The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

By stressing the pains and losses Flaubert had to endure, Julian Barnes presents him in a more compassionate light than is usually shed by the chilling legend of a literary genius who repels most people as cold, cruel, narcissistic, depressed, dogmatic, sexually vulgar, and sardonic. Barnes/ Braithwaite takes an inventory of such inflictions as Flaubert’s subjection to shattering attacks of epilepsy; his hopeless infatuation with Elisa Schlesinger; the deaths of both his father and his beloved sister Caroline when Gustave was twenty-five; the possessive hysterics of Louise Colet; the death of his dearest friend, Alfred le Poittevin, aged thirty-two; the ravages of syphilis, contracted when he was twenty-nine; his victimization in financial affairs by his niece’s husband, Ernest Commanville, to the point at which Flaubert had to plead with him and his niece not to eject him from Croisset; and his lonely death at fifty-nine, after years of illness, poverty, and increasing social isolation.

In one chapter, the narrator compiles a summary brief of “the case against” Flaubert, only to refute it, point by point. The most eloquent response is offered to the charge that Flaubert teaches no affirmative values. Not so, insists Braithwaite: He teaches one “to sleep on the pillow of doubt,” to value language, to venerate truth and beauty, feeling and style, to hate hypocrisy, to conduct one’s life courageously and stoically, to cherish one’s friends,...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert (gew-STAHV floh-BEHR), the famous nineteenth century novelist. He is the object of obsession of Geoffrey Braithwaite. He is a blond giant, a Norman who thinks of himself as being like a bear. By the age of thirty, however, his good looks have begun to crumble as the result of syphilis treatments that leave him increasingly balding and stout. He is also prone to recurrent epileptic fits. The son of a successful Rouen surgeon, Flaubert has failed in law school and begun a confirmed bachelor’s life, devoted to writing while he lives on an inheritance from his father and tends to his niece and mother (with occasional interruptions for travel to exotic places). Flaubert’s primary traits are his pessimism and his pronounced misanthropy. He dislikes humanity in general, with its stupidities and its intrusive technology, and the bourgeoisie in particular. He also fears any woman who might make permanent demands on him. The closest he can come to a normal love relationship is his off-and-on affair with Louise Colet, carried out on occasional railroad trips. Flaubert has little or nothing in his life beyond writing. After the failure of his first work, he achieves nothing remarkable in literature until the publication ofMadame Bovary when he is thirty-six years old. Inept at handling money, he loses whatever he manages to make from his writing. At the cost of years of effort, he produces three more books that have some success; however, when he dies of a stroke at the age of fifty-five, he is impoverished as well as exhausted and obscure.

Louise Colet

Louise Colet (lweez koh-LAY), Flaubert’s long-suffering lover and literary friend. A writer herself, she is well known in the literary...

(The entire section is 759 words.)