Gustave Flaubert World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3789

Flaubert has been hailed as a realist, thanks mainly to his masterpiece Madame Bovary; he has also been claimed as a precursor of decadence, but Flaubert cared little for labels. He did not affiliate himself with any particular school of literature, and his main concern was with style. His works alternate between works of realism and exoticism. His first novel, Madame Bovary, his most celebrated accomplishment, was followed by Salammbô, a work set in the distant past. Flaubert returned to the recent past and the politically charged years of the 1848 revolution with A Sentimental Education but again departed from this realistic approach in The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

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Despite this alternation, all of Flaubert’s works share certain features: They are meticulously researched, stylistically rich, and exhaustively rewritten. His letters are a valuable complement to his prose fiction works, documenting his struggles with style and recounting how, for example, he would declaim his work aloud in order to find exactly the right word to fit not just the meaning of the sentence but its formal structure and poetic cadence as well. Flaubert’s style became legendary, and admirers could recite typical passages. One favorite example was the opening sentence of Salammbô, whose tripartite structure was typical of Flaubert’s style.

Although Flaubert is often associated with the realist school, his works were influential in a number of other ways. The themes of mysticism, sadism, and the femme fatale, a pattern in Flaubert’s work already discernible in Salammbô but accentuated by The Temptation of Saint Anthony and by the short story “Hérodias” (published in Flaubert’s collection Three Tales), were recognized in the 1880’s as important precursors to the Decadent movement in literature.

Flaubert’s interest in realism was also a reflection of his preoccupation with the power of the cliché to obscure meaning even as it appears to make meaning possible. Throughout his life, Flaubert was fascinated by what he came to call “received ideas”—ideas that on the surface seem meaningful but, when examined, reveal lack of critical thought and mediocrity. The first illustration of this theme occurs in the character of Homais, the chemist in Madame Bovary. Homais has an opinion about everything, but his pronouncements are usually unoriginal, pompous, and complacent.

Flaubert was still preoccupied by this idea at the end of his life, as demonstrated in his final novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet. Although unfinished, it is nevertheless a masterpiece, like most, if not all, of Flaubert’s published works. The result, once again, of meticulous research, the novel illustrates Flaubert’s mockery of bourgeois complacency through the figures of two middle-class clerks who, meeting by chance, decide that they are soul brothers based on the (to them) portentous realization that they have the same ideas. Flaubert undercuts this spiritual affinity by revealing that their uncanny sympathy is proven (in their estimation) by the fact that each had the brilliant idea of writing his name inside his hat. The banality of this initial point of commonality sets the tone for their joint story. They retire from their menial jobs and buy a farm in Normandy, determined to devote themselves to a great communal project that will realize their ambitions and ideals. They sink their fortunes into a series of fads, each sillier than the next (landscape gardening, fertilizer experimentation, social reform, and the study of phallic symbolism), in which their total lack of talent or inspiration brings failure after failure. While Flaubert created characters who become mouthpieces for received ideas, he also collected examples of received ideas and compiled them into a sort of dictionary arranged alphabetically by theme and titled Dictionnaire des idées reçues (1910, 1913; Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954).

Flaubert’s relentless mockery of middle-class self-satisfaction is extremely humorous but relies heavily on irony for its effect, and the reader must be constantly vigilant in order to perceive the disjunction between the high tone of the speeches of various characters and its inappropriateness. Flaubert seldom intrudes as narrator to point out these juxtapositions; indeed, his famous style of free indirect mode obscures the role of the narrator. This style lies somewhere between interior monologue (presenting things the way they are perceived by a given character) and indirect (or reported) speech presented by a third-person narrator or observer. The narrator does not tell the reader what to think but presents narrative events colored by the perceptions of individual participants, which the reader must then evaluate. Thus, a famous scene in Madame Bovary depicts a troubled Emma seeking to unburden herself to the priest Bournisien. Emma catches him at a bad moment, when he is distracted by the more temporal concerns of controlling an unruly group of boys. His attention is only half on Emma, a problem compounded by his own lack of spiritual vision and understanding. The best comfort he can offer is to suggest her problem may be due to something she has eaten.

Madame Bovary

First published: 1857 (English translation, 1886)

Type of work: Novel

A young woman, unable to reconcile her idealistic vision of life with reality, commits suicide after a series of adulterous affairs.

Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s first published novel, is arguably his greatest. Emma Bovary has become one of the most famous characters in world literature, and critics continue to debate and interpret her life, which, in its depiction of the conflict between idealism and reality, remains every bit as relevant today as it did when first published.

