Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The very title The Flowers of Evil indicates that its main theme will be an exploration of the dark side of the human condition. In the book’s prefatory poem, “Au lecteur” (“To the Reader”) of The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire states his intention of examining self-destructive tendencies not only in society as a whole but also in himself and his readers. Baudelaire concludes his prefatory poem by addressing his reader thus: “Hypocrite reader,—my alias,—my twin,” as Richard Howard translated this verse. Readers should note that Baudelaire ended this poem with the words mon frère (“my brother”), but Richard Howard’s free translation stresses the fact that both male and female readers can recognize elements of their personality in The Flowers of Evil.

The poem “Gambling” reinforces well the general theme in The Flowers of Evil, which most critics consider to be the most psychologically profound book of poetry written in France during the nineteenth century. Despite their efforts to hide their mediocrity behind makeup and jewelry, the gamblers still reveal their “pitiless eyes,” “colorless lips,” and basic insensitivity toward others. Although the readers may not practice gambling or dress in a “garish” manner, they frequently act selfishly and “squander” talents. Baudelaire reminds them of the terrible truth that self-destructive behavior brings them pleasure and yet...

(The entire section is 475 words.)