Victor Brombert (essay date spring 1966)

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SOURCE: Brombert, Victor. “An Epic of Immobility.” Hudson Review 19, no. 1 (spring 1966): 24-43.

[In the following essay, Brombert describes the Flaubertian obsessions that inform Salammbô with nihilism and sacrilege—identifying concepts of immobility, sadism, violence, ennui, and the desire for an unattainable absolute.]

                         “La plastique est la qualité première de l'art.”



The opening chapter of Salammbô, with its orgiastic barbarian feast and the ethereal appearance of the patrician virgin, plunges the reader into an acrid and dreamlike world. This combination of brutality and almost mystic disincarnation is characteristic of Flaubert's poetic imagination. The African dream had long haunted Flaubert. Already in La Tentation de Saint Antoine, which he temporarily set aside, but which continued to take new shapes in his mind, Flaubert had exploited the metaphorical potential of his African image. The exotic dream goes back to his early adolescence. It was not merely literary—although literary fashions, and in particular Victor Hugo's Les Orientales did much to inflame his imagination—but deeply felt and psychologically explosive. The long voyage through Egypt, Syria, Palestine in 1850 only confirmed Flaubert in his view of this continent as the theater of the elemental mysteries of life, where sex was related to infinity and death, where a permanent original creation was also close to permanent undoing and nothingness, and the dawn of religions announced the twilight of the gods.

It is not surprising that a work founded on such an excessive, almost delirious appetite for the forgotten and the unknown should have met with incomprehension. Since it was not a traditional “novel,” it soon became fashionable to treat it as a piece of historical research, and to condemn it on those grounds. A pedantic archeologist, Froehner, set out to prove that Flaubert's archeological reconstructions were sheer invention.1 As though these reconstructions were not merely a pretext, a safe-conduct to the regions of dream! Readers still tend to view the novel as a museum of dead objects. Critics who believe that authentic documentation is irrelevant in a work of fiction are appalled by the pedantic pretense at historical veracity. In his attempt to capture the poetry of History, Flaubert had—it was felt—sterilized his own imagination. He was thus accused of betraying history for fancy, and at the same time of allowing pedantry to crush his imagination.

Contradictions such as these made it convenient simply to dismiss the work as a “historical novel,” blaming Flaubert for his choice of a period—the world of Carthage—about which we know almost nothing. For there exists no “contact” in Salammbô: the enigmatic nature of the characters only seems to underscore our basic indifference to the ruthless struggle between Carthage and its mercenaries, as well as our almost total lack of knowledge of the society Flaubert set out to resuscitate. Georg Lukács believes that Salammbô illustrates the decline of the historical novel: dehumanizing monumentality, emphasis on objects and on the picturesque rather than on human situations, irrelevant social and historical context.2

These accusations are not altogether unjustified. Yet even a prejudiced reading of the novel reveals an extraordinary control over the literary material. Flaubert is not only a fine painter of crowds—the most remarkable before Zola—but a superb painter of landscapes. The vaporous sunsets and dawns so typical of Mediterranean cities; the immensity of a land, harsh and voluptuous, swept by heavy breezes, bathed and refreshed by moonlight and soon after scorched by the desert sun; the glaring light distorting or even abolishing all sense of distance, and transforming the sea into melted lead—these images, as well as those...

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of the terraced and undulating city of stone and ivory offering itself to the glance like an opulent cornucopia, make up the very texture of the book. And they are not gratuitous. If the forms of the hills are compared to the swollen breasts of women, it is because this vision corresponds to the sexual languor and obsessions of the barbarians, who themselves, just like the landscape, surrender alternately to hedonistic indolence and to uncontrollable crises of savagery.

Equally impressive is the dream-like atmosphere which suffuses some of the key scenes, and which bestows upon them an almost surrealistic logic and necessity. “Tanit,” the chapter devoted to the nocturnal theft of the sacred veil (the “Zaïmph”), is an initiation into the inner chambers of the temple as well as into the secret recesses of the author's imagination. The furtive theft somehow corresponds to a deep compulsion. The oneiric imagery is at times quite explicit. In a suffocating atmosphere, Mâtho walks between two parallel galleries where heavily tattooed women sleep on mats like reclining idols. Later, as he rushes up the large stairs toward Salammbô's room, Mâtho experiences that “strange ease which one feels in dreams.”

But the most overwhelming impression left by Salammbô is one of nightmarish brutality for which, because of the clearly erotic associations, there is no better word than sadism. Prisoners into whose faces pebbles are thrown to make them cry out in pain; writhing bodies whipped to death to the accompaniment of the lions' roar; panting women tearing the flesh and piercing the eyes of captives—these are familiar scenes in Salammbô. Were the brothers Goncourt really unfair when they remarked in their Journal that Flaubert, whose mind was haunted by the Marquis de Sade, had an undue appetite for turpitude? From his correspondence, especially during the period of the novel's composition, it is quite clear that he enjoyed immensely the idea of his “truculente facétie” shocking the bourgeois reader. Almost triumphantly, he announces to his friend Feydeau that he is now tackling the gorier passages, that his protagonists begin to walk through disembowelled guts.

Salammbô reads indeed like a compendium of atrocities. Mutilation is almost the key image of the novel. The ferocious battle-elephants of Carthage, with torn-out bowels hanging from their tusks, seem to symbolize the prevailing brutality. Even vampirism and cannibalism find their way into the book. But the most characteristic mode is one of lascivious cruelty which inflames the mind and the senses of both sides in this relentless war, and which shows up, in its acutest form, when Mâtho's living body, at the end of the novel, is being slowly torn to shreds by an entire population. Women let their nails grow especially for this occasion.

The horror becomes at times so intense, so oppressive, that Flaubert suggests an immense nausea. Thus the starving Barbarians, trapped in the pass of the Battle-Axe, soon give up feeding on the rotting corpses of their dead comrades. The horror has been too great. The stench of decomposition stings the nostrils, troubles the eyes, penetrates the very skin. “An immense disgust overwhelmed them. They would have no more of it. They wanted to die.”

The death-dream is paralleled by an obsession with disease. Hanno's leprosy—his unsightly ulcers and crusts, his greenish flesh all in shreds, his stench covered by precious perfumes—corresponds to a deep-rooted obsession with pathology already evident in Flaubert's earliest writings, as well as in Madame Bovary. “I feel a need to dissect,” he confesses to a friend. And he explains: “It is strange how attracted I am to medical studies.” Just as later, when writing L'Éducation sentimentale, he was to visit the Sainte-Eugénie Hospital to observe children suffering from croup, so during the composition of Salammbô he undertook research on various afflictions, particularly on the ravages of thirst and hunger. Perhaps this dedication to the pathological represents an effort to rid himself of his obsessions and to exorcise the evil spirit of Sade. “I disembowel men with prodigality, I spill blood, I write in a cannibalistic style. …” There is something compulsive in the very tone of Flaubert. The goriness and carnage of the novel may well betray a yearning to transcend animality.

But whether Flaubert's poetry of horror represents a permanent trait of his psychology to which he here surrenders with relish, or whether the stress on the sanguinary is symptomatic of a redeeming struggle with his own demons, the result is one of sensationalism. The romantic tirade and the taste for the spectacular are the two traits which most sharply distinguish Salammbô from Madame Bovary. There is something histrionic, and even operatic, about the entire work. The feast of the Mercenaries during which Salammbô emerges on the upper terrace, the return of Hamilcar and the crowds thronging the steps of the Acropolis, the brazen colossus appearing like a prop out of Aïda, the hierarchical cortèges proceeding to the rhythm of cymbals, castanets and tambourines—all these scenes of movement and monumentality seem to unfold on an outsized stage to the accompaniment of trumpets and choral effects. Salammbô has unquestionably the makings of a Hollywood extravaganza.

Is it fair, however, to dismiss Salammbô as a dazzling display of images by a writer endowed with a talent and propensity for debauches of the imagination? Is dazzlement all that is sought and achieved?


The shimmer and hardness of precious stones introduce the reader into a world of plastic forms. The novel begins in an almost artificial light, as the moon and the campfires are reflected on hard, glittering surfaces. The entire first chapter suggests alternately the chiselled, polished forms of the goldsmith, and those, heavy, solid and immobilizing, of the sculptor and the architect. The bronze-like massiveness only helps bring out the delicacy of gems. The metaphorical unity of tone is obvious. The entire description of the orgy in Hamilcar's gardens stresses artifact. It also stresses a mixture of animalism and of a dehumanized plasticity of “pure” forms. The captains wear bronze cothurnes; the monkeys on the trees are scared by wavering lights, burning in the porphyry vases; oblong flames tremble in brazen cuirasses; in their drunkenness, the soldiers toss to each other ivory stools and gold spatulas. Even the sound effects in this opening chapter are tinkling or metallic. The clinking of cups, the crash of Campanian vases, the limpid ring of large silver plates mingle with the crunching sound of the soldiers' jaws.

Nature itself, in this first scene, appears transmuted into a work of art, indeed petrified. Not only is the black sand mixed with powdered coral, and the sunlight described as a “rain of gold,” but an avenue of cypress trees is metamorphosed into a double colonnade of green obelisks. If objects have a life of their own, life in turn is here made inert and immutable. This death principle is illustrated by Salammbô's song, telling of Masisabal's decapitated head, attached to the prow of a ship, and which the combined action of the sun and the sea water embalmed and made “harder than gold.”

The taste for the tableau further contributes to the sense of immobilization. And so does the imperfect tense which seems to imprison the action in an eternal present. “C'était à Mégara, faubourg de Carthage, dans les jardins d'Hamilcar.” This carefully balanced first sentence of the novel imposes its weight and seems to offer no issue. The lion pit, as well as the audible presence of the ergastulum, with its imprisoned slaves and clattering chains further conveys a feeling of claustration. This immobilization extends to vegetation (the trunks of trees become “blood-stained columns”) as well as to human beings. Mâtho, at the end of the chapter, stands motionless, having assumed an almost statuesque pose. Indeed, throughout these opening pages, as well as later in the novel, men assume sculptural traits or stances. Even the sea appears immobilized and solidified, “figée” (congealed). Nature itself—just as the sacred fish with precious stones in their gills—is thus denatured. Behind the entire opening passage, one senses an attempt to translate living and unstable forces into the arrested patterns of art.

This immobilization of life is paralleled by an inverse tendency, but one whose effect is paradoxically similar: movement bestowed upon the motionless and even the lifeless. Thus verbs of action are made to serve as verbs of description. The landscape seems to act out a geometric ballet: the conical roofs of hectagonal temples “stand out” in the early dawn, houses “climb up” the slopes, “mass together” like a herd of black goats “descending” the mountains, the streets “stretch out,” the palm trees “just out” beyond the walls. At times, the entire setting seems to propel itself into motion.3 At others, inanimate objects seem to palpitate with life: glass bowls reflecting the light of the torches become “enormous throbbing eyeballs.”

As a result of this double tendency (immobilization of life and animation of the inanimate) the distinction between the organic and the inorganic almost vanishes, and being and becoming tend to merge. The very techniques exploited by Flaubert in the first chapter of Salammbô point to some permanent and important features of his work: Nature transformed into Art; a dehumanization and bestialization of man (at the orgy, the soldiers imitate the cries and leaps of ferocious animals); the permanence of Death as suggested by a petrification of life; a predilection for the statuesque and the lapidary which corresponds to a horror of the amorphous and to an inner struggle between the stable and the unstable; a fusion of movement and immobility symbolizing a cosmic rhythm and necessity.

Some of Flaubert's central themes and obsessions thus emerge in the very first pages of Salammbô. The exotic repast is not merely sensational or decorative. As is so often the case with Flaubert, food and appetite, which mean life and nourishment, also point to death. Discontent, violence and destruction are intimately associated with carnivorous greed and the processes of digestion. The Mercenaries eat, “leaning on their elbows, in the tranquil pose of lions devouring their prey.” Indeed, animals of prey constitute a permanent presence, and a permanent metaphor, in Salammbô.

Food and destruction do not represent an arbitrary association. The “cupidité des estomacs,” as Jean-Pierre Richard suggests, does point to a thirst for the absolute.4 The multiple dishes representing every possible culture and an almost infinite variety of mores are indeed like invitations to a global voracity. But soon the relative and the absolute clash, as the appetite proves far larger than the capacity to digest. The drunken eyes of the soldiers seek to “devour with their glances” all those things which they lack the power to seize and carry away. Impotence leads to exasperation. And just as sexual excess is bound up with a secret yearning to dissolve, consume and ravage, so here the orgy of food and drink leads up to a “vertigo of destruction” which whirls over this drunken army and impels them to strike, break and kill at random.

From the very beginning, “total” forces seem to be at play. The first chapter, in its very structure, opposes the feminine softness and mystical lasciviousness of the Moon and the hardness and fierceness of the Sun. The dialectic of the eternal couple, Tanit and Moloch, is indeed at the core of the novel. The scene opens as night falls. When Salammbô appears, she is, in her softness and pallor, like an incarnation of the lunar principle. Her pallor is in fact attributed to the moon. And her movements as well as her effect on the assembled men derive from lunar influences. This voluptuous and provocative Moon-Tanit is met by the aggressive and destructive male force of the Sun-Moloch.

The death-feast, the vertigo of destruction and the omnipresence of absolute forces locked in fierce battle remain permanent realities in Salammbô. The opening chapter, so high in color and movement, is thus not merely of dramatic, but of proleptic interest. It also points to some of the most fundamental Flaubertian themes: the theme of sacrilege and the theme of inaccessibility. The Mercenaries' impulse to “devour with their glances” what they could not seize and possess corresponds to the Flaubertian nostalgia for the unattainable. Its keenest manifestations, in these opening pages, occur when Mâtho, transfixed, looks up longingly at the distant Salammbô. And this separation not only represents the distance—political and social—which separates them (“She is remote and inaccessible!”), but prefigures the final scene of the novel, when Mâtho, inexorably drawn to his hated love, dies at the foot of the terrace, staring at the figure of Salammbô above the balustrade.


Inordinate dreams (or nightmares) assume plastic concreteness in Salammbô. The book must ultimately be judged as a poem. But not in the flippant terms of Gide, who speaks in his Journal of the “disarming childishness of the poet.” The poetry of Salammbô goes beyond a mere quality of the imagination. It echoes a pressing inner music, and expresses itself through complex rhythms, by means of a language in which words themselves become palpable, sensuous realities. Flaubert, moreover, clearly set out to explore the poetic potential of French prose, which he felt could achieve a hitherto unsuspected beauty. To Louise Colet, at a time when he was still busy writing Madame Bovary, he confided his dreams concerning a new prose style which, without ceasing to be “prose,” would combine the virtues of artful rhythms and an almost scientific precision.

The words “poem” and “poetry” indeed found their way repeatedly—and quite naturally, it would seem—into the critical opinions of those contemporaries who were able to appreciate Salammbô. Leconte de Lisle praised it as a “beautiful poem.” Hector Berlioz referred to it as “an invention of the highest poetry.” And J. M. de Hérédia, perhaps the most representative poet of the school known as the “Parnasse,” hailed Flaubert as the “schalischim of poets,” and compared the novel to a “temple of granite, covered with precious marble …, blending all its ornaments into a general magnificence. …” The very terms of Hérédia's comparison seem to place Flaubert's work squarely among the Parnassian poets.

The practice and ideals of this group—as illustrated by writers such as Théophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, Théodore de Banville, and Hérédia—marked a reaction against the highly personal and sentimental effusions of the first wave of Romantic poets. Lamartine's lachrymose, mellifluous and vaporous reveries, but even more so the histrionic and self-pitying playfulness of Alfred de Musset, were the favorite targets of this poetic reaction. The “romantic” nature of this anti-romantic group explains in part their affinity with Flaubert. They too extolled impassibility as a cardinal virtue in art. For the Parnassians, artistic perfection was to be sought in plastic effects. Hence the importance of the statuesque nude and the permanent search for a purity of sculptural lines. Théophile Gautier, for whom both Baudelaire and Flaubert felt much admiration, was from childhood on drawn to the plastic arts. Even when singing the beauty of the human hand, he felt compelled first to lend it the statuesque firmness of a sculptor's plaster cast. Firmness of line and of outline is indeed one of the characteristics of Parnassian poetry. The polished craft of the goldsmith, the glitter of jewels, the hard aristocratic surface of marble are recurrent images.

Sculpteur, cherche avec soin en attendant l'extase,
Un marbre sans défaut pour en faire un beau vase

advises Banville.5 And Gautier, whose poem “L'Art” is a true Parnassian credo, praises the beauty of Paros marble and calls for a poetic art whose sculpted and chiselled beauty can be achieved only through the artist's victorious struggle against a highly resistant material. The very titles of so many Parnassian works (Emaux et Camées, Les Stalactites, Améthystes) betray this concern for a hard and almost icy perfection which the Symbolist poets were soon to condemn.

The very choice of Carthage as a subject for a novel is symptomatic of a double Parnassian tendency: on the one hand, the desire to resuscitate a past through a combination of research and archeological intuition; and on the other, the focussing on a civilization so distinctly out of touch with the world of modern Europe as to insure an almost hermetic purity. As for the other Parnassian traits, they are even more obvious. Salammbô seems conceived under the very sign of the “plastic” emotion. Flaubert's invocation at the end of his travel notes on Carthage (“A moi, puissance de l'émotion plastique! résurrection du passé, à moi, à moi!”) clearly indicates the spirit in which the novel was conceived. The sculptural and architectural metaphor almost becomes a mannerism in Salammbô.

The architectural obsession is particularly striking. Numerous passages suggest a real choreography of geometric figures and patterns. The three levels of a tower are like three “monstrous cylinders.” One of Hamilcar's apartments is built in the “form of a cone.” At times the accumulation of geometric figures becomes truly oppressive. Early in chapter four, Carthage is viewed as a vast amphitheater of “cubic” houses: it is “mountain of blocks,” with innumerable “intersecting” streets which “section” it vertically, and where emerge, here and there, enormous flat spaces of walls (“des pans énormes”). Viewed from the vast “quandrangular” court, the temple of Moloch is an “architectural mass.” Not even Robbe-Grillet, with his compulsive taste for measurements and his predilection for lines and surfaces, has been more addicted to geometric images.

Even more ubiquitous are the images of precious gems, of sophisticated jewels—almost a museum display. (“I wallow in precious stones like a pig,” Flaubert writes to his friend Duplan.) These images cluster around the key motifs of the novel, and in the first place the natural phenomena, among which the most important is of course the Moon. The shafts of its light bring out luminous glints, striking the gold necklace of some idol or the globes of glass glittering like enormous diamonds on the roofs of temples. The sea also, symbol of feminine caprice and fecundity, assumes a mineral quality: after the heat of the battle, it appears to Mâtho like a flat pavement of lapis lazuli. But even more characteristic is the association of precious stones and architectural effects. At the entrance of the temple of Tanit, a stone cone stands between a stele of gold and a stele of emerald. Inside, stone phalli appear. And the coveted veil of the Goddess, the sacred Zaïmph, close to a semi-spherical black stone and to an erected ebony cone, appears like a cloud of scintillating stars, “diaphanous” and “glittering.” The described reality is here transmuted into a permanent metaphor.

This raises an esthetic problem. Does Flaubert's metaphoric style correspond to a metaphorical vision? This in fact, as Harry Levin points out, is the very dilemma of Parnassian poetic practice: imagery seems deprived of “perspective” in a land where metaphors come true.6 The emphasis on poetic jewelry work, this tourism through a kingdom of stone, have of course an immediate dramatic and thematic relevancy. But what ultimately matters is not the concrete application of this imagery, nor even the peculiar eroticism dependant on the taste for the clinquant and which recalls Baudelaire's love of sonorous jewels, but the abstract, almost metaphysical potential of these images and rhythms. For the novelist's predilection for ternary rhythms, his massive and magnifying ends of chapters, as well as the use of ponderous adverbs frequently concluding a sentence—all bring about, no less than the lapidary imagery, a fixation of movement. An uncanny sense of immobility pervades the novel. Though the fortunes of war, the displacement of troops, the proliferation of battles suggest agitation, the overall impression is one of stasis and futility. The very fact that dialogue between the culture of Carthage and our own is not possible contributes to this sense of stasis and even of constriction. Perhaps it is one of the reasons why Flaubert was secretly drawn to a historical period which remains locked on itself. Certainly, the very structure and texture of Salammbô convey this combination of frenzy and immutability. No scene is more characteristic of the mood of the novel than the end of “Le Défilé de la Hache” where the “bored” lions, who have fed on the corpses of the trapped army, lie satiated and “motionless as the mountains or as the dead.” This combination of violence and of tedium represents a predominant feeling in Salammbô.

For the “bored” pose of the lions corresponds to an almost Baudelairean sense of ennui. Their yawns, which throughout the book accompany the cries of tortured men, are symptomatic—much like Baudelaire's “monstre délicat”—of an immobilization of life and of a chronic yearning for destruction. (“Ah, you understand what a horrible bore existence is!” Flaubert wrote to Baudelaire admiringly.) Flaubert's own penchant, ever since his adolescence, led him to a poetry of ennui, combining dreams of infinity with a sense of despair. “I feel nothing but immense and insatiable desires, an atrocious ennui and continuous yawns,” he confides to his friend Ernest Chevalier. Much of “Bovarysme” seems to be implicit in this cry of frustration, in this diagnosis of his acedia. Moreover, the desire to create a poetry of ennui crystallizes, it would seem, around exotic images—images of the Egypt Flaubert discovered, or wanted to discover, during his long trip in 1850. “An immense ennui devours everything,” he writes to Louise Colet, “when I will write Oriental poetry … that is what I will stress.”

Yet Flaubert's “oriental” poetry is not limited to the impassive yearning for a perennial stillness and mystery. The paradox of Flaubert's vision is that the very immobility seems to be in motion: monotonously, mercilessly rolling like the huge, clumsy tower construction, the outsized helepolis used during the siege of Carthage, which, on its iron-bound wheels, moves forward slowly toward the walls of the city like a mountain meeting another mountain. It is this sense of the hopeless continuity of eternal sameness—symbolized by the irresoluble tides of war and by the equally relentless struggle between Tanit and Moloch—which more than any other single factor endows the novel with a certain epic grandeur.

Contemporaries—provided they were well disposed—did indeed refer to the epic qualities of Salammbô.“Beaucoup trop de bric-à-brac, mais beaucoup de grandeurs épiques …,” Baudelaire wrote in a letter to Poulet-Malassis. Théophile Gautier, in an article published in Le Moniteur, sums up his evaluation of the work: “It is not a book of history; it is not a novel. It is an epic poem!” Similarly, Théodore de Banville praised the book as a “true epic narrative of modern times.” Flaubert himself, during the slow process of gestation and composition, repeatedly referred to Salammbô as an “epic” enterprise. “I have an epic itch” (“des prurits d'épopée”)—is Flaubert's diagnosis of his condition after years of immersion in the petty, provincial world of Madame Bovary. He now needs air and space: “grandes histoires” and “grandes gueulades.” In one of the scenarios for the novel, he plans a “picturesque and epic enumeration” of all the African tribes. The epic, as a genre, had long fascinated him. To read the Iliad in the original was one of his dreams, and for years he deluded himself into believing that he was about ready to undertake this. As for the Aeneid, he was quite appropriately perusing it while working on his Carthaginian novel.

Even more than details of battle, conflicts of men and animals (the two, at times, are almost interchangeable) and the omnipresence of Gods, idols and monstrous images, it is the very atmosphere of the book which inevitably conjures up epic reminiscences. Like its illustrious predecessors, Salammbô is a “mediterranean” poem. When Flaubert, in one of his most spectacular light- and landscape scenes, describes the dawn over Carthage (“Toward the east a luminous bar appeared …”) one recalls the Homeric “rosy-fingered dawn.” A certain poetry of History emerges, which is based not so much on respect for sources as on a sense of the grandiose and the “collective.” And the military action reveals not only the atrocious deed, but the exemplary and heroic one. As for the craft and cunning which traditionally temper and civilize the physical exploit, this element is here embodied by that decadent Ulysses, the former slave Spendius, who appropriately is also a Greek. In a context of total surrender to passion, whether that of love or of destruction, Spendius represents the cunning mind.

Above all, however, it is the style, the very syntax of Flaubert, which brings about a characteristic wedding of Parnassian sensibility and epic massiveness. The paratactic use—and abuse—of conjunctions, the reliance on conjunctive locutions (tandis que, pendant que), have a cumulative and broadening effect. The action advances, and yet it seems part of the same immense, unchanging tableau. Adverbial articulations (puis, alors) introduce a certain “primitiveness” into the narration, create a link of necessity between contingent events, and provide a sense of the crescendo. The abundance of conjunctions is of course a chronic mania with Flaubert, one against which, on numerous occasions, he felt compelled to wage ruthless war; but it does serve here to create an epic rhythm. This tendency is further accentuated by strikingly characteristic epic similes which seem to derive straight from Homer or Virgil:

Like a pruner cutting off willow branches, endeavoring to lop off as many as possible in order to gain more money, he advanced mowing down Carthaginians on all sides of him.

… Swinging his heavy shoulders covered with furs, he reminded his companions of a bear leaving its cavern in the spring to see if the snow has melted.

But the most significant epic “device” in Salammbô is Flaubert's own ability to fuse action and description, his skill at transmuting an action in progress into a seemingly arrested tableau. This mixture of movement and immobility is best illustrated by the altogether original use of the imperfect tense to describe a finite action:

… Hamilcar tira deux larges coutelas; et à demi courbé, le pied gauche en avant, les yeux flambants, les dents serrées, il les défiait, immobile sous le candélabre d'or.

This gesture of defiance, which according to all the customs of French syntax would require a preterite, or passé simple, is here fixed, and so to speak liberated from contingency, by the imparfait of description. This grammatical transposition no longer shocks us: the Naturalistic writers, in the wake of Flaubert, have often exploited it. Basically, it is a painter's device, and corresponds historically to a period when literature often attempts to rival its sister art. The immediate effect of this syntactical anomaly is to immobilize movement into a pose, and to provide a sense of statuesque grandeur. Suddenly, all human action seems to be amplified and projected against an immense, almost universal screen.

The basic “unit” of Salammbô is unquestionably the sexual image as crystallized around the divine couple Tanit and Baal, and as symbolized by the cosmic polarity of Moon and Sun. On the human level, Salammbô embodies the spirit of Moon-Tanit, while Mâtho incarnates the Sun-Baal. Such images and such concepts are, however, somewhat abstract. Flaubert very deliberately textures his novel with a profusion of sensuous images—all of which support the basic erotic motif. Odors (good and bad), scents, exhalations are evoked with particular frequency. Whether the emanations of sweaty crowds, or the mixed smells of perfumes, leather and spices, these stifling sensations all contribute to a latent lasciviousness. The association is often explicit. Thus Mâtho, about to ravish Salammbô, dilates his nostrils to breathe in more freely the perfume exhaled from her body. “It was a fresh undefinable emanation which nonetheless made him dizzy like the fumes from a censer. She smelled of honey, pepper, incense, roses, and yet another odor.” This evocation of an odor di femmina has upset many prudish readers.

Characteristically, Flaubert exploits images of warfare for what might be called sexual effects. The siege of a town and the possession of a woman are almost set up as explicit parallels. Openings, breaches, battering-rams are among the recurrent, almost obsessive images. The motif of penetration (into the temple of Tanit, into Salammbô's room, into the city of Carthage) is particularly insistent. Mâtho and Spendius discover a “breach” in the city-wall, they find a “slit” in the temple wall, they “penetrate” into a small round room, they discover a “narrow opening,” they enter into a “narrow passage,” they glimpse “small openings.” The entire chapter describing the nocturnal penetration and profanation of the temple of Tanit is filled with similar suggestions. On occasion, as with the scene describing the mystic deflowering by the sacred serpent, the images are distinctly obscene (“… its body, shiny and bright, gradually emerged like a blade half drawn from the scabbard.”) The erotic use of the snake-image again occurs in the tent scene, when the golden chainlet between Salammbô's ankles snaps and the two ends fly apart, striking the tent “like two leaping vipers.” The image recalls the frantic undressing of Madame Bovary in the hotel room, when the thin corset-lace is made to whistle about her hips “like a gliding viper.”

But the sexual imagery points to larger and more significant themes. Mâtho, literally bewitched, experiences love as an initiation to destruction and to death. He is oppressed by his own boundless desire, his very being seems to dissolve in an irresistible torpor, “like those who long ago have partaken of some potion of which they must die.” Love is here linked with the idea of a fateful inebriation. Above all, the love-motif corresponds to a spiritual malady recurrent in the works of Flaubert. The sexual quest thus becomes the physical expression of a self-destructive yearning for the unattainable absolute.

Repeatedly, sex and annihilation are linked in Salammbô. The martial context only stresses this association. But even the less military passages provide images of undoing. The scent of Salammbô is “more fragrant than wine and more terrible than death” (the language is almost Biblical!). The fertility symbols in Tanit's temple, the perfumes and the exhalations “overcame” Mâtho. This sense of accablement, of succumbing to a weight, pervades the scene of the symbolic love-ritual with the serpent. “Salammbô panted under this great weight; her loins gave way, she felt that she was dying.” The sex and war imagery, already predominant in the opening chapter, provides the connective texture which from the “vertige de destruction” of the Mercenaries' feast leads to Moloch's “possession” of Carthage, and finally to the sadistic killing of Mâtho.

Death and destruction are thus the price for impossible dreams. For what really counts in Salammbô—as in most other works of Flaubert—is the drama of an impossible desire. This quest for the unattainable, this boundless appetite for that which can never be seized, and much less appropriated, is without a doubt the main tragic theme of the novel. The permanent presence of walls is a reminder not only of Salammbô's almost holy virginity, and of the distance which separates the Carthaginian patrician girl from the foreign plebeian, but of all sense of distance and indeed of the very notion of inaccessibility. And it is revealing that Flaubert had the high priest Schahabarim fall in love with Salammbô. A eunuch, he is condemned to consume himself in a hopeless and sterile desire.

The notion of sacrilege, so recurrent in Salammbô, acquires its full meaning in this context. For sacrilege—whether the soldiers' killing of the sacred fish or Mâtho's violation of the temple—ultimately proves to be a mad enterprise. A fundamental prohibition places the coveted object beyond reach. Mâtho knows it, and, during the entire expedition in search of the sacred veil, the very idea of sacrilege haunts him and terrifies him. It is as though the Flaubertian hero himself felt the instinctive need for barriers that would set a limit to his dangerous desires.

We are coming close here to the very core of the Flaubertian sense of tragedy. For “Bovarysme” is not merely—as Jules Gaultier put it—the wishing oneself other than what one is. It is an almost metaphysical eroticism: “desire” in its essential form. And it implies a condemnation to an unmedicable sadness—the kind of sadness which, on the most sordid level, Mâtho experiences when he attempts to satisfy or forget his desire with the handmaidens of Tanit. Prostitution with Flaubert is, as it were, the “negative” of an ideal image. It is also the symbol of a reality which condemns life to betrayal and unfulfillment.

All the typical stages of “Bovarysme” are rehearsed in Salammbô. The first period of the disease is a state of vague exaltation, which combines sensuous and spiritual aspirations. In a revealing letter written to his friend Bouilhet in 1850, Flaubert hesitates between three equally tempting subjects. The first is “a night of Don Juan.” The second is the story of Anubis, the woman who wants to be loved by a god. The third is the novel of a mystic Flemish virgin who lives and dies in her provincial town. Quite clearly the last project is echoed in Madame Bovary and in Un Coeur simple, and the story of Anubis eventually became part of Salammbô. But what is more interesting than mere concern for origins, is that the three projects, though superficially very dissimilar, bear a fundamental resemblance to each other. All three stories, dealing with the double form of love (sensuous and spiritual), were to illustrate “l'amour inassouvissable”—insatiable love.

Thus vague exaltation leads to an almost hysterical surrender to sensation, in quest of that precisely which refuses to be possessed. The second stage in this tragic disease is marked by an ungovernable tension, an almost demented, convulsive distortion of the sensibility, resulting in paroxysms of possessiveness. Obstacles only exacerbate this ferocious desire. Mâtho begins to dream of “terrible and extravagant things,” while Spendius frantically strives to invent “frightful engines of war such as had never been constructed before.” The Flaubertian protagonist, in this assault on the impossible, in this attempt to violate a secret, is doomed to will violence and his own destruction.

The madness of love—for love, with Flaubert, is a “madness,” a “curse,” a “malady”7—is linked both to a predilection for the unbounded and to the fundamental impotence of all desire. The debauches of the imagination infallibly bring about a sense of sadness, tedium and even disgust. The mystic virgin who commits a sacred prostitution to recover the Zaïmph is also the woman who discovers the bitterness of dreams come true. “Elle restait mélancolique devant son rêve accompli.” This quasi-metaphysical sadness becomes most oppressive at the very moment the dream seems realized. Emma Bovary experiences the same mournful disenchantment. A sense of emptiness and despair invades the Flaubertian heroine as she measures the permanent distance that separates her chimera from reality. Paul Bourget diagnosed the disease of “Bovarysme” most accurately when he saw it as a dramatization of the law which condemns satisfaction (jouissance, in the largest sense) to be forever out of harmony with desire.

Bourget's diagnosis, developed in one of the best of his Essais de psychologie contemporaine, is relevant because it raises the entire question of desire and frustration to a philosophical plane. The disproportion and lack of harmony become symptomatic of an intellectual disease, indeed of the very disease of intellect by which modern civilization is being slowly eroded. Emma Bovary, Salammbô, Frédéric Moreau, Saint Antoine, Bouvard and Pécuchet—all of them are victims of their own nefarious imagination, all of them have “known the image of reality before reality.”

Salammbô, like all of Flaubert's works, insists on the bewilderment and abdication of reason in the face of a devastating multiplicity of phenomena. The very first scene, with its unending variety of dishes and tribal habits, betrays an encyclopedic obsession. This mania for inventories appears throughout the novel. And Africa, the exceedingly fecund breeding ground of races and religions, was an appropriate symbolic setting for this obsession with polymorphism. The apocalyptic défilé of gods, beliefs and heresies in La Tentation de Saint Antoine also takes place on African soil. Flaubert obviously enjoys displaying his erudition or pseudo-erudition. The parade of colorful details is, however, not aimed merely at creating picturesque effects. The stage of this implacable war becomes a museum of artifacts, as well as a graveyard of civilizations. And knowledge itself—or the catalogue of knowledge—turns out to be no more than a symbol of sterility.

The figure of Schahabarim embodies this sterility. The eunuch-priest who betrays his Goddess has been everywhere and learned everything. His curiosity and knowledge extend to natural sciences as well as theologies. But the result of this intellectual tourism is idiosyncrasy and perverse indetermination. Intellectual aridity leads to all manner of heterodox aberrations. At the end of the novel, lonely and spiritually crippled, Schahabarim places himself entirely in the service of horror and extermination. Flaubert's taste for excess, his obsession with the proliferation of forms and concepts always points to a simultaneous love and terror of the monstrous. He observes in Notes de voyage (II, p. 356) that excess “is a proof of ideality.” But it is also—in the Flaubertian context—a principle of annihilation, and as such one of the most permanent tragic themes of his works. Polymorphism—perpetual change and modification—is bound up to its corollary: nothingness.

The attraction to Nothingness is indeed the ultimate stage of the tragic sickness which erodes the spirit of all Flaubert's protagonists. Salammbô is not merely a book of death, but of annihilation. In retrospect, all the characters—much like the survivors of the entrapped army—appear like “half-opened tombs, living sepulchres.” But the frenzy of destruction, the consuming desire to “anéantir,” the “vertige” which makes the destroyer lose himself in that which he destroys, overshadow the simple reality of death. It is characteristic that the battle-orgy, when all the butchery is done and the soldiers are wearied from too much slaughter and screaming, ends in a collective desire for sleep.

Images of torpor and numbness correspond to a profound feeling of dejection, a heaviness of heart, an unredeemable discouragement. “The situation was unbearable, above all because of the idea that it would become worse.” Carthage's predicament aptly sums up the prevailing pessimism and gloom of Flaubert's total vision. Flaubert himself has alluded to the despondency which permeates the very conception of this novel. “Few people will guess how much sadness was necessary to undertake the resuscitation of Carthage!” In fact, it is worse than mere “sadness”: the emasculated priest of Tanit, having betrayed his cult, is left without a faith—a priest without God. Flaubert's own sense of anguish seems to parallel that of Schahabarim. His writings exhale a chronic blasphemy against the very principle of life. And like all true blasphemies, Flaubert's not only imply an apostasy (and the accompanying regret for the recused faith), but a deep and permanently frustrated taste for the absolute. Did not Flaubert call himself a mystic who was unable to believe anything?8

This perverse combination of mysticism and nihilism makes of much of Flaubert's work, and of Salammbô in particular, a forerunner of “decadent” art. Salammbô appears indeed as a direct precursor of some of the fin-de-siècle creations of Huysmans, Wilde, Mallarmé and Moreau. The glorification of the Barbarians, which in Salammbô appears most clearly in the scenes of their epic courage in death, is of course one of the most recurring “decadent” motifs. Tired races, like the spiritually exhausted senators and consuls in Cavafy's “Waiting for the Barbarians,” have a secret hope that the Barbarians will soon arrive. The entire nineteenth century, especially after the first wave of romantic poets, liked to think of itself as a somewhat bloodless over-civilized civilization that had reached its period of decline. The Latin decadence was a frequent subject of meditation, and poets considered Paris the capital of a new “Bas-Empire.

Salammbô is thus representative of a moral and intellectual climate. But it is also very much a roman personnel, a novel expressing some of the most intimate attitudes and yearnings of Flaubert. Far from being the marginal work, the eccentric aberration that some readers saw in it, the novel about the greatness and horror of Carthage is indeed central to an understanding of some of the most permanent obsessions of Flaubert. Were the thought not so heretical, one might even venture to say that in many ways Salammbô is more truly representative of the patterns of Flaubert's imagination than Madame Bovary. And not merely because it is filled with personal reminiscences of the crucial journey to North Africa and the Near East in 1850, nor because it reflects Flaubert's lifelong taste for history and erudition (the original idea of the novel was probably inspired by a text of Michelet), but because the novel reenacts a personal drama—the drama of a man haunted by a desire for the absolute, and capable only of finding the human substitutes of destruction and death. Sartre is probably right: Flaubert lived out fully and without issue the conflict between the synthetic myth of religion (in which he wanted to, but could not, believe) and the materialistic “bourgeois” spirit of analysis.9 Sartre, in typical fashion, probably attributes too great an influence to Flaubert's father, the Voltairean physician, in crushing the innate temperamental idealism of his son. But unquestionably, a work such as Salammbô reveals an explosive mixture of a godless religion and a naïve scientisme which makes of Flaubert himself a kind of “priest” in search of a cult. His solitude, his lugubrious pessimism coupled with his dreams of perfection, go a long way toward explaining his faith in the redeeming virtues of Art. “Art is the search of the useless,” Flaubert jotted down at the time he undertook his documentary voyage to the site of Carthage. “It is in the field of speculation what heroism is in ethics.”10 It is characteristic that the notion of Art should be so intimately bound up, in Flaubert's mind, with the idea of a glorious and tragic futility.


  1. Revue contemporaine, 31 December 1862; 15 February 1863. Flaubert wrote a spirited point by point rebuttal which revealed the extraordinary range of his historical research.

  2. The Historical Novel, London, Merlin Press, 1962, p. 199.

  3. Benjamin Bart sees an intimate relationship between this mobility of Flaubert's landscape and his “pantheism.” (Flaubert's Landscape Descriptions, p. 44.)

  4. “La Création de la forme chez Flaubert” in Littérature et Sensation, pp. 117-219. According to Richard, the Flaubertian “voracity” is basically tragic.

  5. Les Stalactites.

  6. The Gates of Horn, p. 277.

  7. See the letter to Sainte-Beuve (Corresp., V, p. 59).

  8. Corresp., II, p. 412.

  9. Critique de la raison dialectique, p. 92.

  10. Notes de voyage, II, p. 358.


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Salammbô Gustave Flaubert

The following entry presents criticism of Flaubert's novel Salammbô (1862). For discussion of Flaubert's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 2 and 62; for discussion of the novel Madame Bovary, see NCLC, Volumes 10 and 66; for discussion of the novel L'Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education), see NCLC, Volume 19.

Famous for its erotic, sadistic, and decadent content, Flaubert's exotic novel Salammbô is also noted for its lush descriptive quality, visual brilliance, and Oriental texturing. It is a symbolic work notorious for its atmospheric evocation of a dying civilization and imagery of sensuous and terrifying cruelty. Set in North Africa after the First Punic War in the third century b.c., Salammbô details a mercenary revolt against the city of Carthage led by the Libyan soldier Mâtho and suppressed by the renowned Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca. Within the historical context of the rebellion Flaubert inserts his unique fictional character, Salammbô, Barca's daughter and the object of Mâtho's passion. A work principally concerned with sacrilege, ruin, and the tragic futility of desire, Salammbô has both intrigued and repelled critics with its depiction of lust, violence and excess.

Plot and Major Characters

Salammbô opens with a great feast in the gardens of the Punic general Hamilcar Barca after the conclusion of war between Carthage and Rome in 241 b.c. Its guests are the formerly employed mercenaries—an army of mingled races, including Africans, Gauls, and Greeks—who are disgruntled over having not been paid. With Barca having not yet returned from the war, the Council of the Ancients offer up his private gardens for the feast. The drunken revelry turns violent and the soldiers begin destroying the grounds and killing Barca's sacred fish. At this, Salammbô, Barca's daughter and a Carthaginian priestess, comes forth and rebukes them. The barbarians are unable to understand her words, but are fascinated by her beauty, particularly the gigantic Libyan warrior, Mâtho.

After the feast, the Mercenaries agree to leave the city, but remain restless over the withheld wages. Under the direction of Mâtho and the Numidian, Narr'Havas, they camp beneath the walls of Carthage. Mâtho's obsession with Salammbô deepens, and—counseled by the cunning Spendius, a freed Greek slave—he decides to steal Carthage's greatest treasure in order to draw Salammbô out and demoralize the citizens. Entering through an aqueduct, Spendius and Mâtho reach the temple of Tanit, the Carthaginian moon goddess served by Salammbô. They seize the zaïmph, a sacred veil that embodies the mystic power of the city. Though apprehensive of its reputed power to destroy the profane, Mâtho wraps himself in it as he passes through the enraged and fearful crowds of Carthage to the city gates. With the zaïmph in his possession, Mâtho takes full command of the barbarians, leading them into battle against Carthaginian forces. Meanwhile, Barca returns and resumes command of his military.

Back in Carthage, Schahabarim, the eunuch high priest of Tanit, convinces Salammbô that the only way to ensure Carthaginian victory is to recover the zaïmph, even if it means the sacrifice of her own life. She travels to the mercenary camp, meeting Mâtho in his tent. Remaining there for the night, she mesmerizes the Libyan who, enamored, hands the sacred veil over to her. Salammbô returns to Carthage unharmed.

Later, the mercenary Narr'Havas and his formidable Numidian cavalry betray the barbarian cause, allying with Carthage. In return, Barca promises his daughter to Narr'Havas. As the mercenaries surround the city, Spendius manages to break a hole in the aqueduct, spilling the city's water supply outside its walls. The continued siege is disastrous for the citizenry, but the barbarians prove unable to breach Carthage. In order to end the standoff, the city's rulers arrange a human sacrifice to the angry god Moloch, condemning innocent youths to his sacred temple fires. None are exempted. Hamilcar, anxious to spare his own son Hannibal, sends a slave child in his stead. Moloch appeased, Hamilcar breaks the siege by luring the barbarians into an axe-shaped gorge between mountains. Trapped behind a landslide caused by the Carthaginians, the mercenaries have little choice but to wait for death.

Starvation quickly ravages the mercenary army. A moment of hope arises as ten emissaries, including Spendius, are allowed to leave and meet with Barca. The Carthaginian crucifies them and sends lions into the valley to feed on the soldiers that remain. In a last effort, Mâtho leads his men in a futile attack against the superior forces of Barca. They are defeated and Mâtho is captured. Exacting revenge for the barbarian siege, the people of Carthage force the Libyan to run bound through the streets while a mob tortures him, flaying his flesh from the bone. Covered in blood, and barely recognizable among his wounds, Mâtho appears before Salammbô, then dies. A priest removes his heart, sacrificing it to Moloch. Narr'Havas, momentarily relishing his treachery, takes possession of Salammbô as promised by her father. Standing beside her, he drinks to Carthage and its victory. Salammbô drinks as well, then falls dead.

Major Themes

Critics of Salammbô tend to agree that Flaubert poured his obsessions with the irrational, mystical, exotic, sacred, and feminine into the novel, while adding to the mix a decadent sensibility and a visceral, yet clinical, depiction of violence and brutality. In order to lend structure to this arrangement, they assert, Flaubert presented a series of symbolic oppositions, which provide the thematic locus of the novel. A traditional view of these oppositions associates them with antagonistic male and female principles: featuring, on the one side, Moloch/the Sun/Mâtho, and on the other, Tanit/the Moon/Salammbô. Other significant polarities in the work include those of history and myth, and a conflict between civilization and barbarity. In the case of the latter, critics have observed the lack of any absolute differentiation between the barbarian and the civilized. Flaubert generally expressed this idea through metaphor and stark imagery, describing the mercenaries as violent animals, only to demonstrate their awe and surprise at the ultimate brutality of the Carthaginians as they sacrifice their own children to the sun god Moloch.

A number of themes have additionally been associated with the symbolic elements of Salammbô. Specifically, the zaïmph, the sacred veil of Tanit carried off by Mâtho, is thought to exemplify Flaubert's motif of sacrilege. Even the novel's final line suggests a price exacted by the gods for profane acts, attributing Salammbô's death (and by implication that of Mâtho as well) to her touching of the veil. Another minor theme in the work involves the limits of language, particularly notable in a scene early in the novel in which Hanno, a Carthaginian general, attempts to appease the disgruntled mercenaries with words instead of money. Recognizing that his speech in the Carthaginian tongue is unintelligible to the collected multitude, the crafty Spendius mistranslates, hurling insults at the crowd, which they believe to have come from Hanno. The enraged barbarians then assault Hanno and his entourage, who are obliged to flee. Inaccessibility and unattainability round out the dominant motifs in the work. Mâtho's desire for Salammbô, like the barbarian efforts to revenge themselves on Carthage for its mistreatment, prove in the end to be utterly futile. Desires in the novel remain everywhere unfulfilled. Finally, the work is pervaded throughout with a foreboding sense of disease, sterility, ennui, and nihilism. The first two of these concepts are personified by the grotesquely leprous Hanno and the learned but ultimately powerless eunuch priest, Schahabarim. Likewise, a multitude of episodes featuring bizarre rituals and bloody conflict, coupled with a total absence of human pity or mutual understanding, contribute to the overall nihilistic effect of the narrative.

Critical Reception

The process of writing Salammbô occupied more than five years of Flaubert's life. During this time, Flaubert claimed to have read hundreds of texts on the culture, art, economy, and history of ancient Carthage. Flaubert organized these records in his dossier for the novel, later made public. This was partially in response to criticism from his contemporary Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who had questioned not only the obscure subject of the work, but also its historical accuracy. Like Sainte-Beuve, modern scholars have generally dismissed Flaubert's claims of historical veracity. They have pointed out that Flaubert drew his material from one principal source, the history written by Polybius in the second century b.c., a primary record of the Punic Wars. Accompanying such historical personages as Hamilcar Barca, Hanno, and Mâtho, all of whom appear in the writings of Polybius, Flaubert inserted the invented figure of Salammbô. In the end, most have seen Salammbô as a conflation of history and the product of Flaubert's active and neurotic imagination.

Bloodthirsty and sensationalist, Salammbô won considerable popular acclaim upon its publication. Unlike his previous novel, Madame Bovary—which created open scandal in France and led to Flaubert's prosecution for offending public morality—Salammbô aroused far less ire. Since then, critics have perceived a kind of spiritual affinity between Salammbô and Emma Bovary; disillusionment and disenchantment being key characteristics of both characters. Some critics have unequivocally disparaged the novel, or contended that it is completely out of keeping with Flaubert's other works of fiction. Others have disagreed with this assertion, however, pointing to stylistic and thematic continuities within Flaubert's oeuvre that belie the ostensible differences of varied subject matter. Formal criticism of the novel itself has been conditioned by the commentary of Sainte-Beuve, who in addition to his other reservations, criticized the work for its lack of structural unity. Subsequent scholars tend to dispute this claim, finding an architectual order in the novel's symmetrical design and thematic concern with polar opposition.

In the twentieth century, Georg Lukács viewed Salammbô as a model of the historical novel. Later commentators have responded by arguing that Flaubert's novel, despite its historical setting, bears little resemblance to such fiction, which tends to depict psychological motivation and to trace a teleological momentum in history, qualities completely lacking in Salammbô. In the contemporary period, Victor Brombert initiated a new phase of serious interest in the work. Acknowledging Salammbô's brutal imagery, indeed viewing the work as “a compendium of atrocities,” he refused to dismiss it outright as the sensationalized product of a disturbed mind. Brombert admired Flaubert's skillful scene-painting in Salammbô and highlighted its carefully crafted form, seeing the novel as a literary depiction of aesthetic stasis. He called it a “Parnassian epic” that was better judged in the contexts of poetry and the visual arts than that of prose fiction. Brombert noted Flaubert's highly metaphorical style, the novel's lapidary imagery, and the rendering of eroticized polarities. He also identified its recurrent theme of sacrilege and indeed its vertiginous attraction to Nothingness, to the nihilistic futility of the tragic act. Lastly, Brombert recognized “the dialectic of the eternal couple, Tanit and Moloch,” said to provide structural coherence to the work on schematic, symbolic, and thematic levels.

In addition to form and theme, many late twentieth-century critics of Salammbô have also been drawn to the sense of historiography implied by the novel. Most have maintained that its method is ahistorical, observing that Salammbô questions the very possibility of composing a scientific, archeological recovery of the past in written form. Other scholars have considered Flaubert's appropriation of myth in his narrative. Scholars have also suggested that Flaubert undertook to write historical analogy in Salammbô by drawing broad comparisons between the ancient Carthaginians and the French bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century. As numerous points of view have been forwarded by critics, most consider the work a paradoxical and unique component of nineteenth-century French fiction. Frequently denigrated for its rough sensationalism, brutality, and decadence, Salammbô has also been widely admired for its exotic descriptiveness, aesthetic renderings and distinctive, if fanciful, reconstitution of an ancient civilization about which relatively little is known.

J. R. Dugan (essay date September 1969)

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SOURCE: Dugan, J. R. “Flaubert's Salammbô, A Study in Immobility.” Zeitschrift für Französische Sprache und Literatur 79, no. 3 (September 1969): 193-206.

[In the following essay, Dugan analyzes the style, imagery, symbolism, and form of Salammbô, concentrating on the novel's rendering of aesthetic immobility.]

Since the publication of Salammbô, critics have been faced with the difficulty of categorizing it. There is evidence from within the work to support any one of a number of points of view—a historical novel in the great tradition of Sir Walter Scott, a long prose poem with a markedly «Parnassian» flavour, or simply a novel in the most conventional sense of the word.

Any such interpretation is of course subjective in the final analysis, and in fact has very little meaning. The intention of the present study is not to label the book but to look in some detail at one aspect of it which would appear to be central. How does Flaubert achieve certain stylistic effects, and do these effects conform in any way to his basic sensibilities?

Flaubert's statement that «il ne faut jamais conclure» is a well-known fact. If we accept this fact, that his work contains no moral or philosophical lesson, and indeed we must at least as a point of departure, then it must follow that it is with aesthetic problems that we must begin. We must approach the author's work on his own terms, that is to say, in terms of style. As Thibaudet says with regard to Salammbô:

De sorte que Flaubert prend ici un sujet qui soit étranger à la continuité humaine d'Occident, comme il avait pensé prendre dans Mme Bovary un sujet étranger à son courant intérieur, un sujet qui se tienne suspendu par lui-même, pur de toute attache d'actualité, et qu'on puisse traiter du point de vue unique du style.1

Within the context of the novel, stylistic techniques, that is to say, aspects of syntax and imagery, provide ample evidence of the novel's lack of motion, and it is here that we must begin.


It is a cliché of Flaubertian criticism to note his painstaking care with composition. His taste for erudition and documentation are indeed very well known. By its very subject matter, Salammbô required immense amounts of research, and among the material used we can include the reading of numerous classical epic poems, especially Virgil's Aeneid.

From a syntactical point of view, the epic style offered to Flaubert certain techniques which he exploited with considerable effect. The sentence structure of Salammbô is varied. It covers a broad range, beginning with the direct ternary rhythm of the opening lines, a sentence which in its poetic simplicity, establishes a certain sonorous tone.

C'était à Mégara, faubourg de Carthage, dans les jardins d'Hamilcar.2

In contrast, one can find extremely complex, broad, sweeping sonorities in some of the highly developed descriptive passages. However, the simple, seemingly primitive statement is used with some frequency in the novel, with a calculated impact on the reader. After a lengthy description of the crucifixion of Hannon, we read:

Il écumait et se tordait, comme un monstre marin que l'on égorge sur un rivage, en leur prédisant qu'ils finiraient tous plus horriblement encore et qu'il serait vengé.

Il l'était.3

These last words, so simple, carry a weight, a definitive quality suggesting the omniscience, cruelty and primitivity of the Carthaginian gods which dominate the novel.

Such simple statements often are combined in a rapid succession, without connectives, dependent clauses, or indeed any kind of grammatical relationship:

Comme par les temps de peste, toutes les maisons étaient fermées; les rues s'emplissaient, se vidaient soudain; on montait à l'Acropole; on courait vers le port; chaque nuit le Grand-Conseil délibérait.4

Such structures, frequently found in the classical epic, are known as paratactic sentences. Characterized by a repetitiousness and a grammatical monotony, Flaubert's use of parataxis suggests a primitive, almost naïve effect. It would be dangerous to see here a direct influence of Greek and Latin writers on Flaubert, but the device does suggest an effort on the part of the modern writer to reproduce a certain epic tone.

Parataxis is exploited by Flaubert on numerous occasions for a multiplicity of effects. It can suggest a rapid acceleration of many movements, a kind of simultaneity of confused actions which take place in the briefest possible time lapse. The numerous battle scenes of the novel offer a wealth of examples, such as this one, drawn from chapter fourteen, «Le Défilé de la hache»:

Ils s'étaient réfugiés sur le haut de la colline. Leur cercle à chaque brèche nouvelle, se refermait; deux fois il descendit, une secousse le repoussait aussitôt; et les Carthaginois, pêle-mêle, étendaient les bras; …5

The paratactic sentence appears also when Flaubert wishes to deal with a rapid succession of events, that is, the passage of time, in as few words as possible:

Les Barbares faiblissaient; des hoplites grecs jetèrent leurs armes, une épouvante prit les autres.6

This very direct presentation is often useful when Flaubert, ever conscious of the fact that he himself must never intrude in the action of his novel, finds it necessary to deal with the psychological level of his characters. Salammbô has entered Mâtho's tent to retrieve the «zaïmph», the famous veil so heavy with symbolism in the work. Drawing a parallel between him and the god Moloch, she pours out her invective, which is more than slightly tinged with an admiration for Mâtho's courage. Mâtho's reaction to this is given in one sentence:

Mâtho se leva d'un bond; un orgueil colossal lui gonflait le coeur; il se trouvait haussé à la taille d'un Dieu.7

Parataxis is thus a means by which the author communicates to his reader a knowledge of the non-tangible levels of his narrative—chaotic action, violence, passage of time, psychological reaction—all the while, by the very elemental nature of the sentences themselves, preserving his cherished objectivity.

But the effects of parataxis are certainly more far-reaching than this. Sentences of this type are abrupt, immediate, and often a shock to the reader. They interrupt the flow of words, strip situations to the basics. They are reductive and diminishing. While seeming to accelerate action, they break it into small pieces, and in fact arrest movement by reducing it, temporally speaking, to the moment. The paratactic sentence becomes a series of simultaneous isolated poses, a series of static effects whose accumulation immobilizes the whole into a frieze of a stylized, non-real nature:

Les rues désertes s'allongeaient; les palmiers çà et là sortant des murs, ne bougeaient pas; les citernes remplies avaient l'air de boucliers d'argent perdus dans les cours, le phare du promontoire Hermaeum commençait à pâlir.8

In this passage the very subject itself is motionless, and the comparison stresses it, but the repetition of the simple subject and predicate pattern adds a heaviness, and an unending quality to the scene. By contrast, the following passage would appear to be full of an almost mystical rhythm:

La musique au dehors continuait; c'étaient trois notes, toujours les mêmes, précipitées, furieuses; les cordes grinçaient, la flûte ronflait; Taanach marquait la cadence en frappant les mains; Salammbô, avec un balancement de tout son corps, psalmodiait des prières, et ses vêtements, les uns après les autres, tombaient autour d'elle.9

But indeed the general effect is heavy, monotonous, primitive, static. Form and content are heavily interdependent.

In his concern with variety of form, Flaubert will often combine the paratactic structure with its opposite, the more traditional compound or complex sentence, as in the concluding movement of the last example. This is known as hypotaxis:

Le continuel glapissement des voix était dominé par le cri des porteurs d'eau arrosant les dalles; des esclaves d'Hamilcar offraient, en son nom, de l'orge grillée et des morceaux de viande crue; on s'abordait; on s'embrassait en pleurant; les villes tyriennes étaient prises, les Nomades dispersés, tous les Barbares anéantis.10

The initial attack demonstrates clearly the effect of the longer, more complex word structure. Long sentences slow down action, reduce movement to a minimum, and create a ponderous effect which contributes considerably to the immobility of the novel as a whole:

Tous regrettaient leurs familles, leurs maisons: les pauvres, leurs cabanes en forme de ruche, avec des coquilles au seuil des portes, un filet suspendu, et les patriciens, leurs grandes salles emplies de ténèbres bleuâtres, quand à l'heure la plus molle du jour, ils se reposaient, écoutaient le bruit vague des rues mêlé au frémissement des feuilles qui s'agitaient dans leurs jardins;—et, pour mieux descendre dans cette pensée, afin d'en jouir davantage, ils entrefermaient les paupières; la secousse d'une blessure les réveillait.11

The harmony between the slowness of the sentence and the lassitude of its contents is striking. It begins by a short, simple statement, a primitive and naïve suggestion. This thought is slowly developed by grammatical accumulation. There is nothing very complicated about the structure; changes of tone and thought are indicated by the conjunction «et», which is a device also seen in combination with parataxis, and which serves to weigh down the sentence's rhythm. Blocks of words pile up on each other. The description is thus elongated, slowly, painfully, like a row of columns in a colonnade: One last sentence provides an interesting example:

Elle (la trirème d'Hamilcar) s'avançait d'une façon orgueilleuse et farouche, l'antenne toute droite, la voile bombée dans la longueur du mât, en fendant l'écume autour d'elle; ses gigantesques avirons battaient l'eau en cadence; de temps à autre l'extrémité de sa quille, faite comme un soc de charrue, apparaissait, et sous l'éperon qui terminait sa proue, le cheval à tête d'ivoire, en dressant ses deux pieds, semblait courir sur les plaines de la mer.12

Flaubert's taste for the «tableau» is well illustrated by this sentence. The description of the ship is very much alive, but the impression of movement that it seems to convey is in the final analysis quite illusory. Thanks to the proliferation of verbs in the imperfect tense—«s'avançait, battaient, apparaissait, terminait,» action is arrested in pose. The trirème which «semblait courir» is in fact motionless.

The fluctuation between simple and complex structures, the use of tense, the rhythmic flow of the prose, characterize the entire novel, including the dialogue. Characters pronounce lengthy, highly stylized speeches, such as that of Hamilcar before the Council of the Ancients on his return to Carthage, or Spendius' exhortations to the Barbarians, or Salammbô's prayers to Tanit. Such incidents are of course not dialogues, but rather monologues, periodically interrupted by interlocutors. Here as well the effect is ponderous, slow, rhetorical, one might say statuesque.