Formally divided into three parts, each one corresponding to a stage in Emma’s life, the novel opens with Charles Bovary’s youth and ends after Emma’s death, making Charles, as it were, a set of parentheses that enclose Emma’s life. Each section corresponds to an important stage in the narrative. The first part ends with the move to Yonville and the news that Emma is pregnant, thus presenting optimism at the prospect of change. As the reader suspects, however, the change does not bring happiness, and Emma quickly becomes dissatisfied once again. In her search for happiness, she turns to adultery with the rakish and unabashedly exploitative Rodolphe, whom Emma persists in seeing as a romantic hero. Emma plans to elope with him, but he balks at the last minute, and Emma is thrust into a depression that ends the second part of the novel. In the final section, Emma engages in yet another adulterous affair, this time with Léon, using the pretext of music lessons as the cover for her regular visits to nearby Rouen. The affair quickly becomes a routine, however, and a typical day sees Emma lying ever more blatantly to cover her tracks, selling property to pay the mounting bills, juggling the money problems, and taking less and less trouble to be discreet about the affair. For once, Emma is getting what she wants—excitement, romance, luxuries—and is forced to confront the fact that these are not the things that bring happiness. Unable to extricate herself from the financial problems that are ruining the family, and now irrevocably disillusioned about the possibility of finding happiness, she concludes that the only alternative is suicide.

Her dissatisfactions are highlighted by the contrast between her ideals and her uninspiring husband. The novel opens with the description of Charles Bovary as a schoolboy, a rather bumbling and boorish figure who provokes derision and mockery in his new classmates. It has often been noted that the name “Bovary,” derived from the Latin for “ox,” symbolizes Charles’s bovine character: slow, coarse and unrefined, rather dull-witted. Charles’s unfortunate start in life does not prevent him from becoming a doctor with a modest country practice and marrying for the second time for love, not for money. He marries Emma, the daughter of one of his farmer-patients, who then takes over as the central character of the narrative. Charles is an “officier de santé,” a phrase often simply translated as “country doctor,” but it is important, especially for contemporary readers, to remember that this was a second-class kind of doctor. Thus, although Charles is associated with the prestigious field of medicine, he is presented as one of its less-skilled practitioners. His was a modestly paid and extremely unglamorous occupation, which consisted mainly of contact with the most distasteful aspects of human malaise.

Flaubert describes in detail Emma’s background and education, for the fact that her outlook has been conditioned by reading novels is important in understanding her subsequent disappointments in life. She has high expectations of marriage and looks to it to fulfill all her dreams and ideals. When reality does not live up to these hopes, she is quickly dissatisfied. She imagines that satisfaction can be found in motherhood, romantic affairs, religion, material possessions, and any number of other fads that temporarily inspire her enthusiasm, but she is disappointed every time. At the end of the novel, when she despairs of finding happiness and realizes that she has ruined her family’s life through the debts she has incurred, she poisons herself with arsenic, turning her disillusionment inward in a self-destructive gesture of defeat.

Critics have disagreed over how Emma’s character should be interpreted. According to some, her idealism is seen as destructive and unrealistic, an example of the negative forces unleashed by romantic and indulgent imagination or, more reductively, as the folly of a materialistic and acquisitive woman who brings about the downfall of her family through her unbounded and selfish desires. A more sympathetic reading has also emerged based on a different understanding of the role of gender in the novel, a reading that sees Emma less as a silly woman, and more as a character in search of a deeper meaning to life but trapped by circumstances. These differences of interpretation are highlighted by different interpretations of the title of the work, which stresses that the heroine is not Emma, but Madame. Does the title, symbolizing Emma’s married, public identity, call attention to what she betrays, or to the situation that entraps her?

A Sentimental Education

First published: L’Éducation sentimentale, 1869; (English translation, 1898)

Type of work: Novel

The idealistic young Frédéric Moreau falls in love with an inaccessible woman and, over the course of a lifetime, gradually loses his ideals.

A Sentimental Education, Flaubert’s third novel, furthered the author’s reputation for realism through its depiction of the recent past, specifically the events of 1848. The novel also had another realistic twist in its autobiographical underpinnings: The basis for Frédéric’s infatuation with Madame Arnoux is Flaubert’s idealization of Madame Maurice Schlésinger (Elisa Foucault), whom he had met while on vacation at Trouville, when he was only fourteen. Madame Schlésinger, the wife of a music editor and then twenty-six years old, became for Flaubert the model of an ideal but distant woman.

