(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Gustave Flaubert created immortal literary personalities filled with contradictions. His Emma Bovary desires beauty in her life and escape from ugly provincialism yet succumbs to materialism. She destroys her own happiness and that of her husband in her pursuit. Flaubert’s Saint Antoine is an aged anchorite who keenly feels the loss of his physical powers. This holds true in both the first and second versions of La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895), a novel Flaubert worked on for nearly thirty years beginning in 1849.

Flaubert understood such contradictory personalities so well because he was one. He shared the provincial background of his Madame Bovary, though he also had, from birth, the enormous advantages of upper-middle-class prosperity. In early nineteenth century France, this was a small class, indeed.

Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, Flaubert’s father, was the chief surgeon of Rouen’s hospital, known as the Hôtel-Dieu. The Flaubert family lived a mere partition apart from the hospital’s ward, so that the realities of life, death, and pain were inescapable. Though being a surgeon did not confer the same prestige as being a physician, the elder Flaubert invested wisely in properties surrounding Rouen and established a comfortable life for himself and his family. The eldest son, Achille, would also become a surgeon who would succeed his father. Two other Flaubert children, Émile-Cléophas and Caroline, would die in infancy, while another Caroline (named after both her sister and mother) would die after the birth of her child. Flaubert’s father would die of septicemia, ironically following surgery his son Achille performed.

It would be oversimplification to see Achille in the incompetent Charles Bovary, just as it would be to see Flaubert himself through characters such as Frédéric Moreau, Saint Anthony, or Emma Bovary. Even so, Frederick Brown’s study reveals a young man with far too much easy money, no clear early professional direction, and parents far too indulgent. They supported their son’s antimonarchist views, somewhat extreme for Rouen, and appeared relatively untroubled by the political protests that nearly resulted in Gustave’s failure to graduate from his lycée. After all, they themselves shared his views.

Flaubert’s initial interest was in writing for the theater. As a child, he devised plays with his friend Ernest Chevalier. They even created a stock antihero often called Le Garçon (“The Kid”), a caricature of their own mischief. Flaubert and his circle carried this into their behavior at school, and his role in an antimonarchist publication nearly prevented his graduation. This, too, shows his iconoclasm, as neither the monarchy nor the empire tolerated polemic well. With some desperation, Flaubert began to read law in 1842, and though he qualified at the first level, he did not complete his degree. His family, in effect, underwrote his apparent indolence and lack of ambition. Though Flaubert watched as his school friends qualified as lawyers, even as his brother Achille succeeded his father, he remained indifferent to achievement and even to publication.

This does not mean that Flaubert had not worked during and after his two years studying law. He had substantially written the first version of L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental Education, 1898) by 1843 and would continue to revise it for the following two decades. Even so, the general indifference of friends like Ernest Chevalier and Maxime Du Camp to his early work drove Flaubert...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

America 195, no. 8 (September 25, 2006): 33-34.

Booklist 102, no. 12 (February 15, 2006): 32.

New Criterion 24, no. 9 (May, 2006): 66-70.

The New Republic 234, no. 19 (May 22, 2006): 37-41.

The New York Times 155 (April 12, 2006): E1-E10.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 16, 2006): 1-11.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 11 (March 13, 2006): 51.

Sunday Telegraph, June 11, 2006, p. 1.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 1, 2006, p. 5.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 88 (April 15, 2006): P8.