Gustave Flaubert 1821-1880
French novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and letter writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Flaubert's short fiction works from 1992 to 2001. For criticism of Flaubert's short fiction career published prior to 1992, see SSC, Volume 11.
Among the most influential French writers of the nineteenth century, Flaubert is remembered primarily for the stylistic precision and dispassionate rendering of psychological detail found in his masterpiece Madame Bovary (1857; Madame Bovary). A meticulous craftsman, Flaubert diligently researched his subjects and infused his works with psychological realism with the goal of achieving a prose style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.”
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 child, Flaubert attended school at the Collège Royal de Rouen. During a summer vacation with his family in Trouville, Flaubert met Elisa Schlésinger, a married woman for whom he harbored a lifelong infatuation. 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 of L'éducation sentimentale (1869; Sentimental Education). 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 infant niece. Flaubert was occupied with the writing of Madame Bovary from 1851 to 1856. After the first publication of the novel in serial form in Revue de Paris, Flaubert was charged with offenses against public and religious morals and an obscenity trial ensued. Flaubert's defense argued successfully that the novel was indeed a moral work, and Flaubert was acquitted. Published in book form two months after the trial, Madame Bovary enjoyed widespread sales and significant critical commentary. Towards the end of his career, Flaubert wrote his short fiction collection Trois contes (1877; Three Tales). 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 of Short Fiction
Although Flaubert is remembered for his novels, he produced a collection of short fiction, Three Tales, towards the end of his career. This work presents three stories—“Un Coeur simple,” “La légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier,” and “Hérodias”—ranging in setting from contemporary France to classical antiquity, each of which explores the concept of sainthood and the Christian idea of the Holy Trinity. The first tale, “Un Coeur simple,” chronicles the story of a French peasant woman, Félicitié, who works for the same employer as a servant for her entire life. A loyal, kind-hearted, devout woman, Félicitié is left or forgotten by her closest family members and friends. However, her life takes a turn when she inherits a parrot that becomes her constant companion. After the bird's death, she cannot bear to part with it and has it stuffed. Associating its image with the Holy Spirit, she begins to pray to the stuffed body of the parrot. In “Saint Julien,” a young man inadvertently fulfills a prophecy that he will one day kill his parents. As a result of this tragedy, he becomes a reclusive hermit. The final tale in the collection, “Hérodias,” is based on the story of the death of John the Baptist. Many of the characters in the tale are based on Roman and biblical history.
While some critics have interpreted the stories in Three Tales as moralistic, others have argued 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. The role of religion has been identified as the unifying thematic concern of the three stories of the collection, particularly Flaubert's interest in such issues as transcendence, faith, and redemption. Commentators have consistently praised the technical virtuosity of Flaubert's writing—his use of style, structure, imagery, and symbolism. In recent years, some critics have been concerned with the order of the stories in Three Tales, as they do not appear in the order in which they were written. Another area of critical interest has been the presence, or lack thereof, of satire in his short fiction.