The other extreme is the brief, sudden ejaculation of words exchanged between two characters. Mâtho and Spendius, in stealing the «zaïmph» exchange such comments as: «Et le voile?», «parici», «prends-le». Salammbô and Taanach speak to each other in much the same way:

—«Mais elles reviendront, Maîtresse.»

—«Oui! Je le sais.»

—«Et tu les reverras.»

—«Peut-être,» fit-elle en soupirant.13

The effect here is very similar to that of the paratactic sentence—fragmented, primitive. Dialogue makes statues out of characters, either by clothing them in a kind of rhetorical artificiality or by stripping them of psychological complexity, and reducing them to essentials.

The use of the verb also can transfix characters, as it froze Hamilcar's returning ship. It becomes a kind of grammatical equivalent of the whole syntactic structure, not to mention the static imagery which we have yet to examine. For example, we see Hamilcar before the Council of the Ancients:

Hamilcar, emporté par un esprit, continuait, debout sur la plus haute marche de l'autel, frémissant, terrible; il levait les bras, et les rayons du candélabre qui brulait derrière lui passaient entre ses doigts comme des javelots d'or.

(italics mine)14

The verb «levait» describes an action, but by means of grammar, this action becomes pose, and the static overcomes the active. Hamilcar is immobilized by a verb, and the light image which follows completes the statuesque impression of a god at an altar.

There is indeed a kind of polarity in the style of Salammbô which produces, by the very sonority of the words themselves, the cadences of the sentences and the interplay of grammatical forms, an effect which appears to be full of movement, indeed of violent action, but which is in reality arrested motion.


Right from the first chapter of Salammbô, «Le Festin», one can discern numerous visual elements which have a tendency to freeze action. A careful reading will reveal a surprising frequency of use of the adjective «immobile» in relation to the characters. Salammbô herself appears, descends the palace staircase, and we read:

Immobile et la tête basse, elle regardait les soldats.15

and then at the end of the same chapter:

L'immobilité de Mâtho étonnait Spendius.16

But beyond the simple word, there is a whole series of static imagery that Flaubert unfolds before us. Some of these images deal with the crowds of people which so often appear in the pages of Salammbô:

D'autres (barbares), qui s'étaient par pompe barbouillés de vermillon, ressemblaient à des statues de corail.17

The visual impact of the image is its primary strength. An exotic colour is transfixed in stone. But the image is more subtle than that. By its position in the text, at the end of a long paragraph of description of «des hommes de toutes les nations», in which Flaubert gives suggestions as to their manner of dress, their physical build, their languages, etc., this statuesque image tends to transfix the complexity of the mercenary army. By extension, all the Barbarians become statues. The passage becomes a kind of overpopulated oriental bas-relief.

It would be fruitless to attempt to analyse all the sculptural imagery of the novel, but a few examples will give us a clearer idea of Flaubert's techniques.

Les Grecs rasés, plus blancs que des marbres …18

While the stone of the previous statue was coral, an exotic material, highly coloured, which applies by extension to the entire barbarian hoard, here we have white marble. Notice how Flaubert evokes an entire historical and cultural background. On the one hand we have the Orient, multiform, multicoloured; on the other, the purity and simplicity of ancient Greece. The sculptural image is an evocation in concrete and motionless terms of the ancient world. The characters are established through these images in their cultural milieu, and at the same time Flaubert suggests certain of their personal tastes.

The image of the statue recurs with some frequency. When the mercenary army arrives at Sicca, the men see on the walls of the town priestesses of the goddess Tanit playing musical instruments. Closing this description, the novel reads:

D'autres restaient accoudées, le menton dans la main, et, plus immobiles que des sphinx, elles dardaient leurs grands yeux noirs sur l'armée qui montait.19

The reference to the sphinx immobilizes these women on the walls. Again we have a sculptural image, transfixing action in stone. But as was the case with the coral and the marble, the sphinx too evokes an entire ancient tradition, one of mystery and religion. One can recognize the fascination of Flaubert himself for the Orient and its mysteries. The reference to the goddess, the musical incantation, and finally the image of the sphinx recreate an entire world of which Flaubert was fond of dreaming, and which he had seen himself in his travels.

But within the context of the novel itself the image is skillfully chosen. By means of this brief, motionless description, Flaubert reminds his reader of the mysterious Salammbô of the first chapter. In short this image, albeit exterior and passive, evokes simultaneously several worlds: that of the author's predilection; that of the historical and cultural background of the novel; and finally that of the hidden desires of its heroine. The granitic image is thus a means by which a lost civilization is reconstituted and an atmosphere is established around a character, a group or a situation. Through this type of image, the reader penetrates from the exterior to the interior world.

This interior world is really the world of psychological reactions, and it is a fact that sculptural imagery is very often associated in this way with the characters themselves. Hannon's arrival at Sicca gives rise to the following description:

Les courtines de pourpre se relevèrent; et l'on découvrit sur un large oreiller une tête humaine tout impassible et boursouflée; les sourcils formaient comme deux arcs d'ébène se rejoignant par les pointes; des paillettes d'or étincelaient dans les cheveux crépus, et la face était si blême qu'elle semblait saupoudrée avec de la râpure de marbre.20

The description is particularly striking because of its concentration on form—«boursouflée, arcs, pointes», etc., combined with colour—«pourpre, or, blême»—an association which we have already seen elsewhere. But the novelty of the image with regard to those already examined is revealed by this very emphasis on form. Hannon's head, bloated as it is, is frozen in marble. But it is a head which the sculptor has not completed, since it is «saupoudrée avec de la râpure de marbre.»21 It is obvious that Flaubert wishes to stimulate in his reader an emotional reaction to Hannon. He is a man who lacks form, and is thus a dislikable, one might even say disgusting person. The same image reappears on the following page, again referring to Hannon:

On aurait dit quelque grosse idole ébauchée dans un bloc de pierre; …22

A physical description by means of a sculptural image can thus reveal something of the sensibilities of the author at the same time as it defines the character in the book. Flaubert detests formlessness, that is to say, lack of style. This sort of image is the external appearance of one aspect of a character's psychology combined with the author's taste.

For after all there is a psychology to the characters of Salammbô, although it lacks the development in depth which Flaubert masters in Madame Bovary and L'Education sentimentale. This psychology is frequently made manifest by concrete, granitic imagery. For example, when Hamilcar gives his daughter to Narr'Havas, we find her total passivity expressed thus:

Salammbô, calme comme une statue, semblait ne pas comprendre.23

Or indeed, we find this description of Mâtho with Salammbô in his tent.

Il levait ses bras où des veines s'entrecroisaient comme des lierres sur des branches d'arbre. De la sueur coulait sur sa poitrine, entre ses muscles carrés; et son haleine secouait ses flancs avec sa ceinture de bronze toute garnie de lanières qui pendaient jusqu'à ses genoux, plus fermes que du marbre.24

His animality and masculinity appear transfixed forever—physical desire interpreted in stone. Even Flaubert's famous liquid images, of which this passage is a valid example, are arrested by sculptural forms. This is an emotional state transposed into static images. Such a technique gives to the characters of Salammbô a heaviness and an opacity. They are statues erected in the name of desire, abstractions made concrete.

But descriptive passages in this novel are by no means limited to the characters. The settings for the action of the work are very significant. Depictions of material objects by their very nature, can offer a wealth of valuable detail.

… ; un sable noir, mêlé à de la poudre de corail, parsemait les sentiers, et, au milieu, l'avenue des cyprès faisait d'un bout à l'autre comme une double colonnade d'obélisques verts.25

This forms part of the description of the garden of Hamilcar in the first chapter. Here again the general effect is to transfix what is not naturally permanent. Trees become a construction in stone. The comparison has as a point of departure, form—cypress trees, typical of the Middle East, and obelisks. This same image of the column reappears at another point in the book, but the effect is somewhat different:

Ils retirèrent leurs cuirasses pour que la pointe des glaives s'enfonçât plus vite. Alors parurent les marques des grands coups qu'ils avaient reçus pour Carthage; on aurait dit des inscriptions sur des colonnes.26

What is interesting here is the manner in which Flaubert evokes the entire past of the mercenaries. They have been trapped in the «Défilé de la Hache», and are consequently going to die. Time is so to speak arrested by the image, for, like the inscriptions, their scars bear lasting witness to a glorious past. The fleeting is made permanent by the concrete expression of their blind courage.

Certain images cannot be precisely categorized as sculptural or architectural, but, while retaining their original form, change substance, and are thus rendered motionless:

… ; et bientôt ils atteignirent la Lagune, où des places rondes, toutes blanches de sel miroitaient comme de gigantesques plats d'argent, oubliés sur le rivage.27

The metallic comparison, intimately bound up with the round form of the lagoon, serves to immobilize a whole landscape, or more precisely, waterscape. Water, that most unstable of natural forms, is congealed by Flaubert's imagination; the resemblance between water and silver binds together the two elements of the comparison. «Une masse d'ombre énorme s'étalait devant eux, et qui semblait contenir de vagues amoncellements, pareils aux flots gigantesques d'un océan noir pétrifié.»28

Again we have transfixed water, and the comparison develops through a lack of motion. Motionless water is petrified.

Immobility can be suggested by both substance, as is the case here, and by form, as in the previous water-image. Indeed Flaubert at times develops the forms with an almost geometric precision, and in mathematical terms:

Les toits coniques des temples heptagones, les escaliers, les terrasses, les remparts, peu à peu se découpaient sur la paleur de l'aube.29

The subject of the passage is the city of Carthage. We have already noted the capital importance of form as a key to Flaubert's stylistic techniques. When he deals with masses of people, whole cities or entire civilizations, the variety of forms often multiplies. In this regard a description of the battle of the Macar deserves our attention:

Ils frappaient sur la hampe des sarisses: la cavalerie, par derrière, gênait leur attaque; et la phalange, appuyée aux éléphants, se resserrait et s'allongeait, se présentait en carré, en cône, en rhombe, en trapèze, en pyramide.30

The passage is characterized by the interplay between the stability of each individual form and the instability of the movement of the battle. As in the passage concerned with the petrified water, here too Flaubert tries to make permanent what is by nature incessantly changing. The variety of the geometric terminology gives this impression of movement and violence, all the while attempting to stabilize the whole scene. The interplay between action and immobility, between the stable and the unstable is visible in many of his images, and would appear to be one of the most striking characteristics of Salammbô.

Certain of these contrasts are all the more striking for their visual brilliance:

La lune se levait au ras des flots, et, sur la ville encore couverte de ténèbres, des points lumineux, des blancheurs brillaient: le timon d'un char dans une cour, quelque haillon de toile suspendu, l'angle d'un mur, un collier d'or à la poitrine d'un dieu. Les boules de verre sur les toits des temples rayonnaient çà et là, comme de gros diamants.31

The image here springs more from colour than from form, although the latter is in evidence. What is curious is that even colour produces an effect of immobility, by its mineral suggestion. Hard, metallic colours of gems and jewellery transform the image into a necklace. Deprived of internal life, the description depends for its effect on exterior «correspondances», especially of visual effects.

Comparisons of these types offer much material for consideration, but the list would be far from complete without another type of imagery which Flaubert develops in Salammbô, that is to say, the symbol.


One way of viewing the symbol is to consider it as a metaphor of which only one element remains. Its power comes from the mystery of the lacking element and the effort of the imagination necessary to supply the lacking second element—that is to say to furnish the link between the world of art and exterior reality.

Symbols abound in Salammbô, but the fact that they bear very little mystery renders them somewhat heavy and easily explained. Yet by their very obviousness they contribute significantly to the immobility of the novel as a whole.

The most elaborate symbolic development surrounds the two major characters, Salammbô and Mâtho. Salammbô is a representative of the goddess Tanit. A complex religious symbolism concerning love and vaguely defined desires is thus involved. The simple fact that Salammbô is as closely attached to Tanit as to her own physical incarnation reduces all psychological complexity into a kind of human reflection of an abstract idea, and into a predictable reaction when the heroine is confronted with certain manifestations of the goddess—the snake, the anklet or the moon. For example:

Une influence était descendue de la lune sur la vierge; quand l'astre allait en diminuant, Salammbô s'affaiblissait. Languissante toute la journée, elle se ranimait le soir. Pendant une éclipse, elle avait manqué mourir.32

Such a passage reduces the character's inner complexity to a strict minimum. She becomes a sort of type, with her unexplainable desire; in fact the symbolism simplifies her and makes of her a living idol. She appears incapable of independent action; she is always under the sign of Tanit, and thus action is decelerated, conflict is arrested on a non-human level.

Mâtho is just as crushed under a religious symbolism—the cult of Moloch, god of the sun and of violence. This symbolism surrounding Mâtho and Salammbô is elaborated in a very complicated fashion, but always based on the concrete, the external. Driven by the desire to possess Salammbô, Mâtho steals the «zaïmph». The sexual value of the penetration and desecration of the temple is too visible to merit detailed study. But one must mention that it is architectural symbolism, which becomes a concrete and inanimate illustration of a state of mind, of the inner world of the book. Again the exterior represents the interior, just as the great statue of Moloch which devours little children becomes a concrete representation of the anger of the Carthaginians.

In Salammbô the type of symbolism has two parallel effects. Firstly it is through the symbols of the book that psychological problems manifest themselves. And secondly the symbol itself, by its very nature, bestows on what it symbolizes a heaviness and a primitivity. The psychology of the book becomes concrete, physical, immobile. The fleeting is petrified; movement stops, man becomes statue; crowds become geometric or architectural constructions; landscapes become metallic; states of mind are externalized and frozen. And it is the symbol which adds to this list the whole psychological level of the book. Salammbô and Mâtho are made static by means of Tanit and Moloch.

The entire Barbarian army has desires too—vague longings for liberty, for self-expression, for the return to their homes. People are constantly prevented from doing what they want. Walls, which appear so frequently in the text, thus take on an added meaning. Everywhere we see barriers—the walls of Carthage, Tunis, and other towns, the ramparts constructed by Hamilcar to protect his army, the cliffs of the «Défilé de la Hache», even the living wall of elephants which crush the barbarian soldiers.

Just as young Emma Bovary, looking at the world through the windows of her convent is prevented from realizing her dreams by the walls of that convent, the humanity of Carthage would seem to be constantly hemmed in by barriers. Walls become a concrete symbol of the impossibility of human dreams. They fragment unity, they arrest movement.

The symbols are as well, of course, evidence of Flaubert's careful documentation, since they furnish a wealth of detail concerning the art, architecture, religion and social behaviour of the period. At the same time as they explain the internal life of the characters, they bind them inextricably to their historic context.

One last example of an immobilizing description should serve as a conclusion to this study of the image. One should note in the passage the concentration on form which we have already examined, on mineral substance, on the symbolism of the rising sun, parataxis and hypotaxis. More than a description, this is an artistic evocation or reconstitution, through language, of the ancient city:

Mais une barre lumineuse s'éleva du côté de l'Orient. A gauche, tout en bas, les canaux de Mégara commençaient à rayer de leurs sinuosités blanches les verdures des jardins. Les toits coniques des temples heptagones, les ecaliers, les terrasses, les remparts, peu à peu, se découpaient sur la paleur de l'aube; et tout autour de la péninsule carthaginoise une ceinture d'écume blanche oscillait tandis que la mer couleur d'émeraude semblait comme figée dans la fraîcheur du matin. Puis à mesure que le ciel rose allait s'élargissant, les hautes maisons inclinées sur les pentes du terrain se haussaient, se tassaient telles qu'un troupeau de chevres noires qui descend des montagnes. Les rues désertes s'allongeaient; les palmiers, çà et là sortant des murs, ne bougeaient pas; les citernes remplies avaient l'air de boucliers d'argent perdus dans les cours, le phare du promontoire Hermaeum commençait à pâlir. Tout au haut de l'Acropole, dans le bois de cyprès, les chevaux d'Eschmoûn, sentant venir la lumière, posaient leurs sabots sur le parapet de marbre et hennissaient du côté du soleil.

Il parut; Spendius, levant les bras, poussa un cri.

Tout s'agitait dans une rougeur épandue, car le Dieu, comme se déchirant, versait à pleins rayons sur Carthage la pluie d'or de ses veines.33

This passage contains almost all the immobilizing effects which have been examined, and it would be redundant to re-enumerate them.


All the novels which Flaubert published have a certain resemblance with regard to their form. It would appear, and this is very evident in Salammbô, that he conceived of each chapter as a kind of semi-independent entity. Each one becomes a block in the total structure which is the novel.

Salammbô begins in the garden of Hamilcar, with a violent celebration. The action is thus attached to a setting, a background which Flaubert describes in great detail. In other chapters, the action will hinge on a person or a god—Salammbô, Hannon, Hamilcar, Tanit, Moloch. The very titles of the chapters suggest this.

Each chapter is composed of two major elements—the detailed description of the location or of the principal character—and the action proper, which is adroitly connected with the static description of each block. The combination of action with immobility is revealed even in the plan of the work.

Often this static element dominates an entire chapter. The temple of Tanit determines the actions of Mâtho and Spendius; the walls of Carthage are the object of the futile attack of an entire army; the «Défilé de la Hache» devours a multitude; the statue of Moloch devouring children transfixes an entire chapter. Such images, architectural, sculptural, passive and static, are the skeleton to which the action gives flesh.

Flaubert himself noted the architectural nature of his novels:

Les livres ne se font pas comme les enfants, mais comme les pyramides, avec un dessein prémédité, en apportant des grands blocs l'un par-dessus l'autre, à force de reins, de temps et de sueur, et ça ne sert à rien! Ca reste dans le désert …

The concentration on form is thus visible on all levels of the novel, from the most minute detail to the structure of the work as a whole. Especially in Salammbô this interest in form manifests itself in statuesque imagery, heavy sentences, static tableaux. Immobility is doubtless an effect consciously sought by Flaubert, as M. Victor Brombert suggests in his recent study of Flaubert.34


It is obvious that in Salammbô Flaubert attempted to reconstruct by artistic means a lost civilization. The imagery, structure, even the syntax contribute to this evocation which is at the same time historical, psychological, tangible, but especially, artistic. By the means at his disposal he achieves a plastic creation of what no longer exists.

There is in Salammbô a kind of rhythmical struggle between the stable and the unstable, through style. In this regard contrasts are outstanding—the stone city of the Carthaginians, the vague and formless society of the Barbarians; stone and water; Tanit, the changing moon, and Moloch, the constant sun. In every case it is the stable, the concrete which conquers the unstable, it is the solid and clearly defined which replaces the vague, the liquid. The novel takes on an impression of density and permanence.

It would appear that the creative process in Flaubert is a kind of “concretization” of an abstract idea, of an internal and sensed reality. The process is especially visible in Salammbô. Monsieur Demorest, in his exhaustive study of the imagery of Flaubert points out that images of physical, external reality are more frequent in Salammbô than in his other novels. Flaubert was not hindered here by problems of contemporary realism, and he could thus permit himself greater freedom in seeking his aesthetic goal of permanence through art.

This heavy, chiseled, immutable aspect, which is as evident in the form as in the imagery and style, is profoundly attached to Flaubert's basic creative instincts. For him, the writing of a novel is hard work. He has to struggle with language, which is a raw material as hard, as difficult to manipulate as marble. His own words should suffice as a conclusion:

Si je pouvais pénétrer la matière, embrasser l'idée, suivre la vie dans ses métamorphoses, comprendre l'être dans tous ses modes, et de l'un à l'autre remontant ainsi les causes, comme les marches d'un escalier, réunir à moi ces phénomènes épars et les remettre en mouvement dans la synthèse d'où les a détachés mon scalpel … peut-être alors que je ferais des mondes. …”35


  1. Albert Thibaudet, Gustave Flaubert, Gallimard, Paris, 1935, p. 122.

  2. Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, Conard, Paris, 1910, p. 1.

  3. ibid. p. 385-86.

  4. ibid. p. 119.

  5. ibid. p. 397-98.

  6. ibid. p. 206.

  7. ibid. p. 261.

  8. ibid. p. 21.

  9. ibid. p. 245-46.

  10. ibid. p. 402.

  11. ibid. p. 228.

  12. ibid. p. 138-39.

  13. ibid. p. 244.

  14. ibid. p. 155.

  15. ibid. p. 13.

  16. ibid. p. 24.

  17. ibid. p. 3.

  18. ibid. p. 4-5.

  19. ibid. p. 35-36.

  20. ibid. p. 44.

  21. ibid. p. 45.

  22. ibid. p. 275.

  23. ibid. p. 263.

  24. ibid. p. 2.

  25. ibid. p. 377.

  26. ibid. p. 196.

  27. ibid. p. 20-21.

  28. ibid.p. 21.

  29. ibid. p. 203.

  30. ibid. p. 55.

  31. ibid. p. 61.

  32. ibid. p. 21.

  33. Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, Vol. IV, Conard, Paris, 1910, p. 212.

  34. Victor Brombert, The Novels of Flaubert, Princeton, 1966, Ch. 3, pp. 92-124.

  35. Gustave Flaubert, La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, (1849), Conard, Paris, 1910. page 349.

Principal Works

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Madame Bovary, mours de province. 2 vols. (novel) 1857

Salammbô [Salambo] (novel) 1862

L'Éducation sentimentale, histoire d'un jeune homme [Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History]. 2 vols. (novel) 1869

Le Candidat, comédie en quatre actes [The candidate: a humorous political drama in four acts] (play) 1874

Le Tentation de saint Antoine [translated as The First Temptation of Saint Anthony or The Temptation of Saint Anthony] (novel) 1874

*Trois contes [Three Tales] (short stories) 1877

Bouvard et Pécuchet, oeuvre posthume (novel) 1881

Novembre: Fragments de style quelconque [November] (novel) 1885

Oeuvres complètes. 8 vols. (novels, short stories, plays, travel essays, and prose) 1885

Correspondance [The Letters of Gustave Flaubert] (letters) 1887-93

Les Mémoires d'un fou [Memoirs of a madman] (novel) 1901

Notes inédites de Flaubert (prose) 1910

Oeuvres de jeunesse inédites (juvenilia) 1910

Théâtre: Le Candidat, Le Château des cours, Le Sexe faible (plays) 1910

Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues [translated as Dictionary of Received Ideas,Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, and A Dictionary of Platitudes] (dictionary) 1913

Voyages. 2 vols. (travel essays) 1948

Carnets de travail (prose) 1988

*Comprised of the stories “Un Cour simple,” “La Légende de saint Julien l'Hospitalier,” and “Hérodias.”

Dennis Porter (essay date winter 1971)

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SOURCE: Porter, Dennis. “Aestheticism versus the Novel: The Example of Salammbô.Novel: A Forum on Fiction 4, no. 2 (winter 1971): 101-6.

[In the following essay, Porter claims that Salammbô is not a well-structured novel, but rather, is at best a manifesto of aestheticism.]

From Baudelaire down through Maupassant, Turgeniev, Henry James, and into the twentieth century, Flaubert has been hailed as the first great modern master of his craft, the novelist's novelist par excellence, whose influence on the subsequent evolution of the genre has been as great as that of Baudelaire himself on poetry, and for similar reasons. Both writers brought to fiction and lyric poetry respectively a self-conscious artistry which gave rise to a richness of verbal texture and a symbolic order that especially in the novel amounted to a kind of previously untried-for, formal perfection. And to the extent that he was working in a genre which till then had largely resisted attempts to discipline it in accordance with aesthetic norms derived from other literature and the arts in general, Flaubert's originality is, in fact, the greater.

As it developed from the mid-seventeenth century on in England and France, the central tradition of the novel looked outward at the world. With rare exceptions, in seeking above all to represent imitatively human behavior it largely neglected the claims of art in favor of life. Thus even Flaubert's immediate predecessors, Stendhal and Balzac, focused on the character of contemporary French life in a spirit of critical curiosity, without preoccupying themselves unduly with the formal means by which they were representing it. Stendhal's proclaimed method—to take a mirror for a walk along a highway—even implies a willful absence of method. It was left to Flaubert, therefore, to elaborate an art of the novel such that Alan Tate, for instance, could affirm it was through Flaubert that the novel finally caught up with poetry.1

Given Flaubert's richly deserved reputation, therefore, it appears strangely paradoxical to recall that of the half-a-dozen major works after the oeuvres de jeunesse, only Madame Bovary and the Trois Contes impress as symbolically ordered, finely proportioned aesthetic wholes. Salammbô,L'Education Sentimentale, and Bouvard et Pécuchet, if not loose and baggy monsters, clearly do not strike us as notable achievements of the designing spirit, even if we acknowledge an appropriateness of form to content. Whatever qualities those works may have, they are certainly less than the ideally made artifacts we may have expected from Flaubert.

The case of Salammbô particularly suggests, in fact, that not only was the gap between the goal Flaubert set his art and his execution never fully bridged, but also that, in his hands at least, all was not pure gain in the new aesthetic of the novel. If Stendhal and Balzac could not have written a Madame Bovary, they would also most certainly not have written a Salammbô either. In other words, the art that gave rise to the former was also in some sense responsible for the latter—for a work, that is, which has something of the character of a monstre sacré, recognized as sui generis and admired, if at all, for its sustained exoticism and hieratic solemnity and for the single-minded passion that drove its author to complete it. To those less sympathetic to Flaubert's aims, Salammbô's monumentality is wholly lifeless and monumentally boring. But nobody is likely to deny that Salammbô stands very much to one side of the main tradition of Western prose fiction. In what follows, however, I should like to go further and argue that, more than merely eccentric, Salammbô is a fictional dead-end, that it probably comes closer than any other novel of similar seriousness to the ideal end nineteenth-century aestheticism conceived for fiction and that its failure derives from an inherent incompatibility between aestheticism and the novel.

To begin with, there is little doubt that Flaubert saw in the history of Carthage matter far richer and more readily transmuted into the beauty of art than the narrow, sordid life of Emma Bovary. Writing to the Goncourts while he was at work on Salammbô, he affirmed, “This time the banner of the Doctrine will be borne boldly, I assure you. For it does not prove anything, it does not say anything, it is neither historical, nor satirical, nor humorous. On the other hand, it could be stupid.”2 The doctrine referred to is, of course, l'art pour l'art and perhaps no work more than Salammbô parades some of its more frightening implications. As the quotation indicates, the novel makes no attempt to increase our understanding of the world, performs no service in the present and, far more than seeking to illuminate the past, it uses history to an aesthetic end. It is a sumptuously ornate, blood-soaked artifact created heretically for its own sake, a feast for the imagination that is at the same time a flamboyant non serviam addressed to the world. Its raison d'être is its own peculiar beauty and the potent pleasure that beauty is supposed to afford.

The ideal of beauty to which Flaubert's novel as a whole aspires, in fact, is concretized in the personage of Salammbô herself. Half-priestess, half-courtesan, she is the narcissistic antithesis of natural woman. Her oiled and jewel-studded body is itself an elaborately stylized work of art and, therefore, comparable to the city of Carthage itself as Flaubert represents it. Like the art he most admires, Carthage is a world of metals and minerals, geometric forms and hard contours that reflect light from a thousand polished surfaces. With its gold and silver, brass and bronze, marble and ebony, the doomed North African city is the embodiment of a kind of formalism that arrogantly sets itself against the pullulating confusion of African nature. Its hard-edged perfection is the antithesis of organic softness. And Flaubert's novel as a whole strives for a comparable perfection that is similarly contemptuous of the creation as given.

The result is a work that comes closer than any other to the fiction Flaubert dreamed of as a livre sur rien. What he seems to have had in mind is a kind of roman pur that would make no statements about the world in referential terms—it would not represent, interpret, or offer moral commentary on human life outside itself at all—but would exist merely as artifact, as the object, that is, of our aesthetic contemplation, whose heightened expressivity would be achieved simply through the cunning ordering of its parts. It is to language thus raised above itself through being stripped of its quotidian functions that Flaubert responded with a thrilled intensity: “I remember how my heart beat, the violent sensation of pleasure I felt as I contemplated a wall of the Acropolis, a wall completely bare (the one which is on the left as you go up to the Propylaea). Now I wonder if a book, independently of what it says, might not produce the same effect. In the precision of its structures, the rareness of its elements, the smoothness of its surface, the harmony of the ensemble, might it not have an intrinsic virtue, a sort of divine power, something as eternal as a principle? (I speak as a Platonist.)”3

Involved here is a kind of aesthetic mysticism.4 And if as Flaubert apparently understood, such a book on nothing was impossible, the ideal nevertheless remains as a hidden yet pervasively active principle of composition in his fiction. Hence Salammbô, which comes nearer than any other work to the realization of his goal. But yet it falls far short. Weighed down with a mass of erudite data that is worked up into page upon page of descriptive tours de force, the work is far from possessing that “precision of its structures” and that “harmony of the ensemble” of which he speaks. Instead there is a fundamental tension in the work—and in all the works of Flaubert's maturity—between the centripetal tendencies of the matter, the mass of antiquarian facts so characteristic of an age that had seen an unprecedented explosion in the quantity of such information, and the encompassing form, that which was to precipitate from multifarious facts the order of art.

If the form of Salammbô like that of L'Education Sentimentale and Bouvard et Pécuchet may be said to break down under the weight of the matter it was intended to articulate, then, it is apparently because there is an inherent contradiction between the realistic representation of the fullness of life and the demanding sense of plastic form of an artist such as Flaubert.5 By the time of Bouvard et Pécuchet in any case, not only the tenuous story lines of Salammbô and L'Education Sentimentale have disappeared but also the attempt in those works to round off the fiction by harking back to its beginning in the dénouement. Thus the tragi-comic tale of Flaubert's copy-clerks advances through the accumulation of a long series of repetitious incidents to the point where what is reported is hugged so closely by the manner in which it is reported that it reads like a parody of realism. No event is pointed up as more significant than any other, for no significance resides in such a world. It is not surprising, therefore, that Flaubert dreamed of writing a book on nothing, for such a book would have permitted him to indulge his taste for the firm and lucid contours of plastic form without having to take account of the amorphous and recalcitrant matter of the world.

Paradoxically one is forced to conclude that Flaubert, one of the greatest masters in the genre, was, in fact, temperamentally and philosophically unhappy as a novelist. First, because of all literary genres the novel is the one which is most resistant to formal design. And second, because whether it focused on the representation of historical and contemporary social reality or whether it explored the complexities of the psyche and concerned itself with problems of moral conduct, the genre as it came down to him had as the center of its concern men living in a social world. Flaubert cared less and less for such a subject and the traditional skills of novelist as storyteller, moralist, psychologist, or social critic that went with it. As far as he was concerned, such human-centered art took man far too seriously and, insofar as it ignored the creation of beauty that was the true end of art, was from his neo-platonist point of view hardly art at all.

Thus Flaubert frequently describes himself as bored by the elaboration of plot and the narration of incident. He is without that fascination with men that leads to the creation of “character” and only really interested in one aspect of human psychology, namely, the complex subterfuges men more or less unconsciously employ in order to avoid facing the truth about themselves and their world Further, he is too profound a skeptic to believe that fiction should serve God or humanity in any way. Thus his foremost ambition was hardly to be a novelist at all in the traditional sense, but a “prosateur.” And what he means by the term is made clear in a letter quoted approvingly by Maupassant. Comparing verse and prose Flaubert writes:

In prose you must have a profound feeling for rhythm, fleeting rhythm, without rules and without definiteness; you must have innate qualities and also a power of reasoning, an artistic sense infinitely more subtle, more acute, so as to alter at any instant the movement, the color, the sound of the style, according to what you want to say. When you know how to manage that fluid thing, French prose, when you know the exact value of words, and when you know how to modify that value by the places you assign them, when you know how to focus the interest of a whole page upon a single line, to make one idea stand out among a hundred others, solely by the choice and position of the terms in which it is expressed; when you know how to strike with a word, a single word placed in a certain way, as you might strike with a weapon, when you know how to arouse a soul, to fill it with joy or fear, with enthusiasm, shame or rage, merely by slipping an adjective before the reader's eye, then you are truly an artist, the greatest of artists, a true prosateur.6

“The greatest of artists,” it should be noted, is not a “novelist” but a “prosateur” and the distinction is obviously important. Unlike the former, it is clear that the latter is seen preeminently as an artist concerned above all with problems of internal harmony and euphony, rhythm and sonority at the level of the sentence and the paragraph. In common with his contemporaries Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire in poetry, in fact, Flaubert contrives a new art of the novel that starts with the determination to find particular combinations of words in order to promote particular aesthetic effects. Everything that goes into the fiction is calculated less in terms of its truthfulness to life than in terms of its internal expressive function and its impact in its context on the reader. The prose no longer merely exists in order to report a story drawn from life; on the contrary, the logical conclusion of Flaubert's contention that the greatest artist is a “prosateur” is to turn the story with its human meaning into a mere scaffolding by means of which a whole range of aesthetic effects will be rendered in the prose.

The example provided by Salammbô of what can occur when a writer becomes so deeply absorbed with the plastic perfection of his style is, in any case, an instructive one. In the first place, it is clear that except as a manifesto of aestheticism Salammbô is without meaning. The tale it tells, in other words, is incidental to its message, which involves the celebration, in a world ringed with void, of the triumph of art over life, the artificial over the natural and the beautiful over the good. Beyond that, apart from the pleasure or shock it arouses, it has nothing “to say.” In the second place, although Flaubert's prose at the level of the sentence and paragraph and even certain tableaux shows an intense formal preoccupation, the work as a whole gives the impression of having resisted that architectonic order which he strived for—so much of Salammbô seems merely gratuitous, the result both of a desire to paint gorgeous word pictures for their own sake and of a determination to effect a “shocking” contrast between a maximum of gore and unsurpassed oriental splendor. As a consequence, in Salammbô as in so much of Flaubert's fiction there is a fundamental and unresolved tension not only between form and matter, beauty and truth—that is truer of Madame Bovary and L'Education Sentimentale than of Salammbô—but also between the beauty of the parts and the harmony of the whole. And it is those tensions which give rise to the paradox already noted, namely, that Flaubert, the first great partisan of expressive form in fiction, stands accused of swamping his reader with a mass of formless data.

“Il faut faire, à travers le Beau, vivant et vrai quand même,”7 Flaubert noted, thereby recognizing, in effect, that his works did embody a contradiction. For although he once more affirms here that his primary goal is beauty—such is the force of “quand même”—he nevertheless acknowledges it as his task to represent life accurately. But on the testimony of his oeuvre itself, such a synthesis was impossible in the novel—in nineteenth-century Europe at least. The aesthete's determination to “faire beau” was incompatible with the realist's impulse to “faire vivant et vrai.” Thus, not only did Flaubert find it impossible to exclude “life” from his fiction—in fact, if not in theory—by his own high standards he also failed to dominate that “life” formally through his art.

Finally, Salammbô may be said to illustrate that that neo-platonism, which provided the more or less consciously acknowledged philosophic rationale of nineteenth-century aestheticism, is probably the philosophy least compatible with the representation of reality, which in one form or another has been the traditional province of the novelist. The philosophic idealist as novelist has only two choices open to him. On the one hand, like Plato himself whom Nietzsche referred to as “the whole-hearted ‘transcendental,’ the great defamer of life,”8 he can represent life in the world in order to denigrate it. On the other, he can seek to transcend it by elaborating works of the imagination that are as far as possible purged of the ordinary stuff of life and approximate, through their formal perfection, to that suprasensible heaven of ideas of which he dreams. Flaubert chose the course of mocking denigration in Madame Bovary,L'Education Sentimentale, and Bouvard et Pécuchet. And Salammbô, insofar as it is the embodiment of a Parnassian ideal of beauty, can be seen at least partially as an attempt to write a novel of the second type.

In Salammbô the ideal world of art may be said to look harshly down on the real but its Parnassian grandiloquence when sustained over several hundred pages proves strangely hollow. It possesses the magnificent insubstantiality of “grand opera” and stands as a monument to the failure to purge the novel of almost everything that traditionally constituted it for the sake of formal beauty. As Baudelaire, without having Salammbô in mind, foresaw so well, the cultivation of pure form to which the aesthetic idealist is ultimately driven can give rise to the strangest of still-born monsters: “The immoderate cult of form leads to monstrous and unknown disorders. Absorbed by a ferocious passion for the beautiful, the quaint, the pretty, the picturesque (for there are degrees) the notions of the just and the true disappear. The frenetic passion for art is a cancer which devours everything else; and, just as the complete absence of the just and the true in art equals the absence of art, the whole man vanishes; the excessive specialization of one faculty ends in annihilation.”9

If the example of Salammbô is at all conclusive, it proves precisely that—the Parnassian desire to approximate the art of fiction to that of sculpture is illusory. The book on nothing, it seems, is a chimera. In the novel at least, form pursued as an end in itself, independently of that which it might express, turns out to contain nothing in a sense Flaubert could hardly have wished for.


  1. “Techniques of Fiction,” Collected Essays (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959), p. 136.

  2. Correspondance, IV (Paris: Conard, 1926-33), 379. French passages translated by Dennis Porter and Robert Scholes.

  3. Correspondance, VII, 294.

  4. “Sans l'amour de la forme, j'eusse été peut-être un grand mystique.” Correspondance, III, 79.

  5. That Flaubert himself was fully alert to his dilemma is clear from comments he made explaining the relative lack of success of L'Education Sentimentale:

    Why did that book not have the success I expected? Robin has perhaps understood the reason. It is too true to life and from an esthetic point of view what is lacking is the falsity lent by perspective. From having worked out the plan with such, the plan has disappeared. Every work of art must have a point, a peak, form a pyramid or the light must strike the ball at a single point. Yet you find nothing like that in life. But Art is not Nature! Never mind, I believe nobody has shown such probity before.

    Correspondance, VIII, 309.

  6. Lettres de Gustave Flaubert à Georges Sand précédées d'une Étude de Guy de Maupassant (Paris: Champion, 1884), p. lxvii.

  7. Notes de Voyage, II (Paris: Conard, 1910), 347.

  8. Genealogy of Morals in The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (New York: Russell and Russell, 1964), p. 199.

  9. Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Pléiade, Gallimard, 1951), pp. 972-73.

Bruce Louis Jay (essay date February 1972)

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SOURCE: Jay, Bruce Louis. “Anti-History and the Method of Salammbô.Romantic Review 63, no. 1 (February 1972): 20-33.

[In the following essay, Jay maintains that Salammbô, employs little of the typical mechanics of historical fiction and that it presents exoticism and ritual action instead of theme, motivation, or historical veracity.]

Salammbô tends to be a highly satisfying and at the same time rather distracting book. That is, perplexed as to the consequences of its subject matter, the reader, in this pendent, indecisive state of mind, is overcome with the novel's opulence and exotica. But the flamboyant spectacle of Salammbô that overwhelms the senses and makes the mind boggle arises from a firm basis of assiduously gathered historical facts. And it is the shackling of this erotic luxuriance with the results of detailed historical research that makes the book both unique and puzzling, engrossing and yet perhaps a little unsubstantial: after all, what does the intelligent, hard-working, well-intentioned reader make of a peacock in the henhouse. As far as history is concerned, the book adds very little to our understanding of the Punic Wars; neither are we made aware of why Carthage was an important city nor what causes led to its downfall as a center of empire. But once it is a matter of the spectacular treatment of historical fact, then the book's perplexity arises precisely because its quantity of historical baggage serves the novel in a way that has essentially nothing to do with history. Our problem, therefore, after appreciating the belletristic spectacle of Salammbô and the years of close historical research that it represents, is to try to understand the relationship between the historicity of the novel and Flaubert's task as a novelist.

From the artist's point of view, history stands at the pole of pure action, while its antipode, philosophy, occupies that of contemplation. Flaubert's extensive historical research opens up to him a whole reservoir of past actions which go to form the basis of Salammbô. The action of the book, however, is not one, is not a single, unique strand flowing the length of the novel, but instead is of two major types, what I call reported or tracked action and narrative initiated action. In the first case the narrator simply tracks the action. To draw an analogy with the cinematic art, he focusses on his actors and, camera fast in hand, follows them through their motions. Some examples of this kind of action are Mâtho's ascent to Salammbô's apartment, he and Spendius hurtling through the aqueduct into the besieged city, Salammbô's journey to Mâtho's tent, her advance to the place of honor at the wedding feast, and Mâtho's dash through the gauntlet of enraged Carthaginians in the last chapter. Narrative initiated action on the other hand is action that initiates with the narrator. Here the narrator resembles a cameraman whose vantage point is taken from a tower in the midst of a given field of action. By panning back and forth across the scene, periodically zooming in for a close-up, the narrator can create a sense of mass action, of great numbers of people in movement. We generally see this technique at work in the battle scenes, where Flaubert outlines the armies' overall strategies by moving back and forth among significant incidents—alignment of troops, deployment of archers, massing of cavalry, refugees' flight and the like—in which presumably many individual actions are taking place but which are sacrificed to the sense of mass movement. Whereas this technique of mass action comes to bear for the most part on the Mercenary war, the tracked action finds its most significant use in the actions surrounding the love interest of the novel. What we recognize as the two major plots of Salammbô, then, tend to be distinguished by different kinds of action. The historical accounts of the Barbarian uprising provide Flaubert with the plot of his book, while the subplot of Mâtho and Salammbô serves as a counterpoint to a story of war.

The love interest or subplot of Salammbô—if we can call the attraction between the leader of the Mercenaries and Hamilcar's daughter love—although imaginary in itself, nevertheless has roots in history. Mâtho of course appears in Flaubert's chief source, Polybius, as Mathos. And by making Salammbô the daughter of Hamilcar, Flaubert lends her the historical authenticity of the Carthaginian general. The love story of Mâtho and the daughter of his enemy is due, however, entirely to Flaubert. And whenever he resorts to his imagination to provide or fill out an event, whenever he either deviates from or augments history for the sake of the underplot, he supports his excursion by flooding the scene in which the imagined action takes place with details and objects provided by his research. Flaubert introduces Salammbô to us on the evening of the Mercenaries' orgy. Disturbed by the raucous behavior of the soldiers who have trespassed into her father's garden, we see her appear on the terrace surrounding her apartments and begin to move toward the riotous melee. But instead of following Salammbô's descent into the midst of the Mercenaries' debauchery, Flaubert interrupts her progress. He shifts from action to description. Describing how she is dressed, he compiles a short catalogue of what objects, what fabrics, jewels and powders a Carthaginian princess might have adorned herself with.1 Violet powder, diamonds, pearls, the sleeveless tunic, the red-fringed robes of her attendants, their sparkling rings and their lyres, all these things, by being connected with Salammbô, provide her at the same time with an atmosphere both of historicity and exoticism. The book of course abounds with rare and exotic objects, but they tend to proliferate as we approach the narrative peaks of the novel. In short, whenever the plot draws Mâtho and Salammbô to a meeting—events that are themselves outside of history—Flaubert tends to introduce a sense of exotic antiquity by the way of unique and wonderful objects form the past. We will look at the function of objects in the novel a little more closely later on. But for the moment let us go on to examine the kind of action that comprises the underplot of Salammbô.

In the chapter “Tanit,” Spendius comes up with a plan by which he and Mâtho can secretly penetrate Carthage's defenses and enter the besieged city undetected. Playing on Mâtho's mysterious attraction to Salammbô, the wily Greek hopes to enlist his comrade's aid in the execution of a risky plot. His scheme is to discourage Carthage by stealing the sacred veil of the love-goddess, Tanit. The immediate effect of the theft on the underplot, however, is to lend Mâtho the confidence he needs to confront Salammbô. Off on their way to the city then, Flaubert tracks Mâtho and Spendius through the aqueduct, along the dark streets, and up to the wall of Tanit's temple, where they are about to gain entrance.

—“Lève-toi!” dit-it à Mâtho, et il le fit s'adosser contre le mur, tout debout. Alors, posant un pied dans ses mains, puis un autre sur sa tête, il parvint jusqu'à la hauteur du soupirail, s'y engagea et disparut. Puis Mâtho sentit tomber sur son épaule une corde à nœuds, celle que Spendius avait enroulée autour de son corps avant de s'engager dans les citernes; et s'y appuyant des deux mains, bientôt il se trouva près de lui dans une grande salle pleine d'ombre.

Pour passer plus loin, ils écartèrent une tapisserie; mais le vent souffla, et la lumière s'éteignit.

Alors ils errèrent, perdus dans les complications de l'architecture. … Des fissures taillées dans la muraille, laissaient tomber de minces rayons blancs. Il s'avançaient à ces lueurs incertaines. Enfin ils distinguèrent un grand serpent noir. Il s'élança vite et disparut.2

It is at this point, having followed the intruders into and through the temple, that the action is interrupted by an intrusion of objects. We move from action to description:

Puis ils aperçurent tout à l'entour une infinité de bêtes, efflanquées, haletantes, hérissant leurs griffes, et confondues les unes par-dessus les autres dans un désordre mystérieux qui épouvantait. Des serpents avaient des pieds, des taureaux avaient des ailes, des poissons à têtes d'homme dévoraient des fruits, des fleurs s'épanouissaient dans la mâchoire des crocodiles, et des éléphants, la trompe levée, passaient en plein azur, orgueilleusement, comme des aigles. Un effort terrible distendait leurs membres incomplets ou multipliés.

(p. 83)

Here again Flaubert demonstrates his tendency to seize on an action as it rises in intensity and to suspend it by shifting the narrative focus to the rare antiquities occupying the scene of action. But his description of the temple chamber is more than an interposed catalogue of objects whose archeological interest historically seasons Mâtho's progress towards Salammbô. Instead the richness of the description, the evocative diction and the vivid images that emerge as Flaubert scans the temple wall conjure up from the facts surrounding the action an air of phantasmagoria. The action has not only been suspended, it seems, but temporarily abandoned. The narrative thrust has turned from action to description, and instead of the plot advancing, the scene begins to turn in upon itself. We remember in Salammbô's descent into the orgy not only how the details surrounding her attest to Flaubert's immersion in the history of Carthage, but also how their description evokes a sense of exoticism that goes beyond our experience of history. And if for a moment we jump ahead to another scene, Mâtho's midnight invasion of Salammbô's bedchamber, we see again that his advance is brought up short by a profusion of rich objects; and under the spell of Flaubert's diction and of his languorous, rolling prose, those objects, results of his research, become exotic images, permeated with an air of unreal wonder. For example: “Une lampe en forme de galère brûlait suspendue dans le lointain de la chambre; et trois rayons, qui s'échappaient de sa carène d'argent, tremblaient sur les hauts lambris, couverts d'une peinture rouge à bandes noires” (p. 88). Thus Flaubert transforms objects that are the results of his interest and research in Carthaginian history from a row of facts into a display of artifact. Under the sway of Flaubert's artistry, a scene is transformed from a setting for action into an elaborate mosaic, an exotic tableau in which the characters are subsumed, becoming only other figures among the richly embellished details. At Salammbô's first appearance she seems to merge into the array of lushness that surrounds her; at that moment she is inextricable from the gems and powders and chanting lyres. In the same way Mâtho and Spendius are relegated, gaping and awe-struck, to the peripheries of our attention as the panoply of monsters depicted in the temple displaces the two lurking conspirators and encompasses them in its own intense eeriness. And later, as Mâtho stands dazzled among the rich glimmering objects in Salammbô's chamber, he himself comes within the domain of the limpid tremors of light given off by the flickering lamp. But while tending to encompass the characters, it is significant that the details of a scene do not give us a way to judge those characters. Neither do they have any moral value attached to them. Instead of any meaning surrounding the rich detail of the book, we find only the evidence of artifice. The myriad specific objects that Flaubert's research turned up for the book serve, as it were, only as the raw material of the artificer.

To return to Mâtho and Spendius in the temple, the narrator's preoccupation with the fantastic beast murals detain the two adventurers as the entire narrative force turns to evoke the awesomeness of the grotesque tableau. But after shifting from action to object, Flaubert will begin to lead us beyond the objects themselves. We notice, working against the exact terms with which Flaubert lends sumptuousness to his descriptions, such indefinite terms as “seem” and “appear” come into play. In the above passage describing the temple mural, we saw that Flaubert attributes rare qualities to the described objects in a very precise way, without great use of figurative language. But amidst this exactness he introduces terms which tend to distance us from the specificity of the description: an “infinité de bêtes,” and “confondues,” and “désordre mystérieux.” Flaubert's diction here does more than embellish the image of the fantastic monsters, it prepares to move us beyond the precise rendering of the mural. And in the remainder of the paragraph Flaubert picks up the vagueness and the sense of distance and accentuates them: “Ils avaient l'air, en tirant la langue, de vouloir faire sortir leur âme; et toutes les formes se trouvaient là, comme si le réceptacle des germes, crevant dans une éclosion soudaine, se fût vidé sur les murs de la salle” (p. 83). In abandoning the description of the mural, Flaubert goes on to disassociate the rareness of the description from the thing described. It is not only the misty quality of the evocative image giving up its soul, but even more the languorous periodicity of the prose (a and ai leading to the a-nasals, and followed by a cadence of r's, all culminating in the lassitude of âme) that helps Flaubert transcend the details of the mural and reach out for a sense of disembodied “form”: aesthetic power without concrete allusion, the ways of art without the coagulating point of art's objects. That is, Flaubert, once beyond description, attempts to render richness without its object, to arrive at artifice without artifact. In a languorous prose period, the beasts in the mural become “les formes,” which we are aware of as “une éclosion,” not a hatching or blooming so much as a manifestation or advent of the fleet spirit informing the artifact.

What we have looked at is one of the clearer examples in the book of Flaubert's method in treating the subplot of Salammbô. Where we have an instance of rising action in the plot, generally an action leading to an encounter between Mâtho and Salammbô, there we look for and usually find Flaubert's unique way of dealing with one of the most conventional of stories, the fate of two star-crossed lovers. We find the same method at work—though perhaps not to the same extent—if, for example, we continue following the two conspirators through the temple. Only a step or two after they encounter the figured beasts they find new and perhaps more fantastic objects in their path. After sinking us in the midst of voluptuous imagery, Flaubert glides into the realm of the aural, engaging a sense that for prose remains less concrete and palpable than an appeal to the visual on which the effect of imagery is based: “une musique s'éleva, mélodieuse et ronflante comme l'harmonie des planètes: l'âme tumultueuse de Tanit ruisselait épandue” (p. 84). To the tenuousness of an aural “image” Flaubert juxtaposes an abstraction, the spirit of the goddess. The shift from “mélodieuse” and “ronflante” to “tumultueuse” connects the two phrases, the latter lending the sense of a larger and more vibrant power informing the harmonious music of the spheres. Meanwhile the use of the imperfect tense in “ruisselait” imbues the spirit with a more dynamic presence than does the less obtrusive “s'éleva.” Thus we see revealed a spiritual effulgence disassociating itself from the imagery. It is as if the presence of an artificing power manages to burst forth pure and apart from the artifact it informs. Turning back to Salammbô's descent into the throngs of Mercenaries, the aura of voluptuous imagery with which Flaubert surrounds her begins to shift from the visual to the aural. And in the midst of the attenuated image of winsome lyre playing we are made conscious of Salammbô: “le petit bruit de la chaînette d'or avec le claquement régulier de ses sandales en Papyrus” (p. 12). Again Flaubert's use of imagery and his languorous prose move toward the aerial sense of exoticism lingering about his heroine: “C'était la lune qui l'avait rendue si pâle, et quelque chose des Dieux l'enveloppait comme une vapeur subtile.” Flaubert's treatment of his materials here is waving us on in the direction of the artificing power informing Salammbô. We witness the same transcendent beckoning in the scene that finds Mâtho entranced before the erotic richness of Salammbô's bedchamber. The sensuous luxuriance of the scene culminates in the barely discernible imprint of Salammbô's foot at the edge of her perfumed bath. “La trace d'un pas humide s'apercevait au delà. Des senteurs exquises s'évaporaient” (p. 88). As we move from a visual image to one of scent we are aware of the transpiration of the very essence of the scene: Flaubert pointing us toward what is insubstantial and essential at the same time. As far as the underplot of Salammbô is concerned, then, we have seen that it rises towards and then falls away from the encounters of the two lovers. And it is the function of the resulting series of peaks, founded on mountains of fact and detail, to transfer us beyond the profusion of facts toward the ineffable force permeating the book.

It should be more evident now how the aim of the book is not to come to some statement of historical truth: the novel is not about anything like that; rather it adopts the ways of the self-conscious artificer in order to display the ethereal creative force, the artistic truth, that founds his art. And while, moving toward the creative spirit without the created thing, Flaubert may not achieve what Mallarmé calls “la page blanche,” he does, as we will see more clearly, “au réel … oppose l'Idéal, le vierge Azur, le ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté.”


The first part of this essay looks into Flaubert's method of dealing with the underplot of Salammbô. We saw how the narrative thrust tends to evolve from action to image and finally to a spiralling away from both action and artifact, before returning to the requirements of the plot. The second part of the essay will turn to the plot proper of the book in order to examine Flaubert's method of working with the mass actions supplied to him by his sources.

The plot of Salammbô centers around the war between the Mercenaries and Carthage at the end of the first Punic war, around 240 B.C. Following his principal source, Polybius, very closely, Flaubert undertakes the task not only of recreating the facts of history, but also of communicating what the presence of massed opposing armies might feel like. For this reason Flaubert adopts the technique of initiated action. Instead of scattering the narrative focus among myrid skirmishes, he looks out at the scene from his vantage point and, like a cameraman of an epic movie, with broad sweeps pans back and forth among the different segments of the armies, lightly passing over the many individual actions in order to give us a sense of massive movement. There are many examples of this technique at work in the novel since it comes into play in nearly all the battle scenes. For instance, as the battle between Hannon's forces and the Mercenaries is shaping up outside Utica, Flaubert spends some two and one half pages scanning back and forth over the frondeurs, the gardes de la Légion, the young nobles, the poised war machines, the captains scurrying about assembling their men, the Anciens with faces painted red, the awkward formations of the Carthaginians, the Mercenaries penetrating the enemy's lines, the foundering cavalry, the inefficiency of the Punic épées and the advantage of the Barbarians' short swords, etc. (pp. 108-10). The battle of Macar uses this same technique, while in the final battle, leading to Mâtho's capture, it appears perhaps at its most effective.

L'infanterie punique tout entière revint sur les Barbares; elle les coupa. Leurs manipules tournoyaient, espacées les unes des autres. Les armes des Carthaginois plus brillantes les encerclaient comme des couronnes d'or; un four-millement s'agitait au milieu, et le soleil, frappant dessus, mettait aux pointes des glaives de lueurs blanches qui voltigeaient. Cependant, des files des Clinabares restaient étendues sur la plaine; des Mercenaires arrachaient leurs armures, s'en revêtaient, puis ils retournaient au combat. Les Carthaginois … s'engagèrent au milieu d'eux. Une hébétude les immobilisait, ou bien ils refluaient, et de triomphantes clameurs s'élevant au loin avaient l'air de les pousser comme des épaves dans une tempête. …

Mais un large bruit … éclata. … C'était une foule, des vieillards, des malades, des enfants de quinze ans et même des femmes qui … étaient partis de Carthage. …

Un redoublement de fureur les [les Carthaginois] saisit, et les Numides entraînèrent tous les autres.

Les Barbares, au milieu de la plaine, s'étaient adossés contre un monticule. Ils n'avaient aucune chance. …

Les gens de Carthage se mirent à envoyer … des broches, des lardoires, des marteaux; ceux dont les consuls avaient eu peur mouraient sous des bâtons lancés par des femmes; la populace punique exterminait les Mercenaires.

(pp. 338-39)

The scene goes on like this, alternating between the two sides in battle. The sense of clashing multitudes, of whole nations on the march, arises not from being merely reported but from the sweep of the narrative itself; the facts of the novel may owe to Flaubert's sources, but the sense and feel of history arise from his method.

While Flaubert gives us a feel for the grandeur and spectacle of history, he also fills out its massive framework with some of its specifics. Characteristically, Flaubert lends substance to his plot by shifting from initiated action to a focus on either a character key to the action or a particularly important aspect of the action. In the Mercenaries' battle with Hannon, for example, after sweeping over the scene of the battle, Flaubert concentrates on the Carthaginian general himself:

Hannon lui-même parut au haut d'un éléphant. Il était nu-tête, sous un parasol de byssus, que portait un nègre derrière lui. Son collier à plaques bleues battait sur les fleurs de sa tunique noire; des cercles de diamants comprimaient ses bras énormes, et la bouche ouverte, il brandissait une pique démesurée, épanouie par le bout comme un lotus et plus brillante qu'un miroir.

(p. 110)

What Flaubert does here is, instead of delving into the consciousness of Hannon, to limit himself to the exterior of the character. His imagination passes over psychological development as it comes to bear lavishly on description. Emphasizing description, Flaubert treats his characters as another of the book's rarities, choosing to present them as awesome and unique surfaces. If we turn to the battle of Macar we see the narrative shift away from mass action, this time to dwell on a particular part of the battle: the attack of the elephants.

Leurs trompes, barbouillées de minium, se tenaient droites en l'air, pareilles à des serpents rouges; leurs poitrines étaient garnies d'un épieu, leur dos d'une cuirasse. …

… les éléphants se jetèrent au milieu, impétueusement. Les éperons de leur poitrail, comme des proues de navire, fendaient les cohortes; elles refluaient à gros bouillons. Avec leurs trompes, ils étouffaient les hommes, où bien les arrachant du sol, par-dessus leurs têtes ils les livraient aux soldats dans les tours; avec leurs défenses, ils les éventraient, les lançaient en l'air, et de longues entrailles pendaient à leurs crocs d'ivoire comme des paquets de cordages à des mâts.

(pp. 175-76)

Although Flaubert concentrates on a part of the larger action instead of on a character, the technique of dealing with the material is the same; the charge of the elephants at Macar is exploited for the marvelous awe it contributes to the larger spectacle of battle. Flaubert does not highlight the military function of the elephants, but rather describes the awful uniqueness of their armor and the peculiar efficiency with which the oddly arrayed beasts despatch the enemy. In short, the elephants, like Hannon, lend Flaubert substance around which he spins an evocative sense of singularity and wonder. And while plot is treated as spectacle, character and limited actions serve as objects which are embellished by Flaubert's prose into rare and grotesquely fantastic artifacts.

By this time we probably realize that what Flaubert has in mind in Salammbô is not just another historical novel. He starts off in the usual way. He draws heavily on his sources for both plot and character. He even provides many specifics that the broad scope of ancient history overlooks. But as the events follow one another they seem to be related by reasons of juxtaposition rather than causal necessity. Moving away from the Mercenaries' orgy, the succeeding incidents forming the plot become more and more arbitrarily connected both to the original agitation for back pay and to one another. Rather than one action flowing necessarily from another, the events that comprise Salammbô seem to function episodically, as semi-autonomous units within the whole of the book.

Furthermore, the historical novelist commonly amplifies historical personnages into “real people”: he rounds out the key figures of history and has them generate the action of the plot, thus lending it likelihood. But in Salammbô we find characters who are largely unmotivated and psychologically ignored. Their responses seem to be governed by mostly elemental urges: mainly sheer love and hate. Granting the many interesting psychological implications that our post-Freudian sensibilities perceive, for example, in Mâtho's waging war for a vague kind of love, or in the wily Greek Spendius' desire both to stand at the head of Carthage's grandeur and to sack and pillage it, we have to admit that Flaubert himself does not explore the possibilities that lie in his broadly sketched characters. Thus as Flaubert's method in Salammbô ignores developing the characters his sources supply him with, so he disregards the clarification of the causal links that would weave the historical strands of his plot into a conventionally unified whole. The method that raises history to plot in the novel involves the exploitation of history for its value as spectacle. And character in the novel is used as an ornamental rarity to complement a plot of spectacle.

After remarking the way plot and character differ in Salammbô from what we know about more conventional historical fiction, we can next turn to examining the ends of historically based works. In his attempts to augment the factual framework of history with the details that history suggests but usually omits, the historical artist generally aims at elucidating the causality that he sees implicit among the incidents of history. By shedding light on historical figures and lending them psychological complexity, he dramatizes the extent to which the shape of history depends on its chief personnages. Thus by emphasizing connections among events in relation to the motives of the characters who figure in those events, historical fiction tends to play up the truths its author perceives in history. The treatment of plot and character then is determined by the end which they generate. For example, Bolingbroke recognizes that while the authenticity of his reign depends on keeping free from charges of regicide, yet Richard's continued existence threatens the stability of his fledgling rule. After Pierce of Exton kills Richard—for thus he interprets the new king's wishes—one truth will come to the forefront, that once rule is seized by force it is especially prone to any new show of force. In art that is founded in history, then, we find that plot and character work to illustrate the theme, or the perceived truth of history.

