Gustave Flaubert (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.
Gustave Flaubert is best known for his novels Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886) and L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental Education, 1898), which offer a realistic view of life in his native Normandy and, in the latter somewhat autobiographical novel, in Paris. He also wrote narratives of his travels to the Pyrenees and Corsica in 1840 (1927), to Italy in 1845, and to Egypt and the Middle East in 1849-1851 (Notes de voyage, 1910). Much of the exotic material gleaned on these trips helped inspire La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895) and Salammbô (1862; English translation, 1886), novels in which he fictionalized figures from history.
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary may be regarded as the great French novel, but upon its publication, in 1857, it was attacked for its immorality, and a famous lawsuit attempted to suppress it. In a sense, Emma Bovary differs little from many heroines of earlier novels, who engaged in enough amorous adventures to attract avid readers but whose eventual punishment served to uphold a moral perspective sufficient to keep the books socially respectable. What is new in Madame Bovary, as in Flaubert’s other realist work, lies in the author’s style. His detailed documentation of the society in which Emma lived emphasized the hypocrisy endemic in that society. Careful control of physical description delineates the personalities of the various characters and creates a style that has strongly influenced subsequent writers.
Flaubert’s realistic compositions form only one aspect of his literary production. His other works, closer to the romantic tradition of the historical novel, testify to his depth and versatility.
“The novelist’s novelist,” as Henry James called him, Gustave Flaubert (floh-BEHR) became an undisputed, if controversial, master of prose fiction in a great age of French prose. Celebrated as the founder of the modern novel, especially in its psychological dimensions, Flaubert published no poetry (if one excepts segments of The Temptation of Saint Anthony) but did write a great many dramatic scenarios and fragments. Among his early plays is the unpublished “Loys XI” (written in 1838), the last play of his youth; like his later plays, this one clearly demonstrates that, although he was devoted to the drama and infused his novels with dramatic elements and effects, he was not a talented dramatist. Flaubert’s Le Château des curs (pr. 1874; The Castle of Hearts, 1904), written in 1863 in collaboration with his lifelong friend Louis Bouilhet, is a féerie, a play that highlights and relies on the marvelous to carry it. The one play of his maturity of which he is sole author, a farcical comedy in four acts called Le Candidat (pr., pb. 1874; The Candidate, 1904), lasted for four performances at the Vaudeville in Paris. Although it was fueled by Flaubert’s contempt for the Third Republic and the grasping materialism of its bourgeois industrialists—and thus potentially explosive—the play is full of stereotypes. Edmond de Goncourt characterized it as a particularly painful failure, funereal and glacial....
“If all high things have their martyrs,” wrote Gustave Flaubert’s English contemporary Walter Pater in his Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (1889), “Gustave Flaubert might perhaps rank as the martyr of literary style.” Flaubert’s great and unquestionable achievement as founder and master of the modern novel lies precisely in his perfection of a literary style that seeks to capture the essential unity of idea and form, a style that seeks, before all, le mot juste, a style that, in Pater’s (and later T. S. Eliot’s) phrase, involves a natural economy “between a relative, somewhere in the world of thought, and its correlative, somewhere in the world of language.” This style uses elements of composition functionally and emphasizes the more formal dimensions of the novel; in Flaubert’s hands, the novel achieves a beauty of form and a power that relate it to the other arts. Flaubert’s influence extends to Guy de Maupassant, Pater, James, Gide, Oscar Wilde, Butor, and Sartre. Sartre’s study of Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857 (1971-1972; partial translation The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857, 1981, 1987), stands as a forceful witness to his lengthy engagement with Flaubert’s life, meaning, and place in the intellectual life of subsequent generations. No one writing in French can fail to reckon with Flaubert; no one writing in English should fail to do so.
One public distinction accorded Flaubert in his lifetime was one his father had received in 1839 for his work in medicine. On the strength of his writing, especially for Madame Bovary, and in part because it attracted the notice of Princess Mathilde and opened the court to him, Flaubert was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1866. In his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, he writes of this title: “Make fun of it, but covet it. When you obtain it, always say it was unsolicited.”
The most complete collection of Flaubert’s works is the twenty-two volume Conard edition, issued in Paris from 1910 to 1933. His manuscripts are in many locations but principally in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris), the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, the Collection Louvenjoul (Chantilly), and the Bibliothèque Municipale (Rouen).
Is Gustave Flaubert’s subtle narrative style in effect a tribute to the capacities of his reader?
What does Madame Bovary gain from its introductory chapter on an episode in the school life of Emma’s future husband?
What interpretation would you offer for the use of the word “Madame” in the title of the novel about Emma Bovary?
If Frédéric Moreau of A Sentimental Education is a male counterpart to Emma Bovary, is he, as a man with a better chance to control his circumstances, therefore less susceptible to sympathetic interpretation?
What qualities are most necessary in a translator of Flaubert?
How does the mentality that could compose a work called Dictionary of Accepted Ideas reveal itself in Flaubert’s fiction?
Addison, Claire. Where Flaubert Lies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A detailed study of Flaubert’s life and art, focusing on the relationship between his personal life, historical context, and his fiction.
Bart, Benjamin F. Flaubert. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1967. This chronologically arranged and detailed biography places Flaubert’s works in the context of the events of his life. Chapter 24, devoted to the Three Tales, stresses psychological elements and events from Flaubert’s life that contributed to the compositions as well as noting revisions that the stories underwent. Includes a note listing manuscript sources and an index.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Gustave Flaubert. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This collection of fourteen essays with an introduction by Bloom covers multiple aspects of Flaubert’s life and work. Jane Robertson writes on the structure of “Hérodias,” noting the relative difficulty of the work. Shoshana Felman’s essay on “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” stresses legendary and symbolic elements in the story. Contains a chronology of Flaubert’s life, a bibliography, and an index.
Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. This work devotes a chapter to each of the Three Tales. Brombert’s thematic approach emphasizes Flaubert’s adaptation of the legend in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler,” the tension between sentiment and irony in “A Simple Heart,” and exotic descriptions, some derived from Flaubert’s own trip to Egypt, in “Hérodias.” Bibliography, index.
Cronk, Nicholas. “Reading Un Cœur Simple: The Pleasure of the Intertext.” Nineteenth- Century French Studies 24 (Fall/Winter, 1995/1996): 154-161. Discusses the story’s allusion to eighteenth century works from the Rousseauesque tradition of sentiment and the Voltairean tradition of satire. Claims that Flaubert appropriates a...