Gustave Flaubert

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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...

(This entire section contains 1958 words.)

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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 think I am in love with reality, though I hate it; for it is out of hatred of realism that I undertook the writing of this novel.”

It is important to note the prevailing idealism in Flaubert’s temperament and art. He saw art as an escape from life’s ugliness; the paradox of Madame Bovary is that it takes a story that is essentially sordid and commonplace and transforms it into a vessel of beauty. The medium of this transformation is Flaubert’s language: Through his ideas about and use of this medium, he has come to epitomize the dedicated literary artist. He refused to rush his art, and would spend hours in anguish searching for the right word or phrase to express his vision.

From Madame Bovary Flaubert turned to the subject of ancient Carthage; in 1862, he published Salammbô (English translation, 1886), a minutely researched novel whose fictitious narrative is set against the actual historical background of the 240-237 b.c.e. uprising of the mercenaries against Carthage. Salammbô was a popular success, but, to Flaubert’s disappointment, it failed to win approval from the critics.

After writing three unsuccessful plays, Flaubert took up for extensive revision the manuscript of L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental Education, 1898). The novel, which Flaubert called a “moral history of the men of my generation,” is set in Paris in the 1840’s, and fictionalizes Flaubert’s personal experiences within the panoramic and solidly realized historical context of France under the July Monarchy. Flaubert considered this novel his masterpiece, but the reviews were very unfavorable and the reading public unsympathetic.

Other troubles also plagued Flaubert in his last years. He was beset by financial problems after sacrificing his own fortune in 1875 to save his niece’s husband from bankruptcy. He was, nevertheless, highly respected by other writers and generous in his advice to young authors, including Guy de Maupassant—who became his disciple—as well as Émile Zola and Alphonse Daudet. He formed friendships with the novelists Ivan Turgenev and George Sand.

Flaubert’s last novel, which he left unfinished, was Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881; English translation, 1896). He interrupted his work on this long novel in 1875-1877 to write Trois Contes (1877; Three Tales, 1903), three stories that display the range and diversity of Flaubert’s art and received immediate recognition. Bouvard et Pécuchet is a portrayal of human folly and frailty, specifically in its modern manifestation as an uncritical confusion of science and truth.

Flaubert died at home in Croisset after suffering a stroke on May 8, 1880. He was buried in Rouen.


Gustave Flaubert greatly influenced the development of the modern novel. In the historical context of French literature, his work forms a bridge between romanticism and realism, and his art arises out of the conflict within his mind and temperament between these two tendencies. Madame Bovary has been called the first modern novel and is widely hailed as one of the greatest works of fiction ever written.

Although he was a kindhearted man and a loyal friend, Flaubert’s vision of life in his fiction was tragic and pessimistic. It epitomizes for many a quintessentially modern outlook. His ironic stance; his understanding of solitude, ennui, suffering, and loss; his dissatisfaction with materialistic and empty bourgeois values and the pursuit of ideal beauty; and his fascination with the destructive force of time and the preserving power of memory are attitudes that are found in the works of many writers of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His understanding of human psychology was precise and deep. Flaubert’s painstaking devotion to style and form raised the status of the novel to a form of high art and made him a model of the literary artist for subsequent generations of writers and readers.


Bart, Benjamin F. Flaubert. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1967. This lengthy and comprehensive critical biography makes copious use of Flaubert’s letters, private papers, and drafts for his novels to present a detailed account of his life, of his aesthetic, and his ideas about prose fiction.

Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. A thorough study of the texture, structure, patterns, and themes in Flaubert’s fiction, stressing the nonrealistic and autobiographical aspects of his art. Brombert argues that Flaubert is essentially a tragic novelist.

Buck, Stratton. Gustave Flaubert. Boston: Twayne, 1966. A comprehensive and authoritative introduction, for students and general readers, to Flaubert’s novels and correspondence. Buck traces the evolution and composition of each of Flaubert’s novels, describes their nature and contents, and assesses their artistic importance.

Culler, Jonathan. Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974. A sophisticated study, with a critical approach influenced by structuralism. Culler addresses Flaubert’s early writings in sequence, demonstrating in them predominant themes, especially human stupidity and irony, in the later novels, which he then treats at length together. Culler concludes by discussing Flaubert’s writings in terms of their value and sources of interest for modern readers.

Flaubert, Gustave. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert. Selected, edited, and translated by Francis Steegmuller. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980-1982. Flaubert’s letters are crucial to an understanding of his personality, life, and works. This edition, which includes authoritative notes, appendices, indexes, and illustrations, presents Flaubert’s letters from 1830 through 1880.

Nadeau, Maurice. The Greatness of Flaubert. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Library Press, 1972. A general introduction to Flaubert’s life and career by the editor of the author’s complete works. Nadeau stresses Flaubert’s lifelong and never fully realized quest, as he became an artist, for a coherent sense of his own identity. Nadeau characterizes Flaubert’s work as a body of “social, philosophical, and moral criticism.”

Spencer, Philip H. Flaubert: A Biography. New York: Grove Press, 1952. A sensible and highly readable narrative that provides a vivid introduction to Flaubert’s life. Spencer views Flaubert in terms of an interrelated set of conflicts between self and society, idealism and disillusionment, beauty and ugliness, and escapism and commitment, and explores these conflicts as they manifest themselves in his life and motivate him as an artist.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert: The Making of the Master. New York: Atheneum, 1967. Starkie draws previously unused materials from manuscripts, notes, and letters in this comprehensive and well-documented critical biography of Flaubert through 1857, concluding with a study of Madame Bovary, its antecedents, its publication and censorship trial, and Flaubert’s aesthetic doctrine. Includes illustrations, bibliography, notes, and index.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert, the Master: A Critical and Biographical Study, 1856-1880. New York: Atheneum, 1971. In this, the sequel volume to her Flaubert: The Making of the Master (1967), Starkie presents a sympathetic and thorough analysis of Flaubert’s life and art after the publication of Madame Bovary. She argues that Flaubert’s later works represent the fundamental aspects of his genius. Includes illustrations, bibliography, notes, and index.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary. Translated by Helen Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. A thoroughgoing study of Flaubert’s art in Madame Bovary by the celebrated Peruvian novelist. Vargas Llosa begins by charting vividly his particular experiences with this novel. He then addresses in depth the biographical, historical, and geographical origins of Madame Bovary, and analyzes important recurring themes and innovative techniques.


Critical Essays