In Salammbô, as we can by now expect, the above does not apply in any usual way. As we saw, we cannot look for historical truths in Salammbô since probability among events and character motivation, the grounds from which historical truths spring, are treated only in a sketchy way. Nevertheless, if we take another look at the use of history in the novel, I think we will see a pattern evolving in the plot. As the major actions proceed from the orgy, through the battles to the sacrifice to Moloch and the deaths of Mâtho and Salammbô, we notice that the plot resembles not the causal unity of history but a kind of ritual action. Looking at the plot not as a juxtaposition of individual clashes between armies but as an extended campaign, the battles fall into an undulating pattern in which the opponents win and lose alternately: the victors exulting in their fortune and the vanquished somehow regrouping for revenge after a near slaughter. Because we soon learn to watch out for the other side coming up to take its turn as champion, the outcome of the battles becomes less important and instead we become engrossed in the way in which the particular phase of the pattern will be realized. In effect, our expectations change and begin to demand of the book not significant action, not historicity, but the fulfillment of the ritual pattern of action in a unique, exotic and spectacular way. What becomes important in the book is its form, how our expectations will be met. By honing our expectations to the appreciation of the embellishment of his sources, Flaubert can augment the framework of history in a way that would seem inimical to it. Instead of dealing with probability and motivation to highlight the truths of history, he subjects its raw facts to the artificing action of the artist and then emphasizes not history but its embellishments of spectacle, rhythm and pleasing configurations. That is, history becomes a ritual of wondrous if historically insignificant events whose individual movements attest to the creative force that informs them. In the same way, the specifics of history, that is, character and specific action, instead of adding credibility and continuity to history, reflect on the force that molds them into artifacts.

As we saw earlier on, Flaubert's method is to lead away from his facts towards a realization of the artificing force at work shaping those facts. In conventional historical fiction the relationship between history and imagination is a supplemental one in which they combine to refer outside of themselves to a general statement of their significance; that is, they function to establish the theme of the work. In Salammbô the artistic imagination works to transform history into a vehicle of spectacle, rhythm and wonder. The relationship between history and artistry reflects the “theme” of Salammbô insofar as the resulting artifacts refer to the artificing power which informs them. That is to say that Flaubert's method in Salammbô is reflexive; both the efficient and final causes of the novel—to use the most recognizable and precise terms available—are the same kind of force. The creative force which organizes both imaginary and factual materials into plot and characters for fiction is the same force that the novel tries to elucidate. The usual theme of an historical novel, the meaning of a reconstruction of history, becomes in Salammbô a self-significant force which presides over history but exists independent of it and indifferent to it. (The indifference of this ethereal force explains the total lack of moral outrage in the ritual ebb and flow of slaughter and ravage.) If for a moment we review the role of history in the plot of the novel, we find that for all the historical sources no lesson or truth is discovered at the end of any series of events. Instead, approaching the limits of history in Salammbô, the scope of actual events in the novel, we are referred beyond those events into the realm of the supernatural, the deities Tanit and Moloch. Not that the gods draw up the plans of history, but that the events of the novel undulate between these two ineluctable and inscrutable forces. The billow and wane: the curious pattern of love and war, desire and repulsion, arising from the midst of history gives us a sense of the indifferent godlike power which permeates history and expands beyond its limits while existing independently of it. And what we glimmer in the whole of the novel is the mysterious handicrafting of the creator, godlike, beyond the confines of his creation.


Starting with the problem of the plot in Salammbô, we have seen how Flaubert treats two different actions and the parallel methods he uses to arrive at the same ends.

Plot as history: mass action Character and specific action: function as descriptive objects Theme: transcendence of history towards the elucidation of latent creative force
Underplot: tracked action Interruption of action: focus on descriptive objects Transcendence of action: realization of creative force

We want to remark only that in what is roughly determined as plot, character (the characters, we remember, being treated as hardly more than other rare objects) and theme, Flaubert tends to emphasize spectacle, diction and melos respectively. Spectacle figures primarily in the plot (mass action). The descriptive powers of Flaubert's language are the hallmark of his treatment of both character and object, tending to blur the distinctions between them. And the periodicity and melodies of Flaubert's prose work tend to spirit us away from artifact most forcefully in the underplot.

The division of Flaubert's method into two discrete parts in this paper does not show how he produces his greatest effect. For when both mass and individual actions converge the book reaches some of its most striking moments. Among the most powerful of these takes place in the last chapter of the book and concerns the relationship between Salammbô and the masses of Carthage just prior to her marriage. Flaubert sets the scene among the temples of Carthage, where the entire city, it seems, has turned out to observe the festivities. In the midst of the grandeur and the crowds Salammbô appears. We follow her: “Salammbô marchait dessous, lentement; puis elle traversa la terrasse pour aller s'asseoir au fond, sur une espèce de trône. …” (p. 346). Salammbô's progression then ceases and we turn to the rarity of things immediately surrounding her, which leads to the description of Salammbô herself:

Des chevilles aux hanches, elle était prise dans un réseau de mailles étroites imitant les écailles d'un poisson et qui luisaient comme de la nacre; une zone toute bleue serrant sa taille laissait voir ses deux seins, par deux échancrures en forme de croissant; des pendeloques d'escarboucles en cachaient les pointes. Elle avait une coiffure faite avec des plumes de paon étoilées de pierreries; un large manteau, blanc comme de la neige, retombait derrière elle—et les coudes au corps, les genoux serrés, avec des cercles de diamants au haut des bras, elle restait toute droite, dans une attitude hiératique.

(p. 346)

The description of the exoticism of Salammbô becomes steadily more vertiginous—the swirling gown with flashing gems interwoven, the conic spiral of her exposed breasts tipped with jewels, and the drowning quality of Flaubert's languorous prose—until we pass from the first sentence to the second, which, in a series of rich images, transforms the sparkling object before us into a hieratic symbol: from a rare object to a mysterious supernatural quality.

Without being more specific, Flaubert begins to give us a sense of the grandeur and massiveness of the setting. He pans across the scene:

Derrière Salammbô se développaient les prêtres de Tanit en robe de lin; les Anciens, à sa droite, formaient, avec leurs tiares, une grande ligne d'or, et, de l'autre côté, les Riches, avec leurs sceptres d'émeraude, une grande ligne verte,—tandis que, tout au fond, où étaient rangés les prêtres de Moloch, on aurait dit, à cause de leurs manteaux, une muraille de pourpre. Les autres collèges occupaient les terrasses inférieures. La multitude encombrait les rues. Elle remontait sur les maisons et allait par longues files, jusqu'au haut de l'Acropole.

(p. 347)

The action of this scene lies in the sense of vast crowds pulsating and electric with anticipation. And then all the richness, all the multitudes, part, suddenly give way to Salammbô, as we discover the essence of her hieraticism: “Ayant ainsi le peuple à ses pieds, le firmament sur sa tête, et autour d'elle l'immensité de la mer, le golfe, les montagnes et les perspectives des provinces, Salammbô resplendissante se confondait avec Tanit et semblait le génie même de Carthage, son âme corporifiée” (p. 347). In this account Flaubert makes us rise from the crowds on the roofs up to Salammbô and beyond to the heights of the spiritual force informing not only Salammbô but the fact of the book itself. It is here that the power of rare image and vortically languorous prose transport us towards the seat of creativity at the peripheries of the novel.


These last few lines will conclude our discussion of the method of Salammbô by glancing at it in the light of Flaubert's general attitude toward his art. As moral historian of his times Flaubert chronicles the vulgarities and silly illusions that make the world particularly frustrating for anyone of fine sensibilities. In Madame Bovary, that heroine's sensitivity, while making her in a way admirable in comparison with her concitoyens, also makes her awfully ludicrous, and finally kills her. And if Bouvard and Pécuchet are all the more bourgeois in their criticism of the bourgeoisie, then where in relation to the all-pervasive bourgeois spirit does that leave those who in turn raise an eyebrow at the two copyists' bourgeois attitudes? Indeed Flaubert, in exposing the pettiness of the bourgeoisie, must have been conscious of this frustrating circularity in which l'esprit bourgeois becomes almost a facet of the human condition. In this context Salammbô functions in two ways. First of all it provides a retreat into an exotic past. More importantly, though, its method indicates to us the way a man of high sensibility kept artistic equilibrium in a bourgeois world: for in Salammbô we see the relationship not only between the artifact and the world, but the artist's relation to both these. The subject matter founding the novel, of little significance in itself, is the dross from which the artifact arises. And in turn the artifact refers outside itself to the informing powers of creativity. Beyond the limits of artistry we find, in the seat of creation, the artist himself who, while perceiving the world, is indifferent to it and independent of it. The method of Salammbô suggests how Flaubert can find refuge in his art from the vicious circularity of the bourgeois world we see in the bulk of his novels: above and beyond creation the artist's artificing puts him apart from the world where the sources of art lie. As the speaker of Yeats' “Byzantium” finds his place in the world of spirit and artifact, so Flaubert, in Salammbô, like the Emperor's golden smithies, takes what history brings him from the world and transforms it into artifact. And what we have done is to try to trace that process of creation in Salammbô.


  1. See Flaubert's reply to Frœhner citing some of the pains the author took in researching the details of the novel. The reply is reprinted in the appendix of Edouard Maynial's edition of Salammbô (Paris, 1961), pp. 367-75.

  2. Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, ed. Edouard Maynial (Paris, 1961), pp. 82-83; all subsequent references to Salammbô in my text are to this edition and will be noted parenthetically.

Further Reading

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Aprile, Max. “Flaubert and the Irony of ‘le mot juste’: The Editions of Salammbô.RLA: Romance Languages Annual 1 (1989): 227-31.

Highlights numerous omissions and changes from Flaubert's autograph manuscript of Salammbô to printed editions.

———. “Dureau de la Malle's Carthage: A Documentary Source for Flaubert's Salammbô.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 43, no. 3 (July 1989): 305-15.

Claims Flaubert's considerable debt to an archaeological essay by Dureau de la Malle entitled Carthage as a source for Salammbô that was never publicly acknowledged.

Bart, B. F. “Male Hysteria in Salammbô.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 12, no. 3 (spring 1984): 313-21.

Analyzes the figure of Mâtho as a male suffering from hysteria caused by sexual frustration in Salammbô.

Constable, E. L. “Critical Departures: Salammbô's Orientalism.” MLN 111, no. 4 (September 1996): 625-46.

Reads Salammbô as Flaubert's critique or reformulation of nineteenth-century Orientalism and its accompanying fetishes.

Curry, Corrado Biazzo. “Exoticism and Description in Salammbô.” In Description and Meaning in Three Novels by Flaubert, pp. 61-114. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Assesses the decontextualized imagery and anti-historical method of Salammbô.

Dallal, Jenine Abboushi. “French Cultural Imperialism and the Aesthetics of Extinction.” The Yale Journal of Criticism 13, no. 2 (2000): 229-65.

Links the aesthetic concerns of Flaubert's Salammbô to the “peculiar doctrine of loss and inconsequence” exhibited by French imperial ideology.

Deppman, Jed. “History with Style: The Impassible Writing of Flaubert.” Style 30 (spring 1996): 28-49.

Discusses Salammbô as Flaubert's fictional attack on the possibility of writing mimetic history.

Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. “The Ritual of Reading Salammbô.Modern Language Review 67, no. 4 (October 1972): 787-98.

Illuminates the organizing principles of vision and speech in Salammbô.

Hohl, Anne Mullen. “Exotic Translation and the Readable Text.” French Literature Series 13 (1986): 65-77.

Highlights motifs of translation and indecipherability in Salammbô.

Jehlen, Myra. “Flaubert's Nightmare.” Profession (1995): 10-13.

Examines Salammbô as a sadistic novel that aspires to “an enhancement of beauty through evil.”

Kropp, Sonja Dams. “Under the Spell of the Gods: From Phoenician Legend to Carthaginian Character in Flaubert's Salammbô.RLA: Romance Languages Annual 7 (1995): 100-6.

Regards Flaubert's use of the Phoenician myth of Melkarth and Masisabal as part of his symbolic delineation of character in Salammbô.

Lowe, Lisa. “The Orient as Woman in Flaubert's Salammbô and Voyage en Orient.Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 1 (spring 1986): 44-58.

Observes Flaubert's effort to eroticize and feminize the Orient in Salammbô and his travel writing.

———. “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, pp. 213-42. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Compares Flaubert's positioning of the Orient as an erotic female Other in Salammbô and his use of oriental motifs in L'Education sentimentale.

McKenna, Andrew J. “Flaubert’s Freudian Thing: Violence and Representation in Salammbô.Stanford French Review 12, nos. 2‐3 (fall-winter 1988): 305‐25.

Considers the symbolic potential of the sacred veil of Tanit (the zaϊmph) in Salammbô, including its association with language and with the Freudian urges toward death and sexual desire.

Rose, Marilyn Gaddis. “Decadent Prose: The Example of Salammbô.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 3, nos. 3‐4 (spring-summer 1975): 213‐23.

Views the figure of Salammbô as an embodiment of literary decadence.

Rubino, Nancy. “Impotence and Excess: Male Hysteria and Androgyny in Flaubert’s Salammbô.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 29, nos. 1‐2 (fall-winter 2000‐01): 78‐99.

Maintains that Flaubert’s depiction of the male hysteric as androgyne in Salammbô inverts the traditional nineteenth-century scheme of sharply polarized sexuality while symbolizing a modern, impotent artistic process.

Schehr, Lawrence R. “Salammbô as the Novel of Alterity.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 17, nos. 3‐4 (spring-summer 1989): 326‐41.

Characterizes Salammbô as a unique ‘novel of alterity’ that stands outside of, and is inassimilable with, the remainder of Flaubert’s writing.

Starr, Peter. “Salammbô: The Politics of an Ending.” French Forum 10, no. 1 (January 1985): 40‐56.

Probes the aesthetics of narrative ambiguity in Salammbô.

Steegmuller, Francis. “Salammbô: The Career of an Opera.” Grand Street 4, no. 1 (autumn 1984): 103-27.

Chronicles the history of Salammbô.

Strong, Isabelle. “Deciphering the Salammbô Dossier: Appendix 4 of the ‘Club de l’honnête homme’ Edition.” Modern Language Review 72, no. 3 (July 1977): 538-54.

Emends a portion of a modern edition of Flaubert's collected works concerning his research notes for Salammbô.

Wetzel, Andreas. “Reconstructing Carthage: Archeology and the Historical Novel.” Mosaic: A Journal of the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 21, no. 1 (winter 1988): 13-23.

Studies Salammbô as a literary subversion of the concept of archeological veracity.

Additional coverage of Flaubert's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British and Canadian editions; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; European Writers, Vol. 7; Exploring Short Stories; Guide to French Literature, Vol. 1789 to the Present; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 10, 19, 62, 66; Novels for Students, Vol. 14; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, and 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 6; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 11, 60; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature Criticism.

Jonathan Culler (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Culler, Jonathan. “Values.” In Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty, pp. 212-28. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1974, Culler asserts that bewilderment is experienced by both the characters in the unreal setting of Carthage and the readers of the novel itself. The critic theorizes that the characters' gradual attachment to the divine as a source of meaning and structure is portrayed so that the role of the sacred in human society is laid bare for the reader to dissect.]

This is one of the basic problems confronting the reader of Flaubert: how is he to make sense of novels which thematize the difficulties of making sense and especially ridicule attempts to read life as if it were a novel, in accordance with those very operations which the reader is engaged in performing? In works like Madame Bovary and L'Education sentimentale our knowledge of the world provides some guidance, assuring us that Emma and Frédéric are foolish and that we may therefore feel safe. But in Salammbô the problem is especially acute because the characters, who do not seem to be mediocre or foolish, are engaged in a desperate attempt to understand their relation to their situation, and our lack of knowledge of the setting, not even Greece or Rome but Carthage, deprives us of any external standards which might permit confident judgment of their interpretations. Here, more than in any other of Flaubert's works, the reader finds in the activity and bewilderment of the characters a metaphor for his own process of reading.1 The characters, that is to say, are trying to understand themselves and their world just as the reader is; they are not committed to language but are trying to find a language, and the rebuffs they encounter or solutions they discover offer an explicit thematization of the problems of reading.

That the book defies comprehension has become a critical commonplace. Sainte-Beuve wondered what was the point and why it had been undertaken. Jean Rousset finds it ‘an enigmatic book’; Dennis Porter sees it as ‘un livre sur rien’, without meaning except as a manifesto of aestheticism.2 Lukács asks ‘what can a world thus re-awakened mean to us?’, finds a ‘lack of relation between the human tragedy … and the political action’, and speaks of a plot that is ‘lifeless, not only because it is cluttered up with the descriptions of inessential objects, but because it has no discernible connection with any concrete form of popular life that we may experience.’3 Thibaudet, calling it a novel ‘so unusual in appearance and so detached from life’, comes closer than the others to defining its mysterious attraction:

Flaubert wanted to write a gratuitous work which would support itself purely by the force of its style, and which, instead of bringing history towards us, would drag it violently away, to the edge of a desert, so as to make this portion of humanity into a block of pure past, a dead star like the moon, under whose influence Salammbô comes. And it is precisely this hallucinatory effect of a dead thing which has helped to give Salammbô its symbolic hold on the imagination.’4

Distanced from us, as the gratuitous reconstruction of a world not our own nor even part of our past, the work seems deliberately to aspire towards what Lukács calls the ‘psuedo-monumentality’ of objects alienated from the inner life of characters and readers. The world of the novel, like the novel itself, is strange and monstrous, cruel and immobile, suffused, as Brombert says, with a ‘combination of violence and tedium.’5

The readers, consequently, have the same problem as the characters: how are they to organize and relate to this strange world? what sort of connection can be made between the inner and outer, between the psychological drama and the historical and political circumstances?

The characters certainly feel this strangeness and estrangement: they stand, gaping and bewildered, ébahis and béants, looking at one another and at the scenes before them. The Mercenaries watch the Carthaginians sacrificing their own children, ‘béants d'horreur’, trying to fathom the meaning of this barbarous behaviour. When Mâtho steals the sacred veil of Carthage and brings it to Salammbô's room, the two of them—enemy leader and daughter of the Carthaginian general—‘restèrent béants à se regarder’, wondering what each represents to the other and what their encounter means. Vision involves a recognition of strangeness and a desire to find ways of overcoming it.6

The opening scene of the novel is an elegantly proleptic dramatization both of the problem of understanding and of the principal modes of response which the novel will develop. The spectacle of the Mercenaries feasting in Hamilcar's gardens is an orgy of gluttony, drunkenness, and general destructiveness which affords little meaning until two interpreters appear. The first, Spendius, a slave whom the soldiers have freed, immediately grasps the possible political significance of the events and offers a reading of it: reminding them of their strength, he suggests that they should be drinking from the cups of the Sacred Legion and thus brings to the fore the underlying political tension between a wealthy and snobbish Carthage and the Mercenaries who have been hired to do their fighting but are as yet unpaid. This mode of interpretation continues when he accompanies Mâtho on a tour of the grounds: ‘I can show you a room where there is a gold bar beneath each tile’, there for the taking. And after Mâtho's rejection of this suggestion he assumes that his goal was rather the pillage of Carthage, but he has to take the uncomprehending Mâtho by the arm and point out the wealthy city, defenceless before them, and the band of Mercenaries whose hatred was now aroused. ‘Do you understand me, soldier?’ he continues to a mute Mâtho. ‘We shall walk draped in purple, bathe in perfume surrounded by slaves.’ Remember the hardships you have undergone in the service of Carthage. Think of the wealth and happiness that can be yours. We are strong; they are weak and divided. Command and you will be obeyed. Carthage is ours for the taking (I, 699). [Oeuvres complètes]

Spendius' interpretive discourse is based on an understanding of the realities of power and an assumption of their over-riding importance. His speech is related to action and is a mode of duplicity and intrigue, but he acquires a certain ascendancy by virtue of his ‘understanding’ of the world.

The other interpreter, and indeed the cause of Mâtho's inattention to Spendius' reasoning, is of course Salammbô, who appears on the steps of the palace, high above the feasting soldiers, as a mysterious and unknown power—‘Personne encore ne la connaissait.’ Coming down the steps towards them, she stops: ‘Immobile et la tête basse, elle regardait les soldats.’ When she descends among them they draw back, sensing ‘quelque chose des Dieux’ which envelops her, and she herself, seeking understanding, seems to ‘regarder tout au loin au delà des espaces terrestres.’ When she first speaks it is not to the soldiers but invoking the sacred fish which they have killed. They do not understand, of course, but

Ils s'ébahissaient de sa parure; mais elle promena sur eux tous un long regard épouvanté, puis s'enfonçant la tête dans les épaules en écartant les bras, elle répéta plusieurs fois: ‘Qu'avez-vous fait! qu'avez-vous fait.’

(I, 697)7

The Mercenaries do not know, for their relationship to the sacred is as confused as is the readers'. What does killing and eating the sacred fish mean? By way of an answer Salammbô invokes a religious hierarchy and begins to chant sacred tales. The Mercenaries, of course, do not understand, but they sense something of the potency of the sacred, and open-mouthed, held by her, ‘ils tâchaient de saisir ces vagues histoires qui se balançaient devant leur imagination, à travers l'obscurité des théogonies, comme des fantômes dans des nuages’ (I, 698).8

These are the two principal modes of ordering that the book offers: a language of politics which accepts religion as a persuasive device but denies it any status as an interpretive system, and a language of ritual and religious symbols whose relation to action is more problematic but which seems to the major characters, Salammbô and Mâtho, a way of coming to understand their experience. Mâtho, trying to explain what has happened to him in his encounter with Salammbô, wondering what force has overtaken him and come to govern his activities, reads himself as cursed and takes Salammbô as the embodiment of the Goddess. Salammbô, whose life has so far been ordered by her role as servant of the Goddess, participates in a similar sacramental reading of experience and casts Mâtho in the appropriate sacred role.

The terms in which these characters come to see one another can be adopted, almost without alteration, as a critical reading of the novel, which confirms the close relationship between the characters and the readers as interpreters. Jean Rousset, for example, stressing that ‘the book should be read on the plane of myth’, writes:

Salammbô, the human star, has sworn herself to Tanit, the moon, whom she worships at night on the upper terrace, while Mâtho, siderial god, diurnal hero, is associated with Moloch, the god of the sun. This symbolism determines their behaviour: … they attract and repel one another, linked each to each by a blind will which they obey without understanding … Set above and apart from the groups that they dominate, they live alone between heaven and earth.9

But the reader accustomed to Flaubertian irony may well wonder whether he should be so quick to accept the language in which characters choose to view themselves. If we do not allow Emma Bovary with impunity to identify herself with novelistic heroines, should we not be a little more sceptical of the language which characters use to identify themselves with heavenly bodies or gods? Certainly there is much which suggests the necessity of an ironic view of religious discourse: when the Carthaginians crucify captured Mercenaries we are told, ‘the sanction of the gods was not lacking, for on all sides crows swooped down from the heavens’ (I, 747). The conjunction, as so often in Flaubert, seems to turn irony against individual or communal attempts at thinking, and we are inclined to discover irony here because of our reluctance to admit such savagery as something sacred. Similarly, when the Carthaginians are slaughtering their own children and we are told that ‘the God's appetite, however, was not sated. He wanted more’ (I, 781), we are likely to want to distance ourselves from that language.

Even in the opening scene the attempts at a sacramental reading are put to the test of irony by a narrative voice which implies the possibility of a purely sexual interpretation. After speaking to the Mercenaries, Salammbô drops her lyre and is silent,

et, pressant son coeur à deux mains, elle resta quelques minutes les paupières closes à savourer l'agitation de tous ces hommes.

Mâtho le Libyen se penchait vers elle. Involontairement elle s'en approcha, et, poussée par la reconnaissance de son orgueil, elle lui versa dans une coupe d'or un long jet de vin pour se reconcilier avec l'armée.

(I, 698)10

A soldier provides the interpretation: ‘in our country when a woman gives a soldier a drink she is inviting him to share her bed.’ And with that a fight breaks out, provoked by a Numidian chief's sexual jealousy.

Indeed, one common critical approach assumes the priority of the sexual adventure and reads all else as illusion to be ironically deflated. Lukács speaks of Salammbô herself as ‘a heightened image, a decorative symbol, of the hysterical longings and torments of middle-class girls in large cities’, and finds the historical and mythical elements ‘no more than a pictorial frame within which a purely modern story is unfolded.’11 Salammbô's language is pure delusion; her problem is one of romantic longing and sexual frustration. Sherrington, taking this position to its extreme, argues that there is nothing in the novel ‘to suggest that Salammbô and her contemporaries were any less likely than Emma to be mistaken about their role in life simply because they lived in more exotic surroundings.’12 The critic's task in interpreting the book is to find ‘the reality under the illusion’, and he has no doubt about what that reality is: Salammbô's desires are ‘clearly sexually based, and exacerbated by surrounding physical conditions, such as strong perfumes, fasting, and other religious rites.’13 In our superior knowledge and freedom from superstition we can see that ‘every “supernatural” event … has an ordinary physiological or psychological explanation’, and Flaubert's narrative strategies, as vehicles of his most profound intention, are devoted to showing ‘people confused because they are unwilling or unable to look at facts.’14

Such a simplistic purpose would do Flaubert little credit, and one might well wonder why he should have bothered to resuscitate Carthage if it was only to show that Carthaginians were prey to religious delusion and refused to face facts. If the novel is read in this reductive way it becomes fundamentally uninteresting, and nothing illustrates the novel's complexity better than the two-faced role which Sherrington is forced to adopt in order to discuss it intelligently. With respect to the characters he plays Gradgrind—‘in this life we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’—and sneers at their attempts to order their lives in symbolic terms, but he is quite willing to use precisely these terms in his own symbolic reading of the novel. Thus, while the characters are deluded when they identify themselves or one another with the solar and lunar deities, the critic can write that ‘the sunrise passage is, indeed, quite remarkable in its symbolism’, that ‘the sun sets on Mâtho's death, as it is now rising on his strength and vigour … in a long series of parallels between Mâtho and Moloch’, that the Mercenary army leaves Carthage ‘marching by moonlight (i.e. Tanit—gentleness, in contrast with the last scene).’15 Mâtho is deluded in identifying Salammbô with Tanit,16 but the critic may see Salammbô's pallor as ‘a symbol of the moral leprosy of Carthage.’17 The mythical terms into which Salammbô and Mâtho translate the mystery they sense in each other's presence is but an ‘elaborate superstructure’, but the critic is allowed to discover, in a scene which ‘at bottom’ represents ‘an enflamed male paying an illicit nocturnal visit to a lady's bedroom’, an elaborate symbolic pattern: ‘the blue net, the bed suspended from the roof, the white clothing, all place an almost embarrassing emphasis on the Salammbô—Tanit parallel’, and Mâtho's appearance in a flash of fire and mention of the sunrise give ‘more than adequate prominence to the other half of the symbolism.’18

In order to make sense of the novel Sherrington must use the language and imagery which he treats as illusion when the characters use it, and this illustrates not merely the blindness of a critical discourse which fails to reflect on the implications of its own interpretive methods, but the dangers of trying to simplify Flaubert's irony. For if the novel is to have any value, the judgments one passes on characters' attempts to make sense of things will come to apply also to one's own attempts to make sense of the book. Critical discourse cannot therefore allow itself to remain blind to the relationship between its own interpretive procedures and those displayed or exercised within the novel itself. As Sherrington implicitly recognizes, the novel does present us with all the material for mythic and symbolic reading, and we cannot sneer at the characters' attempts to interpret their lives in these terms without sneering at ourselves by implication. ‘If such attempts are regarded by the reader as metaphors for his own activity they cannot be treated entirely ironically’,19 for he too, as critics' remarks on the enigmatic character of the book show, possesses no certain principles of intelligibility. The novel subjects religious discourse to multiple ironies, but we cannot reject that discourse entirely without leaving too much in the novel unexplained:

The reader is in no better position than the characters to discover the ‘reality’ behind their situations. Or rather, he is only quantitatively better off, in that he has access to all situations and all points of view; but this does not provide him with an overall principle for making the situations intelligible. The only reality behind the chaotic appearances of the novel is the reality of the activity of reading it. Hence the pattern which takes most account of the resemblance between the situation of the reader and that of the characters seems the nearest approach to what is really happening in the novel.20

If one attempts to create a pattern which takes account of the resemblance one will find that all modes of understanding have their limitations but that some are more limited than others in their failure to deal successfully with the more important aspects of characters' experience. Spendius, who is a surrogate for the critic determined to view religious and symbolic discourse with irony and to get behind it to the political and psychological reality, does not succeed in understanding the extraordinary power of Mâtho and Salammbô or the nature of their relationship. When Mâtho is suffering in his tent, convinced that a curse has been laid upon him and unable to escape the dominating thought of Salammbô (‘Her eyes burn me, she envelopes me, she pierces me’), Spendius tries to find cures in his modes of understanding: ‘Come on, you're weeping like a coward! Aren't you ashamed to let a woman make you suffer so!’ But he is clearly wrong to compare Mâtho, as he does, to the young men who anxiously sought his help in the days when he was a pimp. Don't be silly, comes the reply. ‘Do you think I'm a child?’ I've had hundreds of women, ‘but this one …’ (I, 703-4). Spendius again misinterprets, thinking in the language of politics and taking Salammbô's position as daughter of the enemy general to be the ‘reality’: ‘If she weren't the daughter of Hamilcar …’ ‘No!’ cries Mâtho, ‘she is not like the other daughters of men’; when she appeared the torches waned; there emanated from her whole being something sweeter than wine and more terrible than death. ‘Elle marchait cependant, et puis elle s'est arrêtée.’ If we accept Spendius's mode of understanding we are unable to read any of the wonder of this last sentence, nor are we able later to account for Mâtho's power and effectiveness as a leader when ‘the power of Moloch flowed through him.’ Whatever plots Spendius may form on the basis of his fallen understanding, he cannot act without Mâtho, and the mysterious power which his speech cannot explain determines, in fact, the ‘reality’ of Spendius's position.

Another reductive reading which, like Sherrington's, identifies Salammbô's desire as purely sexual, is offered by old Giscon who, as a prisoner in the Mercenary camp, heard the scene in Mâtho's tent when Salammbô recovered the sacred veil: ‘I heard you gasping with love like a harlot’; I wish I could cry out to your father, ‘Come see your daughter in the Barbarian's arms! To please him she has put on the garment of the Goddess, and in yielding her body to him she has abandoned, along with the glory of your name, the honour of the Gods, the vengeance of the nation, and the very safety of Carthage!’ (I, 761). We know this to be an imperfect understanding: whatever her sexual motives Salammbô has come to recover the veil and without that sacred errand would have had neither the will nor the courage to venture into the Mercenary camp.

Indeed, one must remember that Salammbô's expedition to the tent was part of a plan conceived by the priest Schahabarim and which he hoped would save both his country and his faith (I, 753). The most learned man in Carthage, he approaches the sacred in much the same way as the reader, with a kind of curious detachment born of scepticism and a desire for secure belief which would make things intelligible: ‘the more he doubted Tanit the more he wished to believe in her.’ And though he does, in presenting the plan to Salammbô, translate into sacred terms what he expects will be a sexual adventure, hesitating and seeking circumlocutions when Salammbô asks how exactly she is to get Mâtho to give her the veil, the success of the venture is ironic proof of the efficacy of the sacred. Schahabarim's ‘tu seras humble et soumise à son désir qui est l'ordre du ciel’, and ‘the Gods will dispose’ are meant as ironic statements concealing a sexual bargain; but in fact the encounter does take place at a mythic level, though myth be severely tested by the habitual techniques of Flaubert's irony.

This scene in Mâtho's tent is the central episode of the book in that for a moment the political and psychological dramas are fused; it is crucial also to our determination of the status of religious symbols and hence of the relationship between the sexual and the sacred. The setting itself—an enemy camp on the eve of a battle—contributes something to the dramatic intensity, which here reaches a level that Flaubert rarely allowed himself to achieve, but more is due to the protagonists' sense of wonder and power. When Salammbô rips off her veil and allows Mâtho to recognize her,

Il se recula, les coudes en arrière, béant, presque terrifié.

Elle se sentait comme appuyée sur la force des Dieux; et, le regardant face à face, elle lui demanda le Zaïmph; elle le réclamait en paroles abondantes et superbes.

Mâtho n'entendait pas; il la contemplait, et les vêtements, pour lui, se confondaient avec le corps.

(I, 758)21

There follows a sacramental description fusing garment and body which ends with her ear-rings made of hollowed pearls and from which, through a small hole in the bottom, from time to time, a drop of perfume falls onto her bare shoulder. ‘Mâtho la regardait tomber.’ The fascination, the absorption is heightened by a wondrous sentence in which Flaubert's mastery of deferment brings irony into the service of delicacy:

Une curiosité indomptable l'entraîna; et, comme un enfant qui porte la main sur un fruit inconnu, tout en tremblant, du bout de son doigt, il la toucha légèrement sur le haut de sa poitrine; la chair un peu froide céda avec une résistance élastique.

(I, 758)22

The nature of the spell soon changes, however, and the scene moves from adoration through anger and pride and back to unbounded adoration in which he takes her for the Goddess herself. But such intensity is fragile, and Flaubert does not hesitate to test it by offering possible ironies. ‘Ils ne parlaient plus. Le tonnerre au loin roulait. Des moutons bêlaient, effrayés par l'orage’ (I, 759). Here we have a hint of the Comices agricoles, or a suggestion that we test our attitude towards Salammbô by juxtaposing her with sheep. We find also the suggestions that the experience might be purely sexual: ‘Salammbô, accustomed to eunuchs, yielded to her astonishment at this man's power’ (I, 759). The way is thus open for an ironic reading of the sentence which reports her submission: ‘Salammbô était envahie par une mollesse où elle perdait toute conscience d'elle-même. Quelque chose à la fois d'intime et de supérieur, un ordre des Dieux la forçait à s'y abandonner.’23

Ironic possibilities are offered, as if a non-ironic reading were of no value unless it had successfully passed through the crucible of irony. It is no doubt because the text continually threatens to treat Salammbô as an antique Emma Bovary that we are forced to make distinctions, forced to recognize that Salammbô and Mâtho succeed in living their myths to an extent that Emma never does and that they do so partly because their world, unlike Emma's, is unintelligible unless structured by these myths. To say, with Sherrington, that Salammbô is ‘mistaken about her role’ seems silly, since we, like the character herself, are engaged in trying to discover what that role is. If the role cannot be named except by metaphors, that is precisely because it is successfully presented as ‘quelque chose à la fois d'intime et de supérieur’, a momentary fusion of the personal and the transcendental, of the sexual and the sacred.

The synthesis which the scene momentarily enacts cannot, of course, last. The self-consciousness that follows threatens the identification of the sexual and the sacred. Mâtho sheds the mantle of the sun-god and becomes a sentimental lover, and Salammbô wonders, ‘So this is the man who makes all Carthage tremble?’ When she secures the sacred veil she is, in best Bovaresque fashion, ‘surprise de ne pas avoir ce bonheur qu'elle s'imaginait autrefois. Elle restait mélancolique dans son rêve accompli’ (I, 760).24 But whereas in Madame Bovary and L'Education sentimentale such phrases indicate the futility of particular desires and the relative inadequacy of experience, here we find an irony which tests but does not undermine the reality and power of what has happened; and the final scene of the novel, when Mâtho, who is being whipped through the streets of Carthage, encounters Salammbô again, is ample testimony to the power of the symbolic bond between them:

Mâtho regarda autour de lui, et ses yeux recontrèrent Salammbô.

Dès le premier pas qu'il avait fait, elle s'était levée; puis, involontairement, à mesure qu'il se rapprochait, elle s'était avancée peu à peu jusqu'au bord de la terrasse; et bientôt, toutes les choses extérieures s'effaçant, elle n'avait aperçu que Mâtho. Un silence s'était fait dans son âme, un de ces abîmes où le monde entier disparaît sous la pression d'une pensée unique, d'un souvenir, d'un regard. Cet homme, qui marchait vers elle, l'attirait.

(I, 796)25

The pluperfect provides a modicum of distance—holding the scene off and testing it, but the non-restrictive relative clause of the last sentence restores some of the intensity, granting it the rights it has earned. The power of Salammbô's experience, as it acts upon her, cannot be doubted, and in order to read the scene properly we must grant the validity of the sacred metaphors as a mode of understanding. Otherwise the silence and the abyss would be novelistic impertinences. Indeed, the primacy of this unlivable symbolic order is confirmed in the only way it can be in Flaubert: by a death resulting from no external cause. The difference between Salammbô and Emma, one might say, is that Emma had to take poison in order to die whereas Salammbô, like Charles and like the youthful narrator of Novembre, dies by a mental negation of life, thus asserting the priority of her ordering of experience over any which the world itself or the body might attempt to impose.

Such a death may, as the ending of Novembre suggests, seem strange to those who have suffered but must be accepted in a novel, ‘par amour du merveilleux.’ And now, perhaps, we know how to read that ending. Such a death must be accepted as the affirmation of a sacred order, and the sacred is a formal concept which permits an ordering of experience and confers value on it but which lacks a precise content which would make it a satisfactory determinant of practical affairs. Like the Zaïmph itself, transparent gauze which offers only a bluish tint to the sight, the sacred is pure form, a device of order, and Salammbô, as the concluding sentence tells us, dies because she had touched the Goddess's veil. She has tried to fill up the empty form of the sacred, to become herself a Goddess, and though she may in one sense have succeeded, such success is clearly not for this world.

‘Ainsi mourut la fille d'Hamilcar pour avoir touché au manteau de Tanit’ could, of course, be the ironic report of a collective superstition, but Flaubert's ironies cut both ways and we cannot take that position with any confidence because ‘we do not know what it means to have touched the veil of the goddess. The Zaïmph remains a symbol for a possible narrative integration which the text denies us. To this extent the reader shares the characters' awe in the face of sacred power.’26 The notion of the sacred becomes a formal requirement of the novel, an image of coherence and completion which the reader holds before him in the hope that he may be able to attain it.

Whether or not he actually attains it is uncertain. One might say that sacred order can be neither stated nor acted and that therein lies the ultimate correspondence between the situation of the characters and of the reader. Statements or fulfillments of the sacred tend, especially in a positivistic age, to become the merely sentimental. Or, to put it another way, the sacred as a mode of discourse is always in danger of being undermined by our empirical assumptions about reality as soon as it is connected with reality.

That problem is adumbrated in Salammbô's quest for knowledge of the sacred within the novel. She learns all the names of the Goddess and would very much like to see the veil, ‘for the idea of a god cannot be clearly separated from its representation’ (I, 709); and when the priest speaks of the various ‘gates’ for souls in the heavens, she ‘strove to perceive them, for she took these conceptions for realities; she accepted as true in themselves pure symbols or even turns of phrase, a distinction which was not always quite clear to the priest either’ (I, 753).

Can such a distinction ever be made clear? Can we ever reach a point where we would be able to judge just how much truth symbols carry or just how much distance separates language from experience? The symbol, which since the Romantic movement has been taken as the privileged mode and crowning achievement of literary activity, is supposed to display the fusion of language and experience, the transmutation of individual experience into general truth, the identity of life and form, and therein lies its attractions for both characters and readers. But the symbol is a fragile construct, especially in the novel, whose temporal structure leads it almost invariably to undermine the atemporal synthesis, in which all time is eternally present, to which the symbol aspires. The lyric can stop on a moment of epiphany; the novel leads up to it and beyond, making time its principle of continuity and thus providing, by its very structure, a threat to intimations of order and transcendence. The fate of the sacred in the novel is to be profaned; but it may be that our ability to understand profanation as such becomes the source of our sense of the sacred. Salammbô's and Mâtho's metaphors are made more valid by the fact that after having lived them for a moment they cannot go on and that the reader is aware of that difference. Frédéric's last scene with Mme Arnoux is the more sacred because it is threatened at every moment with profanation. The sacred is perceived only through its vulnerability.

If this is so then one might say that in Flaubert the value of symbols depends on their place in an allegory of interpretation. The sacred character of the Zaïmph comes not from its ‘connection’ with the goddess, which is easily deflated by irony, but from the fact that it figures in the book as a representation of that aspiration towards unity and meaning which governs both the reader's and the characters' behaviour. As a symbol it is fragile, but that fragility gives it a solid and worthy place in the temporal drama of the quest for fusion which takes place both at the level of action and at the level of interpretation.

In order to prevent this suggestion from remaining wholly abstract, we should turn back to symbolic objects in other novels, especially those which sit uncomfortably on the line dividing the sentimental from the sacred. The object foolishly venerated is one of the easiest targets for the analyst, but Flaubert understood very clearly its value as an objective correlative for emotions which are not the less worthy for their application to trivial objects: ‘one feels profoundly the melancholy of matter, which is but that of our souls projected onto objects’ (iv, 313). The marriage bouquet and cigar case in Madame Bovary, Mme Arnoux's box or her lock of hair in L'Education sentimentale, Félicité's parrot, are all sacred to the protagonists. As objects deprived of their original function and made emblematic, they are gazed on with that kind of stupidity which seeks stimuli for reverie. The objects of Madame Bovary are treated with more irony than the others, primarily because the reverie expresses itself more precisely and in that way bears a closer relationship to action. But all are highly vulnerable and come thereby to represent the strength of the characters' aspiration towards some kind of sacramental fulfilment which would confer meaning on their lives.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that those which seem the most sacred are those which as signs are the most arbitrary: the parrot, whose association with the Holy Ghost is purely contingent, and the Zaïmph, which the religious code has simply decreed to be sacred. Emma's elaborate suppositions about the cigar case, her desire to reconstruct its history, are attempts to make it a motivated sign which in fact reduce its sacred character—though not, of course, for her. Frédéric's worship of the flat in which he thinks Mme Arnoux lives is highly motivated, and it depends so much on that motivation that it becomes ridiculous when he discovers that she does not live there after all; whereas, for example, a picture of the Holy Ghost which did not look in the least like a parrot would not be a decisive blow against the parrot, since it is an arbitrary sign. The more arbitrary the sign, the purer the faith, since it does not rely on external justifications. In Salammbô we are told that the Mercenaries have become very confused about religion because of the diversity of beliefs and practices to which they have been exposed, and that their floating anxiety and sense of veneration has come to fasten itself upon chance objects: ‘une amulette inconnue, trouvée par hasard dans un péril, devenait une divinité; ou bien c'était un nom, rien qu'un nom, et que l'on répétait sans même chercher à comprendre ce qu'il pouvait dire’ (I, 725).27

That sort of faith avoids the stupidity of attempts to motivate signs, which is a mark both of the symbolic and the sentimental. One avoids it either by the supreme innocence of Félicité or by the self-consciousness and awareness of fragility that we find in the penultimate chapter of L'Education sentimentale, when Frédéric and Mme Arnoux succeed in severing their romantic discourse from the world of experience and so give the clichés, which are sullied by any attempt to live them, a sacramental purity. That their procedure is fundamentally allegorical should by now be sufficiently clear: allegory is that mode which recognizes the impossibility of fusing the empirical and the eternal and thus demystifies the symbolic relation by stressing the separateness of the two levels, the impossibility of their remaining linked in time, and the importance of protecting each level and the link between them by making it arbitrary. The corrosive irony applied to sentimentality, which shows that attempts at fusion can always be viewed differently and thus be made to fail, contributes to the allegorical mode by evoking, as the positive face that its negative procedure implies, the desire for connection which only allegory can make in a self-conscious and demystified way.

The sacred, one might say, is the sentimental purified by irony, emptied of its content, so that it may come to represent in the allegory of interpretation the formal desire for connection and meaning which governs the activity of readers and characters. In that sense, some notion of the sacred, however ill-defined, hovers over the novels as the teleological force which enables them to be read as warnings against the tawdry and premature ways of investing things with meaning. One of the functions of Salammbô and Trois Contes is to give us the sacred in more tangible form, so that its role may become clearer; but it is noteworthy that to do that Flaubert had to leave his contemporary environment for the quasi-feudal world of ‘Un Coeur simple’ or the more exotic worlds of ‘Hérodias,’ ‘La Légende de Saint Julien Hospitalier,’ and Salammbô. The sacred emerges in Salammbô as the necessary correlate of our desire to unify and make sense of the book; in ‘Hérodias’ our fore-knowledge of the Christian tradition enables us to read Herod's ill-defined awe of John the Baptist as perfectly proper, thus protecting him from possible ironies and, by the same token, committing us to the sacred as a functional concept; and finally, in ‘Saint Julien’ the result announced by the title and the distancing performed by the claim that the text recounts the story as represented in a stained-glass window allow us to structure the story as progress towards sainthood, although Julien does not effectively and empirically become a saint—the attribution of sainthood is not, in that sense, motivated—for that would require an interiority and psychological investigation which Flaubert deliberately eschews. Indeed, this last tale is perhaps the best example of the need to make the sacred something arbitrary, established by fiat. But in all three cases, as in ‘Un Coeur simple,’ the notion of a sacred order emerges as the necessary correlate of our desire to order experience in ways that escape delusion and destructive irony.

In the modern world, however, the sacred has become practically submerged by the sentimental. The operative codes by which things are given meaning have none of the arbitrariness and redeeming distance of religions; they are either novelistic modes which promise fulfilment that they cannot deliver or else purely practical codes which reflect all the limitations and active engagement of life in a particular and contingent society. Precisely because of their motivated relationship to ordinary life, the ways of reading experience which such codes promote are highly vulnerable to a vision which can regard them with sufficient distance to expose their pretensions to ‘natural’ meaning. The stupidity which refuses to comprehend objects in accordance with received modes of understanding but prefers to seek freedom and enrichment in reverie, the irony which explores alternative views both as polemical activity and as a way of enlarging horizons, are both attempts to enact, in the novels, the allegory of mind striving to avoid the limitations of particular social modes of understanding and to win through to something of the purity and inviolacy of the sacred, which one may define as arbitrary meanings guaranteed not by man but by God.

Anthropologists tell us that the sacred is not a class of special things but a special class of things, and therein lies, perhaps, the fundamental difference between the sentimental and the sacred. The former, attempting to make their ‘specialness’ an intrinsic and motivated quality, are exposed by this pretension, whereas the latter, defined arbitrarily by some version of the absolute, are invulnerable. Flaubert's novels make some such notion of the sacred a necessary fiction: the positive which enables all his negatives to have a meaning. If he was tempted to call his version of the absolute ‘style’—‘une manière absolue de voir les choses’—which would test, negate, and occasionally purify whatever it touched, we can answer that to destroy is always to destroy in the name of something and can apply the formal name of ‘the sacred’ to what is finally, insofar as we succeed in reading the novels as allegories of the adventures of meaning, our aspiration towards a secure and fully self-conscious understanding.


  1. For further exploration of this theme, see Veronica Forrest-Thomson, ‘The Ritual of Reading Salammbô’, Modern Language Review 67:4 (Oct, 1972), to which the following discussion is greatly indebted.

  2. Jean Rousset, ‘Positions, distances, perspectives dans Salammbô’, Poétique 6 (1971), p. 154. Dennis Porter, ‘Aestheticism versus the Novel: The Example of Salammbô’, Novel 4:2 (Winter 1971), pp. 102 and 105.

  3. The Historical Novel (Beacon Press, Boston, 1963), pp. 187 and 190.

  4. Gustave Flaubert, p. 145.

  5. The Novels of Flaubert, p. 108.

  6. Cf. Veronica Forrest-Thomson, ‘The Ritual of Reading Salammbô’, pp. 787-94.

  7. ‘They marvelled at her attire; but she cast over them a long horrified gaze; then, letting her head sink between her shoulders and spreading wide her arms, she cried several times: “What have you done! What have you done!”’

  8. ‘they tried to grasp these vague legends which played before their imagination, through the mists of theogonies, like phantoms in clouds.’

  9. ‘Positions, distances, perspectives dans Salammbô’, p. 154.

  10. ‘and, pressing her hands to her heart, she remained for several minutes with her eyes closed, savouring the agitation of all these men.

    ‘Mâtho the Libyan leaned towards her. Involuntarily she approached him, and, drawn by her recognition of his pride, she poured him a long stream of wine into a golden cup in order to make her peace with the army.’

  11. The Historical Novel, p. 189.

  12. Three Novels by Flaubert, p. 155.

  13. Ibid., p. 223.

  14. Ibid., pp. 229-30.

  15. Ibid., pp. 187-8.

  16. Ibid., p. 222.

  17. Ibid., p. 205 n.

  18. Ibid., p. 206.

  19. Veronica Forrest-Thomson, ‘The Ritual of Reading Salammbô’, p. 788.

  20. Ibid.

  21. ‘He drew back, elbows behind him, gaping, nearly terrified. She felt as if supported by the power of the Gods; and looking him straight in the eye she asked for the Zaïmph, she demanded it with proud and fluent words, Mâtho did not hear; he was gazing at her, and for him her garments blended with her body.’

  22. ‘An irresistible curiosity drew him on, and, like a child who reaches out his hand to an unknown fruit, trembling all the while, with the tip of his finger, he touched her lightly on her breast; the rather cool skin yielded with an elastic resistance.’

  23. ‘They had stopped speaking. Far away the thunder rolled. Sheep bleated, frightened by the storm.’

    ‘Salammbô was overcome by a lassitude in which she lost all consciousness of herself. Something both very intimate and yet impersonal, the will of the Gods, made her abandon herself to it.’

  24. ‘surprised not to feel the happiness she had previously imagined. She remained melancholy in her fulfilled dream.’

  25. ‘Mâtho gazed about him and his eyes fell on Salammbô. With the first step he had taken she had risen; then, unconsciously, as he drew near she had moved forward, little by little, to the edge of the terrace; and soon, as all things external were blotted out, she had seen only Mâtho. A silence had descended on her soul, one of those abysses in which the whole world disappears beneath the weight of a single thought, a memory, a look. This man, who was coming towards her, drew her.’

  26. Veronica Forrest-Thomson, ‘The Ritual of Reading Salammbô’, p. 792. Cf. Manurice Schroder, ‘On Reading Salammbô’, L'Esprit créateur 10:1 (Spring, 1970), p. 28.

  27. ‘an unknown amulet, found by chance in dangerous circumstances, became a god; or again it might be a name, merely a name, that was repeated with no attempt to grasp what it might mean.’



Flaubert, Oeuvres complètes, ed. Bernard Masson (Seuil, Paris, 1964), 2 vols.

Flaubert, Correspondance (Conard, Paris, 1926-33), 9 vols, and Supplément (Conard, Paris, 1954), 4 vols. The forthcoming edition in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade will supersede the Conard.

Critical Works

The best general studies of Flaubert are the longest and the shortest: Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Idiot de la famille (Gallimard, Paris, 1971-2), 3 vols, and Anthony Thorlby, Gustave Flaubert and the Art of Realism (Bowes and Bowes, London, 1956). Two other general studies which may be consulted with profit are Albert Thibaudet, Gustave Flaubert (Gallimard, Paris, 1935), and Victor Brombert, The Novels of Flaubert (Princeton University Press, 1966). A number of excellent articles will be found in the issue of Europe devoted to Flaubert, 485-7 (Sept-Nov, 1969).

More specialized studies of particular interest:

Peter Cortland, The Sentimental Adventure (Mouton, The Hague, 1967).

Marie-Jeanne Durry, Flaubert et ses projets inédits (Nizet, Paris, 1950).

Alison Fairlie, ‘Flaubert et la conscience du réel’, Essays in French Literature 4 (Nov 1967).

———. ‘Some Patterns of Suggestion in L'Education sentimentale’, Australian Journal of French Studies 6: 2-3 (1969).

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, ‘The Ritual of Reading Salammbô’, Modern Language Review 67: 4 (1972).

Michel Foucault, ‘La Bibliothèque fantastique’, in Flaubert, ed. Raymonde Debraye-Genette (Didier, Paris, 1970).

Gérard Genette, ‘Silences de Flaubert’, Figures (Seuil, Paris, 1966).

Claudine Gothot-Mersch, ‘Introduction’, Madame Bovary (Garnier, Paris, 1971).

J. Pommier and G. Leleu, Madame Bovary—Nouvelle Version (Corti, Paris, 1949).

Marcel Proust, ‘A propos du “style” de Flaubert’, Chroniques (Gallimard, Paris, 1927).

Jean-Pierre Richard, ‘La Création de la forme chez Flaubert’, Littérature et sensation (Seuil, Paris, 1954).

R. J. Sherrington, Three Novels by Flaubert (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1970).

Stephen Ullmann, Style in the French Novel (Blackwell, Oxford, 1960).

General works relevant to the approach adopted herein:

Roland Barthes, S/Z (Seuil, Paris, 1970).

Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics (Routledge, London, 1974).

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, ‘Levels in Poetic Convention’, Journal of European Studies 2 (1971).

Geoffrey Hartman, Beyond Formalism (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1970).

Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1971).

Paul de Man, ‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’, in Interpretation: Theory and Practice, ed. Charles Singleton (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1969).

Patrick Brady (essay date winter 1977)

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SOURCE: Brady, Patrick. “Archetypes and the Historical Novel: The Case of Salammbô.Stanford French Review 1, no. 3 (winter 1977): 313-24.

[In the following essay, Brady concentrates on the archetypal structure of Salammbô, including its eroticized imagery and suggestions of alchemical transformation.]

One of the most influential modern evaluations of Salammbô is that made by Georgy Lukács, and it is negative.1 According to Lukács, “La modernisation de la psychologie des personnages … est la seule source du mouvement et de la vie,” and he continues a little later: “Cette modernisation détermine la structure de l'action. Sa base est formée par deux motifs qui ne sont liés que d'une manière tout à fait extérieure: un conflit historique et politique entre Carthage et les mercenaires en révolte, et l'épisode amoureux de Salammbô elle-même. Leur entrelacement est tout à fait extérieur et doit nécessairement le rester. Salammbô est tout aussi étrangère aux intérêts vitaux de sa patrie que Mme Bovary à la pratique médicale de son mari” (pp. 211-12). Lukács sees Salammbô as a paradigm of the historical novel in its decline, characterized by “la monumentalisation décorative, la désanimation, la déshumanisation de l'histoire et en même temps sa limitation à la vie privée” (p. 223).

In spite of this negative judgment by Lukács, it would be erroneous to conclude that Marxist critics are inevitably opposed to the tendencies represented by Salammbô. Bertolt Brecht, for example, as early as 1938, defended post-Romantic writers for their perceptiveness and honesty in portraying man as ever more alienated in the evolving bourgeois society. Brecht also criticized Lukács's habit of blaming these post-Romantic writers for not leaving the novel form at the Scott-Balzac stage of omniscient third-person narration, centrally dominant protagonist, and simplified, idealized psychology.2 Such comments are most obviously applicable to the novel of contemporary life (as distinguished from the historical novel); but if Lukács may validly base his hypothesis of the decline of the historical novel on the decline of contemporary bourgeois society, then Brecht's rebuttal is equally valid for both types of novel.3

It would also be erroneous to assume that those critics who make severely negative evaluations of Salammbô are all of a Marxist persuasion. A negative criticism based on quite different criteria from those applied by Lukács is made by Nathalie Sarraute.4 For Sarraute, in this novel “la psychologie est inexistante.” She laments the absence “de la révélation, de la mise en oeuvre de forces psychologiques encore inconnues, qui est la base de toute littérature,” and declares that “cette absence de complexité psychologique … fait de Salammbô une imagerie enfantine.” She sums up its principal features (which she finds deplorable) as follows: “le beau style redondant et glacé, l'imagerie de qualité douteuse, des sentiments convenus, une réalité en trompe-l'oeil.”

Both Sarraute and Lukács, then, attack the psychology, but whereas Lukács decries it as excessively modernized and divorced from politics, Sarraute declares it to be nonexistent, being supplanted by description. The thesis proposed here will involve by implication the view that this judgment represents an unjust condemnation based on conceptions of “psychology” which are rigid, narrow, or superficial, and to a large extent mutually contradictory.5 What both Lukács and Sarraute apparently fail to realize (or refuse to admit) is that there is another level of “psychology” which registers deeper in the reader's mind (much of it subliminally) and operates through symbolization: this is the archetypal level, which exploits that stratum of “external” description which both our critics have failed to appreciate because their view of its function is so reductive.

The symbols which appear in Salammbô have been studied by Demorest and Dane.6 The symbolic dimension may also contribute to the enrichment of the structure (and itself derive completion and effectiveness from that structure)—but the structure of Flaubert's other two major novels attracted the attention of critics like Furst, Rinehart, and Proust7 before the same aspect of Salammbô was approached. Thus, for some time no real challenge was issued to Sainte-Beuve's declaration that the work lacks formal unity: “Je ne vois nulle part l'architecte. L'auteur ne se tient pas au-dessus de son ouvrage: il s'y applique trop, il a le nez dessus: il ne paraît pas l'avoir considéré avant et après dans son ensemble, ni à aucun moment le dominer.”8 In 1973, however, a fine article by R. B. Leal at last showed that “there is in fact a symmetry and simplicity in what we may term the ‘ground plan’ or ‘skeletal framework’ of the novel.”9

Beyond the presence of symbols in the work (Demorest, Dane) and their contribution to its structure (Leal), there is an archetypal dimension emanating from those symbols which are universal (the term “archetype” will be defined here as meaning “universal symbol”), and moreover this further dimension has a psychological function which is far from conventional and above all totally divorced from private life. Furthermore, this dimension, which is capable of expression in any novel, and is in fact particularly rich in those of the nineteenth century,10 is especially characteristic of the historical novel of that period, of which it is a centrally distinguishing feature, although totally ignored by Lukács in his massive work on Le Roman historique. If imagery and description appear to dominate “to the detriment of” psychology, it is merely that “psychology” (in a broad but deeply meaningful sense) finds a new mode of expression precisely in the exploitation of such imagery and description.


What Lukács calls “l'épisode amoureux” and Bruce Jay “the love interest,” “the love story,” “the fate of two star-crossed lovers,”11 is scarcely that, for Salammbô and Mâtho are not essentially living individuals (even in the shadowy, mitigated sense of paper characters in a novel). They are embodiments or incarnations of mysterious, superior forces, whose instruments they are in the working out of vast nonhuman interrelationships. Sarraute is thus right in declaring that there is no “psychology” in the conventional sense; she is mistaken, however, in making of this a defect, for there is another psychology present here, a Parnassian psychology of symbols and archetypes.

While the traditional opposition between urban and agrarian cultures (symbolized by the clash between Cain, founder of cities, and Abel, the pious shepherd) does not appear applicable here (because, if Carthage represents the urban pole, the agrarian would be represented not by the mercenaries but by the soldier-peasants of Rome), another opposition may be drawn between the civilized (Carthage) and the barbaric, primitive, or savage (the mercenaries), as between peace and war, or indeed between Thanatos (primacy of the inanimate) and Eros (activity) as outlined by Freud.

The opposition of forces which contributes a static organizational framework for Salammbô has been studied by Demorest and Dane on the symbolic level. Essentially, the political opposition between Carthage and the mercenaries is mirrored on the level of “individual psychology” (however with the reservations I have indicated) by the relations between Salammbô and Mâtho, and on the anagogic plane, by the conflict between the divinities Tanit and Moloch. The latter level is much more essential than the former: as Victor Brombert points out, “the dialectic of the eternal couple, Tanit and Moloch, is indeed at the core of the novel.”12 On the astrological level the corresponding conflict opposes moon and sun: Tanit, the moon-goddess, is “la Divinité de Carthage,”13 “l'âme de Carthage” (p. 64), while Salammbô herself is assimilated in turn with the moon, Tanit, and the city (pp. 61, 407, 752); Moloch (also known as “Baal”) is identified with the sun (pp. 237, 757), the mercenaries,14 and Mâtho (pp. 241, 265, 759). Finally, yet a further dimension is added by the explicit association of the sun with fire, war, and destruction, and of the moon with water, peace, and conservation (p. 752).

