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Gustave Flaubert is best known for his novels Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886) and L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental Education, 1898), which offer a realistic view of life in his native Normandy and, in the latter somewhat autobiographical novel, in Paris. He also wrote narratives of his travels to the Pyrenees and Corsica in 1840 (1927), to Italy in 1845, and to Egypt and the Middle East in 1849-1851 (Notes de voyage, 1910). Much of the exotic material gleaned on these trips helped inspire La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895) and Salammbô (1862; English translation, 1886), novels in which he fictionalized figures from history.
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Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary may be regarded as the great French novel, but upon its publication, in 1857, it was attacked for its immorality, and a famous lawsuit attempted to suppress it. In a sense, Emma Bovary differs little from many heroines of earlier novels, who engaged in enough amorous adventures to attract avid readers but whose eventual punishment served to uphold a moral perspective sufficient to keep the books socially respectable. What is new in Madame Bovary, as in Flaubert’s other realist work, lies in the author’s style. His detailed documentation of the society in which Emma lived emphasized the hypocrisy endemic in that society. Careful control of physical description delineates the personalities of the various characters and creates a style that has strongly influenced subsequent writers.
Flaubert’s realistic compositions form only one aspect of his literary production. His other works, closer to the romantic tradition of the historical novel, testify to his depth and versatility.
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“The novelist’s novelist,” as Henry James called him, Gustave Flaubert (floh-BEHR) became an undisputed, if controversial, master of prose fiction in a great age of French prose. Celebrated as the founder of the modern novel, especially in its psychological dimensions, Flaubert published no poetry (if one excepts segments of The Temptation of Saint Anthony) but did write a great many dramatic scenarios and fragments. Among his early plays is the unpublished “Loys XI” (written in 1838), the last play of his youth; like his later plays, this one clearly demonstrates that, although he was devoted to the drama and infused his novels with dramatic elements and effects, he was not a talented dramatist. Flaubert’s Le Château des curs (pr. 1874; The Castle of Hearts, 1904), written in 1863 in collaboration with his lifelong friend Louis Bouilhet, is a féerie, a play that highlights and relies on the marvelous to carry it. The one play of his maturity of which he is sole author, a farcical comedy in four acts called Le Candidat (pr., pb. 1874; The Candidate, 1904), lasted for four performances at the Vaudeville in Paris. Although it was fueled by Flaubert’s contempt for the Third Republic and the grasping materialism of its bourgeois industrialists—and thus potentially explosive—the play is full of stereotypes. Edmond de Goncourt characterized it as a particularly painful failure, funereal and glacial.
Flaubert’s Correspondance, 1830-1880 (1887-1893)—especially his frequently unamorous love letters to his mistress, Louise Colet, his epistles to George Sand, Maxime Du Camp, and Ivan Turgenev, and his notes to a host of friends and literary figures of the erA&Mdash;makes for extraordinarily fascinating reading. André Gide, one of many twentieth century writers who have expressed their debt to Flaubert’s letters, wrote that for five years the Correspondance was his bedside book. The letters provide a particularly useful picture of the inner Flaubert, his life, his theories about art, and his vocation as a writer. They help form a theoreticalcanon that explicates Flaubert’s intentions and works in the way the essays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, or Michel Butor serve to gloss those authors’ novels. An accomplished and prolific correspondent, Flaubert appears in his letters in ways he does not overtly appear in his fiction.
Flaubert’s travel book Par les champs et par les grèves (1885; Over Strand and Field, 1904), written with Maxime Du Camp, is an account of their walking tour of Touraine and Brittany from May to July, 1847. The Dictionnaire des idées reçues (1910, 1913; Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954), most likely an object of the copying efforts of Bouvard and Pécuchet in the projected second volume of his last and unfinished novel, occupied Flaubert from at least 1850 as a possible anthology of idiocy (un sottisier), compendium of foolish conventional opinion, and monument to error.
Apart from his novels, Flaubert’s greatest contributions to literature and those on which a major portion of his fame rests are contained in the volume Trois Contes (1877; Three Tales, 1903). These three stories, “Un Cur simple” (“A Simple Heart”), “La Légende de Saint Julien l’Hospitalier” (“The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler”), and “Hérodias,” reflect many of Flaubert’s historical interests, artistic preoccupations, and themes and are major products of his fully mature artistry.
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“If all high things have their martyrs,” wrote Gustave Flaubert’s English contemporary Walter Pater in his Appreciations: With an Essay on Style (1889), “Gustave Flaubert might perhaps rank as the martyr of literary style.” Flaubert’s great and unquestionable achievement as founder and master of the modern novel lies precisely in his perfection of a literary style that seeks to capture the essential unity of idea and form, a style that seeks, before all, le mot juste, a style that, in Pater’s (and later T. S. Eliot’s) phrase, involves a natural economy “between a relative, somewhere in the world of thought, and its correlative, somewhere in the world of language.” This style uses elements of composition functionally and emphasizes the more formal dimensions of the novel; in Flaubert’s hands, the novel achieves a beauty of form and a power that relate it to the other arts. Flaubert’s influence extends to Guy de Maupassant, Pater, James, Gide, Oscar Wilde, Butor, and Sartre. Sartre’s study of Flaubert, L’Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857 (1971-1972; partial translation The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1857, 1981, 1987), stands as a forceful witness to his lengthy engagement with Flaubert’s life, meaning, and place in the intellectual life of subsequent generations. No one writing in French can fail to reckon with Flaubert; no one writing in English should fail to do so.
