Gustave Flaubert Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111201547-Flaubert.jpg Gustave Flaubert (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: The most influential European novelist of the nineteenth century, Flaubert, who is most famous for his masterpiece Madame Bovary, is regarded as the leader of the realist school of French literature.

Early Life

Born in Rouen, Gustave Flaubert was the son of Achille Cléophas Flaubert, a noted surgeon and professor of medicine, and Caroline (Fleuriot) Flaubert, a woman from a distinguished provincial family. As a child Flaubert was high-strung, delicate, and precocious. He developed a love of literature early.

In his adolescence, Flaubert became attracted to the Romantic movement. Consequently he declared a hatred for bourgeois values and a passionate devotion to art; he maintained these attitudes throughout his life. They were strengthened through his youthful friendship with Alfred Le Poittevin, a young philosopher, whose pessimistic outlook affected Flaubert deeply. Another formative influence was his father’s practice and teaching of medicine, which led him to value the discipline, intelligence, and clinical eye of the surgeon and helped shape his own approach to his literary materials.

In 1836, at the age of fifteen, Flaubert met Élisa Schlésinger, a married woman eleven years his senior, and succumbed to a devastating romantic passion for her which was destined to remain unrequited and to serve in his mind as an ideal which was never to be reached in his subsequent relationships with women.

Flaubert was sent to Paris in the autumn of 1842 to study law, a profession which did not attract him. He was committed to literature but reluctant to publish his work and susceptible to episodes of serious depression. In January, 1844, he gave up the study of the law upon suffering a nervous breakdown that was then diagnosed, probably erroneously, as epilepsy. Following a yearlong recuperation, he began to devote his time and energy to literary creation and to turn away from his earlier romantic subjectivism.

Flaubert’s father died in January, 1846, leaving him an inheritance which enabled him to pursue his literary career full-time. His sister Caroline died the following March, leaving an infant daughter. Flaubert and his mother adopted the child and began living at their estate at Croisset, near Rouen, where he spent most of the remainder of his life. In July, 1846, Flaubert met the poet Louise Colet in Paris, and began a tempestuous, intermittent affair with her that ended ten years later, in 1856.

In 1847, Flaubert went on a walking tour through Brittany with his writer friend Maxime Du Camp and wrote about the tour in Par les champs et par les grèves (with Du Camp; Over Strand and Field, 1904), which was published posthumously (1885). At this time, he was also engaged in writing the first version of La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895), begun in 1846. Although he expended much energy and care on the manuscript, his friends found it florid and rhetorical and advised him to burn it. Disheartened, he set it aside and set out with Du Camp in November, 1849, on travels through Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Upon his return to Croisset in the summer of 1851, he was preparing to begin a very different kind of novel.

Life’s Work

Flaubert spent the next five years of his life hard at work on Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). In the first two months of 1857, the French government brought Flaubert to trial, charging him with writing an immoral work, but he was acquitted and Madame Bovary won widespread success.

In the writing of Madame Bovary, Flaubert found himself, both as a man and as an artist. The novel relates dispassionately the story of a young provincial girl whose incurably romantic notions about life and passion lead her to adultery, financial ruin, and suicide. Her yearnings are of a kind with which Flaubert himself had been all too familiar, as is evidenced in his famous remark, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (Madame Bovary is myself). In projecting his own temperament upon this fictional character and subjecting it to relentlessly objective scrutiny, Flaubert was working to exorcise inner weaknesses that had bedeviled him all of his life.

Flaubert’s painstaking care with the observation of concrete facts and psychological details in Madame Bovary and his constant concern to present his materials impersonally constituted a revolution in the art of the novel and earned for him recognition as the leader of a new realist school of literature. This designation is misleading, however, and, in fact, somewhat ironic. Flaubert himself detested it, commenting, “People...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

In 1848 a revolution toppled the last French monarchy and replaced it with a republic. The French literary world had hoped that a new government would also mean the restoration of civil liberties, but they were disappointed. Louis Napoleon, the new president, wanted power, not constitutional restraints. After two further coups, he had himself declared president for life, then Emperor Napoleon III. Political purges and press censorship followed. Twenty-seven-thousand persons were arrested; dozens of newspapers and literary magazines were closed down.