To this level of analysis must be added the dimension provided by the archetypal perspective. Among the sets of opposed symbols I have evoked, those which have archetypal significance are: sun/moon and fire/water. The significance of such elements as these has been studied by many scholars, and by none more comprehensively than Gaston Bachelard, in such works as La Psychanalyse du feu (1938) and L'Eau et les rêves (1943). In Salammbô, these elements represent the dialectical relationship between the male and female principles; the fact that these two principles are not only mutually contrary but also complementary is suggested by the symbol of the serpent, its tongue like a flickering flame of fire and its body flowing forward in endless curves like the meandering of a watery stream. Male because phallic in form, it nevertheless is female in that it comes from, and remains bound to, the earth (sister element to water). And the serpent is not only present in the novel, but its symbolism permeates (through direct textual allusions) other elements such as the sacred veil, or zaïmph, and the ankle-chain, as we shall see later, in a conjunction I believe to be absolutely central to the structure of thematic symbolism underlying the plot-development of the work.


The picture I have sketched so far is essentially static in character, and therefore, while quite simple and unsophisticated, it shares the limitations of certain tendencies of criticism in the 1960's associated by many writers with structural analysis. The “synchronic” (rather than “diachronic”), anti-sequential thrust of the mode of analysis sketched out by Lévi-Strauss in Anthropologie structurale is shared by such earlier approaches as that of Rousset—leading Derrida to categorize Rousset pejoratively as “structuralist” because of his neglect of sequential textual thrusts. Riffaterre, like Derrida, emphasizes the importance of progression through a text.15 There does, indeed, appear to be little doubt that the reader's experience of moving through the text from beginning to end, with a particular, pre-ordained chronological order between the elements with which he comes in contact, is of primary importance in the functioning of a literary construct and must therefore be emphasized in our analysis of the work and its impact.

A first step towards elucidating the dynamic evolution of the conflict between opposing forces in Salammbô has been taken by Leal on the level of the analysis of symbols. His analysis seeks precisely to emphasize the sequence of events; it may be reorganized for succinct representation in the following schema:

    • I Mercenaries and Carthage: Mâtho and Salammbô (i)
    • II Description of mercenaries and their camp (ii)
    • III Description of Salammbô and Carthage (iii)
    • IV Breakdown of negotiations (iv)
  • B. CONFLICT (v-x)
    • I Ascendancy of Moloch (v-vi)
      • a. Theft of zaïmph
      • b. Revolt of states tributary to Carthage
      • c. Defeat of Carthaginian forces
    • II Ascendancy of Tanit (vii-viii)
      • a. Hamilcar's decision to fight for Carthage N.B. but note importance of Moloch
      • b. Bataille du Macar
    • III Ascendancy of Moloch (ix-x)
      • a. Hamilcar's army besieged
      • b. Apostasy of Schahabarim
  • C. CONJUNCTION (xi-xiii)
    • I Mâtho and Salammbô (xi)
      • a. Neutralization
      • b. Sacrifice of virginity
      • c. Recovery of zaïmph
    • II Continuing conflict (xii)
      • a. Hamilcar's triumph
      • b. Carthage besieged
    • III Sacrifice of children to Moloch (xiii)
  • D. CONCLUSION (xiv-xv): ultimate triumph of fertile Tanit
    • I Destruction of mercenaries
    • II Death of Mâtho
    • III Death of Salammbô

In order to move from this description to the stage of interpretation, I should like to suggest here that the four stages of struggle discerned by Leal (confrontation, conflict, conjunction, conclusion) correspond broadly to the four major stages of transmutation postulated by alchemy: calcination (sin), solution (innocence), conjunction (passion), and sublimation (transcendence).16 This structure provides a framework for the core of our discussion: the interpretation of three closely interrelated symbols in the novel whose archetypal character and function has so far received little or no attention from critics of Salammbô.


The union of Salammbô with Mâtho is associated with effects on three objects intimately and symbolically connected with Salammbô: the serpent (a python) with whom she goes through the ritual of preparation; the ankle-chain, which is broken in the course of her encounter with Mâtho; and the zaïmph or sacred veil which she recovers and takes back to Carthage.

The symbolic meaning of the serpent within the context of the novel is explicitly stated: “Le serpent était pour les Carthaginois un fétiche à la fois national et particulier. On le croyait fils du limon de la terre, puisqu'il émerge de ses profondeurs et n'a pas besoin de pieds pour la parcourir; sa démarche rappelait les ondulations des fleuves, sa température les antiques ténèbres visqueuses pleines de fécondité, et l'orbe qu'il décrit en se mordant la queue l'ensemble des planètes, l'intelligence d'Eschmoûn” (p. 903). We are also told that “on tirait des augures d'après l'attitude des serpents.”17 The serpent is specifically associated with Salammbô in several ways: her father Hamilcar has upon his forehead “une longue cicatrice [qui] s'agitait comme un serpent entre ses sourcils” (p. 851), she calls her great black python “le Génie de ma maison” (p. 753), and when, in the course of stealing the zaïmph, Mâtho encounters the serpent, he exclaims: “C'est elle! Je la sens” (p. 809). It is also associated with Salammbô through its association with the moon: mention is made of “les quatre moineaux vivants qu'on lui présentait à la pleine lune et à chaque lune nouvelle” (p. 903), and because of its patterned skin it is associated, like the moon, with the starry night sky: “Sa belle peau [est] couverte comme le firmament de tâches d'or sur un fond tout noir” (ibid.). There is at times a negative effect in the evocation of the serpent: “A force de le regarder, elle finissait par sentir dans son coeur comme une spirale, comme un autre serpent qui peu à peu lui montait à la gorge et l'étranglait” (ibid.). But no doubt it is indeed this autre serpent (representing most likely male sexuality) that is negative; her python, on the contrary, is an incarnation of Tanit; with regard to the goddess, of whom Salammbô is an embodiment, we read: “A mesure qu'elle [Salammbô] … était plus disposée à secourir Tanit, le python se guérissait, grossissait, il semblait revivre” (p. 909). This must be kept in mind when we interpret the ritual embrace between the serpent and Salammbô, for it makes a purely phallic interpretation paradoxical and incomprehensible. A logically consistent exegesis is, however, possible: the ritual in which she embraces the serpent in the moonlight may be seen to have the function of consecrating her first embrace to the moon (in a virginal simulacrum of the male sexual embrace to which she must soon submit)—through the python, erect (“il se leva tout droit”) but cold, associated with the female element (it is described as flowing towards her “comme une goutte d'eau”)18: like Danaë inundated by the golden rain, “en fermant à demi les yeux, elle se renversait sous les rayons de la lune.”19 When, eventually, the python becomes gravely ill, Salammbô, on the contrary, gets well, and her old servant believes that her indisposition has been taken upon itself by the snake. She is therefore moved by its death, although Salammbô herself appears quite indifferent.20

Beyond the symbolic significance given to the serpent in the novel, this reptile has meanings derived from many symbolic traditions. Through the simplicity of its structure (neither legs, nor hair, nor feathers), the serpent has a primordial character, representing ancient wisdom; lacking members, it has the appearance of being nothing but a stomach or a womb and hence is associated with initiation. Its phallic appearance suggests the male principle. On the other hand, its invisibility in many habitats (through stillness and dissimulation) suggests hidden forces, as of the subconscious, while its undulating movement suggests water and hence the female principle. The shedding of its skin symbolizes metamorphosis, rejuvenation, even immortality.21 The poison of its bite suggests danger and evil. Of these various associations, those emphasized in Salammbô relate to the male/female confrontation, which I have already discussed, and to confirmations of initiation, metamorphosis, and the primordial (through its resemblance to the firmament). It is in this light, then, that we should perhaps interpret the death of the python: Salammbô's primordial virginity, essential to her relationship with the virgin moon goddess, has perished, and she has sacrilegiously laid eyes on the sacred veil; so that, initiated into “the mysteries of the universe,” she must die, as is prefigured by the death of the sacred serpent.

Serpent-symbolism is also associated with Salammbô's golden ankle-chain, of which we are told when she first appears at the feast of the mercenaries: “Elle portait entre les chevilles une chaînette d'or pour régler sa marche” (p. 752). When she visits the mercenary leader in his tent, “Mâtho lui saisit les talons, la chaînette d'or éclata, et les deux bouts, en s'envolant, frappèrent la toile comme deux vipères rebondissantes” (p. 924). When sated, he falls asleep, “elle s'aperçut que sa chaînette était brisée. On accoutumait les vierges dans les grandes familles à respecter ces entraves comme une chose presque religieuse, et Salammbô, en rougissant, roula autour de ses jambes les deux tronçons de la chaîne d'or” (pp. 925-26; cf. p. 931). The golden ankle-chain is thus a symbol of virginity: its breaking symbolizes the breaking of the hymen.

Salammbô is tormented by the desire to see the zaïmph or sacred veil of the goddess Tanit: “Afin de pénétrer dans les profondeurs de son dogme, elle voulait connaître au plus secret du temple la vieille idole avec le manteau magnifique d'où dépendait les destinées de Carthage—car l'idée d'un dieu ne se dégageait pas nettement de sa représentation, et tenir ou même voir son simulacre, c'était lui prendre une part de sa vertu, et, en quelque sorte, le dominer” (p. 784). To see the goddess or even the zaïmph, however, is to commit sacrilege and risk death (p. 786). The zaïmph, like the Python sacred to the same goddess, resembles the great snake in its likeness to the star-studded firmament:22 when Mâtho and Spendius eventually find it, “on aurait dit un nuage où étincelaient des étoiles; des figures apparaissaient dans les profondeurs de ses plis: Eschmoûn avec les Kabires, quelques-uns des monstres déjà vus, les bêtes sacrées des Babyloniens, puis d'autres qu'ils ne connaissaient pas. Cela passait comme un manteau sous le visage de l'idole, et remontant étalé sur le mur, s'accrochait par les angles, tout à la fois bleuâtre comme la nuit, jaune comme l'aurore, pourpre comme le soleil, nombreux, diaphane, étincelant, léger. C'était là le manteau de la Déesse, le zaïmph saint que l'on ne pouvait voir” (p. 810). When Mâtho takes it and goes to Salammbô's bed-chamber, “avec le zaïmph qui l'enveloppait, il semblait un dieu sidéral tout environné du firmament” (p. 815). When he is back in the barbarian camp with it, “il lui semblait … que le vêtement de la Déesse dépendait de Salammbô, et qu'une partie de son âme y flottait plus subtile qu'une haleine” (p. 827). Salammbô is terrified at having seen the zaïmph (p. 836), and the goddess' powers appear weakened: “La Rabbetna, n'ayant plus son voile, était comme dépouillée d'une partie de sa vertu” (p. 902). But Salammbô's feelings on the subject are not unmixed: “Elle était désespérée d'avoir vu le zaïmph, et cependant elle en éprouvait une sorte de joie, un orgueil intime. Un mystère se dérobait dans la splendeur de ses plis; c'était le nuage enveloppant les Dieux, le secret de l'existence universelle, et Salammbô, en se faisant horreur elle-même, regrettait de ne l'avoir pas soulevé” (p. 903). Then the high-priest Shahabarim charges her with the task of retrieving the veil. She succeeds in doing this, and although she is disappointed at the sight of the zaïmph (p. 927), and it does not seem to bring good fortune back to Carthage (p. 959), she remains proud of her exploit (p. 960). As in the case of the Python, so in the case of the zaïmph, we are faced with a paradox of interpretation, for Salammbô-Tanit's loss of virginity is associated not with the loss of the veil but with its recovery. This problem may however be solved thus: the goddess' loss of virginity is symbolized at an earlier point in the narrative, when Mâtho and Spendius penetrate the walls of the goddess' city through the highly symbolic aqueduct23 and steal the veil, which is the most prized possession and symbol of this goddess of virginity. When this drama is repeated in the persons of Mâtho and Salammbô, the dramatic structure proposed by Leal may be interpreted as suggesting that what Salammbô brings back to Tanit in return for the sacrifice of her virginity is a promise, a token, of fertilization, the zaïmph, whose association with the serpent we have already established.

If we now return to the proposed analogy with the alchemical process, we may view the first state of Salammbô (as the closeted, ignorant virgin) as that of the mere potential of primordial elements (calcination). She then undergoes two purifications in the form of two embraces, that of innocence (with the serpent) and that of passion (with Mâtho). The first represents a mere solution of the initial, negative state of “sinful” ignorance; the second represents the veritable conjunction of opposites which constitutes the hierogamy or Sacred Marriage. A final stage of sublimation is achieved at the end with the triumph of Tanit, transcending all conflict, struggle, and passion in the fruits of fertility.

The symbolic function of the veil and the ankle-chain and above all the archetypal dimensions of the snake symbol enrich our reading of the work, especially with regard to the dynamic relationship between the heroine's ritual with the python and her relations with Mâtho. The latter now take their place in the archetypal structure of the work as the crucial climax in the maneuvering of vast, impersonal forces as old as time.


The present essay constitutes a modest effort to continue the work of critical appraisal of Salammbô illustrated by such distinguished scholars as Harry Levin and Victor Brombert,24 whose perceptive pages on this novel remain perhaps the most valuable studies on the subject up to the present date. It is hoped that the archetypal approach to the interpretation of the symbols of the work, briefly outlined here, may suggest new avenues of investigation and interpretation. Above all, however, this perspective suggests that in a novel like Salammbô “psychology” is neither “nonexistent” (Sarraute) nor “private and modern” (Lukács). There is of course a relationship—and a significant one—between Salammbô and the modern setting contemporary to its creation: in spite of its location in and around ancient Carthage some two thousand years ago, it expresses more fully and more overtly than Madame Bovary the true nature of mid-nineteenth-century society with its thick crust of moralistic appearances masking a system of human exploitation and degradation which had institutionalized the most savage aggression of man against man. And this should help us to grasp the true nature of the psychological dimension of the novel. Far from being overwhelmed by external description, as Sarraute asserts, the psychology is encoded in that very description, through the choice, manner of presentation, and mode of interaction of its constitutive elements, typically symbolized by the hierogamy which unites Salammbô-Tanit to Mâtho-Moloch in the brief but decisive embrace of the Sacred Marriage.

Such an approach may help to throw new light on the French Parnassian aesthetic, with its oft-lamented “dependence on” description, and also on the genre of the historical novel which flourished so brilliantly in nineteenth-century France.25 The latter has too often tended to be analyzed by means of concepts which limit discussion to social and political considerations, surface appearances, instead of searching an ultimate interpretation in deeper structures whose functioning is subliminal and whose meaning—profoundly “psychological” in its own special way—is universal.


  1. Georgy Lukács, Le Roman historique (Berlin: Aufbau, 1956; rpt. Payot, 1965), pp. 205-231.

  2. Essay reprinted in Schriften zur Literatur und Kunst (Tübingen: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1967), II, 107-8.

  3. Brecht's unanswerable criticism of Lukács was a landmark in Marxist criticism; Frederic Jameson's ignoring (or ignorance) of it constitutes a surprising lacuna in his recent volume entitled Marxism and Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), which is thereby made incomplete. This is all the more true as it is the Brechtian position which reappears in Louis Althusser (Pour Marx [Maspero, 1966], pp. 142 sqq.), who rejects the method of Lukács, denouncing his theories as “contaminées par un hégélianisme honteux” (ibid., pp. 21, 114, n. 30, and 288, n. 1).

  4. Nathalie Sarraute, “Flaubert le précurseur,” Preuves, 168 (1965), 3-11.

  5. The superficiality of Lukács's conception of “psychology” (“les sentiments, les idées et les pensées”) can be seen in his declaration that it should be “immédiatement compréhensible pour le lecteur adulte” (Lukács, p. 219).

  6. Donald Demorest, L'Expression figurée et symbolique dans l'oeuvre de Gustave Flaubert (Conard, 1931), Ch. 13; Ivo Dane, Die symbolische Gestaltung in der Dichtung Flauberts (Köln, 1933).

  7. Norbert Furst, “The Structure of L'Education sentimentale,PMLA, 56 (March, 1941), 249-60; Keith Rinehart, “The Structure of Madame Bovary,The French Review, 30 (1958), 300-6; Jacques Proust, “Structure et sens de L'Education sentimentale,Revue des sciences humaines, March 1967, pp. 67-100.

  8. Nouveaux lundis 4 (Calmann-Lévy, 1897), p. 82.

  9. R. B. Leal, “Salammbô: An Aspect of Structure,” French Studies, 27 (1973), 17.

  10. “(Le) roman du 19e siècle … en dépit de toutes les ‘formules’ scientifiques, réalistes, sociales, a été le grand reservoir des mythes dégradés” (Mircea Eliade, Images et symboles [Gallimard, 1952], p. 12).

  11. Bruce Jay, “Anti-History and the Method of Salammbô,The Romanic Review, 63 (1972), 21 and 24.

  12. Victor Brombert, Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techiques (Princeton: P.U.P., 1966), p. 101. (My italics.)

  13. Salammbô (Pléiade) [Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Pléiade, Gallimard, 1951], p. 13. All further references are to this edition and will appear in the text.

  14. Ibid., p. 902. This assimilation is even clearer in the brouillon version (quoted in Demorest, p. 487).

  15. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale (Plon, 1958), pp. 233-34; Jean Rousset, Forme et signification (Corti, 1963); Jacques Derrida, L'Écriture et la différence (Seuil, 1967), Ch. I, “Force et signification”; Michael Riffaterre, Essais de stylistique structurale (Flammarion, 1971), p. 46.

  16. The alchemical process may be represented as follows:

    Metal Color Stage State
    Primordial elements lead black calcination sin
    Prime matter earth grey putrefaction
    First purification mercury white solution innocence
    Second purification sulphur red conjunction passion
    sky blue
    gold yellow sublimation transcendence
  17. Salammbô, p. 909. Mâtho conceives of paradise as a place where “des serpents couleur de lait font avec les diamants de leur gueule tomber les fruits sur le gazon” (ibid., p. 925).

  18. The watery image is also applied to serpents by Spendius, who claims “Je peux, comme une vipère, me couler …” (ibid., p. 756), and to Masisabel, Queen of the Dragon-women—” le monstre femelle dont la queue ondulait sur les feuilles mortes comme un ruisseau d'argent” (ibid., p. 753). Masisabel is the enemy of the Queen of Serpents.

  19. Ibid., p. 912. Earlier she prays to Tanit “en se renversant la tête sous les rayons de la lune” (ibid., p. 781).

  20. Ibid., p. 959. The contrast between the states of Salammbô and the sickening python is prefigured by that between the states of Mâtho and Spendius when the former is ill (ibid., p. 771).

  21. A beautiful use of this symbolism occurs at the end of Gilgamesh.

  22. This likeness is prefigured in another passage: “Salammbô … s'agenouilla sur le sol parmi la poudre d'azur qui était semée d'étoiles d'or, à l'imitation du firmament” (ibid., p. 780). It is only the serpent, of course, whose likeness to the firmament is natural.

  23. Ibid., pp. 801-3. The symbolically sexual character of this penetration is foreshadowed by an earlier declaration of Spendius's, in which the symbol of the serpent may be seen in its traditional phallic significance: “Je peux, comme une vipère, me couler entre les murs” (ibid., p. 756).

  24. Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), Ch. V: “The Dance of Kuchiouk Hanem”; Brombert, Flaubert, Ch. 3: “Salammbô: The Epic of Immobility.”

  25. In Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris, for example, the stages of alchemical transmutation of the heroine, la Esmeralda, are particularly clear: the stage of sin (calcination) is represented by the baby Agnès being kidnapped by the gypsies and renamed “la Esmerelda”; the stages of innocence (solution) and passion (conjunction) may be seen in her relations with the poet Gringoire (mariage blanc) and the soldier Phoebus. The hierogamy is particularly well represented by this conjunction of both solar and lunar principles (la Esmeralda is the emerald, a lunar symbol). Finally, transcendence (sublimation) is achieved when, recognized by her mother, she recovers the name “Agnès,” which predestines her to ritual sacrifice.

Sima Godfrey (essay date May 1980)

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SOURCE: Godfrey, Sima. “The Fabrication of Salammbô: The Surface of the Veil.” Modern Language Notes 95, no. 4 (May 1980): 1005-16.

[In the following essay, Godfrey examines the lush imagery and the central symbolic role of textiles in Salammbô, particularly addressing Flaubert's treatment of the veil of Tanit.]

It is both striking and curious that of the many critics and readers who have tried to identify the peculiar structure and difficult texture of Flaubert's Salammbô, none has considered the fabric of textile imagery so prevalent throughout the novel. Curious for the fact that the major action of this novel centres about the theft (vol) and rape (viol) of a veil (voile) and its retrieval. All the more curious for the fact that ancient Carthage, as depicted by Flaubert is a commercial metropolis whose dominant industry is textile, whose local colour is “pourpre”1—the product of the large “fabrique” that looms over its horizon—and whose artisans seem to be made up almost exclusively of “brodeurs” and “tisserands.”2 Within the smaller context of Hamilcar Barca's estate, this is the description of his “artisans domestiques”:

Des tailleurs brodaient des manteaux, d'autres tressaient des filets, d'autres peignaient des coussins, découpaient des sandales, des ouvriers d'Egypte avec un coquillage polissaient des papyrus, la navette des tisserands claquait, les enclumes des armuriers retentissaient.3

(p. 153)

It is notable that among these various textile workers sit both “armuriers” and papyrus polishers. The former image links the activity of war that occupies much of the novel to the activity of weaving that preoccupies us here, through the mediating image of woven chain metal. Later this analogy will be reinforced in the preparations for war in chapter XII: “du matin au soir elles (les machines de guerre) fonctionnaient, sans s'interrompre, avec la monotone précision d'un métier de tisserand” (p. 263). The latter image, the papyrus workers, links the surface of writing—paper—to the surface of a woven fabric and suggests the transcendent possibility for reading the surface of this fabricated novel as an immense tapestry (“toile”) produced by the hands of a master craftsman, the ultimate tisserand of the text.

The problem of how to read Salammbô is one that has preoccupied critics and readers alike since the novel's publication. Aside from academic questions of generic delimitation—is it an historical novel or a Parnassian prose poem?—one must confront the basic fact that in its monumental staticity and heavily embroidered style, Salammbô absolutely defies a straightforward reading. The eye dances about each page as it does a painting (“toile”),4 reading several paragraphs and suddenly having to retrace that reading in an effort to absorb the intricate rhythmical pattern of images. In an impressionistic attempt to circumvent this problem (i.e., the difficulty of reading Salammbô), most critics have invoked the image of the tableau or the frieze to translate the static heaviness of the prose. But only one critic, to my knowledge, has actually tried to relate the external question of reading Salammbô to the internal strategy of the novel.

Veronica Forrest-Thomson, in an article entitled “The Ritual of Reading Salammbô,” identifies the strangeness that the characters feel in their environment and their attempts to interpret it with the strangeness that the reader experiences in deciphering the action of the text; she locates this very fact of strangeness, or enigma, in the ambiguous meaning of the “zaimph”:

For we do not know what it means to have touched the veil of the goddess. The Zaimph remains a symbol for the possible narrative integration which the text denies us. To this extent the reader shares the characters' awe in the face of sacred power.

“Elle accepta comme vrais en eux-mêmes de purs symboles et jusqu'à des manières de langage, distinction qui n'était pas, non plus, toujours bien nette pour le prêtre.”

… just as the veil is a metonymy for divinity, the action which centres on it is a metonymy of our process of reading. We are trying to construct a “simulacrum” of this process in terms of the novel so that we may dominate, by making objective our forms of understanding.5

However, the critic does not push her analogy far enough; focusing on the linear problem of the oddity of casual relations in the novel (resulting from a gap between vision and speech) she does not entertain the possibility that Flaubert's language is here woven onto a flat visual surface that transcends speech and causality and enacts its own private metaphor of “tissu” rather than the more conventional “fil conducteur.”

Similarly, Jean Rousset has looked at the odd effects of perspective in Salammbô, but he too has made his descriptive observations without looking to the internal texture of Flaubert's language for an explication.

L'objet regardé n'est pas stable, sa forme est une apparence dépendant de la place occupée par le spectateur: “et le bleu de la mer s'étalait au fond des rues, que la perspective rendait encore plus escarpées.” Voilà explicitement reconnu le principe de la perspective déformante. … Le plus souvent, c'est à une fin qui lui est propre que Flaubert se plaît aux visions déformées: elles sont signes d'incertitude sur le réel.6

Of course Rousset is right to point out the deformed perspective, however, he fails to account for it in terms of the book's peculiar texture of imagery. Strong visual effects of perspective by definition appear odd in the linguistic progression of linear prose; by virtue of their visual nature they belong precisely to that domain of the flat surface that supports not only the toile of painting, (the tableau in a real structural sense), but more specifically in the case of Salammbô, the toile of tapestry.

The flatness of visual perspective is especially evident in the descriptions of the landscape of Carthage and its horizon, a horizon which is notable not for its ability to separate, but rather for the visual absence of difference and depth that it brings to our attention.

… tourné vers Carthage, il (Mâtho) regardait l'horizon. … Sur la gauche, à l'extrémité du golfe, des tas de sable semblaient de grandes vagues blondes arrêtées, tandis que la mer, plate comme un dallage de lapis-lazuli, montait insensiblement jusqu'au bord du ciel. La verdure de la campagne disparaissait par endroit sous de longues plaques jaunes. …

(pp. 105-106)

Characteristically Flaubertian in this description is a fusion of liquid and lapidary images; but of more specific interest to the present discussion is the image of the waves, which like their adjectival homonym in French (“vague”) permeate the texture of Flaubert's novel,7 evoking at once an indefinable movement of undulation, and an effect of complete inertia (“arrêtée”): an illusion of movement and advance against an inescapable effect of static tension in a frozen moment. “La navette du tisserand” weaves its way through the book creating out of the nimble undulating woof and the fixed threads of the warp an ever expanding texture of étoffe.

Like the sea that joins with the sky in this flat seascape, descriptions of landscape bring together “le sol” and “le soleil” in a similar fusion of surfaces, (here more auditory than visual—cf. “En Campagne”) to create a pictorial effort of lack of depth. “Sur l'horizon clair, les villages apparaissaient en noir, avec des formes incohérentes et décomposées.” Many of the visions in Salammbô involve incoherent and fragmented forms, but as they relate to the undulating movement of the novel's surface (“les plis de terrain” p. 319), these forms represent not the simple “tachiste” method of a painter of oils, but rather a play of light and dark, visibility and concealment, that is woven into the gentle folds of a vibrant, monumental tapestry.

Unlike the completely flat surface of painting that bares itself to even illumination, the tapestry has an added dimension of “mollesse” that permits it to fall in soft pleats or folds. While certain details are clearly brought to light, others remain “shrouded” in darkness, like the mystery of the zaimph which so frightens, yet strangely attracts Salammbô: “un mystère se dérobait dans la splendeur de ses plis” (p. 200). The tapestry of Flaubert as defined by the movement of its splendid “plis,” can just be glimpsed in soft vibration, activated by an indeterminate “souffle”: the same “souffle” that billows waves and sails and inspires the elusive prose of this text. Like the “voile de Tanit,” the fabric of Salammbô can be intuited only partially in the rhythmic pulsations of its “plis.” To presume to possess the veil (of Tanit, of Salammbô) completely, to expose its surface and to penetrate its fullness represents nothing less than the violation of its sacred nature, accountable for only in (interpretative) failure and death. Like the “voile de Tanit,” the tapestry is also an artifact perfected only in several layers of activity—“une toile imprimée, peinte brodée et incrustée”—like the embossed effect of this highly embroidered text. Such a surface can only be viewed and appreciated as a whole, hanging at the natural distance that allows room for sensible interpretation: to insist on an objective microscopic examination is to uncover nothing more than an incoherent tangle of threads.

However the “voile de Tanit” is not the only “toile” that dominates Carthage. The city, is, after all, a commercial port, physically defined by a border on the sea, a sea whose mellifluous waves roll vaguely throughout the novel, orchestrating it with a persistent “murmure des flots” (p. 323) that both soothes and threatens. Upon its waters sail the “navires à voile” (voile, fem.) that both guarantee the continuation of trade and commerce with the outside world and threaten Carthage with the invasion of foreign strength.8 Carthage is thus stretched between the forces of the masculine voile of a feminine divinity that rules the internal and spiritual life of the city, and the feminine voiles of masculine enterprise that rule its external life on the other side of the “bord.”

The private action of the novel involves a similar tension of masculine and feminine forces (Mâtho the foreigner and Salammbô's private chamber, is the ambiguous locus of difference masculine and feminine deity and their respective luminaries in the sky (Moloch, the sun and Tanit, the moon). The climactic action of the novel involves precisely a struggle of masculine and feminine power that centres about an exchange of veils—the veil of Tanit being exchanged for Salammbô's veil of chastity in a violent act of profanation.

Like a carefully constructed Symbolist poem, Salammbô is meticulously woven out of a texture of images that echo each other in an intricate pattern of sonoric and visual play. Echoing the “murmure des flots” that lap the shores of Carthage and prefigure the catastrophe of “L'aqueduc” is a “Murmure d'étoffes” (p. 139) that rustles through the city in countless descriptions of costume and display. The parallel undulation of water, fabric and bodies is one that persists throughout the novel and brings to the fore the image of “la toile” as an organizing principle of reading.

The toile indicates at once the “voiles” of the ships that surround Carthage on the water (both foreign and domestic), the tents of the Carthaginian and mercenary armies that surround Carthage on land, the costumes of the various nationalities that populate the city, and the surface of the inscrutable zaimph which comes to represent the inscrutable surface of the novel.

Moreover, in the climactic chapter of the novel “Sous la tente,” la toile plays a double structural role as both the theatre curtain that lifts to reveal the dramatic action to an anxious audience and the background surface against which the erotic encounter takes place: the two sides of the cloth are significantly activated.

The toile as a theatre curtain further performs the double function of veil, both separating and partially concealing the sacred from the profane. However, like the diaphanous veil that suggests as much as it conceals and thus titillates, the toile of Mâtho's tent is an only imperfect cover that allows for voyeuristic speculation on the other side. The toile of the tent, like the tapestries that close off Salammbô's private chamber, is the ambiguous locus of difference that divides a kind of inner sanctum from a public area, distinguishing an inside from an outside rather than an area in itself. As a transparent veil, it permits the highly charged voyeurism of Giscon in chapter XI, that takes the mediated form of eavesdropping on a non-verbal situation.

Des cris s'élevèrent: une lueur effrayante fulgurait derrière la toile. Mâtho la souleva: ils aperçurent de grandes flammes qui enveloppaient le camp des Libyens … le bas de la tente se releva, et une forme monstrueuse apparût … Salammbô reconnut le vieux Giscon. … Salammbô avait écarté la toile, elle la tenait soulevée au bout de son bras, et sans lui répondre, elle regardait du côté d'Hamilcar.

(pp. 228-30)

In retrospect, the previously undepicted erotic scene becomes for the reader all the more vivid and arousing, enhanced by the added dimension of Giscon's voyeuristic impressions on the other side of the toile. Furthermore, as a representative of both paternal and patriotic authority, Giscon redefines the division of sacred and profane territory with regards to the toile; suddenly the inside of the tent becomes the “lieu” of violent profanation—not sacred mystic union—and the outside becomes the “lieu saint” violated by Salammbô's spiritual and physical betrayal.

That the climactic scene should take place in a tent (“dans la tente”) is further significant when we consider the audible connotations of such a locus in French; for the sense of inertia that assaults both characters and readers of Salammbô is itself a manifestation of latent frustration intensified by an unrelieved state of “attente.” In fact, the time of the entire novel is suspended “dans l'attente”—the population of the novel forever waiting for either war or signs from the gods, Mâtho and Salammbô waiting in a state of excruciating desire, and the reader waiting anxiously for something to happen, or some order to finally emerge.

L'attente, like le désir, defines the temporal (or supra-temporal) quality of the inertia that dominates the text and weighs down the prose. For not only is the present of the characters burdened with a past of memory (the glory of Carthage, the purity of faith, the kindness of the gods, etc.) but also with the anxious anticipation of a future charged with desire and fear. Time becomes ordered around a thin voile/toile/hymen that defines the difference between past memory and present action, between future desire and present accomplishment—a difference that can be eliminated only through the violence and violation of a powerful act of “déchirure.”

Energy is not only released in a present tense of encounter, but is already mediated by the pressure (“Sous la tente”) of a past tense of memory. (The violation of Salammbô becoming only explicit in the mind of the reader through a retrospective identification with Giscon's “lifting of the toile.”) From this point in the novel, the double event of violation introduces a new fear and anticipation of catastrophe “dans l'attente” that can finally be alleviated only through the elimination of the chief actors—Mâtho and Salammbô. Perhaps this is one significance of seeing and touching the veil—the violation of a sacred order in time and space that is contingent upon rigid definitions of past and future, inside and outside, the sacred and the profane.

However, as already suggested, within the dramatic structure of chapter XI the toile represents not just the theatre curtain that lifts upon the “scene of the crime” to reveal the concealed, but also the backdrop against which the action takes place.

This is the erotic climax of the book:

Mâtho lui saisit les talons, la chaînette d'or s'éclata, et les deux bouts en s'envolant frappèrent la toile comme deux vipères rebondissantes. Le zaimph tomba, l'enveloppait.

(p. 226)

It is to Flaubert's mastery that we can credit this remarkable scene that takes place in the space of one sentence and upon the space of a toile that describes nothing but is heavily embroidered with the dynamic erotic punctuation of “la chaînette éclatée” and the “vipères.” Furthermore, the following sentence, with its play on the movement of the zaimph in the perfect and imperfect tenses of the verbs, brings together the undulating, the engulfing and the erotic in a striking play of temporality that suggests at once the unique moment of the “tableau” and the suggested duration of the narrative action. Like the rippling waves that lap the shores of Carthage and threaten it with death, the zaimph, with its vague undulations here envelops Salammbô in its mystery, a mystery that hides in the “plis” of fabric—like the essential mystery of the novel which overwhelms the reader by its refusal to unfold out of the barely sensible modulations of the text. For this is the moment invested in the final enigmatic sentence of the novel: “Ainsi mourut la fille d'Hamilcar pour avoir touché au manteau de Tanit.”

This moment, the violation of Salammbô, punctuated by the understated violence of the snapping chain evokes the corresponding image that threatened “la toile,” the pure surface, throughout the novel: “la tache” and “la déchirure.”9 By analogy to the surface of the toile, the surface of paper, and the surface of the voile/hymen, the surface of water becomes an active image in a series that represents the violation of sacred purity. A seemingly anodyne seascape at the beginning of chapter XI (“Sous la tente”) contains implicit warnings of the violence to come:

Personne n'apparaissait autour de Carthage, ni sur la mer, ni dans la campagne. Les flots couleur d'ardoise clapotaient doucement, et le vent léger, poussant leur écume çà et là, les tachetait de déchirures blanches. Malgré tous ses voiles, Salammbô frissonnait. …

(p. 214)

There is considerable irony in the adjective “blanche” object of the verb “tacheter,” but even greater irony in the “frisson” of Salammbô, a “frisson” that harks back to her earlier reaction at perceiving the zaimph (“en se faisant horreur à elle-même, [elle] regrettait de ne l'avoir pas soulevé”) and forward to the moment of her “viol,” when all the voiles have been stripped away and The Voile envelops her.

The confusion and mistaken identification of Salammbô with the larger image of the goddess Tanit that the reader often feels along with Mâtho (“A moins … que tu ne sois Tanit?” p. 223) emerges from just such moments as these, when the sacred veil “qui recouvre la déesse” (p. 77) falls on Salammbô's shoulders. Like the goddess whose physical form is never given, Salammbô is most often visualized in terms of the layers of cloth that both conceal and emphasize her body. The confusion of body and cloth produces highly charged moments of displaced eroticism when the veils that entwine Salammbô become fetishes representing the essence of her sensuality, just as the veil of Tanit absorbs the essence of the goddess' divinity. “Mâtho n'entendait pas; il la contemplait, et les vêtements, pour lui, se confondaient avec le corps. La moire d'étoffes était, comme la splendeur de sa peau, quelque chose de spécial et n'appartenant qu'à elle …” (p. 221). Here again the ambivalent toile/voile functions dangerously, provocatively—concealing sacred virtue and tempting profanation. Like the tabooed zaimph, the mere mention of which incites Mâtho to desire (“Il voulait la voile” p. 80) and the rape of which represents a loss of divine virtue (“En effet la Rabbetna, n'ayant plus son voile était comme dépouillée d'une partie de sa vertu”) the translucent veils of Salammbô draw attention to a sacredness that by its very nature challenges violation. “Elle avait sur le visage un voile jaune à fleurs noires et tant de draperies autour du corps qu'il était impossible d'en rien deviner” (p. 219).

Flaubertian irony is given full sway here, for what follow are Mathô's attempts to both divine the body beneath the veil and violate the divine which he reads in it.

Like Salammbô's voile which not only covers and separates but also has a decorative surface of its own, the zaimph is embroidered and encrusted with jewels to approximate the surfaceless translucence of the firmament (“une toile des étoiles”). Described in the visual terms of its texture, the zaimph is ultimately that which cannot be seen—a paradox suggesting that the zaimph is not, but simply does: separates, conceals, reveals, and inspires.

Mais au delà on aurait dit un nuage où étincelaient les étoiles. … Cela passait comme un manteau sous le visage de l'idole … tout à la fois bleuâtre comme la nuit, jaune comme l'aurore, pourpre comme le soleil, nombreux, diaphane, étincelant, léger. C'était là le manteau de la Déesse, le zaimph saint que l'on ne pouvait voir.

(pp. 84-85, emphasis mine)

Again the undulating motion of the veil is stressed (“les profondeurs de ses plis”) suggesting always the play of light and dark, presence and absence, that inspires so much of the novel on the levels of internal symbolism and structural texture. As with the zaimph, there is no fixed and stable meaning in Salammbô, rather there is a constant interplay of opposing forces that produce a moving energy on the woven surface of the text—drawing on the suggestive resonance of certain words and images in very much the same way as a poem by Mallarmé. (Hence the difficulty of reading both.) Like Mâtho and Spendius, the reader cannot see the veil upon which the text is woven, but can only sense its rhythmic motion and divine its texture and the “profondeur de ses plis” by metaphorical analogy to other surfaces (“comme”).

This is the process of subjective interpretation as Flaubert defines it for us as against direct vision, direct reading. Like the world of Tanit, the world of Salammbô cannot be perceived in any pure state, but must be read through a veil of metaphor—the metaphor here being an actual (if not “real”) veil. In so far as the zaimph is the sky, the night, the dawn, and the sun—the whole extra-terrestial universe, that is—the ubiquitous veil is also the entire universe of Salammbô; to understand the latter, the reader must try to assimilate all the force concentrated in the former. There is finally no direct sign to be read in the zaimph; only a convergence of ambivalent energies that may be interpreted metaphorically through a vulnerable subjective consciousness.

Opposing the elusive (illusive) surface of the veil, there is yet another embroidered surface in the novel which can however be read positively, directly, unambiguously; a surface more primitive than the transparent gauziness of veils, but more solid and tangible as well: the surface of human bodies.

Aside from the grotesquely painted faces and bodies which the Carthaginians read like different national passports—“des archers de Cappadoce s'étaient peint avec des jus d'herbes de larges fleurs sur le corps. … D'autres … s'étaient par pompe barbouillés de vermillion” (pp. 4-5)—there are the more permanent signs etched upon the limbs of soldiers and civilians with knives and needles—scars, wounds, and tattoos.

The “direct sign” is physically engraved on the bodies of men which can be read without ambiguity or interpretative error. The history of battle is printed immediately on the torsos of its victims, which document direct accounts of the clashes of men, gruesome acts of brutality and the differences between nations.

Des armes hideuses leur avaient fait des blessures compliquées. Des lambeaux verdâtres leur pendaient du front; ils étaient tailladés en morceaux, écrasés jusqu'à la moelle, bleuis sous des strangulations, ou largement fendus par l'ivoire des éléphants. … On reconnaissait les Mercenaires aux tatouages de leurs mains: les vieux soldats d'Antiochus portaient un épervier; ceux qui avaient servi en Egypte, la tête d'un cynocéphale; chez les princes de l'Asie, une hache, une grenade, un marteau; dans les Républiques grecques, le profil d'une citadelle ou le nom d'un archonte. …

(p. 238)

On occasion “body language” even takes the form of words and syntactic units that are branded on the flesh of the victim for all to read. Such is the case of the famous projectiles, that immortalize their victims fatally in language.

Ces atroces projectiles portaient des lettres gravées qui s'imprimaient dans les chairs; et sur les cadavres, on lisait des injures, telles que pourceau, chacal, vermine, et parfois des plaisanteries: attrapé! ou je l'ai bien mérité.

(pp. 273-74)

On a slightly less violent and more “artistic” level, bodies are embroidered by tisserands in elaborately needled patterns of “tatouage” that permit not just direct reading, but direct interpretation of a language that is univocal. The most brilliant example of this “lecture du corps” comes in the long chapter entitled “Hamilcar Barca,” where Hamilcar returns to his estate and inspects his vault.

… il examina parmi les tatouages de son bras une ligne horizontale avec deux autres perpendiculaires, ce qui exprimait, en chiffres chananéens, le nombre treize. Alors il compta jusqu'à la treizième des plaques d'airain, releva encore une fois sa large manche; et la main droite étendue, il lisait à une autre place de son bras d'autres lignes plus compliquées. … Enfin, avec son pouce, il frappa sept coups; et d'un seul bloc toute une partie de la muraille tourna.

(p. 151)

Unlike the surface of the veil which is always in motion, always elusive and diaphanous, which cannot be seen but only “divined,” the body can be read with cold brutal exactitude. Against the soft undulating fabric of the novel there take place violent clashes of solid bodies, the penetration and violation of which can always be read as destruction and death. Invisible gods and their enigmatic symbols can only be guessed at and interpreted alternately with faith and doubt, or deviously through the filter of human desire that slants all reading of the world. Such is Mâtho's desire to read Salammbô and Tanit, to equate his triumph over the one with the other. Such also is the attempt of Carthage to interpret the signs of Moloch in a misguided interpretation of the god's demands.

The “Ritual of Reading Salammbô” which Veronica Forrest-Thomson describes ultimately takes its force from the reading of ritual in Salammbô. We recall the passage from the novel, quoted earlier. “Elle accepta comme vrais en eux-mêmes de purs symboles et jusqu'à des manières de langage, distinction qui n'était pas, non plus, toujours bien nette pour le prêtre.”

The problem of interpreting pure symbols against pure signs is given graphic strength in the juxtaposed reading of the veil and the reading of the body: surface opposed to substance. It is finally the failure of the symbol to organize the substantial world for Salammbô and Mâtho which leads to their failure and death. The framework that would integrate events with each other, surface with substance and symbol with sign is finally lacking to them. Like the reader intent on flattening out the surface of the text to find direct causal links in a symbolic interpretation of the novel, they are led through acts of violence to a violation of the sacred, and to sterile death in a world operating on pure physical energy.

The network of “filets” woven into the text finally traps them both. Mâtho is eventually caught like an animal in the fatal net that he imagines when alone in the tent with Salammbô.

“Quelquefois, le souvenir d'un geste, d'un pli de ton vêtement tout à coup me saisit et m'enlace comme un filet!”

(p. 224)

C'était Narr'Havas qui le suivait depuis quelque temps, pas à pas, avec un de ces larges filets à prendre les bêtes farouches, et profitant du moment qu'il se baissait, il l'en avait enveloppé.

(p. 340)

Salammbô, dressed for her wedding celebration dies “prise dans un réseau de mailles étroites” (p. 346). It is the reader, however, who is left with the last gesture as the mysterious world of ancient Carthage is enclosed within the folds of Flaubert's text. Having read the entire surface of the book, it is now up to the reader to organize the texture of the novel as he/she carefully unfolds the fabric once again and lets it float gently against the light of interpretation.


  1. Cf. Flaubert's famous remark regarding the writing of Salammbô: “Dans mon roman carthaginois, je veux faire quelque chose de pourpre.” (Journal des Goncourt, t. 1, March 17, 1861).

  2. In an early draft of the novel, Flaubert has Salammbô's handmaidens weaving a large tapestry “ce qui fait comme des vagues sur les néréides.” Cf. D. L. Demorest, L'Expression figurée et symbolique dans l'oeuvre de Gustave Flaubert (Geneva: Slatkine, 1967), p. 490.

  3. All page references to Salammbô correspond to the Garnier Frères Edition, (Paris, 1961).

  4. Sainte-Beuve's praise of Flaubert in La Revue Française, January 1, 1863, “il est peintre.”

  5. Modern Language Review, 67 (Oct. 1972), 792, 797.

  6. “Positions, distances et perspectives dans Salammbô,Poétique 6 (1971), 150.

  7. Cf. note 2, above.

  8. It is significant that in the serene moment following the massacres of “Le Défilé de la Hache,” a long pastoral interlude is concluded thus: “Le ciel était tout bleu; pas une voile n'apparaissait sur la mer” (p. 323).

  9. One notes the numerous images of “toile déchirée” in the descriptions of city and camp alike—“haillons de toile” (cf. p. 47), “lambeaux de toile” (cf. p. 241), “la toile déchirée” (cf. p. 242), etc.

Richard M. Berrong (essay date fall 1985)

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SOURCE: Berrong, Richard M. “Salammbô: A Myth of the Origin of Language.” Modern Language Studies 15, no. 4 (fall 1985): 261-8.

[In the following essay, Berrong asserts that Flaubert depicted a myth of the creation of language in his Salammbô.]

Of all the French novelists of the second half of the nineteenth century, certainly none was more concerned with form than Gustave Flaubert. His correspondence is filled with such remarks as: “Je cherche … le dessin” (12:617; to Louise Colet, 11/12/47); “Tout dépend du plan” (13:165; to Colet 1/2/52); “Nous avons trop de choses et pas assez de formes” (13:323; to Colet 6/4/53); “L'ordre des idées, voilà le difficile” (13:474; to Colet 19/3/54); etc.1 While working on Madame Bovary he complained about “la vieillesse de toutes les formes connues” (13:289-90; to Colet 29/1/53). It would seem fairly clear that Flaubert felt the need for a definite structure, an “ossature,” on which to build his narratives.

At the same time, Flaubert became ever more convinced that the language he had at his disposal had grown old and worn, to the point where it was insufficient for the creation of a great work of art. To Mlle Leroyer de Chantepie he wrote: “l'Art est long, presque impossible même lorsqu'on écrit dans une langue usée jusqu'à la corde, vermoulue, affaiblie et qui craque sous le doigt à chaque effort” (13:661; 18/2/59). As a result, Flaubert felt, it was necessary to create a new language, to “donner aux gens un langage dans lequel ils n'ont pas pensé” (13:642; to Ernest Feydeau, 24/10/58).

Flaubert's preoccupations with form and the creation of a new language seem to have fused in Salammbô. It would appear that Flaubert developed an entire myth about the origin of language, and then used this myth to provide a basic structure for his second novel.

Salammbô opens in chaos. Gathered together on the grounds of Hamilcar's estate, the Mercenaries employed by the Carthaginians during the First Punic War proceed to consume vast quantities of wine and become ever more drunken and disorderly. Their very gathering is a linguistic confusion: “On entendait, à côté du lourd patois dorien, retentir les syllabes celtiques bruissantes comme des chars de bataille, et les terminaisons ioniennes se heurtaient aux consonnes du désert, âpres comme des cris de chacal” (S, 29).2 The more the men drink, the more distinctions break down: “ils imitaient le cri des bêtes féroces, leurs bonds”; “ils s'enfonçaient la tête dans les amphores, et restaient à boire, sans s'interrompre, comme des dromadaires” (S, 31); etc. Even the most basic of differences, that between male and female, begins to collapse: “quelques Lydiens portant des robes de femmes dînaient en pantoufles et avec des boucles d'oreilles” (S, 29); “quelques [Lacédémoniens] s'avançaient comme des femmes en faisant des gestes obscènes” (S, 32); etc. At its height, this celebration becomes a scene of complete chaos, of total undifferentiation.

During this chaos of total undifferentiation, Spendius appears, emerging from an ergastule [underground prison] like a child from the womb (S, 32). With his first appearance, he establishes himself as a man of language: “parlant grec, ligure et punique, il remercia encore une fois les Mercenaires [who had freed him from the ergastule]” (S, 32). Subsequently Flaubert associates him with language over and over; he is presented as “le fils d'un rhéteur et d'une prostituée” (S, 49), “plein … de paroles” (S, 56), someone who can speak rapidly “en cinq langues diverses” (S, 60), etc.

With his first appearance, Spendius also establishes himself as a force of division, that which splits the undifferentiated mass and keeps its halves apart. At this first appearance, “il les [les Mercenaires] félicita du banquet, tout en s'étonnant de n'y pas apercevoir les coupes de la Légion sacrée” (S, 32). The Mercenaries, previously absorbed in the pleasures of the banquet, immediately call for the special cups and, when these are denied them, begin to grow hostile to the Carthaginians.

Spendius continues to keep the two forces divided. When Giscon tries to placate the Mercenaries for the absence of the cups, Spendius (as he later reveals [S, 173]) sends Autharite forward to threaten the Carthaginian general “en gesticulant avec deux épées nues” (S, 33). “Le général … le frappa sur la tête de son lourd bâton d'ivoire: le Barbare tomba. Les Gaulois hurlaient, et leur fureur, se communiquant aux autres, allait emporter les légionnaires” (S, 33-34).

Spendius continues his divisive manoeuvres when attempts are made at reconciliation. Salammbô, descending the palace stairs, momentarily calms the turmoil with her song, and then pours Mathô a cup of wine “pour se réconcilier avec l'armée” (S, 39). Seeing this, Spendius again sends Autharite forward: “[Le Gaulois] le [Mathô] frappa sur l'épaule, tout en débitant d'un air jovial des plaisanteries dans la langue de son pays” (S, 39). Spendius, ever in control of language, promptly offers to explain Autharite's words and actions: the Gaul was congratulating Mathô on his upcoming marriage to Salammbô, Spendius claims, “car chez [les Gaulois], lorsqu'une femme fait boire un soldat, c'est qu'elle lui offre sa couche” (S, 39). Narr'Havas, chief of the Numidians, a protégé of Hamilcar to whom the latter has promised Salammbô in marriage, promptly explodes against the Mercenary chief: “[il] tira un javelot de sa ceinture, et appuyé du pied droit sur le bord de la table, il le lança contre Mathô” (S, 39). Mathô retaliates, hurling a massive table at Narr'Havas, and the division between the two forces is further assured.

Throughout the first part of the novel, Spendius continues to maintain a rift between the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians. When Hannon comes out of the city in order to appease the now-hostile Mercenaries (who have encamped outside Carthage's walls while waiting to receive payment for their service during the war), Spendius mistranslates the Suffete's speech (Hannon addresses the Mercenaries in Punic, which they cannot understand). “Vous avez tous entendu les horribles menaces de cet homme,” Spendius begins (S, 60), and when he sees that the Mercenaries are willing to accept his (mis)translation of Hannon's words, he continues: “il vous a appellés lâches, voleurs, menteurs, chiens et fils de chiennes,” etc. (S, 61). At Spendius' words, the Mercenaries become enraged, sacking the Suffete's luxurious entourage and forcing him to flee unceremoniously back to Carthage.

Subsequent attempts at reconciliation are similarly thwarted by Spendius. The Mercenaries promise to return to their homes if the Carthaginians agree to meet certain demands. “Le Grand-Conseil aurait faibli, peut-être, sans une dernière exigence plus injurieuse que les autres: ils [les Mercenaires] demandèrent en mariage, pour leurs chefs, des vierges choisies dans les grandes familles. C'était une idée de Spendius. … Cette prétention de vouloir se mêler au sang punique indigna le peuple; on leur signifia brutalement qu'ils n'avaient plus rien à recevoir. Alors ils [les Mercenaires] s'écrierèrent qu'on les avait trompés; si avant trois jours leur solde n'arrivait pas, ils iraient eux-mêmes la prendre dans Carthage” (S, 80-81).

When Giscon arrives with money to pay the Mercenaries their wages, Spendius wanders through the Mercenary camps claiming that the Carthaginians really intend to massacre them (S, 82-83). Giscon tries to quell this unrest and complete payment of the wages, but Spendius strangles his interpreters so that the Carthaginian general can no longer communicate with the Mercenaries (S, 84). In every instance that the Carthaginians attempt a reconciliation, Spendius impedes their efforts, using language or preventing the Carthaginians from using it, until finally the two sides are irrevocably at war.

Thereafter Spendius' divisive manoeuvres concern not the Carthaginians, but Mathô. While the Mercenaries and the Republic are sufficiently estranged, Mathô, once he has seen Salammbô, thinks about nothing but returning to her so that they can be united. When Spendius leads the Chief of the Barbarians through the aqueduct into the confines of Carthage, he at first succeeds in diverting Mathô's efforts, drawing him away from Hamilcar's daughter to steal the zaïmph in the temple of Tanit. Once he has achieved that aim, however, he can no longer control Mathô, and instead must follow him as the Barbarian seeks out Salammbô in her chamber. The young girl's fear and call for help prevent Mathô from arriving at the union with her that he desires, however, and it is Spendius who leads him hurriedly away (S, 102).

Not surprisingly, Spendius' last actions center on words. Having been trapped in the “Défilé de la Hache” along with 40,000 of the Barbarian troops, Spendius eagerly volunteers to serve as one of the ten “ambassadors” that Hamilcar agrees to receive. “C'est moi qui parlerai!” he cries (S, 281), and indeed “il parla pendant longtemps [devant Hamilcar]” (S, 282). The Carthaginian general is too powerful to be affected by words, however, and orders the “ambassadors” to be crucified. Spendius is nailed to the highest cross, the first to be attacked by hungry vultures (S, 292).

As these passages suggest, Flaubert seems to make Spendius something of a “personification” of language. With him, Flaubert appears to indicate that language is born of chaos, a chaos that is particularly defined as the breakdown of differences. One of language's primary functions, however, seems to be to make distinctions in this chaos, to divide the undifferentiated whole into separate and distinct parts. Language/Spendius maintains these distinctions by keeping the newly-established parts apart, by holding them at a distance one from the other. As Jean Rousset has noted, Salammbô is “un roman qui répugne aux contacts, au nom d'une primauté des distances.”3

When language (i.e., Spendius) disappears, it is not surprising that distinctions vanish and all returns to one great, undifferentiated whole. As Spendius and his fellow “ambassadors” expire on the cross, the other Barbarian soldiers all die, either of starvation in the “Défilé de la Hache” (S, 300) or at the hands of Hamilcar's soldiers after having been driven from Tunis (S, 300). Only Mathô survives, and he is captured by the Carthaginians to serve as a final sacrifice on to whom they can heap all their accumulated hatred for the Mercenaries. With Mathô's death, however, there will be no differentiation, since one half of the originally sundered whole will have been totally destroyed, leaving only the other half, which will then constitute an entire, as yet undivided whole. Indeed, as Mathô is led to his death, images of confusion, chaos, and undifferentiation arise: among those present for the sacrifice are “les Kedeschim aux paupières peintes, symbolisant l'hermaphrodisme de la Divinité, … parfumés et vêtus comme [des femmes]” (S, 306); “il devait y avoir pendant la nuit une grande prostitution” (S, 306); etc.4

In this situation, language (described by Saussure as significantly differentiated sound) ceases to exist, giving way to sound without differentiation. “Souvent une seule syllabe,—une intonation rauque, profonde, frénétique,—était répétée durant quelques minutes par le peuple entier” (S, 309). “Alors, depuis le golfe jusqu'à la lagune et de l'isthme jusqu'au phare, dans toutes les rues, sur toutes les maisons et sur tous les temples, ce fût un seul cri; quelquefois il s'arrêtait, puis recommençait; les édifices en tremblaient; Carthage était comme convulsée dans le spasme d'une joie titanique et d'un espoir sans bornes” (S, 311). Flaubert's myth of the origin of language has come full circle. As, at its creation from chaos, language established distinctions in the undifferentiated whole, so, at its collapse, there is a return to the undifferentiated chaos out of which it arose. And as the myth completes its circle, drawing to a close, the novel, which found its form in the myth, comes to an end.

Though the myth and the novel have reached a conclusion, the same is not true for this essay, since it remains to suggest the origin and significance of this myth of language for its creator, Gustave Flaubert. “Mythic criticism” has become particularly popular during the last quarter-century, with such critics as Northrop Frye and René Girard exerting great influence on scholars of many persuasions. These critics and these scholars have offered a variety of explanations for the presence of mythic structures in works of literature (racial memory, subconscious continuation, etc.), but certain ones seem to be particularly likely in the case of Salammbô.

To begin with, Flaubert may very well have acquired the foundation for his myth of the origin of language from his extensive reading about ancient civilizations. As he wrote to Jules Duplan, he had “ingurgité” a hundred volumes about Carthage in preparation for the writing of his second novel; in fifteen days he proceeded to “avaler dix-huit tomes de la Bible de Cahen” (13:596; 22/7/57).

More specifically, Flaubert's second novel itself gives evidence that its author was familiar with myths of origin that greatly resemble his own. Speaking to Salammbô, Schahabarim, the high priest of Tanit, at one point recounts:

“Avant les Dieux, les ténèbres étaient seules, et un souffle flottait, lourd et indistinct comme la conscience d'un homme dans un rêve. Il se contracta, créant le Désir et la Nue, et du Désir et de la Nue sortit la Matière primitive. C'était une eau bourbeuse, noire, glacée, profonde. Elle enfermait des monstres insensibles, parties incohérentes des formes à naître et qui sont peintes sur la paroi des sanctuaires.

“Puis la Matière se condensa. Elle devint un oeuf. Il se rompit. Une moitié forma la terre, l'autre le firmament. Le soleil, la lune, les vents, les nuages parurent; et, au fracas de la foudre, les animaux intelligents s'éveillèrent. Alors Eschmoûn se déroula dans la sphère étoilée; Khamon rayonna dans le soleil; Melkarth, avec ses bras, le poussa derrière Gadès; les Kabyrim descendirent sous les volcans, et Rabbetna, telle qu'une nourrice, se pencha sur le monde, versant sa lumière comme un lait et sa nuit comme un manteau.”

(S, 71-72)

At the center of the Temple of Tanit “l'Omniféconde,” Mathô and Spendius observe wall decorations that suggest a similar originary myth:

Alors une lumière éblouissante leur fit baisser les yeux. Puis ils aperçurent tout à l'entour une infinité de bêtes, efflanquées, haletantes, hérissant leur griffes, et confondues les unes par-dessus les autres dans un désordre mystérieux qui épouvantait. Des serpents avaient des pieds, des taureaux avaient des ailes, des poissons à têtes d'homme dévoraient des fruits, des fleurs s'épanouissaient dans la mâchoire des crocodiles, et des éléphants, la trompe levée, passaient en plein azur, orgueilleusement, comme des aigles. Un effort terrible distendait leurs membres incomplets ou multipliés. Ils avaient l'air, en tirant la langue, de vouloir faire sortir leur âme; et toutes les formes se trouvaient là, comme si le réceptacle des germes, crevant dans une éclosion soudaine, se fût vidé sur les murs de la salle.

(S, 96-97)

Flaubert does not seem to have derived the structure of his myth of the creation of language solely from his readings about ancient civilizations, however. As the importance of sex in the literary workings-out of this myth suggest, Flaubert may also have extrapolated it from his own ideas concerning the relationship of coitus and literary creation. For Flaubert, sexual activity was inimical to the production of literature. To Ernest Feydeau he wrote: “Mais prends garde d'abîmer ton intelligence dans le commerce des dames. Tu perdras ton génie au fond d'une matrice” (13:659; 2/59); etc. A propos of Salammbô in particular, he wrote: “J'entends de vivre comme je fais: 1o à la campagne les trois quarts de l'année; 2osans femme (petit point assez délicat, mais considérable …)” (13:665; to Feydeau 7/59). While he works on Salammbô, he writes to Mlle de Chantepie, “je vis comme un moine” (13:620; 23/1/58); etc. For a variety of reasons, some biological and some theoretical, Flaubert regarded sex and literary creation as mutually exclusive.5 Literature—and hence language—could be created only when he was separated (i.e., differentiated) from females, only when he remained free from the confusion and chaos associated in Salammbô with coitus. On the other hand, after he had finished a novel, Flaubert would spend several weeks in Paris for what was, among other things, a “sexual spree.” As he wrote to Feydeau after completing Madame Bovary, “pour me remonter le moral, je vais me livrer, dans le sein de la capitale, à des débauches monstrueuses …” (13:618; 12 or 19/12/57). When literature and language had run their course, Flaubert would return to the “undifferentiated chaos” of sex to regain strength, to be revitalized, so that new language and a new work of literature could spring forth. It is easy to see how such a view of literary creation could have contributed to the previously-outlined myth of the origin of language.

