Gustave Flaubert Flaubert, Gustave (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gustave Flaubert 1821-1880

French novelist, short story writer, and playwright.

See also Gustave Flaubert Short Story Criticism, Madame Bovary Criticism, and Salammbo Criticism.

Considered among the most influential novelists of the nineteenth century, Flaubert is frequently associated with the realist and naturalist schools of fiction and is best known for his masterpiece Madame Bovary (1857). A meticulous literary craftsman, Flaubert diligently researched his subjects and infused his works with psychological realism with the goal of achieving an objective prose style "as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science."

Biographical Information

Flaubert was born in Rouen, where his father was chief surgeon at the city hospital and his mother was a respected woman from a provincial bourgeois family. As a youth, Flaubert attended school at the Collège Royal de Rouen. It was during a summer vacation with his family in Trouville that Flaubert met Elisa Schlésinger, a married woman for whom he harbored a lifelong infatuation. In 1838, Flaubert began Mémoires d'un fou, a reflective essay in which he recounted the agonies and frustrations of his love for Schlésinger. Shortly after, between 1841 and 1842, he composed the short novel Novembre (November), which relates the slow death of the main character. Upon receiving his baccalaureate degree, Flaubert honored his parents' wishes and reluctantly registered for law school in Paris, despite his stronger interest in literature. In 1844, however, he experienced an attack of what is now believed to have been epilepsy; he subsequently abandoned his law studies and devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1845, Flaubert completed the first draft οf L'éducation sentimentale (1869; Sentimental Education), which contrasts the respective rewards of love and art. Following the death of both Flaubert's father and sister in 1846, Flaubert moved to the family home at Croisset, near Rouen, with his mother and his infant niece. In 1849, he completed the first version of La tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Antony), a novel inspired by a painting by the elder Brueghel. When Flaubert's friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet rejected the work's excessive lyricism and lack of precision, Flaubert was persuaded to abandon historical subjects and turn to a project that would be contemporary in content and realistic in theme. The result was the composition of Madame Bovary, which occupied Flaubert from 1851 to 1856. While writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert corresponded regularly with Louise Colet, his "muse" and mistress; his letters to Colet closely document the slow, laborious development of his novel. Madame Bovary was first published in serial form in the Revue de Paris from October 1 through December 15, 1856. An obscenity trial ensued, and Flaubert was charged with offenses against public and religious morals. Flaubert's defense argued successfully that the novel was indeed a moral work, however, and Flaubert was acquitted. Published in book form two months after the trial, Madame Bovary enjoyed widespread sales and significant critical commentary. Flaubert's artistic focus expanded during the later years of his career; his works include the historical novel Salammbô (1862), the political drama Le candidat (1874; The Candidate), and the short fiction collected in Trois contes (1877; Three Tales). Additionally, he realized the completion of two major works that had consumed many years of his career—Sentimental Education and The Temptation of Saint Antony. With the exception of occasional trips abroad and to Paris, Flaubert lived at his family's home in Croisset until his death in 1880.

