Although Gustave Flaubert intended this novel to be a satire on the middle classes and on the pretensions, both intellectual and social, of the protagonists, he was too much of a genius for his actual work to remain so limited. The reader of BOUVARD AND PECUCHET soon realizes that the author felt a genuine and deep affection for the pair of friends who bumble through the pages of this book. The charm of their unaffected enthusiasm captivates the reader as it apparently captivated their creator. In their innocence, Bouvard and Pecuchet risk foolishness; in this, they bear a kinship with Don Quixote. The heroes might also be compared to Voltaire’s hero Candide, who sought solutions to great questions, for they are committed to ideas, seek them out, confront them, and try to make use of them. Like Candide, they retain their innocence through all turmoil and trouble. Their vision is not small, even if their actual intellectual capabilities are limited.
BOUVARD AND PECUCHET has also been compared to Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, but the satire is much less savage. Like Swift, Flaubert looked with horror upon the pettiness and corruption in the world. He scorned the littleness of the people around him and feared for the quality of life as the bourgeoisie gained power. As a great artist, however, he was compelled to look deeper into every question and to penetrate to the souls of the human beings he created in his books. Because of this, BOUVARD AND PECUCHET is an uneven satire, although a masterpiece of fictional writing. The most appropriate comparison is actually to Miguel de Cervantes, for he, too, saw beyond the foolishness of his hero to his heart. Bouvard and Pecuchet want to learn too quickly; they have no patience with the true scholarly approach. They are like Laurence Sterne’s characters, with their “hobbyhorse” that warps their personalities. Yet, they are intensely likeable, and the reader becomes fond of them. They suffer the consequences of their limitations and acquire a kind of pathos in the eyes of the reader. There is a pessimism in this book, but the greater spirit and vision of the author transcends it.