these compositions, but nowhere does he attribute these difficulties to the particular form he was using. One might legitimately conclude, indeed, that Flaubert was not conscious of any difference between the novel and the short story, or did not believe in any such difference. His own words suggest that, in his mind, the theory of fiction is applicable to all narrative prose, regardless of length.

Nevertheless, it is hard to sustain the argument that Flaubert did not distinguish, in practice at least, between a novel and a short story. He made a conscious choice of the form, after all, when he started to write "The Legend of Saint Julian, Hospitaller," the first of his Three Tales, in the autumn of 1875, and even the most superficial of analyses will reveal that, in the writing, he made frequent—and surely conscious—concessions to the need for brevity and compression. An indicative detail is the frequency with which he uses the dramatic device of the pungent, isolated, one-sentence paragraph throughout these three stories, compared to their relative rarity in the novels, where they are reserved for the pithy summation of only the most significant developments. An additional observation one might make is that there are very few, if any, really long paragraphs (running more than one full page, for example) in the short stories, whereas they are plentiful in the novels. There are ample signs, in short, that a principle of economy is operative in the short stories, but not in the novels. Flaubert may not have theorized about such matters, but, perhaps as a matter of artistic instinct, he certainly did not write a short story in exactly the same way as he did a novel.

It is certainly true that Flaubert invented no new techniques for the short story, and developed no new concept of what a short story should be; but he fully respected what his predecessors in the short story had achieved (he was not only aware of the work of Mérimée and Balzac, but also of that of the greatest Russians, thanks to this close friend, Turgenev), and that enabled him to give to his Three Tales a kind of classic perfection that made them an influential landmark in the history of the short story, even though they were in no obvious way innovative. All three stories, for example, strictly observe the short story principles first illustrated by Mérimée a half-century earlier, that an artistic tale must have a strong unity of focus, and a firmly disciplined, digression-free narrative style. Other signs of Flaubert's tight artistic control are: the sharply limited cast of characters in each story, the intense focus on a single individual at the story's center, and a powerfully concentrated and concise ending that encapsulates the full meaning the story is meant to convey. More specifically Flaubertian traits, rather than requirements of short story tradition, are the deliberate absence of overt narratorial interventions, the pronounced rhythm and euphoniousness of the sentences, and the detailed accuracy and vividness of all physical descriptions, making the prose exceptionally visual and even pictorial for the reader.

Many critics have been pleased to find a coherent unity in Three Tales, such as one rarely sees in a collection of separate stories, and especially in a collection where each tale is set in a different time and in a different cultural environment, as is the case with Flaubert's little volume. The dominant unity the critics find in Three Tales is the theme of sainthood: a Biblical saint in the form of the menacingly prophetic John the Baptist, a medieval saint in the form of the deeply troubled Hospitaller, St. Julian, and a modern saint in the improbable form of the simple, but utterly selfless, servant Félicité. This portrait gallery of saints makes the whole volume, Three Tales, as much a work of art as is each tale taken separately, and constitutes one more reason for the wide influence this slender volume has had, as a model of excellence, on the evolution of the modern short story.

It remains a puzzle to this day why Flaubert, the dedicated novelist, should suddenly have interrupted a novel in progress late in his life and written three short stories for publication, between 1875 and 1877. The full motivation can only be guessed at; we do know, however, that Three Tales was not his first composition in that form, and that the subject matter of all three stories was not new to him either, by any means, but had been worked on by Flaubert at least 30 years earlier, in each case.

Flaubert began writing when he was ten years old, and the great majority of the approximately 40 pieces he composed in his youth were what must be called short stories, though they were highly varied in form and content. Flaubert saved all his youthful work, but refused to publish it. The pieces were published after his death, and some of them are impressively skillful, though obviously immature. They are worth reading, if only to understand better how Flaubert eventually became a great literary artist. It is evident that he learned his craft of fiction by writing short stories for a dozen years. As for Three Tales, the least we can say is that, when he wrote the stories, he was not making a departure from his career, but rather, a pious return to his literary roots. In one sense, at least, it is plausible to argue that Flaubert was a short story writer all his life, and his very last publication, Three Tales, is the magnificent proof of that.