Major Works

Through painstaking attention to detail and the process of extensive revision, Flaubert developed a dispassionate but psychologically accurate prose style that has subsequently served as a respected model for innumerable writers. During the process of writing Madame Bovary, for example, Flaubert composed at most a few paragraphs each day, which he would repeatedly revise in an effort to achieve stylistic perfection. He rejected the use of synonyms; instead, he searched for le seul mot juste, or the most precise word, to convey each thought. Partly because of its breakthrough status in the evolution of the objective narrative voice, Madame Bovary is considered Flaubert's masterpiece—the most influential French novel of the nineteenth century. History is an important element of such works as Sentimental Education, which historians as well as literary critics have regarded as a record of daily life in France during and immediately following the July Monarchy. According to Flaubert, the goal of this work was the writing of "the moral history of the men of my generation." Historical fiction is also the focus of Salammbô, which Edmund Wilson characterized in 1948 as "gruesome and extravagant," depicting the "savage and benighted barbarians" of Carthage "[who] slaughtered, lusted and agonized superbly." Contrasting with the exoticism of Flaubert's historical fiction, such noted works as Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education delineate the concerns of the French bourgeoisie, displaying an autobiographical impulse. Emile Faguet argued in 1899 that each of Flaubert's works was inspired by a particular tendency or "mania" in the author's temperament. Faguet attributed the novel Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881), for instance, to one of Flaubert's primary manias: his "horror of stupidity and at the same time [his] sort of fascination [with] stupidity." Another important theme that runs throughout Flaubert's oeuvre is a concern with the experience of human failure. Particularly in Madame Bovary, Salammbô, and Sentimental Education, Flaubert explores the failure of bourgeois characters to achieve love, happiness, and distinction, and their subsequent renunciation of idealistic dreams. Paul Valéry viewed Flaubert's long-term project The Temptation of Saint Antony as "a personal antidote against the boredom (which he admits) of writing his novels of contemporary manners, erecting stylistic monuments to the banality of provincial bourgeois life." Valéry linked The Temptation of Saint Antony with Goethe's Faust, emphasizing the theme of man versus the devil in both works. Flaubert also addressed religious themes in Three Tales, which presents three stories ranging in setting from contemporary France to classical antiquity, each of which explores the concept of sainthood and the Christian idea of the trinity. While some critics have interpreted the work as moralistic, others have posited that the volume demonstrates Flaubert's belief that history can be divided into three distinct phases: paganism, Christianity, and muflisme, which refers to Flaubert's conception of the nineteenth century as an era marked by the petty values and lifestyles of the bourgeoisie.

Critical Reception

Flaubert's breakthroughs in approaches to narration instigated negative criticism during the nineteenth century, usually on moral grounds. Madame Bovary, for example, was widely faulted for its pessimistic view of provincial life and for what was seen as the complete absence of goodness* in his characters. Another revolutionary work, Sentimental Education, was also attacked for what many critics perceived as questionable morality, the lack of a strong hero figure, and an awkward and disjointed structure. It was only at the end of the nineteenth century with the emergence of ethics and aesthetics as separate fields that critics began to evaluate Flaubert's works on the basis of artistry rather than morality. Twentieth-century critics have consistently praised the technical virtuosity of Flaubert's writing—his use of style, structure, imagery and symbolism. Flaubert's writing process itself has also been the subject of continuing study, with letters and various drafts of his works being examined in order to gain an understanding of his approach to craft. In recent years, some critics have been concerned with the question of Flaubert's modernity and his perceived role as the father of the modern novel. Victor Brombert, for example, has argued against viewing Flaubert as "the direct ancestor of the nouveau roman," arguing that his works reject the application of critical systems of poetic theory. Another area of reexamination among contemporary Flaubert critics has been the significance of the theme of stupidity in his satirical works. Diana Knight, for example, has argued that Flaubert "suggests an important connection between moral and aesthetic values in [his] so-called 'simple' characters."

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mémoires d'un fou [essay] 1838

Novembre [November] [short novel] 1841-42

*Premiere Education sentimentale [The First Sentimental Education] (novel) 1845

Madame Bovary: Moeurs de province [Madame Bovary: A Tale of Provincial Life] (novel) 1857

Salammbô (novel) 1862

L'éducation sentimentale: Histoire d'un jeune homme [Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History] (novel) 1869

Le candidat, comédie en 4 actes [The Candidate: A Humorous Political Drama in Four Acts] (drama) 1874

La tentation de Saint Antoine [The Temptation of Saint Anthony] (novel) 1874

Trois contes: Un coeur simple; La légende de Saint-Julien l'hospitalier; Hérodias [Three Tales] (short fiction) 1877

Bouvard et Pécuchet (novel) 1881

Correspondance. 4 vols. (letters) 1887-93

Oeuvres complètes. 28 vols. (novels, short stories, essays, letters) 1910-54

**Dictionnaire des idées reçues [Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas] (prose) 1913

*First version of the work later published in 1869 as L'éducation sentimentale.