One public distinction accorded Flaubert in his lifetime was one his father had received in 1839 for his work in medicine. On the strength of his writing, especially for Madame Bovary, and in part because it attracted the notice of Princess Mathilde and opened the court to him, Flaubert was named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1866. In his Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, he writes of this title: “Make fun of it, but covet it. When you obtain it, always say it was unsolicited.”
The most complete collection of Flaubert’s works is the twenty-two volume Conard edition, issued in Paris from 1910 to 1933. His manuscripts are in many locations but principally in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris), the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, the Collection Louvenjoul (Chantilly), and the Bibliothèque Municipale (Rouen).
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Is Gustave Flaubert’s subtle narrative style in effect a tribute to the capacities of his reader?
What does Madame Bovary gain from its introductory chapter on an episode in the school life of Emma’s future husband?
What interpretation would you offer for the use of the word “Madame” in the title of the novel about Emma Bovary?
If Frédéric Moreau of A Sentimental Education is a male counterpart to Emma Bovary, is he, as a man with a better chance to control his circumstances, therefore less susceptible to sympathetic interpretation?
What qualities are most necessary in a translator of Flaubert?
How does the mentality that could compose a work called Dictionary of Accepted Ideas reveal itself in Flaubert’s fiction?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
Addison, Claire. Where Flaubert Lies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A detailed study of Flaubert’s life and art, focusing on the relationship between his personal life, historical context, and his fiction.
Bart, Benjamin F. Flaubert. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1967. This chronologically arranged and detailed biography places Flaubert’s works in the context of the events of his life. Chapter 24, devoted to the Three Tales, stresses psychological elements and events from Flaubert’s life that contributed to the compositions as well as noting revisions that the stories underwent. Includes a note listing manuscript sources and an index.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Gustave Flaubert. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This collection of fourteen essays with an introduction by Bloom covers multiple aspects of Flaubert’s life and work. Jane Robertson writes on the structure of “Hérodias,” noting the relative difficulty of the work. Shoshana Felman’s essay on “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” stresses legendary and symbolic elements in the story. Contains a chronology of Flaubert’s life, a bibliography, and an index.
Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. This work devotes a chapter to each of the Three Tales. Brombert’s thematic approach emphasizes Flaubert’s adaptation of the legend in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler,” the tension between sentiment and irony in “A Simple Heart,” and exotic descriptions, some derived from Flaubert’s own trip to Egypt, in “Hérodias.” Bibliography, index.
Cronk, Nicholas. “Reading Un Cœur Simple: The Pleasure of the Intertext.” Nineteenth- Century French Studies 24 (Fall/Winter, 1995/1996): 154-161. Discusses the story’s allusion to eighteenth century works from the Rousseauesque tradition of sentiment and the Voltairean tradition of satire. Claims that Flaubert appropriates a character of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s as a model for Félicité.
Greenbaum, Andrea. “Flaubert’s Un Cœur Simple.” The Explicator (Summer, 1995): 208-211. Discusses the satire in Flaubert’s story, particularly its mockery of religious devotion by means of the parrot, the story’s satirical centerpiece.
Lottman, Herbert. Flaubert: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.
Nadeau, Maurice. The Greatness of Flaubert. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Library Press, 1972. This biographical work devotes chapter 16 to the Three Tales, stressing how these works evolved from ideas that Flaubert had accumulated during his previous writing. Sources considered are largely biographical, and the chapter details the immediate context in which the three stories were written. Supplemented by a chronology and a bibliography.
Porter, Laurence M., ed. Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. This collection of sixteen essays includes work by a number of authorities in the field. Two studies treat the Three Tales: Raymonde Debray-Genette studies “Narrative Figures of Speech” in “A Simple Heart” in a structural analysis that still insists on the importance of illusion, and Benjamin F. Bart examines “Humanity and Animality” in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler.” Bibliography, index.
Ramazani, Vaheed. The Free Indirect Mode: Flaubert and the Poetics of Irony. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. A very helpful, detailed study of Flaubert’s use of verbal irony, point of view, voice, and language (especially metaphor). Includes notes and bibliography.
Starkie, Enid. Flaubert, the Master: A Critical and Biographical Study, 1856-1880. New York: Atheneum, 1971. A biography considering Flaubert’s life only after Madame Bovary, this study devotes chapter 12 to the short stories. Special attention is given to sources and to events in Flaubert’s life, particularly close to the time of composition, that may have influenced the stories. With a bibliography and index.
Stipa, Ingrid. “Desire, Repetition, and the Imaginary in Flaubert’s Un Cœur Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 617-626. Argues that although Flaubert maintains an ironic perspective in the story, a pattern of repetitions of imagery makes the transformation of the parrot into a sacred symbol acceptable to the reader, a tactic that protects the protagonist from being the victim of the irony.
Tarver, John Charles. Gustave Flaubert as Seen in His Works and Correspondence. 1895. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970. This relatively complete biography devotes only chapter 18 to the Three Tales. The bulk of the chapter summarizes the story of “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler.” Index.
Troyat, Henri. Flaubert. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Viking, 1992. A thorough, engrossing biography that reconstructs Flaubert’s life based on the novelist’s remarkable and prodigious correspondence with his family and friends.
Unwin, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Replete with tools for further research, this is an excellent aid to any study of Flaubert’s life and work.
Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert: A Life. N.Y., New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002. A critically acclaimed narrative biography that gives Lottman and Troyat a run for the standard.Offers plenty of fresh detail and a great read.
Williams, Tony, and Mary Orr, eds. New Approaches in Flaubert Studies. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1999. Part of the Studies in French Literature series, this is a contemporary study of Flaubert’s works. Provides bibliographical references and an index.
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