—Murray Sachs

See the essay on "A Simple Heart."

Gustave Flaubert

views updated May 23 2018

Gustave Flaubert

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was one of the most important forces in creating the modern novel as a conscious art form and in launching, much against his will, the realistic school in France.

Gustave Flaubert was born on Dec. 12, 1821, in Rouen. Rouen's medieval charm, the bustle of its business (which revolted him), and the comfortable bourgeois ease that flowed from his father's position as chief surgeon at the municipal hospital marked the sensitive child. Fearing his father, he found outlets for his overflowing affections in his mother and younger sister. His sister died in childbirth when Flaubert was 24, but his mother lived (usually with him) until his fiftieth year. He was tied to her by bonds of love and exasperation, which he never fully understood.

As an adolescent of 15, Flaubert fell platonically in love with an older married woman, Elisa Schlésinger, and remembered her ever after as a pure and unsullied love. A few years later he toyed briefly with the idea of marriage but never again seriously considered it. The young man was sent to Paris to study law, where his desultory efforts were largely unsuccessful. He had easy access to what he called "the bitter poetry of prostitution," and this led to venereal disease, from which he never recovered. His attitudes toward women were colored by these experiences, and the subject of love became an obsessive focal issue in his works. He early linked sexuality to religion, which he felt was a similar longing for certainty always frustrated by doubt. Both areas brought him notions of doom, death, and annihilation.

In 1845 Flaubert had his first attack of temporal-lobe epilepsy. He was helplessly crippled by his seizures, which became hideous terror for him and recurred at intervals throughout his life. In 1846 he had to face the deaths of his father and his beloved sister. He abandoned his legal studies, since any emotional excitement brought on an attack of his malady. He must, he felt, become an observer of life and not a participant in it; thereafter he gave himself fully only to his writing. He did have love affairs, but they were never central to his life; most important were his stormy affairs with the poet Louise Colet in 1846-1847 and again in 1851-1854 and his affectionate relationship with Juliet Herbert, the governess of his niece, which began in the mid-1850s and lasted to the end of his life.

In literature alone Flaubert found no unbearable conflict, for he had been slowly evolving away from his childhood romantic ideal of the writer caught up in wild emotion as he wrote. Even before his illness he was moving toward a concept of writing as "emotion recollected in tranquility," an esthetic of detachment easily concording with his physical state. It allowed quiet consideration of style, which he felt as essential to prose as it had long been considered to poetry. After several false starts he turned to writing TheTemptation of Saint Anthony, the story of the desert hermit of Egypt, which was a convenient focus for his concerns with religion and sexuality and for giving scope to his enjoyment of erudite research. He completed the first version in 1849, but unfortunately it proved unpublishable. This was a bitter blow, and during the next 25 years he intermittently revised the work.

After this failure Flaubert left immediately for a longplanned 20-month journey through the eastern Mediterranean, accompanied by his lifelong friend Maxime Du Camp. He had studied Egypt and the Holy Land for Saint Anthony, and their familiarity upon first sight confirmed his view that art could conjure up reality. He returned via Greece and Italy, the classical lands whose esthetic, with its insistence on simplicity, control, and serenity, formed a further focus in his work.

Madame Bovary

In 1851 Flaubert embarked upon Madame Bovary, on which he worked until 1856. It was published in 1857 and created a storm; Flaubert in fact was unsuccessfully tried on the charge of contributing to public depravity. In addition to satirizing the provincial bourgeoisie, this work tells of Emma Bovary, who as a girl attends a convent school where she acquires romantic notions of a lover who will live for her alone. She marries a good but simple doctor, Charles Bovary, who adores her but does not understand her romantic fantasies, and she then has two love affairs. When, at the end, she finds her dream world in shreds about her, she prefers death to accepting a world not consonant with her fantasies and commits suicide.

At a more profound level the book is the profession of faith of an author who had outgrown romanticism and knew its premises were false. The man of whom Emma dreamed could not exist; the only man who would tell her what she wished sought only an easy seduction. She was foredoomed from the moment she adopted romantic fantasies in the convent.