There is yet a third possible source for Flaubert's myth of the creation of language, one which is particularly relevant to Salammbô. Throughout his correspondence, Flaubert expresses an intense horror at the breakdown of social distinctions. To Louise Colet he wrote: “89 a démoli la royauté et la noblesse, 48 la bourgeoisie et 51 le peuple. Il n'y a plus rien, qu'une tourbe canaille et imbécile. Nous sommes tous enfoncés au même niveau dans une médiocrité commune” (13:412; 9/53); and elsewhere: “les règles de tout s'en vont … les barrières se renversent … la terre se nivelle” (13:233; 4/9/52). Faced with the progressive democratization of society, Flaubert reacted with a growing hatred of the masses (13:320; etc.) and cries for a new aristocracy (13:412; etc.) … of which he envisioned himself to be a charter member, of course.

While expressing his dislike (and fear) of this gradual disintegration of class differentiation, of this apparent move to social undifferentiation, Flaubert did also, on very rare occasions, indicate that he saw in this increased contact with the “barbarians” (as he referred to the proletariat) a chance for aging Western civilization to become revitalized, to regain some of its lost vigor. To Louise Colet he wrote: “Nous avons peut-être besoin des barbares. L'humanité, vieillard perpétuel, prend à ses agonies périodiques des infusions de sang. Comme nous sommes bas! et quelle décrépitude universelle!” (13:230; 1/9/52). While Flaubert dreaded social chaos and saw it as inimical to his literary efforts, he also suspected that from it the creator could emerge (if he emerged) renewed and revitalized, charged with the strength and force to be gained by contact with “the other,” the masses.

Flaubert's concern with social differentiation and chaos and its relation to language is particularly evident in Salammbô. Though at least one critic has claimed that the novel has no relation to the class conflicts of Flaubert's own era,6 it is difficult not to see in the Carthaginians and the Mercenaries representations of (Flaubert's view of) the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie and proletariat. The Carthaginians are repeatedly described as avaricious (S, 41, 110, 127, 136, 158, 196, etc.), merchants who trade to make money but who can never bring themselves to part with that money when there is need to protect the Republic. The Mercenaries, on the other hand, are often referred to as “Barbarians,” a term that Flaubert uses in his correspondence to describe the masses. These “Barbares” are particularly fond of committing sacrilege by defiling the sacred and the beautiful (S, 35, 294), a desire which Flaubert often attributed to the proletariat.7 In Salammbô, Flaubert would therefore seem to suggest that language is born not simply out of some general chaos, but out of social undifferentiation. Language can only operate, however, as long as class distinctions are maintained, as long as the masses (the Mercenaries) are prevented from joining with (and overwhelming) the rest of society, sending everything back into chaos. (On the other hand, of course, from that chaos might spring a new, revitalized language.)

The preceding analysis of Salammbô would seem to indicate that Flaubert had worked out this myth of the origin and functioning of language to a fairly full and conscious extent. No allusion to or exposition of it is to be found in his correspondence, however, either in the letters contemporary with the composition of Flaubert's second novel or in those written earlier or later. This is particularly strange in light of the fact that Flaubert often goes on at length to his correspondents about his views on literature. Nor does Flaubert ever make such extensive use of this myth of the origin of language in other literary works, never again—as with Salammbô—structuring an entire piece around it. He does return to it occasionally in some of his later novels, however. At the end of his penultimate novel, La Tentation de Saint Antoine, Oannès, “le contemporain des origines,” recalls his awakening in the following terms:

J'ai habité le monde informe où sommeillaient des bêtes hermaphrodites, sous le poids d'une atmosphère opaque, dans la profondeur des ondes ténébreuses,—quand les doigts, les nageoires et les ailes étaient confondus, et que des yeux sans tête flottaient comme des mollusques, parmi des taureaux à face humaine et des serpents à pattes de chien.

Sur l'ensemble de ces êtres, Omorôca, pliée comme un cerceau, étendait son corps de femme. Mais Bélus la coupa net en deux moitiés, fit la terre avec l'une, le ciel avec l'autre; et les deux mondes pareils se contemplent mutuellement.

Moi, la première conscience du Chaos, j'ai surgi de l'abîme pour durcir la matière, pour régler les formes; et j'ai appris aux humains la pêche, les semailles, l'écriture et l'histoire des dieux.8

Here writing (the common link between language and literature) is born out of the chaos of undifferentiation.

In Bouvard et Pécuchet, Flaubert's last novel, the two title characters devote much of their time to attempting to understand or create certain systems of classification (i.e., differentiation). Whether trying to distinguish the various types of clouds, to find the different parts of the body, to grow a garden with various vegetables, or whatever, they always fail, however. In despair they cry: “les ressorts de la vie nous sont cachés,” or elsewhere: “il y a … un Beau indestructible … dont nous ignorons les lois, car sa genèse est mystérieuse.”9 The two men's attempts to follow or create these various systems of differentiation seem to fail, in part, because they do not have access to the origins from which the systems sprang. In this sense, they echo a Flaubert of many years before who wrote: “Le but; la cause! Mais nous serions Dieu, si nous tenions la cause …” (13:587; to Mlle de Chantepie 6/57).

Flaubert was acutely convinced that the language he had at his disposal had grown old and worn, no longer strong or vital enough for the creation of great works of literature. This conviction must have preoccupied him sufficiently for him to develop a myth about the origin/creation of (a new) language, because in Salammbô he seems to present an elaboration of such a myth. In his second novel and through this myth, Flaubert shows language being born from chaos and undifferentiation … especially social undifferentiation. Though he saw in such fusion of the classes during his own time a chance to partake of the vital energy that was part of this union—and hence, one would suppose, a chance to obtain a new, vigorous language—Flaubert was so terrified by the idea of such chaos—which would mean the temporary cessation of all language and linguistic efforts (like writing)—that he never proposed (much less worked for) it with any force. As a result, he may have come to see himself as someone who, like Bouvard and Pécuchet, could only spin out his days creating one feeble, failed project after the next, because he was unable (or unwilling) to enter into the destructive but vital chaos out of which language, in Flaubert's myth, is born.


  1. All quotations from Flaubert's correspondence are taken from the Oeuvres complètes de Gustave Flaubert (Paris: Club de l'Honnête Homme, 1971-1975), 16 vols. This is the first unexpurgated edition of the correspondence. (Flaubert's correspondence occupies tomes 12-16 of this set.)

  2. All quotations from Salammbô are taken from the edition published by Garnier-Flammarion (Paris, 1964).

  3. Jean Rousset, “Positions, distances, perspectives dans Salammbô,Poétique, 6 (1971), p. 149. Those familiar with modern linguistic theory might be struck by certain similarities. Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Cours de linguistique générale (1916) provided the basis for much modern linguistic theory, argued that the primary quality of language is differentiation. Sound becomes language only when the speaker begins to make significant differentiations in it and the listener learns to distinguish these differentiations. In his “deconstruction” of Saussure's work, L'Ecriture et la différence (1967), Jacques Derrida has gone on to maintain that language is not only differentiation, but also deferral; it is the separation of things in time and space. (A footnote is no place to provide an intelligent summary of Derrida's work. The reader interested in learning more about it should tackle Derrida's essay itself.)

  4. Readers familiar with “la nouvelle critique française” will be struck by another series of similarities here, this time to the work of René Girard. In La Violence et le sacré (1972) and subsequent studies, Girard has developed a theory of the origin of social structure that may be summarized roughly as follows: Sometime “in the beginning” all differentiation between men collapsed, leading to great violence. In the midst of this violence, one individual was arbitrarily turned upon and killed. By transferring to this scapegoat the blame for all the violence that they had experienced, men were able to expel violence from their midst and establish a series of distinctions that allowed for the creation of social order. Whenever these distinctions begin to break down, violence will recur, and society will repeat the initial murder of an arbitrary victim (scapegoat) to restore social order/differentiation. (Again, the reader interested in pursuing the similarities between Flaubert's myth of the origin of language and Girard's theory of the origin of social order should consult La Violence et le sacré.)

  5. He was not alone among his contemporaries in this matter. For similar ideas in Balzac, cf. Josué V. Harari, “The Pleasures of Science and the Pains of Philosophy: Balzac's Quest for the Absolute,Yale French Studies, 67 (1984), pp. 135-163.

  6. Cf. for example: Georg Lukács, “Salammbô,” in Flaubert, ed. Raymond.

  7. In fact, one very much leaves Salammbô with the impression that in his second novel Flaubert arranged to pit his two great enemies—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—against each other so that he could cause them to torture each other. Carthage wins, of course (Flaubert hated the bourgeoisie, but he feared as well as hated the masses), but not until both sides have experienced terrible, excruciating suffering.

  8. Gustave Flaubert, La Tentation de Saint Antoine, ed. Jacques Suffel (Paris: Garnier, 1968), p. 177; my italics.

  9. Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard et Pécuchet, ed. Alberto Cento (Paris: Nizet, 1964), pp. 339, 411.

Carol A. Mossman (essay date January 1989)

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SOURCE: Mossman, Carol A. “Salammbô: Seeing the Moon through the Veil.” Neophilologus 73, no. 1 (January 1989): 36-45.

[In the following essay, Mossman assesses Salammbô as an iconoclastic juxtaposition of myth and history illuminated by a symbolic conjunction of the sacred and the feminine.]

Beyond the literary violence which is Salammbô—with its gruesome details of desert war waged between the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians and the cannibalism to which the Mercenaries are ultimately reduced, with the periodic, painfully clinical descriptions of Hanno's advancing leprosy—lies a tale of profanation. Flaubert's novel in fact begins by defiling the sacred as the drunken Barbarians, for sport, slaughter Salammbô's holy fish, direct descendants of Carthage's piscine ur-mothers which “avaient fait éclore l'oeuf mystique où se cachait la Déesse” (35). This preliminary assault poses an important paradigm, constituting as it does an act of violence directed against maternal origins.

What follows in Salammbô is a repetition of these aggressions against the feminine which goes hand in hand with a widening of the breach in the sacred: Mâtho's ravishing of the Goddess Tanit's veil, his subsequent ravishing of Salammbô's hymeneal veil, the defection of the eunuch high priest, Schahabarim, from the service of the moon goddess over to the side of the Sun, and at last, Salammbô's death.

However, by far the most significant profanation, significant because its consequences overlap with History, as we shall see, is perpetrated by one of Carthage's own grandees, the Suffete Hamilcar Barca, when he substitutes a slave's son for his own in that final human sacrifice designed to propitiate the sun god, Moloch. And yet if this filial impersonation, tantamount to cheating on the gods, stands in transgression of Carthaginian hieratic codes, it is one of those Flaubertian ironies that the sacrifice succeeds in its purpose. The rains issuing forth from the celestial coupling of Tanit “dominated” by Moloch prefigure the city's successful emergence from the siege laid by the Barbarians.

Meanwhile, the reader is left to wonder how, in spite of these relentless assaults on the sacred, any form of religion at all can be reinstated. By novel's end, the holy veil that was neither to be seen nor touched has been seen, touched, and worse, has covered Salammbô, and thence restored; Schahabarim now serves Moloch as if he always had; Narr'Havas weds Salammbô, who as with the veil, has been seen, touched, and covered by Mâtho. Like Bouvard and Pécuchet who, having to no purpose probed every realm of knowledge open to them, return to their former occupation of unquestioning, rote copying, similarly Salammbô presents us with a civilization whose values and gods are attacked from within and without but which returns to certain of its beliefs notwithstanding.

In this study, I shall examine two signifiers linked throughout the novel to each other, to the sacred, and to the feminine. I suggest that the economy in which these two signifiers, the veil and the moon, participate is one of mediation and dispersion of meaning and that as such, they constitute a threat to what will emerge as the dominant ideology by the end of Salammbô.

Unlike what archetypal readings of the novel have suggested, the outcome of Salammbô with its triumph of the male solar principle (Moloch, Baal) will not be seen to offer a simple—and temporary—shift of the pendulum. Instead, this ending will be read as articulating an important moment, the crossroads of History and Myth whereupon son and daughter encounter each other briefly. His destiny will be to stride onto the pages of Roman history, etching his elephantine traces all over the Alps, for this brother is none other than Hannibal. She, for her part, will expire in an unanticipated syncope on the verge of wedding Narr'Havas, thus breaking the patriarchal chain, as Schor has elegantly argued (125), but in so doing relegates herself to the mythic register. Salammbô, dying, falls backward, stiff as ecclesiastic statuary. Indeed, as female icon, she has been toppled off her pedestal. Salammbô presents us with the chronicle of a certain type of iconoclasm.

Among the several binary structures which order Salammbô (Sun/Moon, Man/Woman, History/Myth), not the least important is the opposition Exterior/Interior. In fact, the entire tension of the novel is generated by the threat that this distinction might collapse, allowing a Barbarian penetration of the citadel. Doubtless it is no coincidence, once this civilization has been de-centered through Mâtho's theft of the veil and its displacement onto the exterior, that Salammbô must submit to a violation of her own interior in a sort of homeopathic remedying of the city's disorder.

Initially in Salammbô, the threat of disorder (chaos) comes from the exterior which is represented as the locus of pure difference.1 How often is the reader treated to quasi-Biblical descriptions which detail the distinctions between the myriad foreign forces besieging Carthage? The Gauls eat this, the Ethiopians dress like that, while the Ligurians indulge in certain religious practices, not to mention the group as a linguistic totality, a veritable Babel whose heterogeneity the erstwhile slave Spendius exploits to evil end. And in death the Barbarian disparities seem to swell with the bloating of their bodies: “Bien qu'ils fussent morts presque en même temps, des différences existaient dans leur corruption. Les hommes du Nord étaient gonflés d'une bouffissure livide, tandis que les Africains, plus nerveux, avaient l'air enfumés, et déjà se desséchaient” (221).

The Barbarians are, in some ways, the figure of unassimilable difference. By comparison, then, Carthage presents the reader with all the appearances of solidarity. An entirely self referential civilization, and narcissistic, her citizens harken to one founding myth, act according to a single set of cultural values and communicate in the same Punic tongue. The latter is a completely allusive discourse in which everything stands for something else, in which each signifier refers in some way to a sacred phenomenon, a discourse which is, at first glance at least, tautological.

Thus Tanit is the Rabbetna who is the Moon. Moloch is Baal is Khamon is the Sun. If it turns out that the very allusiveness inherent to this hieratic code at length undermines the relations of equivalence essential to the solar aspect of Punic theogony, nothing is more reassuring than the cosmic polarity which, like twin pillars, seem to buttress the city from the threat of difference from without. Whether it be the Sun or the Moon whose influence is waxing at any given moment, their binarity guarantees that the terms of the confrontation will themselves remain identical. There is a sense in which a swing to the opposite pole merely reinforces the system.

Yet what this Manichean polarity conceals, I suggest, is a rift in the hierologic signifying chain taking place within the Carthaginian walls. Thus a more serious threat of difference comes from the inside. This referential unmooring reaches its literal climax in the veil's temporary extramural removal to the Barbarian camp, a sort of Babylonian captivity in which the veil's forced absence lays bare the workings of the machine in the center. For whatever vague mystery supposedly conceals itself beneath the folds of the zaïmph in its sanctum is, scandalously, not there when the veil is lifted. In Flaubert's novel, a veil is ravished, a virginity is besieged and besmirched, holes are uncovered where previously plenitude had been believed to exist; that is, the tension keeping interior from exterior is punctured … and all this, au clair de la lune.

Let me, then, consider Salammbô in light of the moon. For if, on the face of it, the moon appears to be the sun's antipodal mate (and such is how criticism has depicted the relation), she might also be seen otherwise: as a pale imitation of the sun, in whose borrowed rays she basks, passing them off as her own. To say, however, that lunar light is mimetic is to imply that the moon functions as part of that tautological theogony of equivalence by mirroring the sun. Hers, though, is no obedient mimesis. Worshipping Tanit, Salammbô affirms her divine virtues in the following terms: “Tu es blanche, douce, lumineuse, immaculée, auxiliatrice …” (68; emphasis added). The moon, to use the Derridean formula, is a supplement.

Emitting no light herself, the moon reflects the univocal, direct luminosity which is Sol(e)ar Truth. Tanit reflects, but in so doing diffuses, and the light she sheds is manifold, ambiguous. Whereas the sun is self-sufficient, the moon's force is derivative. At first, the relation would seem to be one of subordination, but the matter is by no means as simple as that. For the moon, like writing, partakes of the economy of absence. She may reflect the sun, but her effectiveness requires his absence.

The moon's function of transmitter and mediatrix makes her a signifier at once referring elsewhere and veiling that elsewhere, in this case, the signified, the sun. The same lunar gesture which alludes to the sun in absentia deludes by obscuring solar origins. Hence, the work of the moon/veil is to dissipate light, refracting and multiplying those unitary rays of Truth. Herein lies the strumpetry of that orb, to use the terms of the disabused Schahabarim: “elle tire de l'autre toute sa fécondité! Ne la vois-tu pas vagabondant autour de lui comme une femme amoureuse qui court après un homme dans un champ?” (194). But what Schahabarim's scandalized remark reveals is that the moon's transgression is less related to the coupling of heavenly bodies than to a usurpation of solar power. The lunar signifier is promiscuous precisely because its relations are multiple.

Small wonder, then, that the Punic civilization should so place its trust in icons since such mimetic substitution is embedded in the Carthaginian theogony itself through the figure of Tanit. On one occasion, fearful lest their gods desert them in the hour of need, the people of Carthage “avait couvert de chaînes leurs simulacres” (245). This gesture which exhibits the Punic tendency to confuse signifier and signified also points to a movement away from origins. To the extent that any iconic system is one of duplication and mediation of divinity, it may be associated in this novel with the moon.

Salammbô, as Tanit's earthly representative, merely exaggerates the tendency to represent one thing with another. Indeed, this latter-day Saint Theresa, as Flaubert conceived her, surrounds herself with simulacra: her snake's skin is spangled with “taches d'or comme le firmament.” Performing her sacred rituals, Salammbô “s'agenouilla sur le sol parmi la poudre d'azur qui était semée d'étoiles d'or, à l'imitation du firmament” (67). And as she dons her ceremonial garb to go recapture the veil, Hamilcar's daughter reflects light, moon-like: “elle avait autour de la taille, sur les bras, sur les mains et aux doigts des pieds, une telle abondance de pierreries que le miroir, comme un soleil, lui renvoyait des rayons …” (200). Still, while on the face of it this image sets up the neat terms of complementarity (Sun/Moon) which preside at a certain level of the text, there is something that rings false in the analogy. Because the sun, in being likened to a mirror, has lost its claim to originarity, and has become, as the moon, a simple reflector. It is this play of reflecting surfaces which functions gradually in the course of the novel to eclipse source. The drift away from origins is one of the principal issues of Salammbô.

For her part, the heroine, like the Punic populace, has never been able to distinguish the icon from that to which it refers. This inability to differentiate is heavily insisted upon in the novel. While Schahabarim conducts an exegesis of the sky's zodiacal inscriptions, Salammbô (reminiscent of Félicité scrutinizing the altar for material signs of the Holy Spirit), “s'efforçait de les apercevoir, car elle prenait ces conceptions pour des réalités; elle acceptait comme vrais en eux-mêmes de purs symboles et jusqu'à des manières de langage, distinction qui n'était pas, non plus, toujours bien nette pour le prêtre” (193).

Try as she might, however, Salammbô cannot pierce the veil of allusion:

Sans cesse la fille d'Hamilcar s'inquiétait de Tanit. Elle avait appris ses aventures, ses voyages et tous ses noms, qu'elle répétait sans qu'ils eussent pour elle de signification distincte. Afin de pénétrer dans les profondeurs de son dogme, elle voulait connaître au plus secret du temple la vieille idole avec le manteau magnifique d'où dépendaient les destinées de Carthage,—car l'idée d'un dieu ne se dégageait pas nettement de sa représentation …


Signifiers, be they onomastic or iconographic, replace and indeed displace the sacred, in a metonymical movement which is unstoppable and which threatens—the further it is removed from any referent—to blend into the profane. One begins to sympathize with the superstitious outsider, Mâtho, as he confides to Salammbô when at last they are alone together in the tent that the moon “me semblait un voile qui cachait ta figure; tu me regardais à travers; ton souvenir se mélait à ses rayonnements; je ne vous distinguais plus!” (212). In this lunar proliferation of signifiers, what is lost once again is the signified, the object of desire—Salammbô herself. And with Salammbô cancelled out by this light which paradoxically eclipses, the moon has been metamorphosed into a veil.

Tanit's veil, the sacred zaïmph, has often formed the object of critical discussion. Culler, for instance, sees in it “a representation of that aspiration towards unity and meaning which governs both the reader's and the characters' behaviour” (224). For Forrest-Thomson, “The Zaïmph remains a symbol for a possible narrative integration which the text denies us” (792). However, if its connection to the signifying process seems clear, what seems to have escaped notice is the veil's functional link to the moon and thus to a certain mode of signifying. Indeed, when the two are seen as analogous elements in the same counter-solar system, an entirely different conflict begins to emerge in the novel. The similarities between the two are several: first, both are of celestial provenance, the veil having fallen from the sky (92). In its physical appearance, the quasi-magical textile has all the versatility of the phases of the moon: “bleuâtre comme la nuit, jaune comme l'aurore, pourpre comme le soleil, nombreux, diaphane, étincelant” (98). In itself the veil is nothing; its properties, like the moon's are borrowed (“comme la nuit”), referential. And yet moon-like, this object which is no one thing deploys at the same time a force of multiplication, for it is “nombreux.” Diaphanous, its fabric bears the design of the cosmos. The zaïmph is a sacred page imprinted with the Punic theogony. However, beyond its magnificently vague surface shimmering with luminosity not its own, the folds of the zaïmph contain the dwelling place of the Goddess Tanit. Spendius explains this rudiment of Punic belief to Mâtho as they penetrate the various “fentes” and openings bound on ravishing the veil: “Les dieux résident où se trouvent leurs simulacres” (92).

Even after the capture of the veil, Salammbô, unable as ever, to distinguish the literal from the figural, persists in the belief that the veil indeed conceals a cosmic mystery, and that lifting it would unveil a Truth in the form of some primordial signified. She deplores not having seized the moment when Mâtho had appeared in her bedchamber with the talisman:

Elle était désespérée d'avoir vu le zaïmph … Un mystère se dérobait dans la splendeur de ses plis; c'était le nuage enveloppant les Dieux, le secret de l'existence universelle, et Salammbô, en se faisant horreur à elle-même, regrettait de ne l'avoir pas soulevé.

(190; emphasis added)

In her article, “The Fabrication of ‘Salammbô’”, Godfrey has brought out noteworthy aspects of this enigmatic piece of cloth: “the zaïmph is ultimately that which cannot be seen—a paradox suggesting that the zaïmph is not, but simply does; separates, conceals, reveals, and inspires” (1013). To be sure, the elusive zaïmph is pure function; it does do. But what is that function? What is a veil that one is not permitted to see (according to Schahabarim to see it is to die) and which veils nothing?—for nothing was uncovered when it was captured! Convention would have a veil to be that which one must see in order not to see what lies beyond, a shield (or hymen) which guards the separation between interior and exterior, between sacred and profane, in short, a hazy, twilight zone shielding a signified. For is not the feigned presence darkly beyond the veil just exactly that—a feint? Like its lunar counterpart, the zaïmph mediates, borrows the properties of the signified, announces a plethora of interpretations all deriving their plausibility from a absence. The moon is (like) the veil; both function as languages of diversity … and both enjoy a kinship with the feminine.

Perhaps what Salammbô espied as she impersonated Tanit in the tent, submitting to Baal/Mâtho's embraces under the zaïmph was the gaping hole underlying sacred nomenclature. “‘Moi, Tanit?’ se demandait Salammbô” when Mâtho has taken her for the Goddess, as if she herself were ready to believe it. The proliferation of signifiers and icons is unstoppable and at length attains personal identity. Once the daughter of Hamilcar fuses with the moon (nearly dying, for instance, in a eclipse), and the moon obscures Salammbô (“je ne vous distinguais plus”), and Tanit becomes the moon which is a veil in turn concealing Tanit who, ultimately, may be figured in the person of Salammbô—once the meaning of the myth has been undermined by this hypertrophy of figuration, the existence of an originary signified has been called into question. Again, the disease-ravaged Hanno figures this process taking place at other levels of the text: “Son mal, en rongeant se lèvres et ses narines, avait creusé dans sa face un large trou … il se savait tellement hideux qu'il se mettait, comme une femme, un voile sur la tête” (228; emphasis added). Veils cover a nothingness the more appalling for their pretense of hiding something. That this mode of representation, a radically duplicitous one, should be allied with the feminine in Salammbô is of no small importance.

It is at the moment when this civilization's figural center (that is, the veil) has been shifted onto the exterior and the walls threaten to implode, when what it means to be Barbarian threatens to coalesce with all that is Carthaginian, that the Father, Hamilcar Barca, absent in the patriarchal land of the god Melkarth, emerges from his eclipse. Arriving at this crepuscular point in Carthage's history, he brings with him the Sun: “C'était un navire à trois rangs de rames; il y avait à la proue un cheval sculpté. Le soleil se levait … Enfin on reconnut la trirème d'Hamilcar” (124). In his wake, his own son, undergoing a Mosaic upbringing in hiding, appears from time to time.

Nor is this emergence unlike a totemic paternal return à la Freud: the father, having previously been banished by mutinous sons of state, is reinstated and now presides over Law, History. So, at least, goes the Freudian version of the myth as articulated in Totem and Taboo. In Salammbô, the paternal return is less than triumphal since Hamilcar must struggle with the Elders to gain primacy. (Moreover, viewing him as purely paternal is not without its problems, as will be seen.) But in any case, the narrator suggests that Hamilcar is the only true politician in Carthage, the sole person capable of putting aside this city's materialism, embodied in his rotund rival Hanno. Newly arrived in Carthage, he hastens to his secret chamber wherein “Il s'efforçait à bannir de sa pensée toutes les formes, tous les symboles et les appellations des Dieux, afin de mieux saisir l'esprit immuable que les apparences dérobaient” (127). The difference between father and daughter with respect to representation is lexically inscribed in that statement: whereas “elle s'efforçait de les apercevoir,” he would do away with these same representations.2

Clearly the paternal penchant is for a direct and unmediated seizure of the Signified, a view uncompromised by any veil, an unobstructed view of the Sun. But I would venture to say that it is perhaps out of a sense of fear that Hamilcar Barca excludes the lunar/feminine hierology. Contemplating in seclusion the scary seduction of what lies beyond the sun, Hamilcar notes that the light in his personal tabernacle “arrivait, effrayante et pacifique cependant, comme elle doit être par derrière le soleil, dans les mornes espaces des créations futures” (126-27; emphasis added). This terror associated with a fertility which lies outside the sun's purview, explains Schahabarim's over-eager appropriation of the moon's procreative functions when he hails the sun god as “Père et Mère,” “roi des deux zones, créateur qui s'engendre …” (265).

With Hamilcar's return, a clear shift occurs away from all that is lunar including Tanit and the defiled veil. Schahabarim, who all along has blamed the moon goddess for his unmanning, goes over to the Sun. Salammbô's serpent, whose skin, like the veil, figured the firmament, dies. Salammbô herself remains surprisingly impervious to this. No longer presiding over the cult of Tanit, she becomes chattel in the political alliance her father is arranging with Narr'Havas in order to consolidate his power in Carthage. That she dies in the end may constitute a victory of sorts, but it is an undeniably pyrrhic one.

The rise of the sun brings into play a heliocentric order of representation more cruel, more repressive. When the Carthaginians comprehend the high priest Schahabarim's defection, “On sentait se rompre le dernier lien qui attachait les âmes à une divinité clémente” (264). And thus passes away an archaic order. Meaning may no longer dwell hidden midst the folds of a veil, at once present and absent, always plural. Meaning will no longer be mediated by some opaque-yet-diaphanous signifier which gives free rein to the play of representation. In the solar regime of direct and unmediated light, all revolves around the axis of the Sun/Phallus. During the ceremony in preparation for the final human sacrifice to the bloodthirsty Moloch, the Punic people see “les Baalim chananéens, dédoublements du Baal suprème, qui retournaient vers leur principe” and the masculine principle it is. In one of the pavilions, “se dressait un phallus d'ivoire” (262).

The accession to power of patriarchy is accomplished at the expense of all that is associated with the feminine in this novel. If Hamilcar is a slowly emergent force, Salammbô's mother, as Schor has pointed out, is an eternal absence, long since dead in a sort of prefiguration of fate feminine.

Yet while there is, I would maintain, a distinct evolution in Flaubert's novel, Salammbô's story, and her mother's before it, can also be situated at the level of repetition. Indeed, according to the Punic myth of creation, one of the god Melkarth's heroic tasks in his ordering of the new-born world entailed vanquishing and subjugating the female demon. Salammbô chants the tale:

Alors elle se mit à chanter les aventures de Melkarth, dieu des Sidoniens et père de sa famille.

Elle disait l'ascension des montagnes d'Ersiphonie, le voyage à Tartessus, et la guerre contre Masisabal pour venger la reine des serpents:

—“Il poursuivait dans la forêt le monstre femelle dont la queue ondulait sur les feuilles mortes comme un ruisseau d'argent; et il arriva dans une prairie où des femmes, à croupe de dragon, se tenaient autour d'un grand feu, dressées sur la pointe de leur queue. La lune, couleur de sang, resplendissait dans un cercle pâle, et leurs langues écarlates, fendues comme des harpons de pêcheurs, s'allongeaient en se recourbant jusqu'au bord de la flamme.”

Puis Salammbô, sans s'arrêter, raconta comment Melkarth, après avoir vaincu Masisabal, mit à la proue du navire sa tête coupée.


The moon presides over a disquieting gathering redolent of a witch's coven, in which the feminine is characterized by nothing less than a forked tongue, perceived as menacing. Besides pointing up the duplicity inherent to feminine discourse according to the myth, these tongues, sanguine and slit, evoke threatening genitals. That the female head should be excised and used as a figurehead appropriately augurs woman's position in the heliopolis of Carthage.

It thus comes as no surprise that the sun, by novel's end the dominant force, has assumed both paternal and maternal procreative functions, hailed as “Père et Mère.” Meanwhile, origins are being undermined at the most literal level. During the siege of Carthage, the prehistoric substrata of the polis are exhumed and violently ejected: “les Barbares avaient saccagé sous les Catacombes le vieux cimetière des autochtones …” (252). These “origins” are used by the Barbarians as projectiles, but if they fall on an occasional Carthaginian head, it will be the ultimate and ironic remembrance of a time, an order, and a culture on the verge of extinction.

Does all this imply a repression of the plurivalent language which I have here associated with the lunar/feminine? Far from it. Clearly any repressive political regime must harbor seditious elements: in this case, it is merely that the agents of sedition undergo a change of sex. To find how the germ of subversion is transmitted, we should look again to the son, Hannibal, as a transvestite. For in this case, clothes make the man … to look like a woman in order that he might escape the clutches of the real totemic father, Moloch. That is to say, in impersonating his sister, Hannibal assumes the lunar prerogative of plurivocal representation for duplicitous purposes. The son has inherited from his elder sister by temporarily stepping into her shoes.

Dressing his son, Hamilcar “versa un parfum sur la tête; il passa autour de son cou un collier d'électrum, et il le chaussa de sandales à talons de perles,—les propres sandales de sa fille.” And it is none other than Hamilcar who executes this subversive substitution, as if by virtue of his attempt to foil the Solar powers, he were reduced to filial status … or worse, as will be seen. We are not surprised to realize that the act of impersonation itself takes place under the auspices of Tanit and that through its execution, Hamilcar becomes imbued with a hubris of Icarian proportion.

Hamilcar était bien sûr qu'on ne pouvait lui prendre son fils …

Comme une mère qui retrouve son premier-né perdu, il se jeta sur son fils … il riait et pleurait à la fois, l'appelait des noms les plus doux, le couvrait de baisers; le petit Hannibal, effrayé par cette tendresse terrible, se taisait maintenant.

Hamilcar s'en revint … et considéra Tanit, dont le mince croissant brillait dans le ciel, et il se sentit plus fort que les Baals et plein de mépris pour eux.

(261-62; emphasis added)

Whosoever becomes associated with the Moon—be he father or son—through acts of duplication aimed at challenging the Solar is feminized. Father and son involved in circumventing Moloch's law have become mother and daughter, temporarily at least.

This momentary gender mutation points up the difficulties in reading Salammbô. This, Flaubert's “purple” novel, truly is crepuscular. One has a persistent feeling that the novel's significant action takes place in the margins, in some no “man's” land neither by night nor by day. Thus the distinction between interior and exterior is slowly frittered away and the diaphanous, insubstantial veil can be seen as a figure of this apparent barrier. The uncomfortable frontier separating sacred and profane is constantly breached and yet undeniably the masculine form of the sacred persists until the end. Sexual differences occasionally collapse. Indeed, as I hope to have shown, perhaps the sole constant in Salammbô is the rivalry that exists between two necessarily coexistent systems of representation. If the maternal system is gradually appropriated by a father and his son, it is highly significant that these two are both transexualized in the process.

Finally, there is another sense in which one feels trapped in the twilight: once Hannibal has made his belated appearance on the scene (he is not actually named until the final pages of the novel), the reader experiences a sudden shift of perspective. For we know that Hannibal will push Carthage definitively into History, whereas his sister—and the feminine—are bound to remain fictions, a situation oddly anticipatory of Virginia Woolf's invention of Shakespeare's sister, doomed by her sex to obscurity. Yet Salammbô closes on Hannibal still but a youth. With the son's glorious history (which is, to us after all, the past) still lying in the future, and the daughter (she that never existed) dead, the reader is caught in the interface of Myth and History. Salammbô's demise may presage a passage from the former to the latter, but as this novel ends, the reader is buried in one of the folds of time.


  1. I am here referring to disorder as perceived by the Carthaginians. Of course, disorder permeates this text. Jay has pointed out how this novel, ostensibly historical fiction, manages to dehistoricize its own content by breaking down historical causal ordering (28-30). Forrest-Thomson has discussed the (im)possibility of imposing a narrative order on a text split into two irreconcilable modes of understanding: speech and vision.

  2. Here I would disagree with Sherrington's claim that “It is things which are important to him: like most Carthaginians, but unlike Salammbô, he is a materialist” (198).

Works Cited

Culler, Jonathan. Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty. London: Elek Books, Ltd., 1974.

Flaubert, Gustave. Salammbô. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1964.

Forrest-Thomson, Veronica. “The Ritual of Reading ‘Salammbô.’” Modern Language Review 67 (Oct. 1972): 787-98.

Godfrey, Sima. “The Fabrication of ‘Salammbô’: The Surface of the Veil.” MLN [Modern Language Notes] 95 (1980): 1005-16.

Jay, Bruce Louis. “Anti-History and the Method of ‘Salammbô.’” Romantic Review 63. 1 (Feb. 1982): 20-33.

Schor, Naomi. “Salammbô Bound.” Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory and French Realist Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.

Sherrington, R. J. Three Novels by Flaubert: A Study of Technique. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Mary Rice (essay date winter 1990)

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SOURCE: Rice, Mary. “The Failure of Metaphor as an Historical Paradigm: Flaubert's Salammbô.Modern Language Studies 20, no. 1 (winter 1990): 95-8.

[In the following essay, Rice posits that not only is Flaubert's view of modern life as a reflection of history evident in Salammbô, but the novel contains several internal relationships which mirror one another.]

In 1864, two years after the publication of Salammbô, Flaubert wrote in a letter, “… history is nothing but the reflection of the present on the past, and that is why it is always to be remade [à refaire].”1Salammbô is Flaubert's own version or remake of the story of the mercenaries' revolt that occurred in Carthage between the first and second Punic wars, and while the novel was just as carefully researched as Madame Bovary before it and The Sentimental Education thereafter, because of its distant time period the novelist's methodology was necessarily different. Flaubert's main source was the Latin historian Polybius, so that Flaubert's only truly historical—rather than contemporary—novel represents a remake of this earlier text.

From its publication, the second novel from the author of the notorious Madame Bovary was a best-seller, but it also drew the attacks of critics, chief among them Sainte-Beuve, who wrote of the work:

How do you want me to be interested in this lost war, buried in the defiles and sands of Africa … ? What is this to me, the duel between Tunis and Carthage? Speak to me rather of the duel between Carthage and Rome! I am attentive to it, I am involved in it. Between Rome and Carthage, in their fierce quarrel, all of future civilization is already in play. …2

Sainte-Beuve would obviously prefer an episode that affected the whole course of world history, a story connected to the present by a causal sequence of events, a period that had profound repercussions for future generations, including his own. I would term this type of historical discourse metonymic, as does Hayden White,3 for it is informed by the rhetorical trope of connection, metonymy, which links terms already found in contiguous relationship to one another. (Thus the phrase, “hit the lights,” is an example of metonymy since it substitutes one part of a system, the lights, for another separate term, the switch which is connected to, but not a part of the light source in question.)

Flaubert, on the other hand, has not only chosen an obscure subject and setting, his version of the mercenaries' revolt and subsequent war is indeed a reflection of the present on the past as both a rethinking of the past and as a reflection in the visual sense of the word, for the novel acts as a reflective surface in which nineteenth-century France confronts its mirror image. In her extensive study of Salammbô entitled Flaubert and the Historical Novel,4 Anne Green has detailed the parallel between the French bourgeoisie and the Carthaginians, a merchant oligarchy with preoccupations similar to those of the moneyed French: their finances, their material goods, their conservative religion and their deliberately weakened political system, to name the most important. At the same time, the mercenaries' rebellion, their gradual disillusionment as more and more of their allies turn against them and go over to the enemy, and their final crushing defeat, all recall the pattern of the French democratic revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1871, conflicts in which the bourgeoisies succeeded in maintaining their power despite the revolt of the lower classes, whom Flaubert himself often termed “barbarians” just as the Carthaginians term the mercenaries, it should be noted. Moreover, the Roman menace that threatens Carthage from abroad furthers the parallel, resembling that threat that Prussia posed for France.

Salammbô is thus grounded in resemblance to the present rather than any causal relationship with it, and as history, the novel is informed by metaphor, the trope in which one term stands for another completely separate term by virtue of an analogy between the two. (The phrase, “that person is a lamb,” is a metaphor because the person and the animal, although very different, share a common quality such as a gentle nature.) The two elements of metaphor therefore exist in the tension between their difference and their resemblance.

In another of Flaubert's works, The Legend of Saint Julien l'Hospitalier, the face of the present appears in the form of the past in a like movement when Julien, who reaches a crisis point and resolves to commit suicide, gazes into the still waters of a fountain in order to see if it is deep enough for his purpose. Instead he sees the face of the father he killed. The mirror image in the pool clearly belongs to the now aged Julien, yet he recognizes only the other, although he does identify with the figure in the fountain who, like himself, is crying. The play of reflection in the pool, grounded in resemblance rather than identity, reveals the importance of difference—a difference that lies at the heart of metaphor.

In its extreme form, this alienation—a moment of non-identity which also appears in Lacan's mirror stage5—underlies the many perspicuous binary oppositions that pervade Salammbô: oppositions between mercenaries and Carthaginians, the earth and the moon, male and female, the very face to face confrontations over distance noted by Jean Rousset.6 Yet in Salammbô, binary oppositions like these tend to collapse as difference is subsumed in resemblance. Thus, when the Carthaginians face the mercenaries in battle their own cruelty mirrors that of the army they call “barbarian.” Likewise, exotic dress and customs—men in earrings, for instance—undermine the distinction between male and female, as does the presence of numerous eunuchs. When Salammbô herself addresses the moon as a goddess, she too underscores the mix of difference and resemblance. Although she notes the earth's immobility in contrast to the moon's race across the sky, the two are like bodies nonetheless, for she says in the same prayer, “the world with its oceans and mountains, as in a mirror, sees itself in your face.”7

Metaphor is problematized in this novel precisely when the trope's two terms merge, their difference obscured in this “land where metaphors come true.”8 In this setting there is little distinction between the palace decor, made of precious metals and stones, and Flaubert's descriptions of its gardens with seemingly bronzed, emerald or pearl foliage; it is a world where living human beings often stand as immobile as statues.

When this preponderance of plastic imagery is coupled with overt sexual symbolism—mountains that look like breasts, a temple of fertility filled not only with steles and other phallic symbols, but also with realistic representations of the male organ—the result is an even more dreamlike landscape. As Mâtho ascends the staircase leading to Salammbô's apartments—which for Freud became another obvious sexual image well after Flaubert wrote this passage—the barbarian leader feels “the strange ease one feels in dreams.”9 Moreover, the dream quality applies equally to the fulminating scenes of excessive violence that abound in Salammbô, including the Carthaginians savage attack on Mâtho in the novel's final pages. The overall effect is to reduce individual human and animal bodies to a mass of part-objects like those of Lacan's Imaginary Order. In this way, Salammbô's imagery may indicate an attempt to circumvent the nefarious effects of language, seen in particular in the ex-slave Spendius; the metaphoric images instead substitute a pre-linguistic register of silent, visual signs.

The play of language and silence in the novel is too rich a question to be treated adequately here, but it should be noted that Salammbô herself underscores the essentially non-linguistic nature of dreams with her own reticence when asked about the crucial episode in which she offers herself to Mâtho in his tent in order to recover the sacred veil he has stolen and to restore it to the temple in Carthage.

Salammbô did not tell any more, perhaps out of shame, or even out of an excess of candor that made her attach little importance to the embraces of the soldier. All of this, besides, floated in her head, melancholy and unclear like the memory of an overwhelming dream; and she would not have known in what manner, by what discourse to express it.10

While the dream-like silence provides a powerful means of expression beyond the bounds of the spoken word, it is also a safer one. Salammbô's confusion suggests that her withdrawal into this non-verbal register signals the denial of an active position in favor of a more passive stance. She well recognizes the danger in the effective power of words and refuses to tell Hamilcar about his friend and general, Giscon, a captive in the enemy camp, because she fears her tale will turn against the prisoner and bring him further harm. It is also Hamilcar's daughter who curses Mâtho as he steals the sacred veil—a curse which is ultimately and inevitably fulfilled.

Despite this turn in favor of the passive, Flaubert's text often serves to justify revolution nonetheless. Nowhere is this more clear than when Hamilcar substitutes a slave child for Hannibal, the eldest son destined as a sacrifice to appease the city's gods. When the slave boy's father attempts, like Hamilcar, to save his own son's life, the master cannot see his own actions mirrored in those of the other father: “He had never thought—so immense was the abyss that separated him from the other—that there could be anything in common between them.”11 There is an obvious injustice at work here, revealed in the resemblance that Hamilcar cannot or will not acknowledge.

In the same vein, if we read Salammbô as a reflection of the political and social realities of Flaubert's France, including the reflection apparent in the Carthaginian leader Hamilcar's more modern French counterpart, Louis-Napoleon, then the work becomes an acerbic commentary on the injustices of the emperor's reign as well as the questionable stability of his regime. Nevertheless, Flaubert's fiction also remains a critique of revolutionary action, above all because the mercenaries fail horribly.

The parallel between ancient Carthage and nineteenth-century France in Salammbô led the Marxist critic Georges Lukacs to the accusation that Flaubert had wrongfully modernized the history of the ancient city and therefore failed to represent it realistically. This is, for Lukacs, “the most radical form of historical solipsism”12 wherein the present can only know itself while the past remains inaccessible. A history grounded in metaphor, on the other hand, implies a likeness between historical periods rather than an identity; as we have noted, it is the other who is recognized in the mirror image. At the same time, however, Flaubert's only truly “historical” novel must at some level be profoundly ahistorical, asserting the sameness of all historical periods and the essential futility of any attempt at revolution, any attempt to change. Unlike the Marxist moment of synthesis in the dialectic, when metaphor brings two terms together, neither is substantially altered. Indeed, a metaphoric vision of history, especially one in which metaphors tend to collapse into simple identity, suggests that the ultimate result of difference and change is stasis, an immobility much like that of so much of Flaubert's plastic imagery. Certainly, this metaphoric perspective can be disturbingly pessimistic, denying all hope for progress. History is always “à refaire,” that is, to be remade or redone. It is not only to be rewritten, but also to be repeated in the form of events, relived over and over again. Even so, Flaubert's metaphoric history offers us a rich insight into the past and perhaps the present.


  1. “… l'histoire n'est que la réflexion du présent sur le passé, et voilà pourquoi elle est toujours à refaire,” Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance supplément (1864-71), Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Conard, 1954), II, p. 19. All translations are my own.

  2. “Comment voulez-vous que j'aille m'intéresser à cette guerre perdue, enterrée dans les défilés ou les sables de l'Afrique … ? Que me fait, à moi, le duel de Tunis et de Carthage? Parlez-moi du duel de Carthage et de Rome, à la bonne heure! J'y suis attentif, j'y suis engagé. Entre Rome et Carthage, dans leur querelle acharnée, toute la civilisation future est en jeu déjà …” Articles de Sainte-Beuve sur Salammbô, Appendix, Salammbô, Oeuvres Complètes de Gustave Flaubert, 16 vols. (Paris: Club de l'Honnête Homme, 1971), II, p. 437.

  3. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

  4. Anne Green, Flaubert and the Historical Novel: Salammbô Reassessed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  5. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits and Le Séminaire de Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, vol. I, Les Ecrits Tecniques de Freud (Paris: Seuil, 1975).

  6. Jean Rousset, “Positions, perspectives et distances dans Salammbô, Poétique, 6 (1971), pp. 145-54.

  7. “… le monde avec ses océans et ses montagnes, comme en un miroir, se regarde dans ta figure,” Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, Oeuvres Complètes, L'Intégrale, 2 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 1964), I, p. 708. All references are to this edition of the novel.

  8. Harry Levin, The Gates of Horn: A Study of Five French Realists (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 277.

  9. “… l'étrange facilité que l'on éprouve dans les rêves,” Flaubert, Salammbô, 719.

  10. “Salammbô n'en racontait pas davantage, par honte peut-être, ou bien par un excès de candeur faisant qu'elle n'attachait guère d'importance aux baisers du soldat. Tout cela, du reste, flottait dans sa tête, mélancolique et brumeux comme le souvenir d'un rêve accablant; elle n'aurait pas su de quelle manière, par quels discours l'exprimer,” Flaubert, Salammbô, pp. 772-73.

  11. “Il n'avait jamais pensé—tant l'abîme les séparant l'un de l'autre se trouvait immense—qu'il pût y avoir entre eux rien de commun,” Flaubert, Salammbô, p. 778.

  12. Georges Lukacs, “The Crisis of Bourgeois Realism,” The Historical Novel, trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell (London: Merlin Press, 1962), p. 180.

A. J. L. Busst (essay date July 1990)

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SOURCE: Busst, A. J. L. “On the Structure of Salammbô.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 44, no. 3 (July 1990): 289-98.

[In the following essay, Busst studies symmetry and parallelism in the four meetings between Salammbô and Mâtho, within the context of the novel's overall structural opposition of male and female principles.]

Few modern critics would endorse Sainte-Beuve's judgement that Salammbô, showing no signs of an architect, is without unity and structure.1 Although regret was expressed not so long ago at the novel's disjointedness2 and its lack of ‘architectonic order’,3 there is nowadays general agreement that the unity of the novel is assured by the subordination of apparently disparate elements to a single vast conflict between the male and female principles, represented respectively by the sun, Moloch, Mâtho and the Barbarians, and by the moon, Tanit, Salammbô and Carthage. In fact, the identification and association of elements within each group is not as simple as it might appear. For example, both Carthaginians and Barbarians obviously include men as well as women; Carthage, sacred to Tanit, also contains worshippers of Moloch, with which god its leaders Hamilcar and Hannon in particular have associations;4 and the deities themselves can be seen to exhibit a certain hermaphroditism.5 Nevertheless, thanks to the all-pervasive effect of the dominant imagery and symbolism, which ever stresses the opposition of the two principles and of their attributes and representatives,6 the story can be seen to describe broadly the rise and subsequent fall in the power of the male principle, with a symmetrical decline and rise in the influence of the female principle.

Symmetry, which thus governs the basic structure of the novel, has on several occasions attracted the attention of critics of Salammbô: for example, R. B. Leal speaks of the ‘symmetry and almost mathematical precision’ of Flaubert's work and of the ‘symmetry’ of various sections and refers to the ‘symmetrical whole’,7 while Anne Green remarks on the ‘beautiful symmetry of the novel's structure as a whole.’8 It seems curious then that what is, not only in itself, but also for its influence throughout the novel, of paramount importance for any study of both symmetry and structure in Salammbô, should in this context have been almost completely overlooked: that is, the sequence of the four encounters between Mâtho and Salammbô in Chapters i, v, xi and xv.

These four meetings are placed symmetrically at equidistant points in corresponding pairs in the novel: one pair, comprising the meetings which effectively begin and end the action, being appropriately set in the first and last chapters; and the other pair, in which the meetings represent pivotal points in the development of the action, appearing in Chapters v and xi—the fifth chapter from the beginning and the fifth chapter from the end, with five chapters intervening. Not only are the scenes within each pair amazingly symmetrical in form, content and effect, but all four are linked by careful cross-referencing.

With regard first of all to the opening and closing scenes, one of the main obstacles to the recognition of any fundamental correspondence9 between the two may be that, in what remains the fullest study of Salammbô's skeletal structure, R. B. Leal's French Studies article of 1973, the two final chapters do not even figure in the analysis of the main architecture of the novel; these chapters are relegated to a separate conclusion which, according to Leal, ‘Flaubert considered to be relatively distinct from the main body of the work.’10 The only evidence advanced in support of this contention is a page reference to Flaubert's Correspondance, which is not however quoted. The relevant passage appears to be the following: ‘je retravaille avec plus d'acharnement que de succès, étant maintenant dans un passage atroce. […] Après quoi, j'aurai encore deux grands chapitres de la conclusion.’11 The assertion that Flaubert considered these two chapters somehow separate from the rest of the work is hardly justified by this statement, any more than by the fact that they do not fit conveniently into Leal's system, even though this scheme has never been challenged, and actually provides the framework for P. Brady's recent alchemical interpretation of Salammbô.12 In fact, although Flaubert's correspondence and the early drafts of Salammbô indicate that he hesitated during its composition about the number and numbering of chapters, the circumstances of Mâtho's death do figure in all the drafts and scenarios of the novel.13 Thus it is clear that the parallelism between the first and last encounters of Mâtho and Salammbô, essential to the total structure of the novel, must have been ever-present in Flaubert's mind, as is indicated by the care with which, in the last complete, detailed scenario before actual composition, Flaubert includes in the sketches of the first and last chapters many of the most important symmetrical details of those meetings.14

This symmetry between the first and last encounters is indeed extensive. What first arouses the male principle to conquer the female is the drink offered by Salammbô to Mâtho; as it is interpreted as an offer of herself, Mâtho determines to possess Salammbô by any means, including the use of the mercenary army's might to smash Carthage. Some of the drafts emphasize that the Mercenary War, which provides the novel with by far the greatest part of the action, is caused by Mâtho's fury at being rejected by Salammbô.15 As for the last encounter of Mâtho and Salammbô, however it is interpreted—is it a true mystic marriage of Mâtho and Salammbô, as certain of Flaubert's drafts would suggest?16 or is it the final dissolution through death of a marriage of desire?—there is one certainty: it ends the association of Mâtho and Salammbô and the action of the novel and, as far as Flaubert's narration is concerned, the conflict of Moloch and Tanit and of Barbarians and Carthaginians. It is fitting therefore that the drink proffered at the beginning should reappear at the end. M. Z. Shroder has remarked interestingly on the resemblance of the drink poured by Salammbô for Mâtho to the love philtre of the Tristan legend.17 It is, however, important to note that Mâtho does not actually drink the wine (‘Il prit la coupe et il la portait à ses lèvres quand […]’ (39))—any more than Salammbô drinks from her cup at the end of the novel (‘Salammbô se leva […] avec une coupe à la main, afin de boire aussi. Elle retomba […]’ (311)). On each occasion, what passes for a couple's marriage toast is prevented by an intruder who is the would-be husband of the other scene: the toast between Mâtho and Salammbô in the first scene, merely delayed by the Gaul's enthusiastic intervention, is thwarted by Narr'Havas; whereas, in the second scene, that between Narr'Havas and Salammbô is cut short by Mâtho, and by the effect of his atrocious death. In both cases, the vessel is a coupe, but only Mâtho's is specifically said to be made of gold. However, since at their marriage Salammbô and Narr'Havas are to drink the same toast together, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that, as ‘Salammbô se leva comme son époux, avec une coupe à la main’, they are to drink from identical vessels; and Narr'Havas's is precisely ‘une patère d'or.’ In the draft of Chapter i published by P. M. Wetherill, d'or is twice deleted and twice restored;18 and a scenario presents both Narr'Havas and Salammbô drinking from a coupe.19 These hesitations are intriguing. We know that, when composing the later chapters, Flaubert reworked earlier ones in order to remove certain repetitions.20 Did he feel that symmetrical effects involving excessive repetition might appear too contrived and that the identity of particular details should only be discreetly suggested? Certainly, although there is considerable repetition from scene to scene, in a number of instances identical terms have been deleted in the drafts and, as we shall see below, these terms do not appear in the final version.

The settings for these symmetrical drinks are also very similar: both present crowds at alfresco feasts, with tables laden with food and drink, and the statement in Chapter xv, that ‘le festin devait durer toute la nuit’, refers back directly not just to the subject, but even to the title of Chapter i, a parallelism reinforced by specific recollections, for ‘quelques-uns se rappelaient le banquet des Mercenaires’ (308). The mention of Salammbô's noces in Chapter xv (304) recalls the question: “‘A quand les noces?’” of Chapter i (39). This time the wedding is to Narr'Havas, but just as he diverted attention to himself in the first encounter, so he now tends to be supplanted by Mâtho in the people's imagination and anticipation. The procession of priests, which in Chapter xv precedes Salammbô as she descends from her palace, had of course followed her down from that same palace in Chapter i. It is, however, Mâtho's arrival in Chapter xv that most closely parallels that of Salammbô in Chapter i. Salammbô first appears at the top of her palace (‘à sa plus haute terrasse’), just as Mâtho comes into view at the top of the Acropolis (‘au sommet de l'Acropole’), and the appearance of both is preceded by the opening of a door (‘la porte […] s'ouvrit’ (36); ‘la porte venait de s'ouvrir’ (308)). In both cases, what is first presented as une femme in Chapter i, and as un homme in Chapter xv, is seen standing sur le seuil (36, 308). Salammbô immediately comes down two flights of stairs and, with one staircase still to descend, she pauses immobile; and then we are given a picture of her in a pose presenting several similarities to that of Mâtho as he pauses, immobile, at the top of the single flight of stairs leading down from the cell. If Salammbô has la tête basse (in the draft published by P. M. Wetherill (p. 314): baissant la tête), Mâtho is courbé en deux. The curiosity each arouses is all the more intense for being partly religious: the Mercenaries feel with regard to Salammbô that ‘quelque chose des Dieux l'enveloppait comme une vapeur subtile’; whereas for the Carthaginians, Mâtho's body is something ‘décorée d'une splendeur presque religieuse.’21 Soon, both move again, and short paragraphs begin in similar fashion: Enfin elle descendit, and Enfin il s'avança. Flaubert's original intention appears to have been that, at first, both should have their arms folded, Salammbô's presumably in front of her and Mâtho's behind. However, although in the final version Mâtho still appears with ‘ses bras croisés’, the description of Salammbô reproduced in the draft edited by P. M. Wetherill ‘la tête basse, les bras croisés, immobile’22 is finally reduced to ‘immobile et la tête basse.’ As Salammbô advances, those seated move back to examine her (‘se reculaient […] en la regardant passer’ (but ‘pour la voir’ in a draft23), just as Mâtho's observers move forward to see him (‘se penchaient pour le voir’). And, in both scenes, Salammbô is drawn towards Mâtho involontairement.24

As far as the meetings of Mâtho and Salammbô in Chapters v and xi are concerned, their symmetry becomes apparent only if the encounter in Chapter xi is correctly interpreted as the occasion of Salammbô's loss of virginity and if this defloration is seen to represent a victory for Mâtho. Unfortunately, the validity of both of these hitherto generally accepted interpretations has recently been challenged by critics. First of all, it has been argued that because of ‘male hysteria’ Mâtho was unable to perform the sexual act, and that this failure is indicated in the final version by Mâtho's weeping and, in the drafts, by Salammbô's humiliation.25 Such a reading, however, is at variance with both the drafts and the final version. To take Mâtho's tears as proof of his impotence seems preposterous in view of the fact that, in the drafts, it is precisely after what Flaubert refers to crudely as the ‘baisade sous le péplos’, that Mâtho weeps, expressing his hopes and dreams to Salammbô and surprising her by his ‘faiblesse.’26 And as for Salammbô's humiliation, neither the drafts nor the final version give any reason to believe that it could be caused by Mâtho's supposed impotence. On the contrary, in the drafts where Salammbô's humiliation or shame are mentioned, it is again following the act of intercourse. In Folio 200, after the ‘baisade sous le voile’, it is noted that ‘Salammbô se sent dégradée. Honte qui tourne en haine’, further details suggesting that, in spite of the mystical state that should accompany what could be considered a sacred prostitution, she feels degraded on the human and feminine plane by this act.27 And in Folio 201, it is again after the ‘baisade sous le péplos’, after Mâtho's confidences followed by sleep, and after the revelation of his ‘faiblesse’, that Flaubert notes in Salammbô: ‘Honte vague. Comprend maintenant, remords, envie de tuer.’28 Here the sense of the scenario seems to be what is suggested in the final version: initial regret for an act performed with a being she took for a god, but who now, with the revelation of his human frailty, appears merely a man. This shame at having given herself to Mâtho, leading to the desire to kill him, also seems plainly indicated in the final version. Salammbô blushes on seeing her broken chain, but the desire to kill Mâtho comes when she perceives a smile on the lips of this satisfied, sleeping man, and notices in his half-closed eyes ‘une gaieté silencieuse et presque outrageante’ (212, my italics). Viewed in the light of these facts, Salammbô's shame seems to confirm her loss of virginity, rather than suggesting it never took place!