**First separate publication. Originally published with Bouvard et Pécuchet.

Jonathan Culler (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Values," in Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, Cornell University Press, 1974, pp. 157-232.

[In the following excerpt, Culler discusses the function of "stupidity" in Flaubert's themes, symbols, narrative strategies, and characters. Culler connects the idea of stupefaction with Flaubert's notion of the experience of "reverie" and the incomprehensible as the goal of art.]

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.


BÊTISE ET POÉSIE. Il y a des relations subtiles entre ces deux ordres. L'ordre de la bêtise et celui de la poésie.


(The entire section is 12196 words.)

Michal Peled Ginsburg (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Representational Strategies and the Early Works of Flaubert," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 98, No. 5, December, 1983, pp. 1248-68.

[Focusing in particular on Flaubert's early works, Ginsburg attempts in the following essay to demonstrate "how the problematic nature of representation and of the self dictates a certain number of narrative strategies which then determine the plot, themes, and narrative voice of [Flaubert's] works. "]

The radical change which Flaubert criticism has undergone in recent years has as one of its effects the possibility of seeing for the first time the work of Flaubert as a whole. Not only because certain works are finally...

(The entire section is 8777 words.)

Victor Brombert (essay date 1984)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Flaubert and the Temptation of the Subject," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 12, No. 3, Spring, 1984, pp. 280-96.

[In the following essay, Brombert discusses the concept of the literary subject in Flaubert's works and refutes critical "distortions" and "overstatements" which view Flaubert "not only as the direct ancestor of the nouveau roman, but as one of the fathers of literary 'modernity'. " Brombert argues against applying specific theoretical systems of poetics to Flaubert's works.]

—Les plus grands . . . reproduisent l'Univers.

—Oh! les sujets, comme il y en a.


(The entire section is 7293 words.)

Diana Knight (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Merits of Inarticulacy," in Flaubert's Characters: The Language of Illusion, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 25-40.

[In the following essay, Knight examines Flaubert's "simple" characters who lack the ability to articulate their experiences effectively, and argues that Flaubert "suggests an important connection between moral and aesthetic values" in these types of characters.]

Although his 'weak vessels' have often attracted critical disapproval, Flaubert himself suggests an important connection between moral and aesthetic values in so-called 'simple' characters:

Les mots sublimes (que l'on rapporte dans...

(The entire section is 7376 words.)

Annie Rouxeville (essay date 1987-88)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victorian Attitudes to Flaubert: An Investigation," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 16, Nos. 1-2, Fall-Winter, 1987-88, pp. 132-40.

[In the following essay, Rouxeville examines elements of critical controversy that surrounded Flaubert's oeuvre during the Victorian era, noting in particular the Victorian rejection of pessimism and an absence of moral purpose in Flaubert's works.]

A study of the critical reviews published on Flaubert between 1850 and 1950 reveals that the acceptance of his work in England was slow and difficult.1 Apart from a few articles published as a result of the Bovary trial, there was little criticism on Flaubert...

(The entire section is 3758 words.)

Lisa Lowe (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nationalism and Exoticism: Nineteenth-Century Others in Flaubert's Salammbô and L'Education sentimentale" in Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism, edited by Jonathan Arac and Harriet Ritvo, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 213-42.

[In the following essay, Lowe discusses "the French tradition of orientalism " and the treatment of "otherness" in Flaubert's works. Lowe argues that "Flaubert's corpus, considered as a series of orien-talist moments, reflects the divided and conflicted nature of nineteenth-century French culture itself.'']

Orientalist Text as Cultural Artifact


(The entire section is 12905 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bart, Benjamin F. Flaubert. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1967,791 p.

Updates previous biographies of Flaubert in light of the availability of new Flaubert manuscript materials and revisions of critical assessments of Flaubert's place in literature.


Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1966, 301 p.

Includes general critical discussion of Flaubert's literary temperament and his use of themes and narrative techniques. Each chapter focuses...

(The entire section is 688 words.)