Madame Bovary can also be read as Flaubert's view of modern woman, who has been perverted by society to shallow or false ideals and thus cannot follow her own nature to its true fulfillment in real love, which would combine in one transcendent experience the fullest physical experiences with the richest spiritual ones. These concepts, coupled with Emma's death, embody Flaubert's principal themes: sexuality, religion, and annihilation. The book is a masterpiece because of these underlying concerns and Flaubert's analysis, and because of his success in giving them form in his novel.

Madame Bovary displayed a new technique for writing ironic novels which writers were to imitate for many generations. Flaubert's doctrines may be readily summarized. He believed writers must write of the observed, actual facts; his documentation became legendary. To this extent he partook of the scientism of his period. He wished the writer to be, like the scientist, objective, impartial, impersonal, and impassive. But while the scientist generalizes his truths into a law of nature, Flaubert asked the writer to generalize his observations into an ideal, a type, whose dynamic power becomes apparent through the artistry of its presentation. Finally, Flaubert was a convinced Platonist who accepted the Socratic dictum that the True, the Beautiful, and the Good are one. If the writer presented the True through the Beautiful, his work would also be morally good.

The publication of Madame Bovary made Flaubert a celebrity. A floundering school of French writers who called themselves realists (markedly inferior to their later American counterparts) imitated Flaubert's use of careful documentation and a rather commonplace subject and proclaimed him their master. In Paris he came to know most of the important people of his day: members of the imperial court, the Goncourt brothers, George Sand, to whom he became devoted, and later the younger men such as Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. He withdrew, however, each spring to Croisset, a village near Rouen.

Flaubert's next work, Salammbô (1862), recounted the revolt of the mercenaries against Carthage in the 3d century B.C. In it he gave free rein to his penchant for archeological documentation and his delight in the ancient world. Unfortunately the novel is tedious and repetitious, and few readers have been moved by this mythological account of the fusion of sexuality with religion and their joint culmination in death and annihilation. Flaubert's scrupulously accurate reconstruction of antiquity, however, did influence later historical novels.

A Sentimental Education

In 1864 Flaubert started work on A Sentimental Education, which was published in 1869. His great Parisian novel, this work is the equal of Madame Bovary although less popular. It presents a satiric panorama of Flaubert's generation. The weak, cowardly hero, Frédéric Moreau, experiences early adoration for an older married woman, Marie Arnoux. This situation is drawn from Flaubert's own life, and Marie Arnoux is one of his greatest creations. Frédéric tries many careers and penetrates most of the important milieus of France at the mid-century. Each new episode is a new hope for him; each ends in disillusionment. "A symphony in gray," Flaubert's Sentimental Education suggests that unfulfilled dreams are always superior to reality, which annihilates them. Henry James, James Joyce, and the "new novel" in France since World War II all owe something to it.

The end of the 1860s and the start of the 1870s were a period of disasters for Flaubert. He was stunned by the deaths of many of his closest friends. The minor poet and dramatist Louis Bouilhet had been his constant counselor and confidant for 20 years, and his death in 1869 was an irreparable loss. Flaubert also mourned the deaths of the critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1869) and the writer Théophile Gautier (1872). In 1872 he lost his mother, the culminating blow.

Flaubert's despair shows in his next work, a revision (the third) of his earlier Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874). It summarizes his lifelong preoccupation with religion and proposes the doctrines of his friend Ernest Renan that all religions are equally true and equally false, equally beautiful and equally a source of anguished nostalgia since they all must perish. Religion and annihilation thus inform the book; sexuality, too, leads to the same end.

Three Tales

Flaubert had brought up the orphaned niece of his beloved sister. His niece met financial disaster in 1875, and he sacrificed his fortune in a vain attempt to stave off her ruin. Impoverished, unable to help her further yet despairing over both their plights, he turned with a humility he had never known before to the preparation of his Three Tales (1877). The first two of these are among the best 19th century French short stories.

