Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3463
Long the subject of a large and still increasing volume of literary criticism and debate, the novels of Gustave Flaubert are susceptible to a variety of approaches. Classified as a realist, his works deprecated by some of his contemporaries as supreme examples of the excesses to which novelistic realism was prone, Flaubert refused to consider himself an advocate of something he so hated—reality. The psychological realism of Madame Bovary, for example, as noted by Charles Baudelaire in an early review, clearly strikes a new note in the development of the novel and is one of Flaubert’s major contributions to the genre. This realism is, nevertheless, tempered by some elements of Romanticism, even though Flaubert regarded Romanticism not as an intellectual or artistic doctrine to be prized but as a disease. One objective of the Romantic generation of the 1830’s, épater le bourgeois (to shock the middle class), surely seems to be at work in Flaubert’s fiction; just as surely, the manner of accomplishing this artistic task has little in common with the many Romantic efforts of the age. In one of the earliest studies of Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant hailed Flaubert as an advocate of impersonality in art, and Flaubert’s method of composition as well as numerous letters seem to bear out this notion. Conversely, while he could write, for example, that there was nothing of himself, his sentiments, or his life in Madame Bovary, he could still exclaim, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” (I am Madame Bovary!).
Flaubert’s intentions, then, and the circumstances of his life have figured significantly in the interpretation and evaluation of his fiction. One useful way of thinking about his work as a writer and the writing he produced is to consider his life and work spent in the service of art, a demanding art that provided a refuge from the world of ordinary provincial and urban affairs, an art that helped him reorder experience into the image of objective reality without sacrificing all the Romantic traits he had developed in his youth. One primary Romantic element in the novels is the sense of disillusionment attendant on the recognition that Romantic ideals themselves are untenable. This sense is usually dominant in the endings of Flaubert’s novels, endings that are supremely important in adjusting the reader’s perspective. Such Romantic aspects of his novels are usually overlooked—understandably so, because the restrained language, seemingly objective tone, and intense scrutiny of personality overshadow other elements. It has been said that Flaubert, a Romantic by nature, became a realist and a classicist by discipline.
Having turned his hand to writing at an early age, Flaubert was thirty-five years old when he published his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, a novel that has been variously interpreted and characterized. For every just claim that Flaubert undertook this novel to purge himself of the Romantic disease, there are equally cogent claims that the work is a Romantic novel, though different in kind from its predecessors. Emma Bovary is surely the victim of her own Romanticism and, like the legions of Romantic heroes and heroines, is one who longs for absolutes and seeks after something that either does not exist or exists but imperfectly. Her aspirations are completely out of proportion to her capacities and her situation in life. Thus, while Madame Bovary may be seen as a literary tour de force that makes superb use of organization and of great virtuosity in the handling of structure and text, it remains essentially a novel that both eschews the received objective of entertainment and sets forth an argumentative analysis of society as that society encourages Emma’s folly, blames her for it, and triumphs over it.
The work is divided into three unequal parts that correspond to the three stages of the lives of Emma and her husband, Charles. Before turning to the story itself, however, it is essential to look closely at the novel’s title: Flaubert called the novel not “Emma Bovary” but Madame Bovary. The emphases on her married name, on the marriage itself, on her role as wife (and as mother) are paramount. They are the very things that she will betray and that, in her betrayal, will precipitate her ruin. Moreover, Emma can have no place in the work separate from Charles; one particularly important clue to the nature of the work is the narrative device that opens the novel and then disappears as the objective narrator replaces the first voice that the reader hears. This voice belongs to one of Charles’s young classmates at the lycée, a classmate who begins casually enough (“We were in class”) and who then talks about Charles, his provenance, and his inauspicious beginnings, including having to write the conjugation of ridiculus sum twenty times. The idea that Charles is, in fact, ridiculous remains central to the novel, a novel that does not end with Emma’s death but with his. Shortly before his death, Charles makes what the narrator considers his one great statement in life; speaking to Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma’s first seducer, Charles says, “It is the fault of fate.” This statement sums up Charles’s inability to understand and to act, the foolishness of his perception of life, and the conventionality of its expression in clichés. The work also ends with the factual statement that the monumental stupidity of another character, Homais, the town chemist, has at last gained proper recognition: Homais has received the Croix de la Légion d’Honneur.