If the theory of impotence, based on Mâtho's weeping and Salammbô's shame, need not detain the alert reader, the allegation that Mâtho was prevented by his falling asleep from having intercourse with Salammbô is far more serious—not because it is any more convincing, but because this utterly ludicrous suggestion has been given wide circulation in the Notice to the important Club de l'Honnête Homme edition of Salammbô, and in M. Bardèche's L'Œuvre de Flaubert (1974). Supposedly, Flaubert ‘triche […] en esquivant cette rencontre tragique, en frappant ce Mâtho aux larges épaules d'un sommeil soudain, bien inattendu en cette circonstance.’29

The illogicality and inconsistency of this interpretation become evident later on in the Notice, when it is admitted that the symbolism of the broken chain shows that Salammbô does indeed lose her virginity on this occasion.30 Since there is no opportunity for this to happen after Mâtho's rudely interrupted sleep, it must have taken place before, and in that case the sleep appears perfectly natural. Indeed, the drafts and scenarios also present Mâtho falling asleep after the ‘baisade’,31 and this sequence of events, clearly of great importance for Flaubert, should therefore have been accepted by the editors of the Club de l'Honnête Homme edition as being also that of the final version, since they assert that ‘pour Salammbô la composition du roman était arrêtée dès les premiers scénarios. Flaubert […] n'y changeait rien d'essentiel.’32 This sequence must also be deduced from the account given by the honest and wily Giscon, according to whom, after an accouplement, in which he heard Salammbô ‘râler d'amour comme une prostitutée’, Mâtho related his ‘désir’ while kissing her hands. This latter episode, described also in the drafts (‘Expansion de Mâtho. Rêves de bonheur, îles fortunées (v. Critias)’),33 is told in the final version in the paragraphs beginning ‘Il baisa tous les doigts’ and ‘“Emporte-le”’. It seems likely, therefore, that it is the previous paragraph that describes the ‘accouplement’ itself, and this interpretation is lent force by the account of what happens immediately before, when Mâtho seizes her heels, breaking her chain, whereupon the zaïmph falls about them and she perceives Mâtho above her chest. It is significant that throughout the drafts the act is referred to as the ‘baisade sous le manteau’ (or ‘péplos’, or ‘voile’)34 and that, according to the detailed scenarios: ‘Un accident fait tomber le péplos’.35

This interpretation of Chapter xi is supported by the fact that, when writing for publication, Flaubert treats the sexual act with an extreme discretion contrasting markedly with the gross obscenity of his private correspondence and of the drafts. No one has ever doubted that, in the forest scene of Madame Bovary (Deuxième Partie, Chapter ix), Emma has intercourse with Rodolphe. And yet, there is no description of the act itself, which occurs in an interval in the text, after which, adopting Emma's viewpoint, we share in the experience of her afterglow. The act is, however, prepared by an objective description dependent on the use of three verbs: renverser, défaillir and s'abandonner. It is significant that, in Salammbô, the sexual act is preceded by a similar, objective description, in which the same three verbs convey the same meaning, whereupon Mâtho grasps Salammbô's heels, breaking her chain, and the veil falls. Differently from Madame Bovary, however, we are immediately presented, through Salammbô's sensibility, with this innocent girl's experience of the act itself, as she sees Mâtho above her: ‘—“Moloch, tu me brûles!” et les baisers du soldat, plus dévorateurs que des flammes, la parcouraient; elle était comme enlevée dans un ouragan, prise dans la force du soleil’ (211).

If Salammbô's loss of virginity in Chapter xi thus seems undeniable, for the parallelism of this encounter with that of Chapter v to become apparent, this defloration must be seen to represent a victory for Mâtho. Now, Leal perceives both in the sexual union of Mâtho and Salammbô, and in the symbolic and corresponding union of Moloch and Tanit, an expression of equality, partly on account of the ‘equalizing effect’ of certain consequences of these encounters, and partly because ‘in the sexual act, male and female both give and receive.’36 Nevertheless, whatever may be the contribution of each partner in a sexual encounter, and however much compensations following defeat may equalize the effects of victory, it is certain that, in the context of the novel and in the view of Flaubert, the union of Mâtho and Salammbô represents domination, possession and victory for the male.

The symbolic sexual union of Moloch and Tanit, which brings rain through the fertilization of the goddess, is presented as just as much a victory for the male god and the result of his domination as the sacrifice to him of the children, which propitiates him and joins him with Tanit; so that effectively ‘il avait vaincu Tanit’ (270). Similarly, Mâtho recognizes that what guides him on his path of violence against Carthage is the desire to possess Salammbô: ‘“je voulais abattre ses murailles afin de parvenir jusqu'à toi, pour te posséder”’ (209). And it is evident in the earliest drafts that Mâtho's gentleness is the means to possession: ‘Mâtho veut la posséder. Il est doux et lui fait la cour’.37 In the final version, his tender words, his self-abasement, lead precisely towards this conquest of Salammbô, in which she finds herself ‘comme enlevée dans un ouragan, prise dans la force du soleil’ (211). And Flaubert himself sees in this scene, not any sexual equality, but domination by the male—as he makes clear when commenting in his letter to Sainte-Beuve on the symbolic significance of the accompanying storm: ‘l'âme de cette histoire est Moloch, le Feu, la Foudre. Ici le Dieu lui-même, sous une de ses formes [i.e. Mâtho], agit; il dompte Salammbô. Le tonnerre était donc bien à sa place: c'est la voix de Moloch resté en dehors.’38

If Mâtho's union with Salammbô in Chapter xi thus represents victory for him, then he must have been defeated in Chapter v by his failure to achieve this, in an encounter not even mentioned by Leal, in whose scheme Chapter v illustrates exclusively the ascendancy of the male principle.39 However, that Flaubert intended that this scene should represent the rejection and defeat of Mâtho by Salammbô is clearly indicated by the use in the scenarios of such terms as refus, refuse, repousse, sourire de pitié.40 Since victory for the one is defeat for the other, and vice versa, the fundamental symmetry of the scenes becomes obvious. Moreover, in the two encounters, the victory or defeat is immediately followed by an event of immense importance which, both in itself and in the influence it exercises on the fortunes of each of the collectivities, represents a complete reversal of the victory or defeat: the loss or acquisition of the zaïmph, the changing possession of which largely determines the course and final outcome of the conflict on all levels. In Chapter v, then, Mâtho is defeated by Salammbô, but gains the veil, which the victorious Salammbô thus loses; whereas in Chapter xi, Mâtho conquers Salammbô, who nevertheless acquires the veil. This symmetry is emphasized by many of the events preparing the two encounters, which are both brought about by another person's urge to gain the veil with the help of Mâtho or Salammbô: Spendius in the first case, and Schahabarim in the second. It is also the slave Spendius who guides Mâtho to Salammbô; but Salammbô too is led to Mâtho by a slave.

This curious parallelism is heightened by other symmetrical effects. On both occasions, in rooms lit at night by a single lamp, and each with an escabeau, the beds appear blue: Salammbô's, ‘un grand carré d'azur’, is enveloped by curtains in ‘une atmosphère bleuâtre’ (101), whereas when Salammbô first perceives Mâtho's, it is covered with ‘quelque chose de bleuâtre’ (207). To Salammbô's question: ‘“Qu'est-ce donc?”’ (101), corresponds Mâtho's later ‘“Qui t'amène? pourquoi viens-tu?”’ (207). In both cases, she asks for the veil: the direct speech of the first (‘“Donne-le”’) is paralleled in the second by indirect speech (‘elle lui demanda le zaïmph’). Whereas, in the first: ‘elle s'avançait toujours’, in the second: ‘elle s'avança vivement’. In both, while she is preoccupied with the veil, which in both he offers her, Mâtho, we are told, ‘la contemplait’ (102, 207). To her ‘“Plus près! plus près!”’ of the first scene corresponds his ‘“Oh! approche! approche!”’ of the second. And in both he expresses his love in the same simple terms: ‘“Je t'aime!”’. In both he mentions the same sacrifice: ‘“J'aurais abandonné l'armée”’ (102), and ‘“j'abandonne l'armée”’ (211). And Salammbô's exclamation ‘“Va-t'en! va-t'en!”’ (103) is strangely echoed in the later scene by Mâtho's ‘“Ne t'en va pas!”’ (210), and Giscon's ‘“Va-t'en!”’ (214). The curse Salammbô lays on Mâtho, ‘“Malédiction sur toi”’ (103), is exactly repeated against her by Giscon (214). At one point in both scenes, each stands immobile (101, 212), contemplating the other sleeping with half-closed eyes (101: ‘ses paupières entre-closes’; 212: ‘les paupières à demi closes’); and in both cases this sleep ends amid the lurid glow of flames, as first the mosquito net and then the camp are set alight. In both scenes, ‘une longue flèche’ comes perilously close to striking them, Mâtho after the meeting (104), and Salammbô before (205). And Salammbô, whom Mâtho tries in vain to ‘envelop’ in the veil in Chapter v (‘tendant vers elle le zaïmph, il allait l'envelopper dans une étreinte’ (102)), is finally ‘enveloped’ in it by accident in Chapter xi (‘Le zaïmph tomba, l'enveloppant’ (211)). In the corresponding scenes, Mâtho and then Salammbô leave at dawn, with the veil wrapped around them, searching a way out of an unknown maze, Mâtho out of Carthage and Salammbô out of the camp, only to find themselves halted by a high and seemingly insuperable obstacle, Mâtho by the Khamon Gate, and Salammbô by the rampart. After escaping, both Mâtho and Salammbô display the sacred veil as prominently as possible: Mâtho ‘l'éleva sur sa tête le plus haut possible’ (104), and Salammbô ‘en écartant les bras […] déploya le zaïmph’ (217), both watched with consternation, the first by the Carthaginians and the second by the Barbarians.

These four scenes, immensely important for the development of the action,41 and bound together in pairs linked by elaborate symmetry, are also all connected by careful cross-referencing. It is noticeable that in each successive encounter, reference is specifically made to each of the previous ones. The meeting of Chapter v, for example, is brought about by the memory of Mâtho's encounter in Chapter i, since when, we are told, ‘il montait continuellement cet escalier’ (100), and emotion increases as he recognizes her door, first seen in Chapter i. In Chapter xi, Salammbô reminds Mâtho of the circumstances of their previous two meetings, which Mâtho also recalls. In the final encounter, reference is made not only to the first meeting, as was shown above, but also to both of the other two: for example, Mâtho remembers the second meeting, when he left protected by the veil, just as Salammbô is reminded of her experience in Mâtho's tent.

The four encounters are not only connected by the characters' recollections, but also by the subtle resumption of certain words and images. Firstly, we have seen how, in all four scenes, the word immobile is used to describe the posture of the rapt onlooker: of Salammbô in Chapters i and xi, and of Mâtho in Chapters v and xv; and it could be added that Chapter xi associates this immobility with a tête baissée and bras croisés, as it was shown above to be the case in Chapters i and xv. The ribald question of Chapter i: ‘“A quand les noces?”’ is echoed in the exchange between Tanaach and Salammbô, as the latter prepares for the meeting in Mâtho's tent, where she loses her virginity: ‘“Tu ne seras pas plus belle le jour de tes noces!”—“Mes noces!” répéta Salammbô’ (200); as also by the mention in the last scene of her ‘noces’ with Narr'Havas—just as the possession of Salammbô that Narr'Havas here claims (311) reminds us of Mâtho's protestation, in his previous encounter with Salammbô, that all his efforts have been undertaken with the same possession of Salammbô in mind: ‘“pour te posséder”’ (209). The snake images, of which D. L. Demorest has underlined the prevalence in Flaubert's work,42 provide another link between these scenes, especially as they connect Salammbô's chaînette d'or with Mâtho's arms. Salammbô's chain, described in the first encounter, is broken in the third, when Mâtho seizes her heels, its two ‘bouts’ (211) or ‘tronçons’ (212) appearing in a draft as ‘les deux tronçons d'un serpent’43 and in the final version as ‘deux vipères rebondissantes’—just as, in the last scene, Mâtho's arms resemble ‘des tronçons de serpent’, which, because they are bound behind his back, cannot now encircle Salammbô as they had attempted to do in the second meeting, and succeeded in doing in the third, as Salammbô remembers in the fourth.44 We are reminded here of the python which, in the rituals performed before her meeting in Mâtho's tent, hangs around Salammbô's neck, its two ends dangling like a broken circle: ‘le python se rabattit et lui posant sur la nuque le milieu de son corps, il laissait pendre sa tête et sa queue, comme un collier rompu dont les deux bouts traînaient jusqu'à terre’ (198); and of the other sacred python which, in the last chapter, completing the circle, ‘décrivait en se mordant la queue un grand cercle noir’ (307). And the similarity between, in the last scene, Mâtho's broken bonds, of which it is stated: ‘ses liens rompus pendaient le long de ses cuisses’, and the trailing ends of Salammbô's chain is reinforced by the fact that patrician virgins' chaînettes are referred to as ‘ces entraves’ (212).

The symmetry associated with these four meetings between Salammbô and Mâtho helps therefore considerably to reveal what remained invisible for Sainte-Beuve: the workmanship of the architect of Salammbô, whose achievement is all the more impressive as the structure had to include parts already shaped by history.


  1. Sainte-Beuve, Nouveaux lundis (Paris, 1881), vol. iv, p. 82.

  2. Notice to Salammbô in the Œuvres complètes de Gustave Flaubert, Club de l'Honnête Homme, vol. 2 (Paris, 1971) (hereinafter designated CHH), p. 18 (reproduced in M. Bardèche, L'Œuvre de Flaubert (Paris, Les Sept Couleurs, 1974), p. 250): ‘En somme, il y a un abîme que l'auteur n'arrive à aucun moment à nous faire franchir entre le romanesque et extravagant poème d'amour sur lequel il a construit son intrigue et les événements historiques qui l'intéressent et qu'il a entrepris de raconter.’

  3. D. Porter, ‘Aestheticism versus the Novel: The Example of Salammbô’, Novel, 4 (1971), 101-06 (p. 105).

  4. See Anne Green, ‘Salammbô and the Myth of Pasiphaë’, French Studies, xxxii (1978) 170-77 (p. 171); and A. Green, Flaubert and the Historical Novel: ‘Salammbô’ reassessed (Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 54, 125, 135.

  5. For example, in the hymn to Moloch, in the invocation: ‘Père et Mère […] Dieu et Déesse’, Salammbô, Garnier-Flammarion edition (Paris, 1964), p. 265 (hereinafter referred to simply by numbers within brackets); and in the mention of the ‘hermaphroditisme’ of Tanit (p. 306). See also H. Suhner-Schluepp, L'Imagination du feu ou la dialectique du soleil et de la lune dans ‘Salammbô’ de G. Flaubert (Zurich, Juris, 1970), pp. 30-84.

  6. See, for example, D. L. Demorest, L'Expression figurée et symbolique dans l'œuvre de Gustave Flaubert (Paris, 1931), pp. 481-95.

  7. R. B. Leal, ‘Salammbô: An Aspect of Structure’, French Studies, xxvii (1973) 16-29 (p. 19).

  8. A. Green, Flaubert and the Historical Novel, p. 65.

  9. On points of detail, J. Rousset has nevertheless perceptively underlined certain of the symmetrical effects of perspective between the first and last encounters, where the crowd's eyes are focused on an isolated and descending protagonist, representing the opposed collectivity, and also the presence in both scenes of a feasting crowd and of references to a wedding, where Mâtho and Narr'Havas are present as rivals (‘Positions, distances, perspectives dans Salammbô’, Poétique, 6 (1971), 145-54). L. Bottineau (‘La Représentation de l'espace dans Salammbô’, in B. Masson (ed.), Gustave Flaubert I, Flaubert, et après … (Paris, Lettres Modernes (1984) 79-104 (p. 85)) also notes the symmetry with which a crowd's sharp and penetrating gaze is focused on a central character in Chapters v, xi and xv—to which he could have added on Salammbô also in Chapter i.

  10. Leal, p. 26.

  11. Flaubert, Correspondance, Nouvelle édition augmentée, Quatrième série (Paris, Conard, 1927), p. 433.

  12. P. Brady, ‘Archetypes and the historical novel: the case of Salammbô’, Stanford French Review, 1 (1977) 313-24 (p. 318).

  13. CHH, pp. 284, 286, 289, 292, 304, 330, 332.

  14. See the text published by A. Green (1981), p. 49. See also CHH, pp. 309, 312.

  15. See, for example, Folio 190: ‘Mâtho furieux regrette de n'avoir pas enlevé Salammbô. Appelle à la révolte toutes les villes’ (CHH, p. 300).

  16. See the scenario (Folio 220) first published by L. Abrami in the Conard edition (Paris, 1910, repr. 1936), p. 470, and included in CHH (p. 286): ‘Regard de la jeune fille sur le corps déchiré de Mâtho. Elle l'aime. C'est lui l'époux. Ils ont été mariés par la mort. Elle pâlit, et tombe, dans le sang de Mâtho.’

  17. See M. Z. Shroder, ‘On Reading Salammbô’, L'Esprit créateur, 10 (1970) 24-35 (pp. 27-28).

  18. P. M. Wetherill, ‘Une Version manuscrite du premier chapitre de Salammbô’, Lettres romanes, 32 (1978) 291-331 (p. 322).

  19. Published by A. Green (1981) p. 49. See also CHH, p. 332.

  20. Flaubert, Correspondance, Troisième Série, 1854-69 (Paris, Conard, 1910), p. 301.

  21. Compare the scenario in Folio 207: ‘Le corps de l'ennemi (l'hostie) est une chose religieuse’ (CHH, p. 338).

  22. Wetherill, p. 314.

  23. Wetherill, p. 315.

  24. As has been pointed out already by Shroder (pp. 27-28).

  25. B. F. Bart, ‘Male Hysteria in Salammbô’, Nineteenth-Century French Studies, 12 (1984) 313-21 (p. 320).

  26. Folios 190 and 201 (CHH, pp. 302, 326).

  27. CHH, p. 312.

  28. CHH, p. 326.

  29. CHH, p. 25, and Bardèche, p. 256.

  30. CHH, p. 37.

  31. CHH, pp. 299, 302, 326.

  32. CHH, p. 341.

  33. Folio 190 (CHH, p. 302); see also Folios 188, 201 (CHH, pp. 299, 326).

  34. Folios 238, 182, 188, 190, 200, 201 (CHH, pp. 287, 289, 299, 302, 312, 326).

  35. CHH, p. 299; see also pp. 302, 326.

  36. Leal, p. 25.

  37. CHH, p. 285.

  38. Sainte-Beuve, p. 442, my italics.

  39. Leal, p. 22.

  40. CHH, pp. 287, 289, 291, 297, 300.

  41. It is significant that, when condensing the action of the novel for an opera libretto outline, Flaubert accorded in turn a central position in four of the five acts to each of these four encounters: in Act i, the appearance of Salammbô and the ensuing quarrel between Mâtho and Narr'Havas; in Act ii, Mâtho's visit to Salammbô's room, and his rejection by her; in Act iii, Salammbô's visit to Mâtho's tent, and the ‘scène d'amour entre Salammbô and Mâtho’; and in Act v, at the wedding feast for Salammbô and Narr'Havas, the torture and death of Mâtho, leading to the death of Salammbô (CHH, pp. 365-68).

  42. Demorest, pp. 489-90.

  43. CHH, p. 326.

  44. ‘il allait l'envelopper dans une étreinte’ (102); ‘il lui entourait la taille de ses deux bras’ (210); ‘lui entourant la taille de ses deux bras’ (310).

David Danaher (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Danaher, David. “Effacement of the Author and the Function of Sadism in Salammbô.Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Foreign Literatures 46, no. 1 (spring 1992): 3-20.

[In the following essay, Danaher presents an analysis of Salammbô based upon the critical concepts of Russian Formalism, explaining Flaubert's use of focalization, the sadistic motif, and his ahistorical application of archeological material to impersonalize himself as the author and to estrange his readers.]

Roman Jakobson has defined the dominant of an artistic work as “the focussing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components” (Russian Poetics 82). It is that element in the system of one literary text (or of an oeuvre of a particular author or of a whole literary movement) to which all other textual elements are hierarchically subordinate. As one critic has put it, the dominant of a text acts “like a structure of bones in an organic body.”1

The concept of the dominant was developed in the framework of Russian Formalism in the first half of this century, but it can theoretically be applied to art regardless of cultural or temporal considerations. In an analysis of Flaubert's novel Salammbô, the dominant turns out to be a useful concept. If the dominant in Salammbô is taken to be the intentional effacement of the author in the text (the impersonalization of the text), then the internal structure of the novel should bear the marks of the transforming power of the dominant's influence. This is exactly the case.

In Salammbô, for example, the role of the narrator is extremely limited. The internal dynamism of the text is not brought about by direct narratorial interventions, nor are the events in the text ever commented on by the narrator, as is the case in the works of Balzac or Stendhal. In effect, the text itself could be viewed almost as self-generating. In Formalist terms, the novel becomes a system unto itself. Through the effacement of the narrator, the dominant is served: the author's presence is displaced one level further away from the actual text. This achievement does not come about easily. The dominant necessitates the use of other literary devices within the text such as the preservation of an impersonalized narrator. On a higher level, an impersonalized author demands the adoption of certain techniques for generating description and text, maintaining structural cohesion, and advancing the plot. In Salammbô, as will be shown, the free motif of sadism is often, although not exclusively, used as an expedient to these ends.

The frequent use of focalization of the text (that is focusing of the point of view) may be considered one of the techniques engendered by the dominant. Focalization of descriptions and focalization of textual discourse serve not only the needs of the dominant, but also explain in a sense the abundant use of sadism in the novel. For example, focalization eliminates, in fact replaces, the need for direct narratorial interventions, while it dictates to a certain extent what is reported in the text. The text is produced to a large degree by the focalizing device.

On the simplest level, focalization, ambitiously practiced throughout Salammbô, is used for generating descriptions without the help of an omniscient narrator. In the first chapter, the scene of the Mercenaries' celebration is largely described through the eyes of the Mercenaries themselves:

et l'on voyait au milieu du jardin, comme sur un champ de bataille quand on brûle les morts, de grands feux clairs où rôtissaient des boeufs.2

The theme of the regard (“l'on voyait”), repeated continuously in the novel, and the use of the military metaphor indicate that the description is focalized through the Mercenaries' eyes. Similarly, the first description of Salammbô, related almost entirely in terms of the jewels that she is wearing, also implies focalization: the Mercenaries' eyes are naturally drawn to her riches.

On the level of the sadistic motif, focalization of description plays the same role. The sadistic description of the crucified lions, transmitted through the Barbarians' eyes, follows only logically in the context of the monotonous journey from Carthage to Sicca across the desert. The fact that what is seen is “quelque chose d'extraordinaire” (29) for the traveling soldiers reinforces the textual necessity of a detailed description. Thus, if the scene depicts sadism (“du sang noir, coulant parmi ses poils, avait amassé des stalactites au bas de sa queue” [29]), it is so because the focalization requires it. In other words, by necessitating focalization of description, the dominant indirectly influences the wording of what is described.

A second example of a focalized sadistic scene, this one perceived through the eyes of Mâtho, is the following:

Parmi ses soldats, au bord des tentes, des hommes presque nus dormaient sur le dos … Quelques-uns décollaient de leurs jambes des bandelettes ensanglantées. Ceux qui allaient mourir roulaient leur tête, tout doucement. …


Both the positioning of Mâtho, who is looking down upon the soldiers' encampment, and the use of the possessive pronoun “ses” in the actual description imply the focalized nature of the description. The narrator has no role in this portion of the text.

Sadistic description is not only focalized from the Barbarians' point of view. The Carthaginian soldiers, for example, are the medium through which a gruesome description of the Mercenaries' prisoners is related:

A peine pouvait-on reconnaître ces misérables, tant leur visage disparaissait sous la vermine et les ordures. Leurs cheveux arrachés par endroits laissaient à nu les ulcères de leur tête. …


Here the verb “reconnaître” signifies focalization. Moreover, reinforcing the focalization, further on in the same passage another verb of perception is used when the Carthaginians recognize Giscon among the prisoners: “Bien que la place fût dangereuse, ils se poussaient pour le voir” (193). The fact that the Carthaginians are horrified to see their rich fellow citizens reduced to such a state may well be the justification for the abundance of sadistic detail: the focalizing circumstances transform the actual content of the text.

Instances of focalized description are often even physically apparent in the context of the narrative. After a battle between the mercenary Army and the Carthaginian Army, soldiers of the former return to the battlefield to take stock of their losses. They arrive after dark at a field littered with bodies. The text reads: “Puis on promenait la torche sur leur visage, lentement. Des armes hideuses leur avaient fait des blessures compliquées” (238). Not surprisingly, what follows is a detailed description of the complexity of the injuries. The detached adverb “lentement” in the text allows and indeed requires just such a detailed rendering of the injuries, especially considering that the soldiers' field of vision is limited to the small area lit by the torch. The bodies and their injuries are the center of attention. Once again, focalization dictates to a not insignificant degree the content of the passage.

Focalization of description in this manner leads almost to self-generation of the text, thus contributing to preservation of the effacement of both the author and the narrator. For example, before the description of the ten emissaries of the trapped Mercenaries, the text reads: “En apercevant ces hommes, il [Hamilcar] fit un geste en arrière, puis il se pencha pour les examiner” (315). The implied attention with which Hamilcar views his captives, evident in the bending motion toward them (“se pencha”) and the use of the explicit verb “examiner” instead of the more simple “voir,” dictates here as elsewhere the necessity of the morbid details that follow. The description itself lasts a full paragraph, all of which is in a sense perceived by Hamilcar's eyes. The narrator participates in the scene only extratextually as a recorder of the event.

Descriptions of this kind continue up to the very end of the novel. One of the last descriptions is a focalized portrait of the tortured Mâtho filtered through the concerned eyes of Salammbô. The description is preceded by a typical focalization marker: “Dès le premier pas qu'il avait fait, … elle n'avait aperçu que Mâtho” (351). The sketch of the dying Mâtho, repulsively and sadistically precise, is accompanied by the addition of the following focalized discourse: “et le misérable marchait toujours!” (352). The use of discourse is itself another device that is required by the dominant.

The use of focalization in nondescriptive textual discourse can be considered a more refined technique than simple focalization of description. What often results with the use of this technique is discours indirect libre: reported speech is incorporated directly into the text without preparatory markers. Distinctions between free indirect discourse of the characters and narratorial discourse may seem at times unclear, although frequently markers of the use of the former device, such as question marks or exclamation points, appear in the speech.

On a simple level, the focalization of discourse can occur in one sentence or phrase in the middle or at the end of a passage. For example, after the ailing Hannon, having lost the battle with Spendius in front of Utique, watches the bloody execution of several captives, the text reads: “Le Suffète trempa sa main dans cette fange toute chaude, et il s'en frotta les genoux: c'était un remède” (116). Although the act of rubbing the blood on his knees does not appear to be focalized, the qualifying phrase, one can argue, has a voice distinct from the voice of the narrator. It cannot be the otherwise objective or even historical narrator who considers the blood a remedy; Hannon, however, who is always searching for any way of alleviating his sickness, would be inclined to do so. What occurs after the colon is therefore an example of free indirect discourse. The narrator's discourse is effaced and replaced by the discourse of one of the characters. This technique, like focalization of description, is especially effective at introducing and justifying sadistic details, such as the one considered above.

The use of a question mark or an exclamation point, or a combination of the two, in what seems like straightforward narratorial discourse implies focalization. The passage quoted above, where Salammbô marvels at the fact that the tortured Mâtho is still walking, is an example of the exclamation point adding emotional voice to the text, indicating that discourse thus marked cannot belong to the narrator. With this device, the discourse of the crowd is often reported indirectly in the text:

C'était une prudence inutile; tous accusaient Barca de s'être conduit avec mollesse. Il aurait dû, après sa victoire, anéantir les Mercenaires. Pourquoi avait-il ravagé les tribus? On s'était cependant imposé d'assez lourds sacrifices! … On se rappelait les désastres de Sicile, tout le fardeau de son orgueil qu'on avait si longtemps porté!


The voice of the Carthaginian crowd, condemning Hamilcar for his actions, is highlighted by the combination of the rhetorical question followed immediately by an emotionally charged response as well as by the second emotional outburst later on in the passage. The focalized nature of the discourse once again relieves the narrator of the necessity of direct intervention.

The combination of rhetorical question followed immediately by a response under exclamation is not limited to the one passage cited. The discourse of the Barbarians, for example, is felt in the text through the same device:

En les [les Carthaginois] voyant si faibles, les Barbares, trois fois plus nombreux, furent pris d'une joie désordonnée; on n'apercevait pas Hamilcar. Il était resté là-bas, peut-être? Qu'importait d'ailleurs! …


The subtlety of emotion among the Barbarians, their fearful hesitation upon noticing Hamilcar's absence, is brought out skillfully by the “peut‐être” tacked on to the question. Had the narrator directly intervened in the passage to explain the Barbarians' thoughts, the effect produced would not have so actively engaged the reader as the indirect discourse does. Besides serving the needs of the dominant, the indirect discourse happens to allow for a more efficient presentation of the content of the text itself.

Focalization of discourse occurs on a large scale as well as on a small scale in the novel. Mixed with focalization of description, it is the guiding element in the long scene of the immolation of the children to the god Moloch. The accumulation of verbs of perception throughout the passage focalizes description largely from the point of view of the Carthaginian crowd gathered to view the sacrifice. Focalization of discourse supplements this:

Avant de rien entreprendre, il était bon d'essayer les bras du Dieu.


Il fallait un sacrifice individuel, une oblation toute volontaire et qui était considérée comme entraînant les autres.


The value judgment evident in the first quotation (“il était bon”) and the tone of obligation in the second (“il fallait”) both indicate that the discourse is nonnarratorial. In the second quotation, moreover, the question can be posed: “Considered by whom?” The answer, obviously by the Carthaginians, reinforces the presence of voice.

The appearance of voiced discourse continues to alternate with focalized descriptions in the course of the scene. At one point the crowd judges: “Cependant l'appétit du Dieu ne s'apaisait pas. Il en voulait toujours” (298). More victims are consequently added to the fire to the point that “on aperçut des chairs qui brûlaient. …” (298). Later on in the same passage “on entendait les cris des mères et le grésillement de la graisse qui tombait sur les charbons” (299). The focalization continues even beyond the passage itself. After the immolation, when the rain begins to fall, the text reads: “le tonnerre grondait; c'était la voix de Moloch; il avait vaincu Tanit …” (300). The religious interpretation of the rainstorm can only be attributed to the focalized discourse of the Carthaginian crowd. The scene thus reported consists almost entirely of focalized text: the thoughts of the crowd as well as what it sees and hears make up the text of the passage. The narrator's role is kept to an absolute minimum and the content of the text itself, in all its sadistic detail, is transformed by the special demands of the focalizing technique.

Focalization, then, is used in the novel to replace narratorial interventions in description and discourse. The text can accomplish this blatantly with verbs of perception surrounding the descriptions or voice markers implanted in the focalized discourse, or even more subtly. It is easy to confuse the more subtle usage of focalization with narratorial discourse or description.3 The following example will illustrate a more subtle use of focalization:

Narr'Havas lui [Salammbô] annonça la défaite des Barbares … il se mit à raconter toute la campagne.

Les colombes, sur les palmiers autour d'eux, roucoulaient doucement, et d'autres oiseaux voletaient parmi les herbes … Le jardin, depuis longtemps inculte, avait multiplié ses verdures; … Les bêtes domestiques, redevenues sauvages, s'enfuyaient au moindre bruit … Le ciel était tout bleu, pas une voile n'apparaissait sur la mer.

Narr'Havas ne parlait plus …


Despite initial appearances, the full paragraph of description in the above scene does not originate with the narrator. It is instead focalized through Salammbô to indicate that she is not listening to Narr'Havas's description of the campaign. The narrator is therefore not obliged to interfere in the text with “Salammbô did not listen to Narr'Havas” or a similar statement.

This instance of focalization, much like a passage in Un coeur simple in which a focalized description replaces a kiss (Trois Contes 19-20), serves a specific narrative function that would otherwise fall under the domain of the narrator. As a system unto itself, the text becomes all but self-generating in the process. It should be reiterated that the dominant in the novel, that is, the need to efface the author and narrator in the text, ultimately requires the use of focalization of this sort and transforms the text accordingly.

In the structure of Salammbô the sadistic motif serves as a thread tying together diverse parts of the narrative on various levels (characterization, theme, plot, description, etc.). In a letter, Flaubert used the following metaphor in reference to a work of literature: “les perles ne font pas le collier; c'est le fil” (Tondeur 33). Not only was Flaubert acutely aware of the necessity of precise structural cohesion, but, as the quotation indicates, the thread (or threads) of a novel must be introduced subtly, buried beneath the events of the plot, the narrative gems. The Russian Formalists would see in this a distinction between the story material of a work (fabula) and the composition or arranging of that material (syuzhet). Sadism, as will be shown by an analysis of foreshadowing and parallelism in Salammbô, belongs to the latter category.

To state that there is absolutely no intervention of the narrator during the whole course of Salammbô would be absurd. However, R. J. Sherrington has noted that even when traditional third-person narrative passages occur, “they have little importance for the over-all technique” (Sherrington 178). One could argue that the narrator largely limits his interventions to the artistic or structural level of the novel. His voice and presence are felt in the syuzhet, but not in the fabula. The sadistic (and other) elements used structurally through foreshadowing and parallelism are examples of this type of artful intervention.

The device of foreshadowing is used in the novel to justify later events in the text and establish a structurally cohesive work. One nonsadistic thread that runs throughout Salammbô, for example, is the question of Narr'Havas's loyalty to the Barbarian cause. Narr'Havas's eventual betrayal of the Mercenaries is anticipated in the first chapter of the novel, where he distinguishes himself from the mass of soldiers at the celebration: “C'était par hasard qu'il se trouvait au festin” (15). This motif is solidified later by Spendius's suspicions: “il savait gré à Narr'Havas des futures perfidies dont il le soupçonnait” (32). Narr'Havas's conspicuous absence from active participation in the war adds to the intrigue. On one occasion, after letting Hannon's army pass by peacefully, Narr'Havas attempts to communicate his perfidious intentions to the Carthaginian general: “Narr'Havas s'inclina pour le saluer, en faisant un signe qu'il ne comprit pas” (116). This thread of foreshadowing culminates in the actual betrayal of the Mercenaries by Narr'Havas and his soldiers during the siege of Hamilcar's army. The anticipation of just such a plot shift is, on the level of the syuzhet, the justification of its occurrence.

A sadistic motif centering on the character of Hamilcar can be viewed from a similar perspective. Upon his return to Carthage, Hamilcar inflicts tortures on his own palace slaves simply out of anger for what the Barbarians did to his gardens during the celebration. For a whole chapter, Hamilcar's cruelty is underlined. Hamilcar commits small-scale sadistic acts (on his private estate) in the same way that he will later commit large-scale ones against the entire mercenary army. It is significant that the Mercenaries are compared with slaves in the text: “Mais Hamilcar voulut d'abord montrer aux Mercenaires qu'il les châtierait comme des esclaves” (326). Hamilcar's heartlessness toward his own slaves foreshadows and justifies his sadistic cruelty toward the Mercenaries, whom he views as slaves. At the moment of the latter cruelty, the text even specifically invokes the former sadism against the slaves to drive home the connection.4

The almost constant equating of the Mercenaries to various animals functions as an important aspect of foreshadowing in the novel. In the first chapter alone, the Mercenaries are compared with animals five distinct times.5 This motif is continued throughout the rest of the novel. It explains, perhaps, the reason for Spendius's continual success with the Barbarians: “[Spendius] savait … apprivoiser les bêtes farouches …” (27). The motif also justifies the whole conclusion of the war. The Carthaginians are known for their cruelty toward dangerous beasts. The text comments on the crucifixion of the lions as viewed by the Mercenaries in the following manner: “Ainsi se vengeaient les paysans carthaginois quand ils avaient pris quelque bête féroce …” (29). The fact that the leading Mercenaries are later crucified is thus also foreshadowed by this comparison. Spendius on the cross even refers to the fate of the lions:

‘Te rappelles-tu les lions sur la route de Sicca?’ ‘C'étaient nos frères!’ répondit le Gaulois. …


The lion motif recurs in the structure of the novel when the remaining Barbarians and the remains of the dead are fed to lions. The comparison with animals is equally used in reference to Mâtho at the end of the novel when he is captured “avec un de ces larges filets à prendre les bêtes farouches …” (340). The violence subsequently inflicted upon Mâtho by the Carthaginian crowd is to be expected. The foreshadowing justifies the event on both a thematic and a structural level.

One of the most sadistic scenes in the novel, the immolation of the children in sacrifice to Moloch, is also heavily foreshadowed. The temple of Moloch, where the sacrifice takes place, is thus described:

Le temple de Moloch était bâti au pied d'une gorge escarpée, dans un endroit sinistre. On n'apercevait d'en bas que de hautes murailles …, telles que les parois d'un monstrueux tombeau … [La mer] battait contre la falaise avec un bruit de râles et de sanglots. …


The immolation itself is foreshadowed by this description, although more than 150 pages separate the two parts of the text. One need not even know that Moloch's actual temple in Carthage looked completely different from the description given in the text to postulate the use of a structural device.6 Generally conscious of historicity, the text itself is transformed by the need to establish foreshadowing on the concrete level of description. The immolation motif is continued after the temple's description. Several times the Carthaginian crowd looks toward immolation as a means of solving crises: “La vague idée d'une immolation bientôt circula dans le peuple” (198). When the sacrifice finally takes place, the reader should not be too surprised. Through manipulation of the text, the narrator has created the conditions for and the justification of its occurrence.

Foreshadowing as a technique in Salammbô influences even small parts of the text. For instance, when Hamilcar is being pressured to give up his son for the sacrifice, the text reads: “Hamilcar retint un cri, comme à la brûlure d'un fer rouge” (287). The comparison of Hamilcar's reaction to torture by fire is significant, of course, in that this scene is connected to the immolation scene. Even at the minute level of metaphor, the foreshadowing device molds the text to further its own purposes; and as with the other examples of foreshadowing, the metaphor continues the particular structural thread leading up to the immolation, thereby binding diverse elements in the composition of the narrative.

Much like the foreshadowing device, parallelism is also used by the narrator to create structural cohesion. Parallelisms in the novel develop into mini-motifs acting as threads which bind together other motifs and events. The parallel threads are often intertwined with the foreshadowing motifs. The result is a more self-sustaining structure. As with foreshadowing, parallelisms occur on both small and large scales in the novel. They can be simple, as when Salammbô is referred to for the first and last time in the novel as “la fille d'Hamilcar” (11 and 353). The large scale parallelisms are more interesting because they exert a greater influence on the composition. Not surprisingly, these parallelisms are often connected with the sadistic motif.7

Two major sadistic parallelisms relate the beginning of the novel to the end. Of the sadistic acts committed by the Mercenaries during the celebration in Hamilcar's gardens (chapter one), the maiming of Hamilcar's prize elephants influences the later text in the form of a parallelism. One elephant that survived the Barbarians' rampage returns during the dramatic final battle to tip the scales in favor of the Carthaginians. The captured Mâtho is even tied to the elephant's back and led into Carthage. This same elephant figures in the scene of Hamilcar's return in the middle of the novel, and the sadistic acts perpetrated upon it influence Hamilcar to take command of the Carthaginian Army.

An analogous thread is followed by the celebration motif in Salammbô. This motif, which appears for the first time in the opening chapter, reappears with Hamilcar's return, and recurs in the last chapter of the novel during the celebration of Salammbô's marriage to Narr'Havas. Each celebration in question is interrupted by acts of sadism. In the first instance, the Barbarians destroy Hamilcar's gardens, killing his slaves and animals in the process. In the second instance, which also takes place in Hamilcar's palace, the festive atmosphere brought about by Hamilcar's long-awaited return is suspended by the sadistic outbreaks of Hamilcar's anger. In the final chapter, the marriage celebration itself is interrupted by the torturing of the last mercenary left alive, Mâtho. In each instance Salammbô plays a central if not theatrical role. At the Barbarians' celebration, Salammbô emerges on the terrace of the palace and slowly descends the stairs. At her father's return, Salammbô is also seen pacing on the terrace, but does not choose to descend. In the last instance, she is placed high on a reviewing stand for the people to see. The stand is even specifically referred to as “la terrace du temple de Khamon” (343).

Perhaps most significantly, in the latter two scenes there are precise references to the original celebration of the Mercenary army. During the scene of Hamilcar's return, the lions seem to act as if they recalled the Barbarian celebration (158). In the last chapter, the actual usage of the word “festin” establishes a parallel with the soldiers' “festin,” and at one point the text reads: “quelques-uns se rappelaient le banquet des Mercenaires …” (348). All these details result in the three scenes being naturally paralleled to each other. The parallelism itself manages to bind the novel's exposition with its dénouement by means of the reappearance of the motif in the middle.

In the actual war between the Carthaginians and the Mercenaries, there is a direct parallelism established between three sieges: the siege of Hamilcar's army, the siege of Carthage, and the siege of the trapped Mercenary army. The physical locus of all three sieges is compared to an amphitheater. In the first case, the text reads: “Du fond de l'amphithéâtre où ils se trouvaient resserrés …” (192). In the second case, the houses of Carthage are “comme les gradins d'un amphithéâtre en ruine” (282). Finally, in the last siege, the location is described as “[une] espèce d'hippodrome” (308), which has much the same purpose and shape as an amphitheater and therefore can be considered parallel.

Two of the sieges, the first and the last, take place in what is specifically described as a “gorge”; and the second siege, occurring beyond the steep walls of Carthage, could also be regarded as a gorge. In all three cases, there is fighting, thirst, and famine among the besieged. Furthermore, there is a logical progression designed to stave off death by starvation: first, all the animals are killed for food, then those besieged resort to cannibalism or human sacrifice through immolation. Finally, in the first and last case, the remains of the besieged are eventually eaten, from the stomach outward, by wild dogs and lions, respectively (237 and 342). Such details may be considered only natural occurrences in any siege, which could possibly reduce the impact of the parallelism; but the fact that specifically these details are similarly presented in all three instances in the text renders the scenes effectively parallel. The structure of the novel is again reinforced by the presence of such a strong, largely sadistic, parallel.

Another important sadistic parallel in Salammbô concerns the treatment of the war prisoners by both the Carthaginians and the Mercenaries. Hamilcar sends his prisoners back to Carthage where they are against his orders sadistically tortured by the men, women, and even children inhabiting the city (184). The Carthaginian prisoners, Giscon and the rest, are eventually tortured and murdered in much the same way, the soldiers letting their women participate in the brutalization of the captives (241).

A central parallel in the novel centers on the character of Mâtho. During the course of Salammbô, Mâtho walks through the city of Carthage on two occasions in full view of its inhabitants. The first time, after stealing the sacred veil of the goddess Tanit, Mâtho walks to his freedom wearing it as protection against the wrath of the Carthaginians who line the streets along his route and yet cannot attack him for fear of damaging the religious relic. The second time as a prisoner and the last surviving mercenary, Mâtho walks to his death and is sadistically tortured by the Carthaginians who line the streets along his preestablished path for that purpose. The parallel significantly relates two otherwise diverse sections of the novel while reinforcing the radical change in the fate of Mâtho and the Mercenary army.

On the level of characterization, one parallelism, which happens to be intertwined with the sadistic motif, stands out. Hannon and Spendius are set up almost as mirror-images of each other throughout the novel. Both, for example, act as right-hand men during the war, Hannon for Carthage, and Spendius for the Mercenaries. Both characters participate in the war for purely selfish reasons. Both lose major battles because of cowardice and incompetence. Both are eventually crucified. Moreover, the crucifixions occur for generally the same reasons. Spendius selfishly selects himself as emissary to avoid dying of starvation in the siege, not knowing that Hamilcar intends to crucify the Barbarian emissaries as punishment for the war; and Hannon, disobeying Hamilcar's orders during a battle to gain greater personal glory, ends up being taken prisoner by Mâtho's forces. Both characters, finally, are central to their individual crucifixion scenes, which are, incidentally, physically and temporally paralleled in the text itself.

Although not necessarily essential to the fabula, both parallelisms and foreshadowing in the novel do play an important role in the syuzhet of the novel. Common techniques in poetic composition, both devices lay down structural threads that tie together the plot of this work.8 The text itself, moreover, is transformed under the influence of the use of the techniques: sadism becomes an important structural element in Salammbô.

The Russian Formalist Boris Tomashevskij has divided prose motifs into two categories: bound motifs and free motifs (Tomashevskij 68). Sadism as used in Salammbô is not a bound motif in that it is not absolutely necessary for relating the basic story line (fabula). That sadism should be viewed as a free motif in the novel, however, does not imply that it is gratuitously used, especially to the extent that Saint-Beuve and other contemporaries of Flaubert would have had us believe.9 That sadistic scenes (i.e., free motifs) can be used in the construction of the story (in the syuzhet) apparently did not occur to Saint-Beuve, although Flaubert himself was well aware of the possibilities:

Ce qui me choque dans mes amis Saint-Beuve et Taine, c'est qu'ils ne tiennent pas compte de l'Art, de l'oeuvre en soi, de la composition, du style. …

(Gailly 15)

In Salammbô, certain sadistic scenes do play an important role in the composition of the syuzhet, in the advancement of the plot line. This role, moreover, is dictated by the dominant. Sadistic scenes become a surrogate for direct narratorial intervention. The plot is maintained not by an omniscient, actively interceding narrator, but by an almost effaced narrator indirectly and passively guiding the plot in part through the use of scenes of violence.

The first sadistic scene in the novel, for example, the Mercenaries' celebration in the gardens of Hamilcar's palace, later has direct bearing on the plot. Although Hamilcar at first refuses to accept command of the army of Carthage against the Mercenaries, whose grievances against Carthage he does not consider unjust, he decides after seeing the violence committed by the Barbarians to his gardens, slaves, and elephants: “‘j'accepte le commandement des forces puniques contre l'armée des Barbares!’” (160). At this point in the novel, the sadistic scene in the first chapter serves the plot by becoming a means of justifying Hamilcar's decision. The narrator, it should be noted, is not obliged to intervene to inform the readers that this is the case. By viewing the destruction from Hamilcar's viewpoint, the reader easily understands Hamilcar's change of mind and, consequently, the shift in the plot.

The sadistic immolation scene similarly influences the events of the narrative. On the point of despair before sacrificing the children to Moloch, Carthage is revived by the immolation and the god's favorable response to it, as is indicated by the indirect discourse of the Carthaginian crowd: “Un tel sacrifice ne devait pas être inutile” (301). The sadism acts as a stimulant for the Carthaginians in the war, and therefore, for the plot itself. As a result of the sacrifice, “[l]a patrie encore une fois renaissait” (301). Without bringing his potentially important influence to bear, the narrator makes skillful use of the text and justifies the ambitious continuation of the war.

More directly, the character of Spendius twice invokes sadistic description to bring about important advances in the plot. In his effort to convince the love-struck Mâtho to retake command of the Barbarian Army—the similarity with Hamilcar's situation is obvious—Spendius orders: “Crie, blasphème, ravage et tue. La douleur s'apaise avec du sang, … gorge ta haine; elle te soutiendra!” (59) The next paragraph begins with Mâtho's implied response to this exhortation: “Mâtho reprit le commandement de ses soldats” (60).

Spendius accomplishes a similar goal on a much larger scale by invoking sadistic description to convince the fatigued Barbarians to continue the war. After several failed attempts to rally the men, Spendius uses the physical horrors of the battlefield to his advantage:

Une odeur nauséabonde s'exhalait des cadavres mal enfouis. Quelques-uns même sortaient de terre, jusqu'au ventre. Spendius les appelait à lui pour témoigner des choses qu'il disait; puis il levait ses poings du côté d'Hamilcar.


The antecedent of the italicized direct object is purposefully left unclear: is he symbolically calling the corpses to him or the actual men spread across the battlefield? Whatever the case, the rallying call thus communicated has the desired effect. The Mercenaries massacre the remaining Carthaginian captives, Zarxas decapitates Giscon and hurls his head up into the air for all to see, and the war is renewed. The Barbarians declare spiritedly

qu'il n'y avait plus désormais, entre les Carthaginois et les Barbares, ni foi, ni pitié, ni dieux, qu'ils se refusaient d'avance à toutes les ouvertures et que l'on renverrait les parlementaires avec les mains coupées.


What was barely a moment before all but a lost cause becomes once again through sadism an all-out war. And although the plot undergoes significant revision, the narrator's voice is not felt.

Sadistic scenes are used not only to bring about certain desired plot shifts without direct intervention of the narrator's discourse but also to justify the nonoccurrence of potential, although evidently undesirable, events. For example, during the siege of Hamilcar's army by the combined Barbarian force, Zarxas commits a sadistic act in full view of all combatants:

[Zarxas] lui [un soldat carthaginois] enfonça un poignard dans la gorge; il l'en retira, se jeta sur la blessure,—et, la bouche collée contre elle, avec des grondements de joie … il pompait le sang à pleine poitrine. …


The Carthaginian response to this is predictable:

Les Carthaginois, à partir de ce moment, ne tentèrent aucune sortie;—et ils ne songeaient pas à se rendre, certains de périr dans les supplices.


Sadism prevents the Carthaginians from taking what otherwise might be considered a wise course of action. The siege is thus preserved until Salammbô's arrival. The narrator indirectly avoids a possible weakness in the plot by manipulating the text without intervening.

The crucifixion of the Carthaginian elders, including Hannon, in what could have easily been the final battle between the warring armies, causes Carthage to lose and consequently prolongs the novel. Upon viewing the thirty crosses, the Carthaginian soldiers react in the following way:

l'armée punique s'arrêta. Cette catastrophe tombant au milieu de leur victoire, les stupéfait. Ils n'entendaient plus les ordres d'Hamilcar.


Hamilcar's army, on the point of decimating the Barbarians, allows them to escape. The change in the plot's direction is caused by the influence of the sadistic act. The narrator can proceed to the staging of the dramatic final battle because the crucifixion's interference in the scene serves as a justification for the inconclusive termination of the battle in progress. As a device to advance the plot, the crucifixion eliminates the need for direct narratorial manipulation of the text.

The sadistic description that most actively transforms the plot and provides the impetus for the war itself is delivered in the second chapter by the character Zarxas. Focalized through Zarxas, the text recounts the massacre of the soldiers remaining in Carthage after the general exodus:

On fit à leurs corps d'infâmes mutilations; les prêtres brûlèrent leurs cheveux pour tourmenter leur âme; on les suspendit par morceaux chez les marchands de viandes. …


The indignation against Carthage, combined with Spendius's goading, incites the Mercenaries to leave Sicca and begin the campaign. Zarxas's description initiates the whole intrigue of the war.

This same description is invoked by Zarxas at a later point. Addressing Giscon, who is paying the Mercenaries their dues, Zarxas says: “‘En astu réservé pour les cadavres?’” (69) The reference to Carthage's sadistic injustice once again incenses the Barbarians and inspires a sadistic scene as well, Giscon's interpreters being brutally murdered by the disgruntled soldiers. After a considerable lacuna in action, which Spendius's attempts to stir discontent were unable to stop, Zarxas's simple remark restarts the war. The text definitely reads: “La rebellion dès lors ne s'arrêta plus” (70).

This particular thread of the sadistic free motif continues to influence the course of the narrative many pages later. The fact that Giscon is taken prisoner by the Barbarians after Zarxas invokes the sadistic scene transforms the action during the Mercenaries' siege of Hamilcar's army. Giscon's presence in the Mercenaries' camp allows him to influence the events of the plot. After being tortured for so long, for example, he appears to Salammbô in Mâtho's tent as “une forme monstrueuse” (228). Giscon informs Salammbô not only of the proximity of Hamilcar's army but also of its exact location. His gruesome appearance provides the impetus for Salammbô's flight from the tent to her father's army with the sacred veil. Her departure is described as an escape: “Elle avait peur de Giscon, et il lui semblait que des cris et des pas la poursuivaient” (231). Giscon's presence, made possible by Zarxas's comment, justifies the subsequent defeat of the Barbarians and Salammbô's central role in that defeat. Both the original sadistic description and Giscon's hideous appearance advance the plot without the need for the narrator to make his presence in the text overt. The novel's syuzhet thus relies heavily on sadistic scenes. They generate action, prevent undesirable although verisimilar action, and bind the events of the novel together. At the same time, their subtle use does not betray the dominant: the narrator's presence, and by analogy the author's presence, remain detectable only to a low degree.

In a letter to a friend about Salammbô, Flaubert wrote: “Quand on lira Salammbô, on ne pensera pas, j'espère, à l'auteur” (Ballème 209). Flaubert's hope was demonstrably fulfilled. It became more than the dominating (and transforming) element of the work, it became the very means of its fulfillment. A deeper evaluation needs to be made, however: how does the desire to efface the author in Salammbô transform the artistic work as a whole? Tomashevskij speaks of motivation of the device, the artistic purpose behind the use of a particular technique (Tomashevskij 78). What effect do the dominant and its related textual transformations have on the novel? In Salammbô, effacement of the author both dominates the stylistic production of the text and fundamentally influences the ultimate meaning inherent in the artistic work.

On the simplest level, the effacement of the narrator leaves readers on their own to interpret the meaning of the text. No interpretive narratorial remarks accompany Salammbô as there are, for example, in Balzac's. The reader does not know how to respond to what is presented. This mystification of the reader is particularly strong in Salammbô. If the religious and historical themes struggle for dominance throughout the novel, the effaced narrator gives no signal as to which interpretation deserves validity. Is the war between Carthage and the Mercenaries due to the intervention of the gods or to the Realpolitik of the two groups? Is the love motif involving Mâtho and Salammbô genuine or are they the gods' mortal puppets? These questions are posed without direct prompting from the narrator, and are left unanswered because of his interpretive silence. The last sentence in the novel, set off as an isolated paragraph, reads: “Ainsi mourut la fille d'Hamilcar pour avoir touché au manteau de Tanit” (353). The interpretation of the final scene, that Salammbô died out of love for Mâtho, is questioned by the abrupt intrusion of a religious justification. Is the last sentence simply the voice of the Carthaginian crowd? Is the novel more historical than fanciful? The narrator's deliberate silence does not allow for any sure interpretive answers.

The readers' mystification is increased because he expects to be confronted with an historical-archaeological novel and is faced instead with a novel in which historicity is not used constructively. Andreas Wetzel has remarked that the unfavorable reception of Salammbô by both literary critics and prominent archaeologists of nineteenth-century France has its roots in this type of mystification:

The novel does not, as it is supposed to [as a proper historical novel does], domesticate the unfamiliar by rendering it intelligible in both narrative and historical terms, by relating the fictionalized past to the present through an implicitly posited notion of continuity.

(Wetzel 20)

Despite Flaubert's painstaking preparatory research on ancient Carthage and alleged “intentions” to communicate the historical “truth,” Salammbô does not fulfill the function of an historical novel precisely because it is not one. Critics were naturally frustrated because they misinterpreted the full significance of the work. Archaeological and historical material in the novel functions on the formal level. The result is not the readers' instruction but their ultimate mystification.

Mystification of the reader deriving from these sources also precludes any justifiable interpretation of Salammbô as an overt literary response to the political, economic, and social situation in nineteenth-century France. As one critic recently averred:

I read Salammbô as, on the one hand, a curious “confessional” history of French activities in North Africa and Egypt during the first half of the 19th century and, on the other hand, as a “therapeutic” attempt to come to terms with both the brutality and the failure of the revolts of 1848.

(Lowe 47)

Examination of the text itself casts serious doubts, however, on such a (fundamentally irrelevant) reading of Salammbô.10 The use of authorial effacement as a dominating technique in the novel seemingly does not facilitate parallelisms between Carthage and Flaubert's France.

Mystification of the reader in Salammbô could be seen as a form of estrangement. Although Shklovskij spoke of estrangement or ostranenije in his writings, Flaubertian estrangement slightly redefines the Formalist notion.11 Whereas Formalists perceived estrangement as alienating the meaning of a text from the reader to heighten artistic perception, the reader of Salammbô is estranged not only from the meaning of the text but, in a sense, from the text as well. One might even argue that the reader is effaced from participation in the text, especially its prolific use of unexplained historical material, in much the same way as the narrator himself. The result of this process is similar: perception of the artistic form of the work is heightened. It might be added that in Salammbô the content is so estranged from the reader as to be insignificant. What little content there is has no value assigned to it by the effaced narrator. The style dominates the work.

The devaluing of the content is accomplished in many ways, all of which relate to the work's dominant. The proliferation of historical lists, which serve both to impersonalize the text and to mystify the nonerudite reader, and the obscure, exotic subject of the novel that deprives the reader of any cultural or temporal references, significantly alienate the reader from the novel's content. Moreover, the constant, subtle change in points of view, while allowing for minimal narratorial interference, results in semantic confusion. Often, as in the case of the last sentence, it is difficult to pinpoint the source of the voice in the text.

The sadistic motif also contributes to the reader's estrangement. Justified in the structure of the work and prolific as a necessary element of focalization of description, the sadism in Salammbô more often than not inspires the reader's disgust. The sadistic motif is so strong that the reader is physically alienated from the text and may not even want to continue reading it. The images associated with the sadistic scenes correspond appropriately, moreover, to the image inherent in the work's dominant. Sadism is a devaluing of human life, as effacement of the author is a devaluing of the role of the text's creator. Similarly, the reader's role is devalued and, as R. J. Sherrington observes, the focalization of description and narrative largely through “collective subjectivity” suppresses even the individual character's role (Sherrington 167-76). The human, individual element is thus purged from the novel on several different levels. Ultimately, the result of the strong sadistic motif is a minimization of the novel's content. Preoccupation with the meaning of the words leads to physical revulsion and, consequently, to alienation from the text. Perception of the artistic form of the work is the only non-pathological way to appreciate it.

In another letter to a friend about his intentions in writing Salammbô, Flaubert wrote: “Ce sera de l'Art, de l'Art pur et pas autre chose” (Ballème 200). The cumulative effect of the dominant and its influence on Salammbô is to create pure art and nothing else. In Jakobsonian terms, the emphasis is on the literariness (literaturnost') of the work, that is, on what makes the text artistic.12 The message of the novel is not therefore on the level of content, but on the level of form. It is an artistic message, not a political, historical, or social one. Had content been Flaubert's primary consideration, the use of effacement of the author as the dominating structural element would hardly have been appropriate. Transformed by the dominant, content, including sadistic description, becomes little more than a necessary vehicle for the reification of form.


  1. Broder Christiansen (Philosophie der Kunst), quoted in Steiner 104. The concept of the dominant has been further defined by J. Tynjanov in the following way: “A system does not mean coexistence of components on the basis of equality; it presupposes the preeminence of one group of elements and the resulting deformation of other elements” (as quoted in Erlich 199). For more information concerning this fundamental Formalist concept and its relation to art (especially to poetry), see Erlich and Steiner.

  2. Salammbô 3. All further citations from Salammbô will refer to this edition and will be indicated by page number directly in the body of the paper.

  3. As R. J. Sherrington writes in his detailed study of point of view and narration in Salammbô: “the combined point of view technique [i.e., focalization] … is sometimes not much different in tone from ordinary narration. Indeed, a decision about which of the two methods is being used may on occasions appear a little arbitrary, so carefully have the transitions been achieved” (Sherrington 176-7).

  4. Flaubert himself defended his descriptions in Salammbô: “‘Il n'y a point dans mon livre une description isolée, gratuite; toutes servent à mes personnages et ont une influence lointaine ou immédiate sur l'action’” (as quoted in Sherrington 153).

  5. Thus: “dans la pose pacifique des lions” (3), “[i]ls imitaient le cri des bêtes féroces, leurs bonds” (5-6), “comme des dromadaires altérés” (6), “contre ces bêtes brutes” (9), and “comme sur des bêtes sauvages” (11).

  6. The temple did, however, have a completely different appearance. See, e.g., Hamilton 41-2.

  7. Note, however, that this is not exclusively the case. One of the most significant parallelisms in the novel, although heavily intertwined with the sadistic motif, deals primarily with religious symbolism.

  8. R. J. Sherrington sees in these structural parallelisms ramifications on the level of content. He writes of the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians: “[Flaubert] wanted to give a complete picture, by showing that whatever the imagined differences between these two groups, both were at bottom the same. Because of his chosen doctrine of not intervening, such a project involved so arranging his book that each side would meet a series of situations analogous to those experienced by the other” (Sherrington 174). Note that narratorial effacement transforms the presentation of the material on the content level as well. Moreover, that both sides in the conflict are at bottom the same, that is, sadistic, belligerent, self-interested, and superstitious, reinforces the reduction of the individual, human element in the novel, a reduction that is apparent on several different levels.

  9. For example, Sainte-Beuve writes in a letter to Flaubert about the novel: “Franchemene je vous avouerai, cher maître, que la pointe d'imagination sadique m'a un peu blessé” (Appendix to Salammbô 361).

  10. Lowe's treatment of Salammbô does not focus on this questionable interpretation. It deals mostly with the notion of the Orient as “woman” (as opposed to the “male” Occident) in Flaubert and in that respect does not generally conflict with the point of view presented in this study. The treatment is, if anything, complementary to the one presented here in that Lowe approaches the novel largely from the outside.

  11. For his views on estrangement, see Shklovskij 3-57.

  12. It is significant that the Formalists see the dominant of a literary work at the core of a work's literariness (see Erlich 199). For Jakobson's views on literaturnost', see Jakobson, Selected Writings V, 299-355.

Works Cited

Erlich, Victor. Russian Formalism. New Haven: Yale UP 1981.