Among the victims was Victor Hugo, France’s most famous writer, who went into exile, to the dismay of Flaubert, who had begun writing his great realist novel Madame Bovary. Flaubert detested the hypocrisy of the new industrial middle class and laid it bare in his novel. The French middle class, in turn, felt that he treated subjects that should not be discussed in refined society, such as sexuality, adultery, and suicide. Flaubert’s novel might never have been published had it not been for the urging of friends who recognized its merits. It first appeared in a literary magazine in installments, beginning in October, 1856. Although Flaubert had been warned that the imperial police wanted to destroy both him and the magazine, he insisted that nothing in his novel be deleted. He then prepared for a trial.

Fortunate in having both money and powerful family connections, Flaubert was able...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Gustave Flaubert was the second of three surviving children of a provincial doctor. Although it was Gustave’s older brother, Achille, who would succeed their father in his medical practice, young Gustave accompanied his father even into the dissecting room, where he gained a knowledge of anatomy and a habit of close observation that would contribute to his future literary style. Unlike Emma’s husband, the inept country doctor Charles Bovary, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert was a respected professional. Even after his father’s death, Flaubert wrote to his mother from Egypt of his pleasure at meeting during his travels a man who knew and respected his father’s reputation.

Flaubert began the study of law but discontinued in part because of his poor health. Epileptic, he had infrequent seizures, but despite his robust appearance, his friends and family sought to protect him from excess strain. Flaubert’s only sustained professional activity was as an author. Although he lacked other employment, he felt no particular pressure to rush his works into publication. During the years 1835 to 1840, he composed a number of short pieces of prose, some fictitious and some personal memoirs, yet he published little. Most of these juvenilia were collected for publication only after his death.

During 1843-1845, Flaubert composed the first version of his autobiographical novel, A Sentimental Education, which would finally be published in a...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born on December 12, 1821, at the Hôtel-Dieu in Rouen, Gustave Flaubert was the fifth of six children and the fourth son of Achille Cléophas Flaubert, director of Rouen’s hospital and founder of its medical school, and Caroline (Fleuriot) Flaubert, the daughter of a physician. Only three of the Flaubert children survived infancy: Achille, the eldest (who later became a physician and replaced his father as master of Rouen’s hospital), Gustave, and a sister, Caroline, who was Gustave’s junior by two and a half years and who died in childbirth at the age of twenty-one. Flaubert’s early and prolonged associations with examining rooms, surgeries, dissecting rooms, and the medical scientists who used them left clear marks on...

(The entire section is 752 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Gustave Flaubert (floh-BEHR) was born in the historic Normandy city of Rouen, in northern France, on December 12, 1821. His father, Dr. Achille Cléophas Flaubert, was a surgeon in Rouen, where Gustave went to school. Gustave was one of six children, only three of whom survived to adulthood. Among them was his older brother Achille, who became a doctor like his father. Gustave was a good student, winning prizes for history and earning his baccalauréat in 1840.

Between 1840 and 1843, Flaubert studied law in Paris but failed his examinations. In 1844, he began to suffer from strange fits identified as epilepsy. The first attack rendered him an invalid for several months and led to the family’s moving to...

(The entire section is 963 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Gustave Flaubert’s reputation as a master of prose fiction is based on a number of long novels, as well as some shorter fiction, that sustain the quality of his best moments.

His style, innovative in its use of an ambiguous narrative voice and the result of much care and labor, has contributed to his standing as a major writer. His psychological insight, and, more recently, an appreciation of his experiments in the control of narrative perspective make him one of the first modern novelists and one of the greatest of all time.

(The entire section is 93 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Gustave Flaubert (floh-behr), French novelist, was born in Rouen on December 12, 1821. His father was a doctor and director of the Rouen city hospital, his mother a retiring woman of bourgeois background. High-strung and imaginative, Gustave eagerly consumed all the fanciful stories that he could induce his nurse or his neighbors to tell him. As a student he joined in the anticlassical revolt that was sweeping France. Solitary by nature and not of a happy temperament, Flaubert became absorbed with literature and history and early became aware of his vocation as a writer.

During a summer vacation in 1836 he became emotionally attached to Elisa Schlésinger. He also soon found a companion and confidant in Alfred Le...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Much has been made of the relationship between Flaubert's life and his depiction of the servant in ‘‘A Simple Heart.’’ There are...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Gustave Flaubert Biography

(Novels for Students)

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France, to Achille Cleophas (a physician) and Caroline (Fleuriot) Flaubert....

(The entire section is 370 words.)