The first of the novel’s three segments introduces Charles in a sort of choric prologue to this tragedy of dreams. In what Enid Starkie calls a duet between Charles and Emma, Flaubert presents each of the characters in a series of tableaux that leads the reader through the romance of courtship and the marriage of Charles and Emma, and also to Emma’s disillusionment with the unexciting marriage. This section ends, symbolically, with the Bovarys’ move from Tostes to Yonville, with the news that Emma is pregnant, and with her burning her now desiccated, tattered wedding bouquet. Each of these occasions, like the rest of the events in the novel, is presented in a detached, declarative, unsentimental manner.
Part 2 consists of another series of tableaux featuring a platonic but potentially passionate relationship between Emma and Léon Dupuis and her carefully plotted seduction by Rodolphe. Indeed, by the time Rodolphe appears, Emma has so languished at Yonville and has so nourished fleshly lusts and acquisitive passions that she is ready for an affair. Having yielded to Rodolphe, she continues to respond to him in an aggressively positive way, especially once Charles’s stupidity, matched only by the ignorance of Homais, has led to the crippling of the boy Hippolyte and the consequent diminution of Charles in her eyes and of her, by association, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie of Yonville. Just when she thinks she will finally be free of the tedium of Yonville and the boredom of her marriage to Charles by fleeing with Rodolphe, Rodolphe not only fails to take her away but also flees himself, to avoid what he rightly perceives as her possessive nature: Having captured her, his first thought is how to become free of her.
In the novel’s final section, Emma has irretrievably abandoned herself to her Romantic notions of how her life ought to be lived, the high passion of her affair with Léon, the possession of fine things, and the indulgence of her whims; she assumes an inexhaustible supply of funds to support her new style. Predictably, her affair with Léon and her neglect of Charles and their daughter, Berthe, bring her to moral bankruptcy, while her constant borrowing and signing of promissory notes bring her and Charles to financial bankruptcy. In the end, she cannot pay, cannot tap Rodolphe or Léon or anyone with sufficient funds who will not exact her favors in return for the money. Having lived beyond her means in many senses, she chooses an excruciatingly painful death by arsenical poisoning. Charles, the physician, is helpless for a second time when death claims his wife, yet so involved is he with her existence that his interest for readers barely survives hers: His own end is a necessary consequence of hers.
Flaubert’s second novel, Salammbô, is unsettling, entirely different from his first; it is arguably the cruelest novel of the nineteenth century. In a letter to the celebrated critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Flaubert said he wanted “to fix a mirage by applying to antiquity the methods of the modern novel.” The mirage he fixes is ancient Carthage, in a novel that has been called both Romantic and anti-Romantic and that, like many of his works, contains both elements. Salammbô is a work of picturesque barbarity and gratuitous violence; it is an unrelieved, pathological compendium of atrocities that the Marquis de Sade would have enjoyed thoroughly. Neither a historical novel, a novel of “historical reconstruction” (as Jules Michelet, Augustin Thierry, and other nineteenth century writers defined the genre), nor apsychological novel like his first one, Salammbô is a great Parnassian epic that should be judged more as a poem than as a novel. In its last chapters, the nightmarish mirage becomes a surrealistic vision, what Maurice Nadeau calls “a hallucination described in cold blood.”
Flaubert achieves these nightmarish effects through his full and objective descriptions of brutality and through his emphasis on the unreality of the landscape, an emphasis achieved through the use of lapidary objects and architecture. These techniques are prime contributions to what Victor Brombert calls an “epic of immobility.” The motif of predation, in which birds and animals of prey become recurrent metaphors and evolve into symbols, coalesces with the lapidary metaphors to help create an absolute sense of dehumanization. This sense is never far from the novel’s surface and is constantly reinforced by other recurrent elements: the all-pervasive themes of mutilation and self-mutilation, obsessions with disease, the ravages of hunger and thirst, and cannibalism and vampirism. All of these elements and more combine to produce an overwhelming sense of disgust with things as they are.