Flaubert, Gustave. Extraits de la correspondance. Ed. Geneviève Ballème. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1963.

———. Gustave Flaubert: Lettres inédites à Tourgueneff. Ed. Gérard Gailly. Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1946.

———. Salammbô. Paris: Editions Garnier Frères, 1961.

———. Trois Contes. Paris: Larousse, 1973.

Hamilton, Arthur. Sources of the Religious Element in Salammbô. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1917.

Jakobson, Roman. Readings in Russian Poetics. Ed. Matejka and K. Pomorska. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971.

———. Selected Writings V. New York: Mouton Publishers, 1979.

Lowe, Lisa. “The Orient as Woman in Flaubert's Salammbô and Voyage en Orient.Comparative Literature Studies 23: 44-58.

Sherrington, R. J. Three Novels by Flaubert. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Shklovskij, Viktor. “Art as Technique.” Russian Formalist Criticism. Ed. L. Lemon and R. Reis. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.

Steiner, Peter. Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics. Ithaca: Cornel UP, 1984.

Tomashevskij, Boris. Russian Formalist Criticism. Ed. L. Lemon and R. Reis. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.

Tondeur, Claire-Lise. Gustave Flaubert, critique. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1984.

Wetzel, Andreas. “Reconstructing Carthage: Archaeology and the Historical Novel” Mosaic 21 (Winter 1988): 13-23.

Stuart Barnett (essay date fall-winter 1992-93)

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SOURCE: Barnett, Stuart. “Divining Figures in Flaubert's Salammbô.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 21, no. 1-2 (fall-winter 1992-93): 73-84.

[In the following essay, Barnett considers Flaubert's problematic concern with sacrilege in Salammbô in terms of the paradoxical figuration of Mâtho and Salammbô as the Carthaginian gods Moloch and Tanit.]

The publication of Flaubert's Salammbô in 1862 caused an intellectual battle—the so-called “querelle de Salammbô”—that was almost as heated as any of the battles described within the novel itself.1 Since then the novel has remained, as the Carthage depicted within it, under siege by varying interpretations. What makes the interpretive siege of Salammbô unique is that it must confront an ongoing interpretive struggle within the text itself. Like the Mercenaries who climb the city walls to stare in horror and amazement at the ritualistic self-destruction of their enemies the Carthaginians, interpretations of the novel have the difficult task of coming to terms with the violent struggle of interpretation occurring throughout the text.2 This difficulty necessarily doubles any interpretation of Salammbô. What must be critically addressed is the effort to interpret the struggles of interpretation within the novel.

One of the most persistent struggles of interpretation throughout the novel is the attempt to understand the enigmatic nature of the gods. For it does seem, as Victor Brombert has rightly claimed, that “the dialectic of the eternal couple, Tanit and Moloch, is indeed at the core of the novel.”3 Most critics accept this point to a certain extent. But there still remain unsettled questions about this insight that serves as the founding premise of most interpretations of the novel. Taking for granted the central role of the gods in Salammbô, it must be asked to what extent they comprise a dialectic. One could justifiably propose many other readings of Tanit and Moloch for several interpretations of the gods are in contention within the novel itself. The only thing that seems certain here is that the gods, like almost everything else in the text, are organized in terms of opposition. These organizing oppositions constitute a chain that entails such oppositions as the sun/the moon, Mâtho/Salammbô, the Mercenaries/the Carthaginians, male/female, external/internal, foreign/familiar, etc. This chain appears to culminate, moreover, in the ever-present opposition between the gods Moloch and Tanit. It thus seems inevitable that interpretations of Salammbô become, to some degree, caught in the difficulty of reconciling the apparently ruling opposition of Moloch and Tanit with the various related oppositions at work in the novel.4 This is not so much a failure as simply a critical necessity. For interpretation can only hope to be equal to the manner in which the text enacts the very struggle of interpretation itself.5

Regulating the organizational capabilities of this network of oppositions is the notion of sacrilege. Etymologically, sacrilege derives from sacrilegium, from sacer (sacred) and legere (to gather up, take away). Thus the meaning of sacrilegium—the robbing of a temple. Precisely this fundamental form of sacrilege constitutes the central episode of the narrative. This concept, moreover, organizes the opposition between the worshippers and desecrators of the gods Moloch and Tanit. As Moloch and Tanit are Carthaginian gods, they are, naturally enough, worshipped by Carthaginians. The Mercenaries, on the other hand, had served, until the point of their rebellion, the interests of Carthage. When they revolt, however, they renounce everything Carthaginian. Thus the political rebellion against Carthage by the Mercenaries involves just as much religious apostasy. The Mercenaries are, in short, opposed not only to the Carthaginians but also the Carthaginian gods. Moreover, it is arguably in terms of sacrilege that the Mercenaries first begin to perceive themselves as enemies of Carthage. At the very beginning of the novel they express the depth of their aggression towards Carthage by demanding to drink from “les coupes de la Légion sacrée” because “c'était un privilège, presque un honneur sacerdotal.”6 The Mercenaries then kill the holy fish of Tanit. For “l'idée de commettre un sacrilège ranima la gourmandise des Mercenaires” (49). Following this act “ils n'avaient plus peur.” Mâtho and Spendius then achieve the greatest success of the Mercenaries by breaking into the temple of Tanit and stealing the Zaïmph, the sacred veil of Tanit. The Mercenaries' desire to commit sacrilege persists throughout Salammbô. At the end of the novel, just before their very annihilation, “ils rêvaient des sacrilèges encore plus abominables, afin que l'abaissement des dieux puniques fût plus grand. Ils auraient voulu les exterminer” (261). Largely, then, the notion of sacrilege organizes the opposition between the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians. The siege of Carthage that comprises most of the novel's narrative is, in effect, a siege of the gods of the Carthaginians.

The neatness of the opposition between the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians rests, however, on the reductive opposition between the gods Tanit and Moloch. Matters become more complicated when one considers the extent to which the concept of the divine is interrogated throughout the text. The notion of sacrilege, while organizing these thematic differences, operates within the text in a diffuse and complex manner. In this way the more modern and general sense of sacrilege is at work: the crime of appropriating to oneself, or to secular use, what is consecrated to God or the divine. In this sense sacrilege becomes a problem affecting all figurations of the divine in Salammbô. The breadth of this aspect of sacrilege is suggested in a letter Flaubert wrote during the composition of Salammbô to Madame Roger des Genettes:

Mais la manière dont parlent de Dieu toutes les religions me révolte, tant elles le traitent avec certitude, légèreté et familiarité. Les prêtres surtout, qui ont toujours ce nom-là à la bouche, m'agacent. C'est une espèce d'éternuement qui leur est habituel: la bonté de Dieu, la colère de Dieu, offenser Dieu, voilà leurs mots. C'est le considérer comme un homme et, qui pis est, commme un bourgeois. On s'acharne encore à le décorer d'attributs, comme les sauvages mettent des plumes sur leur fétiche.

(14: 22)

What is suggested here is that merely to speak of God is a desecration, a sacrilege, for through language one appropriates to the human what is not properly human. Flaubert goes beyond this and equates the notion of God with a fetish, something that is already a substitution and an appropriation of sorts. Thus to append, by means of language, attributes or images to God is to fetishize further a fetish.

This problematization of the notion of sacrilege suggests that it is necessary to reassess its organizational role within Salammbô. If to speak of the divine is sacrilege, then the Carthaginians implicate themselves because they discuss and interpret their gods a great deal. Accordingly, they are enacting a form of sacrilege by merely addressing their gods. It will, of course, be necessary to examine Carthaginian interpretations of the gods to prove this observation. But clearly such an examination must approach the so-called fixity of the oppositions in Salammbô with suspicion. It appeared at first, for example, that sacrilege neatly regulated the distinction between the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians. Flaubert's reflection on the gods, however, expressly drew into question the difference between sacrilege and worship. Indeed, it would appear that, for Flaubert, to worship is to commit sacrilege. If the difference between sacrilege and worship is, in fact, moot, then the distinction between the Mercenaries and the Carthaginians would seem to be tenuous. What remains to be explored concerning this issue is to what extent this interpretive sacrilege affects the most deep-seated distinction within the novel, the distinction between the gods themselves.

Most of the detailed information about the gods in the narrative is presented through Salammbô and Schahabarim, “le grand-prêtre de Tanit.” For the most part they concern themselves with Tanit, the benevolent deity of Carthage. In an apostrophe to the goddess, Salammbô characterizes Tanit as follows:

“Quand tu parais, il s'épand une quiétude sur la terre; les fleurs se ferment, les flots s'apaisent, les hommes fatigués s'étendent la poitrine vers toi, et le monde avec ses océans et ses montagnes, comme en un miroir, se regarde dans ta figure.”


The benevolence of Tanit seems to lie in its allowing a specular relation of self-affirmation between the earth and the heavens. The world of the Carthaginians is figured in and affirmed by the goddess. Thus, in contrast to Flaubert's earlier conflation of the notions of sacrilege and worship, it would appear that Tanit permits a self-affirming form of worship. In the letter quoted earlier God was considered to be a fetish, a figuration of the divine, made by man. The worship of this fetish was considered to be only a further form of sacrilege, an appropriation of the divine to secular uses. In Schahabarim's speech Tanit does not function as a fetish. There is nothing in this relation between the goddess and man that Schahabarim describes that marks and displaces a vision of radical alterity.7 The figure of the goddess Tanit openly contains the figuration of man and his world. The figure of the goddess is produced by man, is of man and returns to man. This is not a sacrilege because what is affirmed is the very efficacy of figuration. Man, in short, appropriates himself in the figure of the goddess.

This understanding of Tanit, however, is part of the official doctrine of Carthage as presented by Schahabarim. Salammbô suggests a different understanding of the divine. As Salammbô proclaims to Tanit: “Mais tu es terrible, maîtresse! … C'est par toi que se produisent les monstres, les fantômes effrayants, les songes menteurs … Où donc vastu? Pourquoi changer tes formes, perpétuellement?” (75). The specular relation of self-affirmation between man and the goddess depends on ignoring the plurality of the forms of the goddess. Indeed, the reader is told of Salammbô: “Elle ignorait les simulacres obscènes, car chaque dieu se manifestant par des formes différentes, des cultes souvent contradictoires témoignaient à la fois du même principe, et Salammbô adorait la Déesse en sa figuration sidérale” (76-77). Given this possibility the idea of Tanit is greatly complicated. Tanit does not simply reflect back to man himself and his world. Tanit, rather, figures herself as an unfathomable plurality of forms. In light of this, then, the specular relation of man and Tanit invoked by Salammbô earlier reveals itself to be an extreme form of sacrilege. For the vision of alterity that is reduced to a fetishized figure is precisely the vision of the plurality that is Tanit. The reduction of the goddess to a stable figure organizes the threatening plurality of the deity and allows man to appropriate the goddess as something benevolent. With regard to Salammbô's desire to know everything of the goddess, the reader is told: “l'idée d'un dieu ne se dégageait pas nettement de sa représentation, et tenir ou même voir son simulacre, c'était lui prendre une part de sa vertu, et, en quelque sorte, le dominer” (77). Salammbô's worship of Tanit is therefore not merely an appropriation of the deity for secular use, but an outright attempt to dominate the divine.

Salammbô's address to Tanit sums up the deep-rooted complexity underlying the apparently fixed oppositions in the novel. In worshipping the goddess, Salammbô is supposedly establishing the identity and distinctness of both the sacrilegious Mercenaries and the devout Carthaginians, as well as the realms of the secular and holy. But what separates and distinguishes these realms must itself take place within language. The apostrophe to the goddess, that profound attempt to demarcate sacrilege from worship, the secular from the divine, is therefore susceptible to the contingencies of representation. The concept of sacrilege indicates this contingency. For sacrilege, thought in its essence, is the ultimate indifference between sacrilege and worship. As such, sacrilege is both sacrilege and worship and yet neither the one nor the other. This is not due to any ambiguity in either of these concepts. It is, rather, symptomatic of how language must represent its own limits. The demarcation between the secular and the divine is simply one way to express it. Appropriately, language can only figure its own limit as a folding-in of difference into indifference. This very real limit to language, however, virtually refuses figuration. In this indifference there is no ground to be figured, only more figures. To function as revelation, as explanatory elaboration, figures must continually withdraw from this limit of pure figuration where the difference between figure and ground does not exist. Thus the act of demarcating and settling borders—secular or otherwise—reveals itself to be only a perpetuation, if not an intensification, of a struggle to make both figuration and representation possible.

Given the apparent impossibility of worshipping the various guises of goddess, Salammbô concludes there must be some form of the divinity that organizes the others. There must, in short, be something beyond these figurations of the divine that organizes them and makes them possible.8 She believes this ground of the figurations of Tanit to reside within the temple.

Afin de pénétrer dans les profondeurs de son dogme, elle voulait connaître au plus secret du temple la vieille idole avec le manteau magnifique d'où dépendaient les destinées de Carthage.


Schahabarim, the grand-priest of Tanit, encourages Salammbô in her desire to apprehend the goddess. He tells her:

Elle est l'âme de Carthage … et bien qu'elle soit partout épandue, c'est ici qu'elle demeure, sous le voile sacré.


Schahabarim thus encourages Salammbô to believe that the goddess can indeed be apprehended in her fullness within the secular world. The veil of Tanit should mark precisely where in the secular world the divine can be apprehended. The veil is the threshold of the divine's revelation. It is both that which conceals the divine and that which, as the last of secular barriers, promises revelation.9 What we learn of the veil and its resting place, however, puts this understanding of the veil into question.10

As it is presented, the veil of Tanit appears to occupy a space of representational delirium. Incongruous and illogical images and forms fill the temple. In this proximity to the divine, sacrilege impinges upon representation with an intensity that challenges narrative itself.

Une lumière éblouissante leur fit baisser les yeux. Puis ils [Mâtho et Spendius] aperçurent tout à l'entour une infinité de bêtes, efflanguées, haletantes, hérissant leur griffes, et confondues les unes par-dessus les autres, dans un désordre mystérieux qui épouvantait. Des serpents avaient des pieds, des taureaux avaient des ailes, des poissons à têtes d'homme dévoraient des fruits, des fleurs s'épanouissaient dans la mâchoire des crocodiles, et des éléphants, la trompe levée, passaient en plein azur, orgueilleusement, comme des aigles. Un effort terrible distendait leurs membres incomplets ou multipliés. Ils avaient l'air, en tirant la langue, de vouloir faire sortir leur âme; et toutes les formes se trouvaient là, comme si le réceptacle des germes, crevant dans une éclosion soudaine, se fût vidé sur les murs de la salle.


This movement into the penetralia of the temple participates in the novel's many efforts to unveil and apprehend the divine. These efforts have all been part of an attempt to know, to understand and, ultimately, to appropriate the divine. This moment, however, describes the ultimate form of sacrilege and the most fundamental expression of all the forms of sacrilege practiced throughout the narrative. The investigation of the demarcation of the secular and the divine attempts to discover the secular's ultimate order and struggles to go beyond it. All that constitutes the secular order is present in this space—“toutes les formes se trouvaient là, comme si le réceptacle des germes.” Precisely because of this fact, it appears, the understanding of the secular order reaches its limit. The presence of all forms does not lead to a clear and precise apprehension of the secular order. In fact, these forms that seem to be present in too many numbers and with too much variety are “confondues les unes par dessus les autres, dans un désordre mystérieux.” This failure to order the secular even at the height of sacrilege—which in its turns seems to require the disordering of representation itself—underscores the necessity and inevitability of interpreting figurations of the divine in Salammbô. To accomplish this ambitious task it is necessary to achieve an understanding of language in its purity, the only way to obtain true knowledge of the secular's ultimate order. Since language is the veil of the divine, its impurity conceals the divine. In its purity language would disclose the divine in its fullness and immediacy.11 It is this dilemma, then, that forms the central focus for interpretations of the divine in Salammbô.

It would appear, then, that in Salammbô the nearest approximation to the divine are the figurations of the divine. Figurations of the divine are presented throughout the narrative, never the divine proper in its entirely or fullness. This is a fundamental problem for the understanding of the divine. This understanding necessarily entails appropriating the divine for secular use. To be successful, this interpretive sacrilege must therefore be adequate to the thought of the entirety of the divine's possible figurations. It must, in short, figure figuration itself. The space of the veil of Tanit reveals this strategy at work. Once figuration in its essence is determined, it can be demarcated more easily from the divine proper. In this way a space for true alterity could be established that would allow a more precise distinction between the secular and the divine. By means of this distinction the divine could reveal itself to and in the secular. But the necessary first step in this strategy proves to be impossible throughout the narrative. The attempt to ground figuration inevitably involves a disfiguration of language that prevents the strategy of sacrilege from going further.

Just as the veil participates in the ultimate form of sacrilege, so does it participate in the most crucial ploy of sacrilege. The veil should not only be the ultimate figuration of the divine, but it should also incorporate all the divine's other figurations. This aim, however, is impossible from the outset because the veil is the veil of Tanit. The revelation that the veil might make would not be a revelation of the divine per se. Rather, it would be a revelation of one of the oppositional terms into which the divine is divided. Even this form of sacrilege—which seems already very limited—is frustrated by the veil:

Au delà on aurait dit un nuage où étincelaient des étoiles; des figures apparaissaient dans les profondeurs de ses plis: Eschmoûn avec les Kabyres, quelques-uns des monstres déjà vus, les bêtes sacrées des Babyloniens, puis d'autres qu'ils ne connaissaient pas. Cela passait comme un manteau sous le visage de l'idole, et remontant étalé sur le mur, s'accrochait par les angles, tout à la fois bleuâtre comme la nuit, jaune comme l'aurore, pourpre comme le soleil, ombreux, diaphane, étincelant, léger. C'était le manteau de la Déesse, le zaïmph saint que l'on ne pouvait voir.


The veil, the threshold of what should be the pure immediacy of Tanit, appears to present again the figural oppositions that run throughout the narrative. It reveals figures of light and darkness, and of the sun and the moon. These are, of course, used consistently in Salammbô as figurations of Moloch and Tanit. Thus the veil fails to permit the revelation of the divine in its pure immediacy. Moreover, it fails to permit the revelation of an element of the divine, Tanit. The veil only presents anew the figural oppositions used in the novel to characterize the divine.

Given this situation, the very notion of opposition is put into question. In this “oppositional” relation no one term exists in a state of pure difference. Each term contains its own opposite. Opposition appears to be a mere effect of figuration. The implication of this predicament concerning Tanit is not lost on Schahabarim. By tracing the figure of light as it functions in Carthaginian belief, Schahabarim observes that the moon merely reflects the light of the sun. Since the sun and the moon are, in turn, figures for Moloch and Tanit respectively, Schahabarim concludes that Tanit is the mere figure of Moloch, the one true, all-powerful God.

De la position du soleil au-dessus de la lune, il concluait à la prédominance du Baal, dont l'astre lui-même n'est que le reflet et la figure; d'ailleurs, tout ce qu'il voyait des choses terrestres le forçait à reconnaître pour suprême le principe mâle exterminateur.


Thus he exhorts to Salammbô:

… elle [la Rabbet] tire de l'autre toute sa fécondité! Ne la voit-tu pas vagabondant autour de lui comme une femme amoureuse qui court après un homme dans un champ?


In drawing this conclusion, Schahabarim seeks to resolve the problem of there being ultimately no pure differences within the oppositions of the gods. Schahabarim admits that the opposition between Moloch and Tanit is not a real one. All apparent oppositions, he reasons, are the result of the self-differentiation of Moloch. Accordingly, the figurations of this divine origin have no status of their own; they seek merely to return to their source and their original state of non-differentiation.

For Schahabarim, Moloch, precisely because he is presented through Tanit or the secular world, does not allow himself to be worshipped in terms of self-affirmation. The figures of Moloch do not permit man to have a specular relation with them. Rather, all figures of Moloch strive to return to their source, Moloch. The epithet “devourer” is thus appropriate because it is the endless figures of himself that Moloch devours. In Schahabarim's claim, however, there is a curious ambivalence. Schahabarim must invoke “Moloch” and “Tanit”—which are already figurations of this divine realm supposedly beyond opposition—to claim that all figures seek to return, and to merge, with the one universal source of divine and secular figurations. To explain this further, Schahabarim must use a simile, yet another displacement by means of figuration. He compares Tanit and Moloch to a woman chasing a man. All the fecundity of this woman derives from this man yet she desires him, chases him. Will the desire that marks their differentiation end with their figurative union? Schahabarim wants to argue that desire will drive the figure (as female) back to its (male) origin, the god of gods, and that, once there, the difference between the two will vanish. But the possibility remains that the difference between the two will only be further exploited to produce even more figurations of this longing. For this origin can only operate through the figuration of itself. Indeed, that one must figure the return to an origin that is supposedly beyond figuration sums up neatly the paradox of Salammbô. It is precisely this necessity that is explored when Salammbô herself, priestess of Tanit, travels across a field to give herself to Mâtho, the figure of Moloch. As this encounter—itself a figuring of the gods—reveals, there is no return to an origin, only the endless figuration of a return that neither arrives at an origin nor at a resolution of its own movement.12

The relation between Schahabarim's simile and Salammbô's visit to Mâtho is not coincidental. Salammbô considers Mâtho “maître du zaïmph” and as someone who “dominait la Rabbet” (179). Salammbô reflects: “Schahabarim, en parlent de celui-là, ne disait-il pas qu'elle devait vaincre Moloch? Ils étaient mêlés l'un à l'autre; elles les confondait; tous les deux la poursuivaient” (180). Thus Salammbô acts out Schahabarim's simile in traveling to Mâtho. She follows a series of figures to their supposed source: Zaïmph—Tanit—Mâtho—Moloch. Schahabarim himself understands Salammbô's attempt to recover the veil as a figuration of this problem inherent to the thought of the divine. He manipulates Salammbô to sacrifice herself by speaking of the safety of her father and of the republic. But Schahabarim's true concern is to prove to himself the nature of the status of Tanit. Thus we learn:

Mais plus Schahabarim se sentait douter de Tanit, plus il voulait y croire. Au fond de son âme un remords l'arrêtait. Il lui aurait fallu quelque preuve, une manifestation des dieux, et dans l'espoir de l'obtenir, il imagina une entreprise qui pouvait à la fois sauver sa patrie et sa croyance.


Schahabarim's “proof” is full of the paradox that underlies all interpretations of the divine throughout Salammbô. Schahabarim is distraught at the thought that Tanit is the mere figure of Moloch. To impress this possibility upon Salammbô he uses a simile of a woman chasing a man across a field. As a final test and proof to determine whether this is indeed the case, Schahabarim contrives a plan of sending Salammbô after Mâtho and the veil. He does this with the understanding that Salammbô functions as the figure of Tanit and that Mâtho functions as the figure of Moloch. If Tanit is indeed a powerful deity she should be able to reacquire the veil that is properly hers. What Schahabarim fails to acknowledge is that this proof is itself a complex array of the divine's figurations. Schahabarim is caught in the paradoxical position of attempting to go beyond figure to the one, undifferentiated source of the divine and yet only being able to do so through figuration. The very reflection upon this process must pass through yet more figurations. It is thus not quite clear what the “proof” that Schahabarim has set in motion will ultimately determine about the divine proper.

In the narrative that follows this scene it does seem that this chain of figures, this series of oppositions, is returning to its source. It does seem that Mâtho and Salammbô, as figurations of Moloch and Tanit, enact neatly the relation between Moloch and Tanit. As the figure of Moloch, Mâtho wants to consume, absorb Salammbô: “Il aurait voulu l'envelopper, l'absorber, la boire” (190). It is in these terms of consumption and devouring that Salammbô speaks to Mâtho of the time he brought the Zaïmph to her: “Tes paroles, je ne les ai pas comprises; mais je voyais bien que tu voulais m'entraîner vers quelque chose d'épouvantable, au fond d'un abîme” (191). This is indeed exactly according to the scenario suggested by Schahabarim's simile. But it seems impossible to control the figurations of the divine. Hence Mâtho explains why he brought the veil to Salammbô.

Non! non! c'était pour te le donner! pour te le rendre! Il me semblait que la Déesse avait laissé son vêtement pour toi, et qu'il t'appartenait! Dans son temple ou dans ta maison, qu'importe? n'es-tu pas toute-puissante, immaculée, radieuse et belle comme Tanit!

Et avec un regard plein d'une adoration infinie:

—A moins, peut-être, que tu ne sois Tanit?

“Moi, Tanit!” se disait Salammbô.


A curious confusion begins to arise about the veil, the figure of the divine about to be revealed. Mâtho is not concerned with acting out a struggle to posses the veil. It is precisely this struggle, however, that is necessary for the interaction of Salammbô and Mâtho to reveal something meaningful about the gods. Instead, Mâtho introduces a profound ambiguity into the notion of figuration. For Mâtho there is no secure ground that figures elaborate or reveal. At best, figures act as grounds for other figures. Thus Mâtho does not think of the veil as figuring Tanit. Rather, he takes the veil to be a figure of Salammbô. Mâtho goes beyond this and equates Salammbô with Tanit, suggesting, in effect, that Tanit is the figure of Salammbô.

The situation is further complicated by Mâtho invoking the moon, the symbol of Tanit, after sleeping with Salammbô. He says of the moon:

Ah! que j'ai passé de nuits à la contempler! elle me semblait un voile qui cachait ta figure; tu me regardais à travers; ton souvenir se mêlait à ses rayonnements; je ne vous distinguais plus!


Throughout the novel the moon is presented as the figure of Tanit. Mâtho, however, compares this figure to a veil, which is portrayed elsewhere in the novel as the figure of the figurations of the divine. But instead of functioning as such, the veil for Mâtho represents, by way of concealment, the figure of Salammbô. This figure, in turn, observes Mâtho while at the same time refusing to disclose itself. The result of this confusion is that these figures—formerly of Tanit—become figurations of Salammbô.

It must be remembered that at this point the interaction of Mâtho and Salammbô should be revealing something about the gods. As Schahabarim implied, Mâtho and Salammbô function as figurations of the divine. Their meeting should therefore reveal what hierarchy the divine enforces upon the figurations of itself. Schahabarim hopes to demonstrate which figure of the divine stands in the closest relation to the divine. This, in turn, will demonstrate which form of the divine is truly superior. Yet the meeting of Mâtho and Salammbô seems to allow no such determination of the divine. For example, Mâtho gives the veil to Salammbô, arguing that it does not really belong to Tanit but to Salammbô. For Mâtho, both the veil and Tanit are figures of Salammbô. Thus in recovering the veil, Salammbô does not in any way outwit Mâtho. There is no conclusive proof that Tanit is more powerful than Moloch. Likewise, it is difficult to argue that Moloch is more powerful than Tanit, since Mâtho gives the veil to Salammbô in a gesture of adoration that conflates Salammbô and Tanit. Mâtho's encounter with Salammbô makes clear that figuration is, ultimately, arbitrary.13 It is, moreover, not arbitrary in a trivial sense. The arbitrariness of figuration, of the relation between figure and ground, is the condition of possibility that enables figuration to function as such. Disfiguration, deviation, is thereby not a dangerous possibility external to figuration; rather, figuration is always already disfiguration.

Within the notion of sacrilege that pervades Salammbô there is the persistent problem of coming to terms with the figurations of the divine. Indeed, the difficulty inherent to figuration appears to consume the very distinction between sacrilege and worship. Both sacrilege and worship seem, ultimately, to be ways of figuring the phenomenon of figuration itself. Worship would be that form of figuration that would be deviant from, yet expressive of, that which was figured. Sacrilege, however, would be that form of figuration that would only deviate from, and yet never return to, that which was to be figured. Thus, just as Flaubert understood worship to be simultaneously worship and sacrilege, so did he understand figuration to be simultaneously figuration and disfiguration. Interpretations of the divine in Salammbô are caught in a perpetual performance of this paradox. These interpretations are profound meditations on the complexity of figuration that are themselves consumed by their very subject matter. In the same way interpretations of the novel can rest only momentarily on the assumption of having figured the text. For interpretation, both in and of the text, is an on-going struggle to resolve the indissolubility of figuration and disfiguration.


  1. For further exploration of this “battle,” see Jacques Neefs, “Salammbô, textes critiques,” Littérature 15 (1974): 52-69.

  2. Veronica Forrest-Thomson has written incisively on this predicament in “The Ritual of Reading Salammbô,Modern Language Review 67 (1972): 787-798. As Forrest-Thomson notes: “In his search for a new pattern, the reader will seize upon any pretext to make the situation of certain characters into a symbol for this attempt to re-order the work; he will also tend to give importance to themes in the book that seem metaphors for such an activity” (787). See also Jean Rousset, “Positions, distances, perspectives dans Salammbô,Poétique (1971): 145-154.

  3. Victor Brombert, The Novels of Flaubert. A Study of Themes and Techniques (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966) 101. For further discussion of images of the divine in Salammbô, see D. L. Demorest, L'expression figurée et symbolique dans l'œuvre de Gustave Flaubert (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1967) 484-488.

  4. See Patrick Brady, “Archetypes and the Historical Novel: The Case of Salammbô,Stanford French Review 1 (1977): 313-324. As Brady notes: “They [Salammbô and Mâtho] are embodiments or incarnations of mysterious, superior forces, whose instruments they are in the working out of vast nonhuman interrelationships” (316).

  5. Michal Peled Ginsburg has clearly shown the difficulty these elements of the text pose for interpretation in Flaubert Writing. A Study in Narrative Strategies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986). Ginsburg writes: “But since the basic tension in the novel is between familiarity and strangeness, meaning and meaninglessness, an interpretation should encompass both the binary paradigm that attempts to make sense of the text and the characters' experience and whatever it is that subverts this attempt and resists systematization” (114).

  6. Gustave Flaubert, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Club de l'Honnête Homme, 1971) 2: 47. Hereafter all references will be to this volume and identified parenthetically by page, unless otherwise noted.

  7. For further discussion of the notion of alterity with regard to Salammbô, see Lawrence R. Schehr, “Salammbô as the Novel of Alterity,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 17.3-4 (1989): 326-341. As Schehr notes of the status of the zaïmph: “Precisely because the zaïmph is the object of alterity, it does in fact indicate the novel. It is not in the understandable, though ultimately unproductive series of metaphors and constellations of signifiers that can be abstracted from the figure of the zaïmph: text, texture, tisser, textuality. Rather, it is in the impossibility of description, the multi-plication of folds, the undecidability of the object itself that it signifies the work as a whole” (337-338).

  8. This desire for the divinity is part of an act of revenge on the part of the goddess. We learn: “Mais la Rabbet jalouse se vengeait de cette virginité soustraite à ses sacrifices, et elle tourmentait Salammbô d'obsessions d'autant plus fortes qu'elles étaient vagues, épandues dans cette croyance et avivées par elle” (77). This ill-defined, indefinite desire is a revenge, a madness of the goddess. This desire, in turn, becomes a disordering, a derangement of the senses. As Flaubert notes in the plans to the novel: “L'amour est une fatalité des dieux” (309). Flaubert expands on this in the famous “Apologie” to Sainte-Beuve: “L'amour tel que le concevaient les Anciens n'était-il pas une folie, une malédiction, une maladie envoyée par les dieux?” (445). Though not yet to the point of the love of Mâtho that Flaubert speaks of here, Salammbô's desire reveals in nuce the nature of this madness of/from the gods. As Salammbô presents it, this madness is an ill-defined desire, a longing for something to be revealed in its primordial essence. At its highest, this desire seeks to see revealed that which makes all revelation possible—the gods. To contemplate this is doubtless worship; to desire this is madness. To be gods, the gods must remain fundamentally beyond the secular; they must remain other-worldly. The struggle to commit this ultimate sacrilege results in ever more violent struggles between the modes of representing the divine.

  9. Martin Heidegger has treated the complex problem that the concept of the divine presents in his essay “‘… Poetically Man Dwells …’” in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). There Heidegger writes: “For something that man measures himself by must after all impart itself, must appear. But if it appears, it is known. The god, however, is unknown, and he is the measure nonetheless. Not only this, but the god who remains unknown, must by showing himself as the one he is, appear as the one who remains unknown. God's manifestness—not only he himself—is mysterious” (222). Heidegger concludes from this: “God's appearance through the sky consists in a disclosing that lets us see what conceals itself, but lets us see it not by seeking to wrest what is concealed out of its concealedness, but only by guarding the concealed in its self-concealment” (223).

  10. For further discussion of the significance of the veil, see Sima Godfrey, “The Fabrication of Salammbô: The Surface of the Veil,” MLN [Modern Language Notes] 95 (1982): 1005-1016. As Godfrey notes: “Described in the visual terms of its texture, the zaïmph is ultimately that which cannot be seen—a paradox suggesting that the zaïmph is not, but simply does: separates, conceals, reveals, and inspires” (1013). See also Jacques Neefs, “Le Parcours du zaïmph,” in Claudine Gothot-Mersch, ed., La Production du sens chez Flaubert (Paris: Union Générale d'Éditions, 1975) 227-41. As Neefs writes: “la série mythique et cosmologique qui traverse le récit et sur laquelle le zaïmph a une place privilégiée, n'est-elle pas simple connotation d'epoque, ornement, ou recherche documentaire sur les religions et les croyances. Mais en elle se répètent ou s'ancrent toutes les oppositions organisatrices. Tanit et Moloch, Lune et Soleil, Salammbô et Mâtho, femelle et mâle, eau et feu, sont pris dans un savoir qui répartit les principes en même temps qu'il est l'histoire de l'origine des différences” (236). Even closer to the claims of this paper is Neefs's argument for the trans-structural status of the zaïmph with regard to the text. I would argue that the status of the concept of sacrilege is likewise trans-structural. For further elaboration of this notion, see the discussion following Neef's article.

  11. Jacques Derrida has considered this paradox in D'un ton apocalyptique (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1983). Derrida comments on Kant's discussion of the veil of Isis in Von einem neuerdings erhobenen Vornehmen Ton in der Philosophie, noting that the persistent problem of knowledge based on phenomenal perception insistently raises the specter of literature—that is, of a purely and simply deviant figuration—within the context of philosophy. That phenomenality, in essence, seems incapable of resolving the problems it raises suggests that the veil is the perfect figure for revelation. This is because it makes the deferral of revelation the condition of interpretation. The allegorization of revelation is, therefore, in actuality, revelation thought in its essence. Kant thus helps to make clear that the problem of the veil also provides a scenario for the demarcation of a benign figuration and a figuration that would be without a proper ground or origin. As Derrida writes: “[S]i le voile était absolument mince, et transparent, ce serait une vision, un voir (Sehen), et, note Kant en visant bien impitoyablement, cela doit être évité (vermieden). Il faut surtout ne pas voir, seulement pressentir sous le voile. Alors nos mystagogues jouent du fantôme et du voile, ils remplacent les évidences et les preuves par des “analogies”, des “vraisemblances” (Analogieen, Wahrscheinlichkeiten); ce sont leurs mots, Kant les cite et nous prend à témoin: vous voyez bien, ce ne sont pas de vrais philosophes, ils recourent à des schèmes poétiques. Tout ça, c'est de la littérature” (44-45).

  12. As Jacques Neefs notes in “Le Parcours du zaïmph”: “Par son passage d'un camp à l'autre, il [le zaïmph] montre la menace toujours présente d'un renversement d'une série sur l'autre, en même temps qu'il manifeste l'étrange liaison de l'ordre à son Autre” (233).

  13. For further consideration of these issues with regard to the ending of the novel, see Peter Starr, “Salammbô: The Politics of an Ending,” French Forum 10.1 (1985): 40-56. Starr writes: “the ending of Salammbô is an exemplary scene in the development of Flaubert's narrative, a scene where an essentially dramatic teleology of plot and an esthetic of victimization—or respectively, an agent of traditional narrative power and a codification of power as an esthetic agent—coexist with strategies of disorganization and doubling, strategies that foreshadow the anti-telic and ostensibly anarchic later narratives” (42).

Mary Orr (essay date autumn 1997)

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SOURCE: Orr, Mary. “The Cloaks of Power: Custom and Costume in Flaubert's Salammbô.Nottingham French Studies 36, no. 2 (autumn 1997): 24-33.

[In the following essay, Orr focuses on costume in Salammbô to emphasize Salammbô's feminine challenge to the power of male authority.]

Flaubert's eponymous heroine has attracted some excellent feminist criticism largely focusing on how she is chained and sacrificed to a patriarchal power system.1 Exchanges of power are represented by the goddess Tanit's veil, the famous and problematic ‘zaïmph’, which the Barbarian Mâtho tears from the inner sanctuary of Tanit's temple and which Salammbô as priestess of Tanit retrieves, at the cost of her inner veil. I shall be reopening the question of what ‘taking the veil’ signifies in this paper.2 A preponderance of cloaks, mantles, veils, in this text, wrapped up with costume and custom, are so prominent that I shall read it primarily as a costume drama. By looking again at Salammbô's costumes, which have been read according to unproblematised cultural and sexual stereotypes, with a feminist aesthetic in mind and in the light of other significant dress codes in the novel, I will reassess Salammbô's position as ritual object.

The second reconsideration concerns the ‘zaïmph’ itself. Its many ambiguities are contained in its veil and cloak status, its exotic name,3 and who wears it. As one of several ‘unisex’ costumes, its interchangeability yet ritual significance speak of iconic or fetishistic status in the fabric of cultural, sexual and economic exchange. It is a cloak, but of many colours, concealing more invidious cloak-and-dagger intrigues at the heart of this text (leading ultimately to the sacrificial cardiechtomy of Mâtho). The intrigues converge in the figure of Schahabarim, the eunuch high-priest of Tanit. His power over all the other orders in the text, male/female, regal/military, civil/religious has not been fully appreciated. A feminist gaze will, I hope, reveal much about his robing and robbing of power and authority, what the ‘Order of the Zaïmph’ might mean in both priestly and sexual terms.

I shall conclude by re-examining the aesthetics of the ritualised body, to question what costume and custom dress up or cloak and whether there is a terror too intense for view. By then reconnecting the findings in Flaubert's novel to some Western representations of ritualised women, I shall ask how far these costumes are used to confine or deflect her power.

Salammbô seems the epitome of the alluring woman wrapped in veils, of the order of the dancer, Salomé, as depicted by Gustave Moreau, or this is how she has been eased into the costume of a cultural and sexual stereotype. The novel is explicit in its contra ‘dance of the seven veils’ image of her. In the opening feast, an orgy of food and drink enjoyed by the male warrior participants of the story, Salammbô makes a striking ‘filmstar’ entrance and descends a staircase with her entourage of eunuch priests. She is completely swathed in black: they are dressed in long white robes with red fringes, depilated, bedecked with rings. The striking colour contrast only accentuates what is Salammbô's effect: it is her glittering hair, almost mitre-like in its ‘tower-like’ style, powdered with violet sand and her jewelled body which are most pronounced. On her bust, an abundance of glittering stones imitate in their coloured pattern the scales of a moray eel. From her sleeveless tunic, studded with red flowers on their black ground, come her bare arms decked with diamonds—her golden ankle chain to ‘check her gait’ and her voluminous purple mantle ‘in an unknown material’ is like a train behind her. The soldiers understand nothing when she speaks (in what turns out to be tantamount to prophecy), but are amazed by her costume. Sight takes precedence over sound as she bedazzles and arraigns all the senses. Her lure is allure. And in the metaphoric comparison to the moray eel (the voracious Muraena Helena has especially beautiful coloured patterns) her power, danger, and terror are carefully concealed. Described without a face, apart from her gimlet eyes, her image arrests the male gaze (and by extension the male reader).

In this, the first of three ritual costumes Salammbô wears in the course of the novel, she is dressed as the ‘phallic woman’.4 Her chained ankles lend shape upwards to her head-dress; her form is the eel and snake, whose glittering skin is their tight-fitting costume. However, culture-blind, albeit astute, Freudian and feminist criticism, by using this term, continue to lock Salammbô into the role of femme fatale. Flaubert on the other hand seems to have been unusually aware of the non-occidental signifiers of the ritualised details of Oriental dress. There is nothing provocative in his description. Salammbô's body is totally covered with clothing, each item marking her rank as priestess and princess. The layers of her clothing and hidden body are part of her attraction both sacred and secular. What Flaubert shows off in this Oriental Woman is not the courtisan, but the Vestal Virgin. Similarly, her dress speaks her aristocratic birth (the jewels on the front of her garment, the cloak of purple, the most costly dye). Salammbô wears her wealth, but as befits her status as Princess. And the gold chain is more than a kind of patriarchal chastity belt. It makes her body visible as do the layers of her costume, which, when compared to histories of costume of the region is an accurate account of middle-eastern conventions of dress.5 It is the importance of the silhouette which arouses the Eastern erotic (which is rooted in modesty), where clinging folds of overgarments show off the body shape below when the figure walks.6 Flaubert's insistence on the chain allows a more pronounced attention to the hips and legs as well as highlighting the ankle, the provocative revealed area of the eastern woman's body made visible in her movement. Salammbô's black outermost garment is typical dress of the ‘Veiled Women’. It is an all-enveloping garment which denotes the modesty of a woman who has left her private inner space to go out into the public (male) space of the street. Modesty garments are usually black overwraps, sometimes, as in the case of the ‘jirjara’ they may be transparent, or as the ‘shugga’, they may be of shiny stuff to shimmer concealment further.7 The modesty cloak then allows glimpses of the garments underneath, as it does Salammbô's purple mantle with its train. Indeed the train itself is a further signifier of modesty, whereby the woman in the public space may symbolically erase her footsteps.8 Being a superfluous length of extra cloth, it also signifies her wealth, its abundance flowing with the other cloaks and layered garments to give the impression of the woman's suggested form below. The red and black sleeveless tunic Flaubert describes would be worn underneath, the highly ornate jewelled and embroidered corsage/bodice an accurate rendering of eastern dress styles where the yoke is of prime importance.9 It is the only area of the costume which is shaped with tucks and ‘windows’, for tunics are largely A-line. The whole effect is to draw every attention away from the most taboo area of all: the crotch.10 Therefore the only real item of poetic licence in Flaubert's description is Salammbô's hair, her occidentalised, ‘phallic’/religious cover, when her head would normally be concealed by scarves.

Contrary therefore to representations of ‘oriental’ femme fatale/erotic women in western iconography, Salammbô's costumes provide constant concealment and modesty. This is clearly emphasised in the ritual layering of costume which enables her to leave the private space of her boudoir for the public male world which is Mathô's when she prepares, as Priestess of Tanit, to retrieve the zaïmph. Over a first, thin, wine-red tunic is put a second, embellished with feathers. Gold scales are attached to her hips as a belt from which float her blue, silverspangled, trousers. Her white fine linen robe, streaked with green is put on top, a square of purple on the shoulder over which goes the black modesty cloak with train. This priestly dress in all its regalia and ritual colours—red, white, green, purple—is topped again by the natural ‘garment’, her hair, resplendent with gold dust, and long ropes of pearls to match her jewel-bedecked body. Head and body are similarly circled in the final touches, a yellow veil and long scarf round her neck like a priestly stole, her feet shod in blue leather boots.11 Not one part of her body remains uncovered. However, it reveals all in its ritual splendour, in what has been the description of an inverse strip-tease where the sexual tension for the meeting with Mâtho is built up, layer by layer. The personification of Womanhood, of Female Deity, she is Princess, Priestess and Goddess.12 Mirroring Mathô's entry into Tanit's Temple, Salammbô penetrates the tent (house-cloak par excellence) and traverses its curtain screens to confront the shimmering zaïmph. She is mesmerised by it exactly in parallel with Mathô's fascination with the surface fabric of her costume which merges with her body. The watered silks are her skin, her eyes the diamonds, her nails are extensions of the precious stones of her jewellery, but the erotic object par excellence are her moving earrings (two sapphire scales on which is a hollowed pearl which allows droplets of liquid perfume to fall onto her bare neck) which are attached but free of her person in ways similar to the cloak and the train. Salammbô in fullest attire confronts naked manhood so that their mutual attractions can be discovered and covered in unisexuality by the zaïmph which covers both of them as their bedspread.13 The fabrics of this scene in the text then preempt the Klimt of ‘The Kiss’ or ‘Fulfilment’ where the ornate and glittering stuff refracts attention from the bodies underneath. The chain is broken, as too is the ritual ‘strength’ of the zaïmph14 for both protagonists dismantle its sacred power by using it as a mere material cover.

Salammbô's final costume is her shroud/wedding-dress at the joint celebration of wedding to the King of the Numidians, Narr'Havas, and ritual immolation sacrifice of Mâtho (a parallel feast/festival to the opening chapter where sacred/secular are copresent). It is the ultimate mermaid-eel suit combining minerals and natural, but animal fabrics. From her ankles to her hips she is enmeshed in net, like the scales of a fish with the lustre of mother-of-pearl, a blue waistband reveals two moonshaped slits allowing her breasts to be seen, the nipples covered by carbuncle pendants. Peacock feathers studded with precious stones adorn her hair, a white mantle trails behind her, her upper arms encircled with diamonds. Significantly, in spite of this most resplendent, multicoloured and ‘zaïmph-like’ costume, where she is potentially most uncovered, most like a courtisan,15 she and her attire attract little attention, in spite of the potential melodrama of her pose, and the effect of her natural cover, her trailing hair, which is the last detail observed. She and Mâtho are sacrificed, not, as the ironic narrator suggests, ‘pour avoir touché au manteau de Tanit’, but to higher Patriarchal Orders.16 In complete keeping with the inverse, ‘oriental’ logic of this text, her splendour and indomitable power are not here, but when she was most covered, secret, before she became the veil-zaïmph, when she had ‘taken the veil’ metaphorically as priestess (its sacred function), but not taken it literally. It is this final scene which conceals and reveals a quite different ritual with its own stylised codes, the real Order of the Zaïmph. What is its undercover form?

The sacred-secret dimension of this veil-cloak emerges in the description of Tanit's power and costume, coming as they do as late as Chapter 5 after descriptions of her priestess and priest (to whom I shall return) to allow the equivalences to be revealed and the mystery of this strange signifier to be concealed. The penetration to its revelation strangely parallels the many layers of Salammbô's clothes, from outer to inner. Mathô and his slave Spendius first traverse the dome-shaped outer temple, where the body of a woman emerges ‘from a sheath of breasts’, plump, bearded with lowered eyelids, a ‘Mona Lisa’-like smile on her face, her arms crossed over the circumference of her huge stomach. ‘She’ is accompanied by phalli and other fertility objects. The men then discover a second chamber, where the black-painted image of a woman covers the walls and ceiling completely, the ceiling being her belly, beyond which, by drawing aside a tapestry (a symbolic wall-veil), they come upon a confusion and profusion of forms and monsters in the middle of which is Tanit, ‘la Rabbet suprême, l'Omniféconde, la dernière inventée’, on an ivory chariot. Fish-scales, feathers, flowers and birds come up to her belly. For earrings, two silver cymbals struck against her cheeks. We have seen all these ritual elements refabricated into Salammbô's ultimate wedding costume. Like Salammbô too, Tanit's big fixed eyes hold the viewer, but it is the ‘third eye’ a luminous stone embedded in her forehead in an obscene symbol which lights the scene. However, a third inner sanctum-layer has to be penetrated, the slit in the wall behind the chariot, so as to reach a kind of womb like ‘the inside of a column’. There a large black hemispherical stone with an ebony cone rising behind it bears a head and two arms. This acts as the ‘coathanger’ for the ‘zaïmph’, of which, Klimt-like, ‘on aurait dit un nuage où étincelaient des étoiles; des figures apparaissaient dans les profondeurs de ses plis.’ Like a gigantic embroidered cape, the goddess's cloak is ‘tout à la fois bleuâtre comme la nuit, jaune comme l'aurore, pourpre comme le soleil, nombreux, diaphane, étincelant, léger.’ It transfigures Mathô, who, enflamed with desire and hatred against Salammbô and Tanit, is energised to visit Salammbô, energy derived from having stripped the goddess. How to recover (and re-cover) this soul-fetish, symbol of the strength of Carthage itself, is then orchestrated by Tanit's priest, Schahabarim.

Freudian and feminist readings have seen in the Temple break-in an entry into the womb, of the patriarchal usurping of matriarchal power, the ultimate sacrifice of Salammbô as necessary to an economy of misogyny and male rule. These occidental glosses have however shrouded the fuller implications of this ‘quest’. Narrated from Mathô's warrior-hero perspective, the zaïmph, not its surroundings seem imperative. However, careful rereading of the very detailed, accumulated, description of the ‘goddess’ and her chambers reveal another side to this costumed deity and its veil. The final room is like a column; the standing ebony cone is also phallic and when taken with reference to the goddess's bearded sexuality, the zaïmph turns out to be a sheath, a snakeskin phallus (as its Jewish homonym suggests), of different colours in different lights. The veil is then not the hymen.17 Schahabarim knows only too well that he guards the zaïmph's deeper secret and sacred form. Hence we have a motive for his cloak and dagger manipulation of Salammbô as a means of vengeance on Mathô for having penetrated the inner sanctum. His clever strategy ensures that Salammbô and Mathô get wrapped up (literally) in the outward vestige of this secret by touching its material form. Thus in the name of the Zaïmph (the phallus), he guards the secret by sacrificing those who might usurp his power through their heterosexual union whereby the homosexual dimension of the phallic can remain intact. What has been read as his defection from female goddess Tanit to the male order of Moloch can now be seen as a move within the two facets of one Patriarchal Phallic Order.18 What I want to show now is how he uses the crossing points of ritual, costume, custom and power by mantling his sexual and priestly authority.

Eunuch High priest of Tanit, Schahabarim appears as late in the text as Chapter 3, and is heard first rather than seen. The golden bells round the hem of his garment echo the clinking chain at her ankles. In priestly attire strangely reminiscent of Levitical Law, where the bells and fruits alternate to represent the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit, Schahabarim's white linen robe (we are reminded of Salammbô's ‘zimarre’ the shift she wears closest to her body) is weighted by spherical bells and emerald fruits in sequence. And like Salammbô's modesty cloaks and her chain, the effect of these weights round his mantle serves to accentuate his body, not conceal it. Like Salammbô again, he is seen first by his gaze, but his has the brightness of ‘sepulchre lamps’. Thin, like his priestess, his long body contradicts the weighted costume by ‘floating’ inside it. His frail limbs, his slanting skull, pointed chin, skin cold to the touch, deep wrinkled, yellow face, make him a wizened, reptilian creature (counterpoint to Salammbô as eel). Strikingly, his costume cannot conceal the character traits written on his body, his ‘chagrin éternel’ below the skin-deep nakedness which it accentuates. His linen vestment also conceals that same taboo area of the body, the crotch, but we shall see how obsessed he is with the virile male body and what he does to make up for his own lack (his ‘mutilation’ prevents his admission to the Priesthood of Moloch). Salammbô is of course a surrogate scapegoat. As her spiritual father, under orders from her blood father, he has initiated her into the virgin female mysteries of Tanit, keeping the ‘obscene’ (that is ‘male’) face of the goddess hidden from her. His power depends on preventing Salammbô, in her unknowing power to sway whole armies of men, from usurping his role (which he ultimately plays out). The end of Chapter 3 makes his cold hatred of women very clear. Knowing Salammbô is awakening sexually, and that Tanit's true force is that she ‘inspire et gouverne l'amour des hommes’ (not understood as ‘humanity’), he refuses her access to the inner sanctum of the goddess. This is reinforced when as eunuch man-not man he can say, proudly pushing her away with vehemence, ‘Les Baals hermaphrodites ne se dévoilent que pour nous seuls, hommes par l'esprit, femmes par la faiblesse.’19 Clearly a distinction is made here between the sexes as Salammbô is humiliated and subservient at his feet, and between realms of sexual-spiritual experience. The superiority of the male eunuch priest is therefore ultimately ritualised in his sacrifice of religious and erotic heterosexuality to a higher Masculinity-Male Exterminator Principle, the God Moloch, whose order can only be maintained by the immolation of male children, Mâtho as prime, male, hero, and Salammbô as daemonised female of himself.

Schahabarim's final ritual costume and act make him tantamount to chief celebrant at a Male Mass, of almost pornographic proportions.20 Priests in their respective costumes—white linen for Tanit, gold for the ‘Anciens’, green-sceptred ‘Riches’ and purple-cloaked priests of Moloch—act as a foil for Salammbô in her wedding dress and Mâtho, whose nakedness goes beyond nakedness for the sheath of his skin is gashed and flayed before the final climax meeting of manhood, potent and impotent. In the most ritualised of undressings, the actual maceration and laceration of the male body behind the naked skin, comes the public, overt vivisection and penetration of the male body. Except for his eyes (matching the burning gaze of Salammbô), Mâtho is no longer a human but a long red form, a living corpse. With a (cardinal-papal) red mantle of the priests of Moloch over his shoulder, a ritual knife at his waist, its handle culminating in a golden (phallic) spatula, the celebrant rips open Mathô's chest, plucks out the heart in a ritual cardiechtomy and offers it to the sun. It is Schahabarim in his final glory, dressed to kill, having defrocked himself of his white linen. His red costume mantle is the fabric match with Mathô's living, flayed, male flesh. This is ultimate ‘snuff’, a robed ritual sex killing whereby Schahabarim rises above his physical emasculation to ‘penetrate’ the body of his other-lover in a pseudo-spiritualised plane whereby he also sacrifices/destroys his enemy, the hetero-heroic order of man. The rare male pornography of this act is Schahabarim's perverse pleasure, his algolagnia of sexual ecstasy gained from the inflicting of pain.21

Behind all the cloaks, the Order of the Zaïmph emerges then as a sort of homoerotic order outside the order of women, or rather at their expense. Costume drama, ritualised pornography, and the eroticism of ‘dressing to kill’ are what are at stake. It is the Man of Ritual who knows how to make dress work for him to shape desire, manipulate power and wield higher authority, at the expense of Woman. The mantle of Tanit can be seen to cloak two aesthetic orders which run through the text. The first is that the ritual dress of priests cloaks male power by colonising the elaborate, decorative and fecund female orders of dress into a sacred transvestism.22 Male worship is part of this secret power. The sexual charge of the splendid apparel, the regalia, the mitre headpieces, the over-ornate copes and stoles, the white linen vestments and layers of overmantles and sleeveless tunics have to be read afresh against Salammbô's Oriental Vestal outfits. By extension, the second aesthetic order has to be re-acknowledgement of the Goddess in spite of Schahabarim's ultimate bid to eradicate Tanit's bisexual-hermaphroditic Order. By mimicking Tanit's costumed form under his priestly mantle, and clothing it with Male Authority, Schahabarim's disempowerment by the deeper fear of the power of Woman is ritually contained and covered. He, like priests in occidental and oriental traditions have stood in the authoritative place of Man thus sublimating and denying the Sacred in the Feminine. This novel goes some way to revealing her terrible presence nonetheless. The inevitable unveiling of male nakedness and emasculation before Her power (both Mâtho and Schahabarim are equally ‘emasculated’) comes with any confrontation with public display of the cloaked and veiled Goddess. We saw this with Salammbô's real power to subvert Authority, her appearance in her first ritual costume in the customs of the Goddess, which was her unwitting power to dress to kill. As Virgin, Modesty, Mystery, the Sublime, she personifies what I want to term the ‘Resplendent Aesthetic’ too awesome and awful yet too fascinating for the male gaze to resist. Salammbô then stands in a line of women portrayed by such artists as Klimt, Moreau and Holbein. Klimt, while a seeming anachronism with regard to a discussion of Flaubert, is a key painter of figurations of the ritualised Woman Salammbô illustrates. She has something of the Great Goddess. The costumes of these painted women are like Salammbô's, designed to bedazzle in their materials and rich bodice designs to deflect the gaze from the covering over Womb and the whole creativity of Woman.23 However, as Salammbô shows in her oriental costume, there is a difference between the overlayered, excessive and over-ornamental Woman who has her body eradicated by male artistry, and the real presence of the body of the eastern Veiled Woman as Resplendent Aesthetic. Flaubert's costumed, oriental, Salammbô raises key questions concerning the obsession of Western representations with the female nude, or the lightly-clad Eastern Woman. In the particular fabric of this text, I have revealed a Flaubert who has woven a cloak to dismantle the rituals of an obscene Order of the Zaïmph and unwrap threadbare currency of certain pseudo-religious practice and its performative Art forms. In the end, Salammbô's beautiful costumes cannot veil Flaubert's tacit acknowledgement of the thrall of female beauty and power in its elusive, oriental, mode which escapes being fetishised.24 She begins to give women back her piercing and striking, female, gaze and repositions the erotic in the feminine and for women in the folds of her garments.


  1. See for example L. Czyba, Mythes et idéologie de la femme dans les romans de Flaubert (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon), 1983, C. A. Mossman, ‘Salammbô: Seeing the Moon through the Veil’, Neophilologus, 73 (January 1989), pp. 36-45, and N. Schor, Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory and French Realist Fiction (New York: Columbia U.P., 1985), chapter 6.

  2. See E. Kosofsky Sedgwick, ‘The Character of the Veil: Imagery of the Surface in the Gothic Novel’, PMLA, 96 (March 1981), pp. 255-70, especially p. 256 where she quotes Elizabeth Broadwell's definition of the veil (South Atlantic Bulletin, 40 (1975), p. 77): ‘[it] assumes a variety of forms: it appears frequently as a literal cloth or garment—a cloak, a cowl, a veil […] in the form of words such as “reveal”, “obscure”, “shroud” and “conceal”. One form of the veil image is that of a “social veil”—that is, the adoption of manners or of a “social self” […] “to take the veil” is to become a nun.’ Sedgwick continues: ‘The veil itself, however, is also suffused with sexuality […] the veil that conceals and inhibits sexuality comes by the same gesture to represent it both as a metonym of the thing covered and as a metaphor for the system of prohibitions by which sexual desire is enhanced and specified. Like virginity, the veil that symbolises virginity in a girl or a nun has a strong erotic savor of its own, and characters in gothic novels fall in love as much with women's veils as with women.’ Later she writes: ‘The veil is the place of voided expectation […] writing on body, in flesh, in blood never lies’ (p. 258).

  3. See M. Frier-Wantiez, Sémiotique du Fantastique: Analyse Textuelle de Salammbô (Bern: Peter Lang, 1971): ‘Constructions vagues: elles sont nombreuses […] l'auteur se refuse à employer un langage dénoté exprimant clairement son référent […] sa fonction [le fantastique] dans Salammbô est de ronger l'object, de le transformer ou de le faire disparaître: le vague est le premier seuil de la décomposition du monde extérieur’ (p. 82); ‘Le “zaïmph” est d'abord un ‘nuage’ […] puis il se transforme encore par une comparaison en un ‘manteau’ […] Finalement il est neutralisé par son signe-expression “zaimph”, qui est […] plusieurs choses à la fois’ (pp. 85-6). In its phonetic form, this object sounds rather like the Hebrew word for ‘phallus’, see A. J. McKenna, ‘Flaubert's Freudian Thing: Violence and Representation in Salammbô’, Stanford French Review (Fall-Winter 1988), pp. 305-25 (p. 313).

  4. Schor, op. cit., p. 123, ‘Salammbô's sheathed body, ornamental from head to toe “a perfect phallus for perverse desire” (Baudrillard, Pour une critique de l'économie phallique du signe, p. 104)’ is in my reading not ‘perverse’. See below. The ‘phallic’ costume has also been interpreted in J. Gaines & C. Herzog, eds., Fabrications: Costume and the Female Body, AMI Film Readers (New York, London: Routledge, 1990) in the light of male Oedipal desire (a possessive, sadistic desire haunted by the fear of sexual difference as defined by the mother's castration of the Father) whereby the phallic costume is a fetishistic process that disguises the woman's ‘castration’ or is a comforting phallicised totality of a whole body as encased phallus.

  5. See A. Rugh, Reveal and Conceal: Dress in Contemporary Egypt (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986).

  6. Ibid., p. 109.

  7. Ibid., pp. 136, 142-4, 36, respectively.

  8. Ibid., p. 26.

  9. The Middle-Eastern woman demonstrates her skill in embroidery and hence marriageability by the costliness and intricacy of the yoke of her dress.