"A Simple Heart" recounts the selfless devotion of a servant, Félicité, through a lifetime of service. The second, a retelling of the medieval "Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller," shows the saint killing his father and mother and making atonement during the rest of his life. Neither tale is ironic; each conveys a symbolic message. The third tale, "Hérodias," is less successful but states the message directly through John the Baptist, who gladly accepts his fate: for the Messiah to come, he, the predecessor, must willingly die. Félicité and St. Julian had also learned to put the welfare of others above their own and to seek happiness only in the fullness of love. It was the wisdom Flaubert had learned in his own sacrifices for his niece.

Flaubert began his uncompleted last work, Bouvard and Pécuchet, before the financial crisis of his niece; he continued it after he had finished the Three Tales. He thought of it as inaugurating a new genre, the philosophical novel; it has been the subject of much dispute. Two rather simple copy clerks come into an inheritance, retire to the country, and study one subject after another, each time with renewed excitement and hopefulness and each time ending in disaster. A Sentimental Education had reviewed all of contemporary society and found it hollow; all of religion had been examined in Saint Anthony and had been found wanting; so in Bouvard and Pécuchet, all knowledge is scrutinized and found futile. Much in Bouvard and Pécuchet is great satire; much is hilarious; much becomes deeply sad; but some of it has been deemed tedious. And in the absence of its second half, it is not absolutely clear what Flaubert intended to suggest. It was, however, a seminal work for James Joyce.

On May 8, 1880, Flaubert was struck down by a brain hemorrhage after having spent his last years in anguish.

Further Reading

The most comprehensive general study of Flaubert's life and works is Benjamin F. Bart, Flaubert (1967). A fine study of his early life through the publication of Madame Bovary is Enid Starkie, Flaubert: The Making of the Master (1967). The best study of Flaubert's writings is Victor H. Brombert, The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques (1966). Useful essays on the whole of Flaubert's works are in Raymond D. Giraud, Flaubert: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Benjamin F. Bart (1964). A representative sampling of critical opinion on Flaubert's first novel is included in Benjamin F. Bart, ed., "Madame Bovary" and the Critics (1966).

Additional Sources

Troyat, Henri, Flaubert, New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1992.

Lottman, Herbert R., Flaubert: a biography, Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. □

Flaubert, Gustave

views updated Jun 27 2018

Gustave Flaubert

Born: December 12, 1821
Rouen, France
Died: May 8, 1880
Croisset, France

French novelist and author

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert was one of the most important forces in creating the modern novel as a deliberate art form and in introducing this objective form of writing in France.

Flaubert's early years

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France. His father, Achille-Cleophas Flaubert was a doctor and an important Rouen citizen, and his mother, Anne-Justine-Caroline Fleuriot, was a physician's daughter. He had an older brother, Achille, and a younger sister, Caroline, with whom he had a close relationship. Gustave began to develop his writing skills at an early age and wrote plays, which he put on for his family at the age of nine or ten. He loved to study history and was a wonderful reader. His sister died during childbirth when Flaubert was twenty-four. She left behind her daughter, Caroline Hamard, who was raised by Gustave and his mother. His mother would live with him until his fiftieth year.

As an adolescent of fifteen, Flaubert fell in love with an older married woman, Elisa Schlésinger, and remembered her ever after as a pure and innocent love. The young man was sent to Paris, France, to study law. He had easy access to prostitutes (people who receive money for performing sexual acts), and this led to venereal disease (a sexually transmitted disease) from which he never recovered.

Illness leads to writing career

In 1845 Flaubert had his first attack of temporal-lobe epilepsy (a brain disorder that causes seizures [a partial or complete loss of consciousness that involves a loss of muscle control]). He was crippled by his seizures, which were terrifying for him and reappeared at intervals throughout his life. In 1846 he had to face the deaths of his father and his beloved sister. Flaubert decided to quit his legal studies, since any emotional excitement brought on an attack of his epilepsy. He felt he must become an observer of life and not a participant in it, so he devoted himself only to his writing.