The story progresses from the colorful opening revels, in which the priestess Salammbô appears on the tower high above the exotic garden in which the mercenaries hold their feast, through Mathô’s theft and Salammbô’s recovery of the sacred veil of Tanit, to the horrific destruction of Mathô, to the somewhat unexpected but internally logical statement that the story has been told to explain how the priestess came to die for having touched Tanit’s veil. Throughout this bizarre tale of the revolt of a mercenary army that the Carthaginians employed in the wars with Rome, there is no character who approaches full humanity. The exaltations of place over person, of the animalistic and supernatural dimensions over ordinary human existence, of solid objects over all, lead the reader less toward any sympathy with the characters than to either impassiveness or revulsion. Salammbô herself is one more beautiful object among many beautiful objects, and, through her death, she achieves oneness with the gorgeous artifacts that surround her. An overblown exotic fantasy of gargantuan proportions, the work may also be read as a parable of waste, futility, decadence, and inhumanity that has direct application not only to the highly stylized Carthaginian world but also to the bourgeois France of Flaubert’s own time.
A Sentimental Education
In A Sentimental Education, an ironic self-portrait of the artist as a young man, Flaubert’s life and times are both at the core and on the surface. Frédéric Moreau, like his creator, is part of a generation of young intellectuals in revolt against the bourgeois mediocrity that surrounds them; in sympathy with the bohemian life, they are in love with love and passionately in love with passion. Also like his creator, Frédéric conceives an inordinate passion for an older, married woman, a love that cannot be requited. When Flaubert wrote this second version of A Sentimental Education, he had already changed from a youthful, aspiring law student more interested in being an aspiring writer to an accomplished and widely recognized novelist. His first attempt to write the story of his generation, the earlier version of A Sentimental Education (written 1843-1845 and published in 1963 as The First Sentimental Education), underwent considerable revision; the celebration of Romanticism and the enthusiasms and sufferings of youth in the first version are replaced by irony and detached and sardonic realism in the second. What remains constant is the notion that life has cheated the characters by replacing their illusions with reality. The great exception is Madame Arnoux: Surely there are lapses when the reader is allowed to see or at least divine her limitations, but in general she is depicted as the apotheosis of both internal and external beauty. Frédéric shares some of the nobility that attaches to Madame Arnoux’s character simply because his love for her remains the fixed star of his existence. Otherwise, he is little better than the rest of the odd characters who populate the novel and whose counterparts lived in Flaubert’s France.
One of the novel’s primary themes is selling—and, in some sense, selling out. From Monsieur Arnoux to Monsieur Dambreuse to Husonnet to Deslauriers, the notion of selling one’s wares and oneself is a constant, and the theme of prostitution, literal and figurative, permeates the work. Both the demimonde of Rosanette and the fashionable world of Madame Dambreuse share the same principle, or lack of it, of barter and bargaining. Closely related to this theme is that of betrayal, which exists on every level and in every character (again, with the exception of Madame Arnoux). Both themes work together to form the basis of Frédéric’s education.
That education is a series of initiations—into bohemia, high society, finance, and politics—in which Frédéric discovers cheapened ideals, infidelity, and lost innocence; in short, he finds that reality is antithetical to his Romantic vision of the world. In more than one sense, Frédéric’s education is truly sentimental. At the novel’s close, for example, Frédéric and Deslauriers meet and agree that the best time they ever had was a frustrated adolescent visit to a provincial bordello; in this agreement, the replacement of the present with a nostalgic desire to recapture the past, Flaubert demonstrates the extent to which the sentimental Frédéric has not been fully educated, as evidenced by the tenacity with which he grasps at the few Romantic notions left him.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
The transition from A Sentimental Education to The Temptation of Saint Anthony is an abrupt one, even though the latter was in progress almost as long as the former, possibly longer if one reads “Smarh” (written 1839) and other juvenilia as a prelude to it. Both antedate Madame Bovary in Flaubert’s consciousness and are filled with the elemental novelistic matter he continually reshaped and refined; both very diverse works seem to have held his attention simultaneously over a long period of time. His tale of Saint Anthony as “Smarh” went through three successive versions (1846-1849, 1856, 1870) before he finally published it as The Temptation of Saint Anthony in 1874. When he read the first version to Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, they advised him to burn it, because the Romanticism it exemplified was out of fashion. When Flaubert published part of the work in 1856, Baudelaire accorded it enthusiastic praise. It was still, in 1856, a provisional work; Flaubert struggled on with it, intent on finding the optimum form into which he could pour the myriad ideas, emotions, and suggestions that the legend of Saint Anthony evoked for him.