A Sentimental Education follows its hero Frédéric Moreau over a period of many years, from his youth and its romantic aspirations through a series of lessons in life in which Frédéric is exposed to the decidedly unromantic side of a number of lifestyles. Political idealism, brotherhood, high society, finance, and the art world are all demystified as Frédéric learns more about each segment of society. Gradually, his ideals are eroded, leaving him only with disillusionment. When he gets together with his old childhood friend, Deslauriers, at the end of the novel, they relive their schoolboy days, including one incident in particular when they went to a brothel. In the closing words of the novel, the two men decide that these were the best times they had ever had. The nostalgia for their lost youth and innocence is poignant, yet at the same time the reader is left wondering. If a botched visit to a brothel is the highlight of their youth and the best that they remember, this fact alone speaks volumes about the many disappointments their lives contain.

A constant theme weaving together Frédéric’s lessons in life is his love for Madame Arnoux. He meets her for the first time by chance when she is a fellow traveler on the ferry he is taking home to Nogent, and it is love at first sight for him. He is only eighteen years old at the time, but this idealized love quickly becomes the dominant passion of his life. Frédéric befriends the expansive and genial Monsieur Arnoux, Marie’s husband, and becomes more deeply involved in his fortunes than he (Frédéric) would otherwise prefer, all in an attempt to retain his proximity to Arnoux’s wife. Frédéric loans money and becomes implicated in Arnoux’s affairs with mistresses, all to retain some contact with the family. Each time he resolves to take action, a twist of events thwarts him at the last minute (or are these merely pretexts to disguise his own ambivalence?), and Flaubert’s talents are fully deployed in creating dramatic irony that constantly defers resolution of the plot.

The most significant example of this irony comes when Frédéric finally has a chance to consummate his relationship with Madame Arnoux. They arrange a rendezvous, for which Frédéric even arrives early, but his anticipation gradually turns to disappointment as he waits and waits. Finally, after five hours, he leaves. This disappointment precipitates Frédéric’s next action, for he goes to see Arnoux’s mistress Rosanette in order to get his revenge. Thus, by the time he learns the real reason for Madame Arnoux’s failure to appear (her child had fallen ill), he had already judged the situation and engaged himself in another course of action (with Rosanette).

While preserving his ideal love, unconsummated, for Madame Arnoux, Frédéric enters a number of liaisons with other women that highlight in various ways the primary relationship. The relationship with Rosanette, for example, serves to contrast carnal love with the ideal and spiritual qualities with which Frédéric endows his love for Madame Arnoux. Similarly, his relationship with Louise underscores the role of inaccessibility in the development of the plot. Louise is ultimately uninteresting to Frédéric because she is accessible, and this paradox (wanting only what one cannot have) provides the key to understanding the failure of Frédéric’s relationship with Madame Arnoux: The moment that he thinks that she has finally become accessible to him is the moment that he starts looking elsewhere.

Frédéric Moreau is a male counterpart to Emma Bovary (indeed, the poet Charles Baudelaire once remarked that Emma Bovary had a man’s soul in a woman’s body), both characters trying to break out of the human condition of frustrated desire. Superficially, both characters can be read as weak and misguided individuals who suffer from the illusion that the grass is always greener somewhere else. Yet Flaubert treats this theme with indulgence for his characters’ weakness and suggests that their dissatisfactions also possess a metaphysical dimension.

Three Tales

First published: Trois Contes, 1877 (English translation, 1903)

Type of work: Short stories

The life story of an obscure country servant is followed by the medieval story of Saint Julian and complemented by a reworking of the biblical story of Herodias.

Three Tales consists of three short stories: “Un Cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”), “La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”), and “Hérodias” (“Herodias”). Taken together, these three stories reflect Flaubert’s thematic concerns and artistic style. “A Simple Heart” tells the story of Félicité, a simpleminded and religious family servant. Set in contemporary, provincial France, this short story became an exercise in realism and narrative style. “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” reactivates Flaubert’s interest in historical settings and the lives of saints (with a fantastic twist), while “Herodias” shares some of these features (the historical setting) while also incorporating the themes of exoticism and the femme fatale, a theme frequently explored by nineteenth century writers through the story of Salomé, which enjoyed a particular vogue in literature and painting at the turn of the century. Despite these different settings and themes, the three stories present a certain unity through recurrent motifs and patterns.

Stylistically, these stories reveal Flaubert’s mature writing skills, and the minimal use of dialogue gives Flaubert ample room to develop his narrative techniques. Félicité, whose name ironically means “felicity” or “happiness,” is shown through a third-person narrator whose voice blends imperceptibly into a more articulate version of her own inner voice. It is the story of an obscure and overlooked life, told in five carefully structured parts. Félicité lives vicariously through the children of her mistress Madame Aubain, through a nephew, and finally even through a parrot. Just when she seems most unwanted herself, she adopts an unwanted parrot, Loulou, who becomes her companion. When the parrot dies, she has it stuffed, and at the moment of her own death she confuses the sight of Loulou with a vision of the Holy Ghost descending from heaven.

