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.
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.
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.)