Like its predecessors, the final version is a “pandemonic prose poem,” in Victor Brombert’s phrase, that blends dramatic fragments, monologues, proems, and epicconventions. Ostensibly the story of a hermit tempted by the world, the flesh, and the Devil, it is a work of Romantic decadence that explores and exploits such topics as human sexuality, integrity and bad faith, and the credos and desires of Romanticism as those topics relate to the subject of Saint Athanasius’s hagiography and to Everyman. It has a particular relevance to Flaubert’s own psyche, what Baudelaire called the secret chamber of Flaubert’s mind, as tensions between orgy and asceticism, worldly and mystical perspectives, and reality and illusion are played out in the text. A poetic novel of some eroticism, it is firmly imbued with a hatred of the flesh as well as with an unwillingness to part with it. A work that asks fundamental questions about the nature of life, moral choice, and ethical action, it is finally on the side of death. At the bottom of this work, as in much of Flaubert’s writing, there exists a disturbing and thoroughly Romantic longing for oblivion; this longing informs and colors Anthony’s reactions to most situations and to himself.
The novel is replete with allusions to theological controversies, historic persons and events, and mythological, mystical, and religious lore that strike modern readers, as they struck Flaubert’s contemporaries, as bewildering. Enid Starkie is not alone in judging the novel as largely unreadable without fairly large amounts of specialized knowledge. For example, its seven parts or chapters suggest to Michel Butor a pattern based on an analysis of the seven deadly sins, but that scheme does not fit exactly; it is possible that the mystical associations of the number seven are all that Flaubert intended. In any case, the general reader has only limited access to the novel.
Bouvard and Pécuchet
In his last and unfinished novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert continued his analysis of the human condition and the human psyche by rendering a nearly perfect double portrait of human stupidity particularized in his two bourgeois antiheroes. The first meeting of two copy clerks on a deserted boulevard on a hot Parisian afternoon in 1838 marks the beginning of an extraordinary friendship. Bouvard soon receives a small but sufficient legacy, and, after a gap of three years, Pécuchet retires from his work; they are now poised for a lifelong venture in retirement in the country place they had sought for the intervening three years. The rest of their story takes place in Chavignoles, Normandy, where they set up as country gentlemen—without, however, having any clear idea of what that may involve. Their rural adventures uniformly end in disaster and are predicated mainly on ignorance and the perfect confidence that if one reads the great books of direction, one will succeed. Disregarding the experience of those around them, the citified bunglers draw down ruin on their garden, farm, produce, and livestock. Their bungling does not end there.
Each new failure drives them further into abstruse research: Instead of becoming apprentices or hiring well-qualified, honest masters, they plunge themselves into a regressive quest after first principles. Their failed attempt at canning, for example, leads them to chemistry, then medicine, archaeology, and the study of evolutionary theory; they come, encyclopedically, a very long way from learning the right way to can vegetables. This pattern of regression away from ordinary life and the daily attention it requires is one they follow throughout the novel. The unbalanced quest for first principles leads them to study history and literature in general; in this quest after the past, they overlook the fact that their present is quickly disintegrating.
Some critics find in the novel’s last chapters an increasingly sympathetic presentation of the pair. As their disillusionment—with sex, politics, religion, education, and the law—becomes complete, they seem to emerge as objects of pity as well as of irony. Given the importance Flaubert attached to the endings of his works, it is particularly unfortunate that his last novel remains unfinished. In the face of their abysmal failure, the two old men take up copying, the task they had worked at in Paris; what they copy, the matter of a proposed second volume for the novel, is not fully known, although some hints exist. The copying of words, words of others, and the interjection of their own comments serve as a fitting occupation for Flaubert’s characters. Throughout his own career as a writer/copier, Flaubert had consistently stressed the necessity of the right words, the classical, disciplined finish that frequently captured his own regret, and presumably would capture the regrets of Bouvard and Pécuchet, that, after all, things did not work out well. To the last, even in his bitter exposition of Rousseauism, the Enlightenment, and encyclopedism, he was never free of the regret for lost illusions.
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