Flaubert stated that his intentions in “A Simple Heart” were not to be ironic but to evoke pity. He relied heavily on autobiographical details for the background materials and even brought home a stuffed parrot that he kept on his desk as inspiration during the writing of the story. It was not pity for himself he wished to evoke, even though his recent financial ruin was still a source of pain. Instead, he was responding to a challenge from the novelist George Sand, who had reproached him for being unable to depict simple goodness. Sand died before she was able to see her challenge bear fruit in this story.

This rather muted story stands in contrast to the two historical panels of this triptych, a structure echoing the alternation in Flaubert’s work between contemporary and exotic works. In the companion panels, the reader finds the story of Saint Julian, which invokes the bright colors of a gothic stained-glass window, and the equally colorful, but more barbaric, story of Herodias, also with a saintly figure, that of John the Baptist.

The story of Saint Julian focuses on the fulfillment of three predictions. Julian’s birth is accompanied by two divine prophecies. The first, that he will be a saint, is delivered to his mother, while the second, predicting military glory, is told to his father. Julian himself receives a third, and more troubling, prophecy. The young Julian is an avid hunter, but when one of his targets, a stag, addresses him in a human voice to tell him he (Julian) will kill his parents, he leaves home to avoid his fate.

The second part of the story sees Julian fulfilling the prophecy of military glory, where he continues to indulge his bloodlust. Like his more familiar counterpart Oedipus, Julian nevertheless cannot escape his destiny, and the narrative leads the reader to the inexorable fulfillment of the stag’s curse. Leaving his palace one night to hunt, Julian returns to find two people in his bed. Supposing them to be his wife and a lover, he kills them in a rage, only to discover that the couple was his own parents, on a pilgrimage, to whom his wife had given up the bed.

To complete the cycle of prophecies, the third segment takes up the prediction of sainthood. Julian has become an outcast to atone for his sins and lives a poor and hermitlike existence. One night, during a storm, a leper asks to be ferried across the river. Julian complies and also grants the leper’s requests for food and shelter. The leper eventually requests that Julian warm him with his own body, and when Julian does this, the leper is miraculously transformed into Jesus, who transports Julian with him to heaven.

Here, Flaubert does not focus on the inner thoughts and perceptions of characters, choosing instead to present them like the naïve characters of the cathedral window that inspired them and to show the workings of tragedy. Julian is a tragic character, doomed by his own love of pointless killing but redeemed by charity and humility. The twin themes of fate and faith link all three stories in this series.

The final panel of the triptych is also similar to the story of Saint Julian by also being depicted on Rouen cathedral, in Flaubert’s hometown, though this time in the form of a stone carving rather than a stained-glass window. “Herodias” throws the reader into the midst of the narrative at a crucial time, precisely when the actors in a tragic drama can yet intervene to change the course of events. In the opening scene of “Herodias,” Herod Antipas is up before dawn, agitated, contemplating the need for decision and action. The timing of the action, which occupies twenty-four hours, from dawn to dawn, gives the story a classical form. Herod must decide how best to use his prisoner John the Baptist (Iaokanann) in his quest to control Jerusalem.

Herod’s situation is precarious. He is planning to celebrate his birthday, and a number of powerful Romans have been invited to attend, but at the same time he is being attacked by the king of the Arabs. Once again, prophecy has a role to play, for it has been predicted that someone important will die in the citadel that day. Herod’s problem is that there are so many important people around, it is not clear who the victim will be. The irony is that Iaokanann is not on his list of possibilities, since he fails to consider him important.

A Roman inspection of the citadel is the pretext for a lavish description of the visiting dignitaries, the fortress, and of Iaokanann himself, setting the tone of intrigue and excitement that dominates. The description, reminiscent of Flaubert’s earlier novel Salammbô, continues with the evening feast, which also serves to illustrate the clash of cultures and to air the growing rumors concerning Iaokanann’s role in a new religious movement.

The climax of the evening is Salomé’s dance. Salomé is the puppet of her scheming mother Herodias, who uses her daughter’s seductive charm to manipulate the powerful men around her. Flaubert maintained that the interest of “Herodias” lay not in the religious theme but in the figure of Herodias as a kind of Cleopatra figure, that is, a study in power and seduction. Herod is particularly smitten by Salomé because of her resemblance to Herodias (Salomé is her daughter by an earlier marriage) and offers her any reward she chooses. Salomé asks for the head of Iaokanann, which is brought to her on a platter.

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