Flaubert found peace in literature, for he had been slowly moving away from the idea of writing emotionally and moving toward the idea of writing as a detachment, which easily balanced with his physical state. He began writing The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He completed the first version in 1849, but he was unable to get it published. This was a bitter blow, and during the next twenty-five years he would spend time revising the work.

After this failure Flaubert left immediately for a twenty-month journey through the eastern Mediterranean, accompanied by his lifelong friend Maxime Du Camp (18221894). He had studied Egypt and the Holy Land which he had described in his work Saint Anthony. He found that he was able to recognize places that he had only read about and described in his work. This proved to him that art could help to describe and envision reality. If a person has never viewed a particular location, they can see it through its description.

Madame Bovary

In 1851 Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary, on which he worked until 1856. It was published in 1857 and caused quite a disturbance; Flaubert in fact was unsuccessfully tried on the charge of contributing to public immorality (the state of doing wrong, and behaving in a way that is not socially acceptable). This novel analyzes the rural middle class, as well as tells of Emma Bovary, a girl that goes through life with romantic obsessions that she can not resolve. At the end of the novel, she finds her dream world in shreds around her, and she prefers death to accepting a world that does not meet with her fantasies, so she takes her own life.

Madame Bovary displayed a new technique for writing. Flaubert believed that writers must write from observed facts and events. He wanted writers to be like scientistsobjective, unprejudiced (fair), withdrawn, and impassive. Flaubert asked the writer to generalize his observations into an ideal, a type whose dynamic power becomes apparent through the artistry of its presentation.

Flaubert's next work, Salammbô (1862), recounted the revolt of the mercenaries (people who are hired to fight for a foreign ruler) against Carthage in the third century b.c.e. The novel is repetitious; however, Flaubert's accurate reconstruction of ancient times did influence later historical novels.

A Sentimental Education

In 1864 Flaubert started work on A Sentimental Education, which was published in 1869. His great Parisian novel, this work is considered the equal of Madame Bovary although less popular. Flaubert's A Sentimental Education suggests that unfulfilled dreams are always superior to reality, which destroys them.

The end of the 1860s and the start of the 1870s marked a period of disasters for Flaubert. He was stunned by the deaths of many of his closest friends. In 1872 he also lost his mother, the greatest of all his losses. Flaubert's depression shows in his next work, a revision (the third) of his earlier Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874). It summarizes his lifelong absorption with religion and proposes the beliefs that all religions are equally true and equally false, equally beautiful and equally a source of troubled emotion since they all must end.

Three Tales

Flaubert had brought up the orphaned niece of his beloved sister. His niece was financially ruined in 1875, and he sacrificed his fortune in an attempt to help her. Bankrupt, unable to help her further yet worrying over both their situations, he turned to the writing of his Three Tales (1877): "A Simple Heart," "Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller," and "Hérodias."

Flaubert began his uncompleted last work, Bouvard and Pécuchet, before the financial crisis of his niece; he continued it after he had finished the Three Tales. On May 8, 1880, Flaubert died from a brain hemorrhage (the bleeding from a broken blood vessel) after having spent his last years in anguish. He was sixty years old.

For More Information

Bart, Benjamin F. Flaubert. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1967.

Lottman, Herbert R. Flaubert: A Biography. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1989.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert: The Making of the Master. New York: Atheneum, 1967.

Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert, a Life. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002.

Flaubert, Gustave

views updated May 21 2018


FLAUBERT, GUSTAVE (1821–1880), French novelist. If the nineteenth century is known in France for prolific writers such as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert is a notable exception. His reputation as one of the century's greatest novelists is based on a handful of works, in particular Madame Bovary (1857), Sentimental Education (1869), and a collection of stories, Three Tales (1877). Through these and his other books—Salammbô (1862), The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), and the posthumous Bouvard and Pécuchet (1881)—Flaubert prefigured many of the key aesthetic and ethical issues of twentieth-century literature. He left a legacy of formal perfectionism to which many subsequent writers have turned for inspiration.

Flaubert was born in December 1821 into a prosperous middle-class family in Rouen; his father and older brother were both doctors. Flaubert was a law school dropout who essentially lived off his family's wealth, making relatively little money even from his successful books. In his twenties he took a formative trip to the Orient (1849–1851) that provided the impetus for several of his fictional works, and in 1857 he traveled for inspiration to Tunis, the site of his historical novel, Salammbô. He spent his later life in his family's country house in Croisset, near Rouen, with annual stays of up to a few months in Paris.

Although Flaubert composed several prose works in his youth, he did not gain recognition until the 1857 publication of Madame Bovary, a tale of a doctor's wife's adulterous affairs in a small Normandy town. The novel, considered by many to be the greatest ever written in French, was accused of immorality, and Flaubert suffered the indignity of a law trial but was acquitted in February 1857.

Madame Bovary, along with Sentimental Education, "A Simple Heart" (Three Tales), and Bouvard and Pécuchet, represents one of the two currents that characterized Flaubert's writings, that dealing with settings familiar to his readers. Sentimental Education, poorly received in 1869 but now considered by many a masterpiece equal to or greater than Madame Bovary, uses the Revolution of 1848 as the backdrop for a love story between a young man and an older, married woman, a character based on Flaubert's lifelong infatuation with Elise Schlésinger. In "A Simple Heart," the servant Félicité devotes herself first to an undeserving mistress, then to her beloved pet parrot, Loulou. Bouvard and Pécuchet, published in an incomplete form after Flaubert's death, tells of two middle-aged Parisian clerks who retire to the Normandy countryside and explore various aspects of human endeavor in the arts and the sciences, an enterprise that fails miserably.

The other, more exotic current of Flaubert's work involves historical and mythological materials. Salammbô, a historical novel set in ancient Carthage, is a mystical love story between the virginal Salammbô and the Libyan mercenary Mathô. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a project Flaubert first conceived in 1845 when he saw Breughel's painting, is a loosely structured work presenting a series of mysterious, dreamlike tableaux, while "Saint Julian Hospitator" and "Hérodias" (Three Tales) are also based on Christian legends.

Flaubert focused on the subjectivity of his characters, believing that writers, like God, should remain invisible even though their presence is felt everywhere in their works. Preoccupied with style and precision, he was criticized for creating unsym-pathetic characters, including his most famous heroine, Emma Bovary. Flaubert was an extremely hard worker but a notoriously slow one, researching his projects for years and reading hundreds of books before starting to write. He was an obsessive reviser and could spend sixteen hours producing less than a single usable page. He read his texts aloud to himself as he composed them, and later to friends and fellow writers.

Flaubert never married nor had children but he had many lovers, most notably the writer Louise Colet, with whom he had a stormy liaison that lasted for seven years, yielding a lengthy correspondence. He helped raise his niece, Caroline Hamard (later Commanville), after his beloved sister died shortly after childbirth, and he remained a devoted uncle even when Caroline's husband created enormous financial hardships for Flaubert in his later years. Most of Flaubert's friends, including George Sand and Ivan Turgenev, were writers. He was often ill, subject to epileptic fits in early adulthood and later to various ailments exacerbated by overwork and unhealthy living. He died unexpectedly, probably of a stroke, in May 1880. His was a life of great solitude and suffering, and to the end he remained a confirmed pessimist who believed that literature was the only thing of lasting value.

See alsoBalzac, Honoré de; Egypt; Realism and Naturalism; Revolutions of 1848; Zola, Émile.


Lottman, Herbert. Flaubert: A Biography. Boston, 1989.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert the Master: A Critical and Biographical Study (1856–1880). New York, 1971.

Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert: A Life. London, 2001.

Richard E. Goodkin

Flaubert, Gustave

views updated Jun 11 2018

Flaubert, Gustave (1821–80) French novelist of the 19th-century realist school. An extremely craftsmanlike and elegant writer, he remains one of the most highly respected of European novelists. Madame Bovary (1857), his masterpiece, represents the transition from Romanticism to realism in the development of the novel. Other fiction includes The Temptation of St Anthony (1847), Salammbô (1862), A Sentimental Education (1869), and the short stories Three Tales (1877).