  10. Ibid., p. 127. Similar comments have been made of the more figure-revealing western equivalent, the ‘sweetheart line’. See Maureen Turim, in Gaines and Herzog, op. cit., pp. 226-7, ‘The dress shape follows the curves of an idealized average of a woman's body shape and proportion but spreads out discretely from the wider hips to conceal the real sign of sexual difference, the pubic area. It inverts the triangle of pubic veil to provide this cover. Then it further metaphorizes its function as cover to the woman's sexual organs by layers of ruffles and folds, in laces, tulles, organzas, satins, chiffons—materials that are soft, translucent, transparent, or shiny […] The ideology that surrounds this metaphor is one that functions through opposition, restriction, and limitation. […] the sweetheart line can be seen as a form of gilded bondage. For clothing goes beyond a temporary usage, a specific ritual function, a temporary fantasy. It establishes identities. This style, by enforcing symbolic femininity, allowed for a great restriction of the female role to be attached to the very notion of the feminine.’

  11. One does wonder how the famous ankle chain acts as an accessory to boots!

  12. Although critics have seen this description as a fictional rendering of Kuchuk-Hanem, the so-called ‘femme fatale’ of Flaubert's trip to the Orient, the mocking tone and attention to her fatness are absent from Salammbô. I have argued elsewhere that Kuchuk has been shamefully maligned by Western critics; ‘Flaubert's Egypt: Crucible and crux of textual identity’, forthcoming.

  13. See J. Neefs, ‘Le parcours du Zaïmph’, in C. Gothot-Mersch, ed., La Production du Sens chez Flaubert (Paris: UGE 10/18, 1975), pp. 227-41 (p. 235): ‘Le zaïmph assure le partage entre le principe femelle et le principe mâle, entre Salammbô et Mathô, mais sans pouvoir appartenir à l'un plus qu'à l'autre, sans les réunir non plus, puisqu'au contraire il est la marque de la coupure qui les disjoint et sans être non plus lui-même l'objet de la satisfaction du désir, bien qu'il ait été objet de désir. Le zaïmph est véritablement un valant-pour, signifiant de la jouissance en même temps que signe de l'objet intenable, c'est-à-dire, le partage des sexes et la réalité de la castration.’

  14. It is described in what is tantamount to the language of post-coital detumescence.

  15. The moon-shaped slits in her bodice are not ‘provocative’ as western representation would have it, but a traditional middle-eastern form of decoration which Flaubert notes to his mother on his first trip to Egypt.

  16. I am reading divergently from Schor, who avers that: ‘by her extravagant death, Salammbô also subverts the patriarchal order […] she refuses to play the role of object of value and exchange assigned to her by her father and the phallo-theocracy he represents […] since Salammbô did not exist, she had to be invented, for the ornamental text is the close play of binding and unbinding female energy’ (op. cit., p. 125).

  17. My reading completely inverts that of McKenna, op. cit., 1988, at this crucial point in what is a very insightful Freudian reading of the text, both: ‘The veil represents neither Carthage nor Barbarie, but the difference between them’ (p. 309) and: ‘The veil is not a phallus; it is what “desire dreams of piercing”; it represents the phallus as its other (the hymen), it is the phallus in its otherness, in its difference and as the differand’ (p. 320).

  18. Part of the problem of Freudian and feminist readings has been that they are still locked in the oversimplified binaries of male-female, subject-object, patriarchy-matriarchy, sun-moon as Mossman, ‘Salammbô: Seeing the Moon through the Veil’. 1989.

  19. I am indebted to the clarity by which Forrest-Thomson views the taboo which influenced my reading in a direction contrary to her own: ‘There is an unbridgeable gap between the vision of such a symbol and any means of translating its vision into a world of action. It is from this fact that the zaïmph, the sacred veil, derives its power; it represents a way of translating vision into action, of integrating vision and speech; thus it gives its possessor the power of organising and controlling the world of the novel through the principle of narration. But the zaïmph is also taboo, and […] this taboo is never really transgressed. In the two scenes where it figures most strikingly, the characters think that they are seeing it, but what they are really seeing is a reflection of their own illusion’, and: ‘In his first narration, the priest uses myth to hide the aspects of the goddess that are crucial to Salammbô's understanding and for lack of which the understanding fails; the implications of the fact that Tanit “governs the loves of men”. In this way he conceals the central mystery of the book, which is the nature and power of love and the way in which human actions may be understood in terms of the divine. His motives for concealment are […] [f]irst, on the level of political intrigue, he has a duty to Hamilcar to keep Salammbô in ignorance of the real nature of the gods and hence her own real nature; so that she may more easily be used as a political pawn. Secondly, on the level of vision, he regards Salammbô as a symbol of the divinity: which he has been seeking and now despairs finding. He thus does not wish to degrade her vague intuitions by allowing her to fit them into pre-established religious formulae; nor does he wish to use these formulae to make discoveries of her own which would destroy her mystery for him. She is both a strategic tool and an experiment in religion.’ (V. Forrest-Thomson, ‘The Ritual of Reading Salammbô’, Modern Language Review (October 1972), 787-98, p. 791 and p. 796.)

  20. The subject lies outside this paper, but it is striking how the stealing of the zaïmph unleashes a bloodbath, including the sacrifice of male children (like the massacre of the innocents), the battle of the ‘Defile of the Axe’ the title of which has no small castrating significance and where Mâtho produces feats of unsurpassed superheroism, in spite of being on the losing side. Concomitant male brute power is ‘embodied’ in the broken male bodies, which are naked, dismembered, disfigured, penetrated by phallic weapons, cannibalised. But this is all small meat compared to the non-military act of Schahabarim.

  21. The graphic obscenity of the male public spectacle which Flaubert has captured in the climax of the text's final scene has peculiar resonances with Lemot's famous cartoon of Flaubert ‘dissecting’ Madame Bovary, her dripping heart pierced by his quill. I have discussed the homoerotic implications of this scene in ‘Capes and Copes: revealing the veiled man in Flaubert's Salammbô’, Perversions (Winter 1995/6), 120-39.

  22. Gaines and Herzog, op. cit., p. 256, n. 105: ‘Cynthia Cris, “Pretty in Pink,” Afterimage 16, 1 (Summer 1988): 13, reviewing Mariette Pathy Allen's The Woman who Lives Inside: Portraits of Men as Women (NY: E. P. Dutton, 1989), considers transvestism in a way that poses an alternative to the cross-dresser as phallic woman: ‘But the phallic woman is one that exists in denial of castration, and I would question if the denial of castration is the primary function of cross-dressing. When the transvestite “becomes” a woman by means of feminine clothing, cosmetics, and behavior, he denies his masculinity. His cross-dressing veils the penis. It places a disclaimer on the physical and behavioral sign of phallic power. Rather than deny castration, the transvestite defers to it and takes on the signs of femininity to prove it.’

  23. Such fabrics have come to be synonymous with commercial sex, not splendour. See Gaines and Herzog, op. cit., (p. 156), where Herzog includes the Designer costume in this category: ‘Richard Dyer relates certain types of sensual, tactile materials such as silk, satin, velvet, fur, feathers, chiffon, and taffeta to luxuriousness and commercial sex—the iconography of the brothel and the strip-tease show […] If, as I have suggested, high fashion clothes command a kind of performance, behavior and display on the part of the wearer, then couldn't the analogy between sales and sex apply not only to fashionable clothes, but also to the posture they dictate?’ My reading offers a feminist recouping of these fabrics.

  24. See Reichler's helpful definition of the fetish: ‘le fétiche est le siège d'une double relation: de spécification-substitution (la partie pour le tout) et la déception (la partie au lieu du tout)’, (C. Reichler, ‘Pars pro toto: Flaubert et le Fétichisme’, Studi Francesi, 85 (January-April 1985), v. 29 91, 77-83, p. 80).

Sonja Dams Kropp (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Kropp, Sonja Dams. “Language Dynamics: The Carthaginian Exploitation of the Mercenaries in Flaubert's Salammbô.Dalhousie French Studies 53 (winter 2000): 42-8.

[In the following essay, Kropp emphasizes how Carthaginian leaders manipulate the Barbarians by exploiting their naïve “belief in the transparency of language.”]

In 1862, following five years of extensive study of documentary evidence and two trips to the Orient, Flaubert published his second novel, Salammbô. The story, set in the ancient Punic universe around 240-238 B.C., is based on an account in Polybius. It recounts the war between Carthage and its mercenaries who, after returning from their battle with Rome, are denied their wages. In the end, the hired soldiers are annihilated by their Punic general, Hamilcar. Parallel with the depiction of this war runs “the story of attraction” between Salammbô—daughter of Hamilcar—and Mâtho, a Libyan commander.

Initially, Flaubert had intended to introduce his work with a survey of the Republic's politico-social structure, a project he later abandoned as the information was selectively integrated in the narrative. The notes for “Un chapitre inédit de Salammbô,” published by Max Aprile in the Club de l'Honnête Homme edition of the novel (hereafter CCH), contain a detailed analysis of Carthaginian civilization. Here, Flaubert only refers in passing to Carthage's reliance on hired soldiers in order to fight its greedy wars. The drafts for the novel pertaining to mercenary recruitment, though, emphasize the ruthless character of an imperialist power whose wealth was bought with the blood of others:

Il lui fallait des soldats. Elle en achetait aux Barbares […]. Elle profitait à la défaite des peuples étrangers—chaque conquête, en expulsant des hommes, lui fournissait à meilleur compte. Quelquefois une armée périssait, vite on en formait une autre—la chair des Barbares était toujours à vendre […].

(CHH II:287)

In Salammbô, the representation of the Barbarians' condition reveals Carthaginian strategies manipulating the fighters' lack of verbal sophistication. The language of authority, powerful because of its dynamic capacity to operate ambiguity, falsification and equivocation, creates the mercenary means for exploitation.

Emphasis on the manipulative capacity of language immediately brings to mind the character of Spendius, whose persuasive effectiveness is largely responsible for the Barbarians' engagement in a full-blown war with their Carthaginian employer. However, the agitator's success is based on the identity of his mercenary audience already molded by Carthage. Prior to any conflict, the superiority of the Republic over its hired soldiers is alluded to in terms that signal linguistic maneuvering.

In a scenario for the second chapter of the novel, “À Sicca,” Flaubert comments on the facility with which the Mercenaries agree to leave Carthage: “Différencier les deux espèces d'hommes: la ruse punique, la naïveté barbare” (CHH II:314). This reflection is integrated in the final text: showered with promises of taxes to be levied in order to pay and repatriate them, the Barbarians “ne savaient que répondre à tant de discours; […] on n'eut pas mal à les convaincre, et le peuple monta sur les murs pour les voir s'en aller” (68).1 The narrator's insistence on the opposition of Carthaginian ruse versus Barbarian naïveté is based on language—with the civilized realizing its slippery nature and the primitive believing in its transparency. A reconstitution of the mercenary's profile reveals how Carthaginian strategies, using language to change and shift meaning, guarantee profitable exploitation and simultaneously further the Barbarians' naïveté.

The commitment of the mercenary to endure the rigid discipline of the Republic's oppressive regime is mainly motivated by dreams of wealth. In the story, the Mercenaries, returning from Sicca to Carthage upon Hannon's empty-handed visit, are overconfident after being reassured that they will receive their arrears of pay. They increase their demands to include tents, horses, silver coins and even “des vierges choisies dans les grandes familles” (119). While this last request appears outrageous enough for the Carthaginians to interrupt the negotiations, the narrator justifies the Barbarians' behavior:

La mauvaise foi des Mercenaires n'était point aussi complète que le pensaient leurs ennemis. Hamilcar leur avait fait des promesses exorbitantes, vagues il est vrai, mais solennelles et réitérées.


The cupidity of the Barbarians is explained as the consequence of vague promises made by their Carthaginian general, promises that correspond to dreams inciting these men to risk their lives in the first place: “On savait que de simples soldats avaient porté des diadèmes, et le retentissement des empires qui s'écroulaient faisait rêver le Gaulois dans sa forêt de chênes, l'Éthiopien dans ses sables” (119).

If Hamilcar, in manipulating the soldiers' imagination, sustains the intensity of their bravery by vague promises of wealth, he is only able to do so because of the Republic's deliberate decision to keep its mercenary army “on site,” away from the metropolis where ostentatious luxury betrays the real beneficiaries of the Mercenaries' spent courage. While living in isolation with their general for an extended period of time, the legionaries develop a sense of security under his command, and they have blind faith in his loyalty. Hamilcar's appearance at the head of the Carthaginian troops following Hannon's defeat and Giscon's capture does not at all worry the Mercenaries. According to them “il revenait pour accomplir ses promesses,” a reflection on which the narrator comments: “espérance qui n'avait rien d'absurde, tant l'abîme était profond entre la Patrie et l'Armée” (234). Even when observing Hamilcar's routine of giving orders to his Punic soldiers, the Barbarians who had previously fought under him fail to recognize the true character of the scene, and they are moved by memories of his leadership: “Alors plus d'un se rappela des matinées pareilles, quand, au fracas des clairons, il passait devant eux lentement, et que ses regards les fortifiaient comme des coupes de vin. Une sorte d'attendrissement les saisit” (266). The Mercenaries identify the army with a surrogate homeland, an inclination that is first provided by their perception of Hamilcar as a commander who will lead them to the wealth they covet, then enhanced by their sense of belonging to the troops of a charismatic general. Their isolation creates a climate in which mercenary allegiance evolves to equal that of a soldier fighting for his own country. Consequently, by hiding its parasitic motives, the Republic promotes optimal fighting conditions.

For the Carthaginians, the recruitment of mercenaries amounts to nothing more than a simple business transaction. They consider the soldiers a commodity, and calculate the efficiency of their troops with a keen mercantile spirit. In his Histoire romaine, one of the historical sources consulted by Flaubert for his fictionalized account of the Mercenary revolt, Michelet describes the process in the following terms:

La vie d'un marchand industrieux, d'un Carthaginois, avait trop de prix pour la risquer, lorsqu'il pouvait se substituer avec avantage un Grec indigent ou un Barbare espagnol ou gaulois. Carthage savait, à un drachme près, à combien revenait la vie d'un homme de telle nation. Ce tarif du sang bien connu, Carthage commençait une guerre comme une spéculation mercantile […].

(Quoted in CHH II:463)

The Carthaginian perception of a hired soldier in terms of a commodity receives emphasis via the description of Giscon's reimbursement of the Mercenaries. The general and his assistants “read” the body of a soldier in order to determine its value as they would any other merchandise. Depending on the number of years the Barbarians have been enlisted, “on les marquait successivement au bras gauche avec de la peinture verte” (121), only to verify these marks in function of the deteriorated bodies. A Lybian who claims to have served twelve years is caught as he lacks the physical evidence that would substantiate his claim: “Giscon lui glissa les doigts sous la mâchoire, car la mentonnière du casque y produisait à la longue deux callosités; on les appelait des caroubes, et avoir les caroubes était une locution pour dire un vétéran” (121). The narrator's explanatory comment concerning the identification of the liar contains two features underscoring the banality of the expression “avoir les caroubes.” Introduced by the phrase “on les appelait […]” and its italicized form, the statement is integrated in the Carthaginian realm of le déjà-parlé.

In his study of Madame Bovary, Claude Duchet indicates how italicized text affects the representative effort:

Dans tous les cas l'italique sert doublement l'illusion réaliste, puisqu'il actualise une parole et renforce le caractère objectif de l'énoncé en lui donnant une seconde assise, en désignant un imposé du texte, un matériau langagier originel qui paraît échapper à l'arbitraire du romancier. Il instaure ainsi dans le récit un espace de référence extradiégétique, un hors-texte du texte, le déjà parlé de la société du roman.


Typographical designation in the text of an idiomatic expression underscores the tenuous nature of the mimetic enterprise; it indicates that capturing a reality is in part reduced to the repetition of a discourse, appropriated through the subjective perspective of those who experience this reality. In Salammbô, the invented cliché “avoir les caroubes” expresses the extent to which the Carthaginian view of the Mercenaries as a commodity has pervaded its society.

At the moment of reimbursement, the Mercenaries also boast about the condition of their bodies to obtain higher wages. Some soldiers enter Giscon's tent, and in order to persuade the general, they force him to examine their scarred bodies: “Ils prenaient ses mains, lui faisaient palper leurs bouches sans dents, leurs bras tout maigres, et les cicatrices de leurs blessures” (122). Giscon's visit to the Barbarians resembles the final stage in meeting the obligations of a contract agreed upon by both parties, with each side admitting to the commercial value of the human body. However, the legionaries' adoption of the body as a commodity, if motivated by their own materialistic concerns, also bears the imprint of the exploiter's manipulation: strategies of control over the mercenary army, using shifting language, indirectly influence the Barbarian sense of identity.

Despite their sharing of a common objective and a common allegiance with their commander, the Mercenaries constitute a fragmented group. Michelet notes how this fragmentation, arising from the soldiers' diverse origins, is consciously preserved by the Carthaginians who separate the Barbarians in units according to language and religion: “Les différents corps d'une armée étaient isolés entre eux par la différence de langue et de religion” (quoted in CHH II:464). In his account of the Mercenary revolt, Polybius explains this strategy as a Carthaginian precaution against organized rebellion: “[D]es troupes ainsi ramassées ne s'ameutent pas sitôt pour s'exciter à la rébellion, & les Chefs ont moins de peine à s'en rendre maîtres” (quoted in CHH II:471). However, with language being confined, the effectiveness of such separation is enhanced by the limitations it imposes on the soldiers' creation of meaning and on the evaluation of their condition.

The Barbarians' preservation of native customs is repeatedly underscored throughout the narrative. From the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator, of the Carthaginians or of the Mercenaries themselves, the diversity of races is portrayed via particular customs: the way people dress, set up camp, bury their dead, etc. These accumulated descriptions produce paradigms revealing stereotypical representations of the cultures involved. Fighters of Northern Europe, for instance, include the Gauls, who appear at the orgy “aux longs cheveux retroussés sur le sommet de la tête” (46). Setting up camp, “[ils] se firent des baraques de planches” (78). The Celts, burying their fellow fighters according to native rites, “regrettaient trois pierres brutes, sous un ciel pluvieux, au fond d'un golfe d'îlots” (324). Within the narrative, such portrayal suggests that the Barbarians, being exposed to diverse customs, might identify other units in function of evidence referring to native heritage. As I hope to show, though, the Mercenaries' perception of their own and other cultures is profoundly contaminated by the discourse of the exploiter.

Lacking the verbal sophistication to detect shifting and ambiguous language, the soldiers are forced to rely on sight and sound in order to identify their foreign companions. The description of the different cultures participating in the orgy at the beginning of the novel may illustrate the process:

On entendait, à côté du lourd patois dorien, retentir les syllabes celtiques bruissantes comme des chars de bataille, et les terminaisons ioniennes se heurtaient aux consonnes du désert, âpres comme des cris de chacal. Le Grec se reconnaissait à sa taille mince, l'Égyptien à ses épaules remontées, le Cantabre à ses larges mollets.


The narrative voice of the passage, ascribable to an omniscient narrator, may also be attributed to the Mercenaries. Not only does the agent “on” suggest that those who are present are familiar with the ambiance (commanders and Carthaginians are absent from the feast); moreover, the reliance on sound and sight in order to convey cultural diversity is characteristic of the soldiers' limited perception. The comparisons of desert-like consonants to “des cris de chacal,” and of Celtic syllables “bruissantes comme des chars de bataille,” contain imagery that betrays the war-dominated world of reference in which the Barbarians are immersed. Identification of native heritage is based on a specific strength associated with each race, and the Mercenaries perceive of their companions' native culture only insofar as this culture distinguishes their qualities as warriors. This perception implies a process of signification that foregrounds the soldiers' view of each other in terms that echo those of their military exploiters. Classification based on external signs is inscribed in a discourse prefiguring the identity of the individual as a commodity.

On the battlefield, the Barbarians distinguish their fellow fighters from Carthaginian cadavers by identifying tattoos on the body of slain companions:

On reconnaissait les Mercenaires aux tatouages de leurs mains: les vieux soldats d'Antiochus portaient un épervier; ceux qui avaient servi en Égypte, la tête d'un cynocéphale; chez les princes de l'Asie, une hache, une grenade, un marteau […] et on en voyait dont les bras étaient couverts entièrement par ces symboles multipliés, qui se mêlaient à leurs cicatrices aux blessures nouvelles.


Symbols of nations in whose service a mercenary previously fought, tell the story of his life and, providing information that cannot be communicated through language, reduce this story to the individual's sacrifice of his body (cf. the scars) for the imperialistic motives of a powerful government. Recognition is based on the reading of signs that are engraved on the body in a manner reminiscent of the branding of cattle. The inscriptions, simultaneously facilitating and controlling the Barbarians' production of meaning, imply the abdication of native subjectivity to that of the exploiter.

Adoption of the language of authority leads to the loss of self-identity. The Mercenaries, angered by Hamilcar's “defection,” demonstrate their rejection of the Carthaginians by adopting Roman symbols that represent the enemy against whom they previously fought. Approaching Spendius's army, the Punic soldiers, descending into a valley, “aperçurent devant eux, à ras du sol, des louves de bronze qui semblaient courir sur l'herbe” (264), a distorted impression which the narrator explains: “C'était l'armée de Spendius; car des Campaniens et des Grecs, par exécration de Carthage, avaient pris les enseignes de Rome” (265). Aside from suggesting Spendius's potential for falsification, the scene demonstrates how the renunciation of the current employer finds expression via identification with an opposing power.

The representation of the mercenary identity—anchored in that of the subjugating Republic—exemplifies a process of exploitation that, in the bourgeois setting of nineteenth-century France, will victimize Félicité in Un cœur simple. Shoshana Felman defines the servant's simplicity in terms of her adherence to a natural order of things whose only foundation is the language of authority controlling her identity by keeping her illusions alive:

Si Félicité est simplement vraie, c'est en tant que victime soumise à un ordre social qui l'exploite et qui lui avait appris—au moyen d'un langage d'emblèe ordonné, autoritaire, hiérarchique—à accepter comme allant de soi fausse évidence, d'un « ordre des choses », de réalité naturelle.


Both the Mercenaries' and Félicité's naïveté is prefigured by their appropriation of a reality that is formulated by those who represent the established order. In the portrayal of nineteenth-century French society, the exploiting character of bourgeois ideology may escape the occidental reader who readily identifies with its structure. In Salammbô, the language of authority, written in part on the body of the mercenary soldiers, emerges on the surface of the narrative, thus foregrounding the mechanism that operates the abdication of subjectivity.

The Barbarians' adoption of the discourse of their employer implies the inability to discern the connoted meaning of the marks on their bodies, or their less-than-human status acquired in the process. For the Mercenaries, signifiers collide with referents, and interpretation is limited to denotation. Hamilcar's strategies in order to outsmart the Mercenaries clarify further the soldiers' system of signification. They illustrate the general's success, guaranteed by his opponents' belief in the transparency of signs.

From early on in the novel, it is suggested that the Punic commanders—those who know the Barbarians well—rely on slyness in order to control them. During “Le Festin,” Giscon, fearing a riot following his refusal to give the drunken Mercenaries the “vases de la Légion sacrée”—cups belonging to an exclusive Carthaginian militia—, avoids any entanglement: “Il songeait que son courage serait inutile contre ces bêtes brutes, exaspérées. Il valait mieux plus tard s'en venger dans quelque ruse” (52). The nature of such ruses is revealed via Hamilcar's handling of the mercenary enemy.

Driven to the walls of Carthage, the Punic army only manages to enter the city thanks to a stratagem of Hamilcar which diverts the attention of the Barbarians. The general dismounts his prized stallion and sends it back to the Mercenaries. The latter, baffled by this gesture “pendant qu'ils s'écartaient, tâchaient de l'arrêter ou regardaient tout surpris” (399), give the Carthaginians the opportunity to escape. The Barbarians' reaction confirms their expectation of a certain order of things, since they consider the horse as inseparable from its master: “C'était un étalon orynge qu'on nourrissait avec des boulettes de farine, et qui pliait les genoux pour laisser monter son maître. Pourquoi donc le renvoyait-il? Était-ce un sacrifice?” (399). In addition, surprise is provoked by the visual effect of a staged incident, thus revealing the soldiers' heavy reliance on manifest signs in order to create meaning, a characteristic underscored by yet another of Hamilcar's tactics.

While attempting to penetrate the city during the siege of Carthage, the Mercenaries climb the exterior walls, and find themselves in front of a second wall, in which beams and stones alternate in pattern reminiscent of a chessboard. The narrator comments: “C'était une mode gauloise adaptée par le Suffète au besoin de la situation; les Gaulois se crurent devant une ville de leur pays. Ils attaquèrent avec mollesse et furent repoussés” (371). Hamilcar's ruse is based on the Gauls' sensitivity to tangible evidence that metonymically refers to native identity, prior to the enlistment in the mercenary army. Nostalgic weakness results from the confrontation with signs that produce a visual resemblance to the known, an observation that is confirmed by the description of Autharite's nostalgia, provoked by his view of the desert void of sunshine:

Souvent, au milieu du jour, le soleil perdait ses rayons tout à coup. Alors, le golfe et la pleine mer semblaient immobiles comme du plomb fondu […] et le Gaulois, les lèvres collées contre les trous de sa tente, râlait d'épuisement et de mélancolie.


The landscape resembles the grey and foggy atmosphere of Northern Europe and stirs the Gaul's emotion.

Both the Mercenaries' confrontations with Hamilcar's horse and with the Carthaginian wall underscore the significant contribution of the visual element for the success of the general's ruses. They illustrate how the Barbarians' system of meaning is based on the immediate association of visual signifiers with one unique, firmly established meaning. The soldiers' faith in the denoting value of the “Gaulmade wall” neutralizes any possibility of discerning its connoting value—its inauthenticity, an assertion confirmed by Autharite's real tears caused by his distorted perception of the desert. Confrontation with signs that literally escape the world of reference with which the Mercenaries are familiar (such as Hamilcar's horse separated from its master and running in the opposite direction of its assumed place) provokes surprise and an inability to act. Consequently, Hamilcar's tactics, defining Carthaginian ruse as the manipulation of the Mercenaries' sign system, confirm the soldiers' unfamiliarity with the slippery nature of language.

Semiotically, the Mercenaries' production of meaning constitutes a process in which signifiers collide with referents. Void of any connotation, interpretation of signs is reduced to their affirmation of an assumed never-changing reality.

In “L'effet de réel,” Roland Barthes demonstrates how the impression of reality, aimed at by realist writing, is enhanced by the inclusion in the fictional text of descriptive elements that resist integration into the narrative. Representation of superfluous detail, such as Madame Aubain's “baromètre” in Un cœur simple, insures the production of the referential illusion on the part of the readers. Familiarity with such objects enhances the perception of the fictional text as corresponding to a known reality. The barometer has no other function but to affirm “I am reality”: “[L]a carence même du signifié au profit d'un seul référent devient le signifiant même du réalisme: il se produit un effet de réel, fondement de ce vraisemblable inavoué qui informe l'esthétique de toutes les œuvres courantes de la modernité” (88).

Flaubert, acutely aware of the slippery nature of language, repeatedly portrays characters who are not. In Madame Bovary, Emma's naïveté resulted from her belief in the reality of idealized romances, read within the walls of the convent school she attended. In Salammbô, the Barbarians' inability to recognize the staged nature of Hamilcar's ruses is exteriorized via their association of visual signifiers with referents. The ignorance of the mercenary soldiers results from their faith in the fixed meaning of signs, regardless of the context in which they appear. Both Emma and the collective “character” of the Barbarians, exemplifying within the narrative the belief in the transparency of language, actualize the effect of such adherence and demonstrate the process of being caught by the referential illusion.

Throughout the portrayal of the Barbarians' condition prior to their involvement in the war with the Republic, the opposition of ruse versus naïveté emerges as the foundation for successful exploitation. Spendius's success, later on in the novel, will be made possible largely because of his infiltration of the resulting structure. Filling the vacuum left by Hamilcar's leadership, the agitator will manipulate Carthaginian ruse as well as Barbarian naïveté in order to realize his own objectives. In Madame Bovary, Emma's belief in the transparency of signs affected only herself and her family; in Flaubert's second novel, Salammbô, the danger of such belief is underscored via its expansion on a massive scale, ultimately resulting in the total annihilation of the Mercenaries.


  1. All Salammbô quotes are taken from the Garnier edition.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “L'effet de réel.” Communications 11 (March 1986): 84-89.

Duchet, Claude. “Signifiance et in-signifiance: le discours italique dans Madame Bovary.La production du sens chez Flaubert. Ed. Claudine Gothot-Mersch. 10/18. Paris: U.G.E., 1975. 358-79.

Felman, Shoshana. La folie et la chose littéraire. Paris: Seuil, 1978.

Flaubert, Gustave. Œuvres complètes. 16 vols. Eds. Maurice Bardèche et al. Paris: Club de l'Honnête Homme, 1971-76.

———. Salammbô. Paris: Garnier, 1970.

Volker Durr (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Durr, Volker. “Introduction” and “An Allegory of Bonapartism.” In Flaubert's Salammbô: The Ancient Orient as a Political Allegory of Nineteenth-Century France, pp. 1-9, 87-108. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Durr dissects the critical consensus regarding Salammbô, contending that most readings of the work are flawed. Durr also illustrates the ways in which Flaubert subtly draws comparisons between the Carthage of the book and the Napoleonic France in which he lived.]

Salammbô, Flaubert's only historical novel, was long discreetly ignored by literary criticism but in more recent book-length studies of his oeuvre a number of scholars sought to make amends for past neglect.1 The same claim can be made by the authors of a host of articles, especially since the early 1970s. Many of them evidently took their cue from R. J. Sherrington's observation that “we have yet to see an adequate treatment of it”2 and focused their inquiries on formal characteristics of the novel. R. B. Leal, for instance, asks why, up to the present time, no one has taken the trouble “to challenge the assertion of Sainte-Beuve that the work is lacking in formal unity.”3 As a result of recent critical preoccupation with structural and poststructural aspects of narrative, most contemporary readings of Salammbô are reductive. One charge that can be levelled against interpretations of these schools is that they disregard the significant political-historical components of Salammbô and treat the work not as a novel about events in the capital of an ancient empire, but as if it were indeed the “book about nothing” Flaubert had said he would like to write while laboring on Madame Bovary.4 Of course it would make sense that the scholar or critic concentrate exclusively on formal and narratological elements if Salammbô were a work that had nothing to say, yet said what it did not say with intriguing artistry.

Another reason why critical attention was diverted from the substance of the novel can be found in the kinds of success it encountered immediately following publication in 1862. It appealed, for example, to ladies of high society as well as women of the demimonde. Salammbô-costumes, which ladies of fashion and fashionable cocottes wore at great dinners and public balls, were the rage of Paris. Mme. Rimsky-Korsakov stunned the public by showing herself in a transparent “Carthaginian” gown, evoking the “zaïmph,” the sacred veil of the goddess Tanit.5 Moreover, Salammbô became the artists' novel. While Flaubert denied his publisher Michel Levy the right to have the book illustrated, it subsequently inspired Georges Rochegrosse's commissioned drawings, just as it prompted paintings, etchings, and sculptures. As late as 1927 Alastair contributed his “Salammbô” to Henry Crosby's Red Skeletons.6 The first generation of readers was obviously fascinated by the heroine, and this enthusiastic response engendered echoes reverberating over many decades. The lascivious Oriental virgin Salammbô, femme fatale and precursor of Mallarmé's Hérodiade and the Salome of Flaubert's tale “Herodiade” as well as Oscar Wilde's play and Richard Strauss's one-act opera, became an object of erotic day-dreams. The narrative also promoted the popularity of opulent-exotic interiors. Nadar's photography of Sarah Bernhardt (1887), darling of the Belle Époque, shows how the celebrated actress presented herself as a reincarnation of the Oriental femme fatale amidst precious furs, silks, velvets, objets d'art, and exotic greenery, the kind of setting Flaubert's readers encounter in Salammbô's bedchamber.

Just as diverting from the political-historical content of the novel was the attraction its love story exerted on musicians, including Hector Berlioz and Mussorgsky. They welcomed it as suitable material awaiting its transcription into an operatic score. Flaubert actually took a hand in these budding projects by asking his friend Théophile Gautier to mine Salammbô for a libretto. Berlioz never wrote the music drama he had envisioned, enchanted though he was with “the mysterious daughter of Hamilcar, this divine virgin,” and Mussorgsky never finished his promising enterprise.7 Aside from a number of completed works by lesser known composers, Ernest Reyer did create a successful lyric opera entitled Salammbô, which premiered in 1890 and by 1900 had been performed one hundred times.8 The very fact that the Oriental narrative was considered appropriate to provide the heroine, the love interest, and plot of a libretto made it suspect to literary critics, for as literary works, libretti had a notoriously poor reputation. By focusing on the heroine's love and passion, the opera Salammbô obliterated the main strength of Flaubert's narrative: its “crown and state” action. However, such reductions are characteristic of the relationship between libretti and the literary works on which they draw. Imagine anyone judging Goethe's Faust on the basis of Charles Gounod's opera of the same title!

The failure of the reading public to appreciate Salammbô is also attributable to the hybrid genre of the historical novel. Every work of this kind consists of imaginative and historical elements. In the “classical” historical novel, as realized by Walter Scott, a historically conditioned individual, a better “everyman,” is usually the bearer of the action. Human interest takes up the foreground of Scott's work, whereas the roar of decisive historical forces can be heard like rumblings of a thunderstorm in the distance. The great historical figures embodying these political forces move on the periphery of the protagonist's life. The representativeness and humanity of the average protagonist may occasionally be summoned to mediate between the extreme positions of the powerful. In Scott, the narrative space allotted to the fictional components of his novels exceeds by far the space devoted to strictly historical matters, and the personal and political spheres of life intertwine in a seemingly natural manner. In stark contrast to that, Flaubert created a new kind of historical Oriental novel. For in Salammbô the historical events of the Mercenary War take up close to two thirds of the narrative, and the historically verified leaders of the conflict parade and act on center stage. Yet it was the shorter, freely invented component of the novel, the heroine Salammbô and her passion, that intrigued the reading public and inspired painters, sculptors, and musicians. The ease with which musicians and librettists were able to sever the fictive from the historical strains of the novel suggested that the two might not have been sufficiently integrated to form an indivisible aesthetic whole. But can a talented librettist not perform reductive miracles?

In addition, the voices of two outstanding critics have impeded the overall understanding of Salammbô. Sainte-Beuve's and Georg Lukács's critiques, seventy-five years apart, are sobering illustrations of how far even erudite minds can stray from a text if they approach it with ideological blinders. Sainte-Beuve judged Salammbô by the norms and conventions of the classical historical novel and rejected as irrelevant its Punic setting and events. From his Marxist perspective Lukács reaffirmed Sainte-Beuve's reproach that the laborious “resurrection” of Carthage could not possibly relate to the social and political life of nineteenth century France. He also thought that in Flaubert's African-Oriental novel the Naturalist “principle of the photographic authenticity” could not lead to anything but “archaeology” instead of living history.9 Flaubert's archaeologism allegedly presents strange and unfamiliar objects, expressed in the jargon of the initiated. This is one of Lukács's main objections to Naturalism, and in Flaubert he saw the fountainhead of the entire movement. In “The Zola Centenary” he asserted that “description and analysis is substituted for epic situations and epic plots,” and that the Naturalist does not depict life itself, but only its “outer trappings.”10 Does all or any of this really pertain to Salammbô, particularly Lukács's accusation that the novel fails to present a conflict of authentic historical forces and thus resembles Sainte-Beuve's Port-Royal and its “fragmented, eccentric, bagatelle […] picture of history” because the author “[…] is reduced to a mere spectator and chronicler of public life”?11

Even a first reading of Salammbô leaves deep impressions. Foremost among them are the opulence of the settings and the detailed descriptions of beautiful things the text displays over wide expanses of narrative space. Such descriptions are juxtaposed with scenes depicting extreme violence, a combination of seemingly binary opposites characteristic of aestheticism. These interplays of preciosity and violence are shrouded in an aura of smoldering eroticism which the reading public had encountered before only in Charles Baudelaire's poetry. The following questions must be asked. Why did the controversial and highly successful author of the Realist Madame Bovary next undertake a historical narrative set in the Carthage of the Mercenary War, provided it was not for the purpose of writing a novel of alterity with respect to subject-matter, color, and mood? Was this project to yield a work about the Orient resembling the phantasmagoric Tentation de Saint Antoine though with the author's imagination, leaning towards the exuberant and exotic, bridled by Polybius's transmitted historical outline of the conflict? Would French bourgeois readers recognize themselves in their Punic peers? Were Hamilcar's designs and actions all too transparent to the ever vigilant censors in the aftermath of Napoleons III's rise to absolute power and his subsequent imperial reign? Although Flaubert never indicated such correspondences, they nevertheless are salient in the novelistic text. Was Salammbô conceived as a serious joke about the stupidity of his contemporaries, whom he berated forever? Like Stendhal he must have hoped that later generations would understand him.

The novel Salammbô gratified not only Flaubert's love of the Orient, but it also accelerated the interest of the reading public in this vast region. Ever since Napoleon I's expedition to Egypt and the accounts and verses of French Romantic travellers, the Oriental theme had found a place in French literature, and Flaubert had paid homage to it with Smarh (1837) and the first two versions of La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1849 and 1856), while Théophile Gautier published Le Roman de la Momie in 1857. The writing of Salammbô allowed its author to revive once again his memories of his journey through the Levant and Asia Minor. Although Flaubert presented a more empathetic image of the Orient than his predecessors,12 it still was not altogether alien from European preconceptions of this heterogeneous and mysterious realm. Thus, it is quite telling that he chose a woman's name as the title of his narrative, for Europeans were used to ascribing a feminine essence to the Orient. Also, in the nineteenth century, several European powers eyed the domains of the decaying Ottoman Empire like fruits ready to be plucked. Between 1839 and 1841 European politics were preoccupied with an “Oriental crisis” arising from France's intervention in Egyptian affairs. The Suez Canal, the work of a French engineer and diplomat, opened in 1869. Verdi's Aida (1871) was commissioned for this event, and Saint-Saëns's Samson and Delila (1877) followed in short succession. In between, the third version of La Tentation de Saint Antoine was published (1874), and in 1881, one year after Flaubert's death, the Republic of France proclaimed a protectorate over Tunisia whose area formerly constituted the very heartland of Carthaginian power. As a capstone, Ernest Reyer's opera Salammbô was performed in the early 1890s to jubilant Parisian audiences.

Yet despite the numerous Franco-Oriental interactions ever since the late eighteenth century, the Afro-Oriental city of Carthage represented the “other” to the reading public largely because it remained quite unknown and had posed the most existential threat to Europe's Graeco-Roman cultural ancestry. This “otherness” was the original reason for Flaubert's turning to the North African capital of antiquity with its strange people, unfathomable gods, wealth, and reputed erotic licentiousness. The image of Carthage evoked in the novel differs sharply from the image of antiquity transmitted by Roman historians and Christian authors after Constantine the Great. For Flaubert presents an important part of the ancient world prior to the so-called pax romana.13 It is a monstrous and colorful picture suggesting the cultural, political, and social diversity of the nations positioned around the Mediterranean, the mythical sea of Odysseus's voyages and clandestine Phoenician trade routes. Regrettably, much of this diversity was lost when Rome absorbed these lands and nations into its empire and turned the Mediterranean into mare nostrum. The homogenizing impact of Roman rule was reinforced when Christianity became the state religion and, in due course, most peoples from Armenia in the East to the Pillars of Hercules in the West followed the same creed.

As Michael Butor writes, Flaubert's Carthage represents the reverse side of antiquity, that which has been hidden from us (and our classical education) because of the Roman screen through which we have been accustomed to perceive it.14 It is, above all, the lust for committing atrocities that purportedly distinguish the army of Barbarians, drawn from all parts of the ancient world, and the reacting Carthaginians, from Roman practices. To these belong the torture of prisoners, the sacrifice of hundreds of children, the crucifixion of rebel chieftains, even lions. In short, the Punics, transplanted Phoenicians who brought with them their Oriental religion, were depicted by Roman historians as utter irrationalists as well as cruel victors and masters. In times of national emergencies the incomprehensible gods had to be placated by human sacrifice. In contrast, the Roman conception of the cosmos, based on Greek thought, was portrayed as more rational, for in its order everyone was said to reap what he/she deserved. However, the Romans certainly committed their own acts of cruelty of which the utter destruction of the Punic capital and Corinth in 146 B.C. are poignant illustrations. The Punic survivors of this holocaust were sold into slavery. Nine hundred thousand Jews shared the same fate after the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D. In addition, the Romans all too readily executed “enemies of state.” In 132 B.C., for example, they crucified twenty thousand men after the suppression of a slave uprising in Sicily led by the Syrian Eunus. This mass execution took place just fourteen years after the razing of Carthage. Retribution is understandable, but 20,000 crucifixions were hardly a rational application of justice. To this horrendous slaughter must be added the crucifixions of all surviving leaders ending the uprising of Spartacus in 71 B.C. The Romans also crucified Jesus and Peter, and they decapitated Paul, the two apostles being considered dangerous to the empire. Yet Roman propagandists habitually described Punic vengefulness in purple prose. In short, there seems to have been hardly any difference between Punic and Roman cruelty.

Hand in hand with their alleged bloodthirstiness went the Carthaginians' alleged obsession with sexuality and lust. There were “the carnal abominations” practiced in “the lowlands of ancient Phoenicia” (Michelet), as well as the mass copulations staged in Carthage at special occasions. Their sexual customs and cults had earned the Eastern and Western Phoenicians the reputation of maniacal erotomanes. It was this very aspect of Punic life that may very well have induced Flaubert to turn to Carthage in the first place. According to Max Weber, orgiastic rites and temple prostitution were prevalent among early Semitic cultures. Salammbô provides several examples of this ancient practice.15

With its brutality and sexual licence Flaubert's Carthage diverges from the concept of antiquity held by the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries: the Greek notion of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” (Winckelmann). Carthage emerges as an other world from which, according to Sainte-Beuve and Lukács, no bridges lead to modern France that considered itself the principal heir of Graeco-Roman antiquity. A radical Eurocentric perspective, this notion constituted the foremost reason why Salammbô was rejected by these noted critics. But, as Eugenio Donato asserts, “what might appear at the outset as a desire for otherness defined as difference is dictated by finding an otherness which would be a form of sameness. What does appear as different is, in fact an effect, an optical illusion, a mirage.”16 Except for this generalization, Donato does not follow up his promising insight by showing parallels between Hamilcar's Punic Republic and nineteenth century France.

The “otherness” of Carthage that really is a kind of “sameness” manifests itself in the crucial political themes of the narrative. Flaubert obviously recognized important features of his own political present in the structure of Carthaginian society, in the politics of the Mercenary War, and the manner in which the latter was conducted. The members of the Punic oligarchy or bourgeoisie may differ markedly in outward appearance from the French bourgeois of the nineteenth century, yet with respect to their mentalities Flaubert perceived them as kindred spirits. It was Punic avarice, the unwillingness to pay the foreign soldiers the wages they had earned with their sacrifices, that caused the Mercenary War, just as the French bourgeoisie robbed the rebellious workers, who had born the brunt of the initial uprising, of their just spoils in the revolution of 1848. The Carthaginian and French upper classes abetted the emergence of a tyrant by handing over power to him in exchange for his guaranteeing them their material possessions and unimpeded “pursuit of happiness.”

In his image of Carthage Flaubert perceived in a flash of intuition, much as Walter Benjamin described the phenomenon of historical cognition, the present in the past, and the challenges of the future. An important aspect of Flaubert's novel is the fact that its politics are built on imaginative historical construction and empathy for the Oriental mind, that is, they are not merely contrived as a critique of his own present. Compared with him, most writers of historical novels before the watershed of Salammbô appear to be naive fabulists and negligent craftsmen. In short, Flaubert inaugurated a new kind of historical fiction. The “scientific” novelist turns archeologist, erotic dreamer, socio-political critic, and prophet. The Carthage of the Mercenary War and the Second French Empire constituted in Flaubert's view close to final stages in their nations' histories. The decline of Carthage was a historical fact; the possibility that France might have a similar destiny was widely discussed in the author's day and found repeated expression in the somber letters Flaubert wrote immediately prior to, during, and after the Franco-Prussian War. In contrast to Scott's narratives, the primary aim of Salammbô is not to show how things “really” were in the Punic metropolis. Quite the contrary, Flaubert employs his Oriental novel as an instrument to make his drowsy compatriots aware of their own situation through a prism displaying an ancient state that had disappeared from history. Thus, Salammbô can also be seen as a sobering prophecy concerning France, and as a call for national regeneration.

It is impossible to determine whether the author became aware of these correspondences when he conceived the novel, or at the time he wrote it. However, correspondences are inscribed in the pages of Salammbô. These parallels will be brought to light with the help of L'Éducation sentimentale, Lukács, Marx, Max Weber, Raymond Schwab, and Edward Said. Concerning the presentation of Carthage (and I write “presentation” instead of “representation,” for there was little to re-present), Flaubert recognized that his primary task lay in the depiction of the plausible and the avoidance of absurdities. Since his Carthage could not be directly equated with nineteenth-century France, Salammbô must be seen as an allegory. For the purpose of this introduction, “allegory” is defined in general terms as involving “a continuous parallel between two (or more) levels in a story, so that its persons and events correspond to the equivalents in a system of ideas or a chain of events external to the tale.”17 While the characters, events, or settings may be historical or fictitious, such components convey meanings transcending the action of the written narrative. (A more differentiated understanding of allegory will be presented in the Epilogue).

Far from being a book about nothing, Salammbô as an Oriental allegory of nineteenth-century France displays an exciting socio-political critique and a highly self-conscious authorial positioning. The resulting écriture or narrative text, part retold and invented story, part narratorial discourse, relies on the same devices as Madame Bovary,L'Éducation sentimentale, and Bouvard et Pécuchet: the laconic manner of narration, the innovative ways of employing free indirect discourse and psychonarration. These devices contribute to the formation of the “trottoir roulant” of Flaubert's écriture. It will be interesting to examine how the characters of the Carthaginian novel are affected by the omnipresence of the narratorial voice and its irony. Other aspects of Flaubert's écriture in Salammbô are his exacting craftsmanship, including the imagery that contradicts Roland Barthes's assumptions. Consisting primarily of carefully wrought similes relating to the desert and the sea, it adds local color and meaning to the narratorial discourse and invests figures and objects with an African-Oriental ambiance. Deprived of its similes, this historical novel would lose much of its expressiveness and meaning. It is not by chance that Thomas Mann called Salammbô “a historical novel of the highest poetic caliber.”18

One of Flaubert's finest achievements in this narrative of the “timeless” Orient consists in the ways he presents time. Permeated by the historical spirit, his handling of time, an intricate interplay of the epic flow, chronological accounts, lyrical recollections, and elaborate repetitions, undercut by events of subsequent history, constitutes a novelty in historical fiction. Indeed, one might even contend that Salammbô is a novel about time. It signals the end of a tradition and the beginning of a new one.


Nichts ist zarter als die Vergangenheit; Rühre sie an wie ein glühend Eisen; Denn sie wird Dir sogleich beweisen, Du labest auch in heißer Zeit.

Goethe, “Zahme Xenien,” III

The preceding discussion of Salammbô suggests that Flaubert had not written his Oriental novel for the purpose of resurrecting a lost civilization. A conscientious Realist, he did not know enough about this metropolis of antiquity to make it the principal focus of his narrative. Rather, he saw his depiction of the city as a “fata morgana” in the very sense of the term, as a vision containing real components. Comparable reservations apply to the titular heroine, an intriguing Oriental princess who necessarily remains a mysterious figure to the European observer and reader. From such premises, it would be difficult to assume that the author intended to write his historical novel for the primary sake of the ancient metropolis or the titular heroine. Instead, Salammbô presents a political allegory of nineteenth-century France.

Until less than thirty years ago the reception of Salammbô had, for the most part, been an uninterrupted series of critical misreadings. At the very least, they were one-sided and unconcerned with political themes. At the source of this tradition stand two eminent figures in French letters: Gautier and Sainte-Beuve. The foremost spokesman of I'Art pour I'Art and author of La Momie celebrated Flaubert's novel as an escapist indulgence in aesthetic and erotic dreams, whereas the outstanding French critic of the nineteenth century perceived it as an essentially ahistorical historical novel (provided there were such a hybrid). Sainte-Beuve's principal objection was that the subject matter of Salammbô, an obscure war between Carthage and its mercenaries, had no bearing on the present.19 Most important for Sainte-Beuve's misprision is the fact that despite his critical flexibility and shrewdness, he held on to the norms of classical literature and thus measured Salammbô strictly against the conventions of Scott's novel. Flaubert's narrative belongs, however, to the new literature that emerged in France in the aftermath of the abortive revolution in 1848, for which the established critic evidently had little appreciation. His stature and authority appear to have borne his strong reservations forward through time. Even in the twentieth century they have survived (often with the admixture of Gautier's aestheticism) in the erudite and thoughtful criticism of Thibaudet, Lukács, Victor Brombert, Maurice Nadeau, Maurice Bardèche, and Sartre.

Lukács's main argument that Flaubert attempted “to reawaken a vanished world of no concern to us,”20 echoes Sainte-Beuve's pronouncement. Another legacy of the norms of classicism under which Sainte-Beuve labored is the notion that there are innately beautiful or worthy literary subjects and, consequently, also undeserving ones. As Flaubert repeatedly demonstrated in his correspondence, the new aesthetics he represented no longer found this premise acceptable. In a letter to Louise Colet of June 25-26, 1853, he asserts that “poetry is purely subjective, that in literature there are no beautiful artistic themes, that hence Yvetot is as good as Constantinople, and that one can write on one thing as well as another. The artist must elevate everything […].” This statement proclaims the equality of all literary subjects (e.g. the Mercenary War is neither more nor less suitable than Carthage's confrontation with Rome), and it asserts that the merit of a literary work derives from the authorial treatment of the subject matter. In this letter to Colet the verb “élever” has a double meaning. It connotes what classical aesthetics understood as the ennobling function of art. But the continuation of the letter shows that in addition Flaubert assigned to literature another, altogether different purpose by insisting that the author penetrate to “the entrails of things” and make visible that which “lay hidden underground and which one did not see.” In short, literature has the task of disclosing things and situations, presenting new insights, making the reader aware of conditions he had not observed before.

The preceding chapter has argued that a considerable part of Salammbô is devoted to describing conditions favoring the appearance of the charismatic leader, and what his attributes and deeds are to be. It analyzed the circumstances under which Hamilcar had assumed command of the Punic forces and showed how he gradually expanded his power by taking over the direction of all crucial Carthaginian affairs at the expense of the Council of Elders and the Assembly of the Rich, whose authority he undermined or disregarded. The uneasiness and distrust of the Punic oligarchy, which never turned its weary eyes from Hamilcar's alarming activities, culminated in the accusation that he wanted to make himself king. This charge was confirmed by Hamilcar's vision of a future empire of the Barcas in Spain. Although his monarchist and dynastic ambitions have since been verified by historical research, some of the evidence was not yet available to Flaubert.21 He relied, instead, on his intuition and, as Collingwood would have said, on historical construction. Thus, Hamilcar's monarchist project does constitute a significant narrative element in Salammbô. In the face of this fact it is impossible to regard Flaubert's novel as essentially apolitical, i.e. an escape into a colorful and aesthetically attractive era of history. Moreover, one can contend without hesitation that the Carthaginian novel relates to Flaubert's own political, social, and economic present in a rather concrete way: The conditions in Carthage and Hamilcar's rise to power both reflect and comment on the political situations in France during and after the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. From amidst internal dissent and turmoil (in the case of the first revolution, there was in addition the threat of aggression from abroad), Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon emerged as charismatic leaders.

It is not at all surprising that French and German criticism, which was imbued with social and political thought over the last thirty or forty years, has been in the forefront of pointing out the parallels between Flaubert's Carthage and nineteenth-century France. Critical works of such provenance are often disregarded in the bibliographies of Anglo-Saxon studies of Flaubert's oeuvre. Yet even if they are listed, they have not caused any noteworthy reorientation in English or American approaches to Salammbô. Anne Green, for one, has labored assiduously to unearth evidence of parallels between Carthaginian and nineteenth-century French political and economic attitudes. What she failed to discuss, however, was the major thrust of Flaubert's novel: the emergence of the charismatic leader from the midst of a decaying bourgeoisie clinging to power at all cost.

The studies to which I refer are by Christa Bevernis, Bosse/Stoll, and Jeanne Bem.22 Bevernis's article, based on the Marxist conception of history, recognizes in the representation of the Carthaginian oligarchy “the most successful and artistically strongest part of the book,” the “actual core of the novel” which “reveals the nature of the ruling class.”23 Aside from frequent references throughout the text, Flaubert offers a penetrating portrayal of the Punic merchant patricians in Chapter VII during its confrontation with Hamilcar. … It has been shown that the Carthaginian oligarchy was divided into representatives of an “ancien régime” grouped around the incompetent and moribund Hanno, and a smaller segment of nouveaux riches supporting Hamilcar and looking for a place in the sun. Both groups had become wealthy not only through trade, industry, and agriculture, but also through piracy, slavery, usury, and the ruthless exploitation of subject peoples, and of women and children. Although Bevernis regards the two factions of the oligarchy as “nothing but two versions of the same social phenomenon,” this generalization also misses the intent of the novel.

Rather, Flaubert describes an evolutionary political process by which a debilitated ruling class no longer able to rise above the pursuit of private interests is supplanted by a younger, more far-sighted, and enterprising group. Indeed, the text leaves no doubt about the fact that Hamilcar is the military savior of Carthage (just as after the victorious conclusion of the Mercenary War he and his son-in-law Hasdrubal rebuilt the economic foundations of the Punic realm with the silver from Hispanic mines).24 Therefore it is inappropriate to lump all Carthaginian merchant bourgeois together, although most of them display the same drive to enrich themselves or to augment their possessions. In any case, the group around Hamilcar combines greed with the knowledge that wealth is most conveniently accumulated in the shadow of a strong army. This view of the ruling class(es) of Carthage is convincing because it is based on experience, i.e. the author's first-hand knowledge of the bourgeoisie of his own time. A comparison of the Carthaginian bourgeoisie of the third century B.C. and the French bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century was feasible because Flaubert subscribed, as has been shown in my first chapter, to Vico's cyclical view of history according to which the phenomena of a certain stage in one civilization are comparable to those of another at a corresponding phase of development. To put the matter more concretely, it is undeniable that the author of Salammbô believed that the ruling classes of Hamilcar's Carthage were similar to that of the financiers and entrepreneurs in France after 1830. In her extensively researched study of Salammbô Anne Green claims that it would be “misleading to draw […] direct analogies between characters from the novel and individual figures in France.”25 General similarities nevertheless do exist, but these are, along the conventions of Realism, based on generic traits which Flaubert observed and transferred to some of his characters. More important, however, is the fact that he grasped the very nature of revolutionary situations as preconditions for the rise of charismatic leaders. Such a position seems reasonable, for Salammbô was indeed not conceived as a “roman à clef.” However this should not imply that the novel does not treat the great political movements and events of its own time. Monika Bosse and André Stoll read the novel not as “a recapitulation of so-called historical facts,” but as a “socio-psychologically and aesthetically differentiated transposition” of developments in revolutionary France. For Bosse and Stoll the common denominator of late Carthaginian and modern French political history is Bonapartism, which signifies the cynical abuse of the revolutionary forces and their transformation into “sacrificial matter” for the purpose of buttressing the power of the enlightened despot. While Bosse and Stoll emphasize the analogies between Hamilcar and Napoleon I and relegate the rise of Napoleon III to an afterglow of his uncle's mythical light, the case is far from clear.26 Surely, Flaubert must have had his reasons for depicting Carthage as the citadel of the Rich and stressing the role commerce and industry played in the daily life of the republic. For the Carthaginian oligarchy even war was commerce transacted by other means; and when the interest of war and commerce collided as in the first long conflict with Rome over Sicily, the plutocratic leaders of the republic tended to terminate hostilities in order to save their trade and their profits.

In Salammbô there are three contenders for power: the mercenaries, the Rich, and Hamilcar Barca. An amorphous group of soldiers of fortune from all shores of the Mediterranean, the mercenaries and their North African allies under the leadership of the irrational Mâtho and the wily, but cowardly Spendius who occasionally falls back into his former slave habits, as well as their lieutenants Autharite and Zarxas, attract the reader's interest less for their own sake, but function primarily as instruments of disclosure. In the treatment they are accorded by the Carthaginian authorities, “the nature of the ruling class is revealed.”27 The lack of interest in the rebels' cause may be partially due to the fact that Flaubert did not empathize with the socially underprivileged, except when they existed in a “state of primitive naturalness.” Thus, he indulged in excessive descriptions of fierce battle scenes where the raw courage and bestial instincts of the uncivilized could jubilate in their gory triumphs (e.g. Zarxas who, after a Garamante had cut Gisco's throat, throws the severed head into the Punic lines).

On the other hand, Flaubert was evidently hardly capable of entertaining any less alarming thought than that of proletarians on the verge of seizing power. The symbolic figure of the young prostitute in L'Éducation sentimentale who, on a heap of royal clothes, assumes the pose of the symbol of liberty during the revolution of 1848 is more revealing than many loquacious sentences. What he dreaded most, he wrote in one of his letters, was “the dream of democracy to raise [through education] the proletarian to the bourgeois' level of stupidity.”28 He would have been willing to grant the masses liberty, but not the right to vote. If the masses were to gain power, he feared, this would mean the advent of democracy and, in due course, socialism which would crush the individual, lead to the abolishment of great art, and usher in the inevitable and indisputable reign of mediocrity. Flaubert voiced such views in many epistolary tirades to Louise Colet: “According to the socialists the ideal state is a kind of huge monster which swallows up every individual action, the entire personality, every thought; it will direct everything, take care of everything. […] What is Equality after all if not the negation of all liberty, all superiority, and nature itself? Equality is slavery.”29 On the premise of such convictions or prejudices Flaubert's treatment of the mercenaries is ambiguous; it constitutes a strange mixture of human sympathy for their miserable situation, admiration for their strength and desperate perseverance, and ultimate negation of their goal to overthrow an organized state. As L'Éducation sentimentale and Bouvard et Pécuchet show, he regarded the fight of the French workers of 1848 with similar emotions. Since the mercenaries of Salammbô are “foreigners” and “Barbarians” (i.e. “others”), it might seem contrived to compare them to French workers. Yet one can argue that to the French bourgeoisie and the nobility that had survived politically into the 1830s, their own proletariat appeared as “foreign” and “barbaric” as did the exotic mercenaries to the Rich of Carthage.

If Flaubert set little store by the working classes, he had even less regard for the bourgeoisie. Actually, if there is one certainty about Flaubert, it is his hatred of the class into which he had been born. The adjectives he heaps upon it with undiminishing malice include hypocritical, stupid, foolish, greedy, and corrupt, just as he speaks repeatedly of the “bêtise bourgeoise.” Undoubtedly, the Carthaginian oligarchy represented by the Council of Elders and the Assembly of the Rich was conceived as the political, social, and economic counterpart of the French bourgeoisie, the main difference consisting in the obviously greater resoluteness of the ancient guardians of vested interests. By using the device of presenting a contemporary problem in an Oriental setting of the past, i.e., by distancing and estranging it, Flaubert offered his readers the chance to perceive the real issue in their midst: a narrow-minded and selfish ruling class that was always ready to sell out the welfare of the whole for the sake of its own interest. Appropriately enough, Hamilcar's somber prophecy, “You will fall, Carthage!,” had its French equivalent prior to the publication of Salammbô. Indeed, many French intellectuals shared the apprehension that under bourgeois leadership France was tottering toward its ruin. By the 1860s it had become commonplace opinion that the destruction of France was close at hand and would most likely be accomplished by “barbarians” (workers) from within. It was fashionable to evoke the demise of Carthage as an ominous parallel of the impending fall of the French capital.30

With combatants like the mercenaries and the merchant oligarchy contending for political power in Carthage, and with the historical precedent of the Mamertines, countless cases of oligarchic misrule, and the political forces of his own country in mind, it seems only logical that Flaubert was reluctant to treat either group with excessive political sympathy, or to accord either final victory. Instead, it appears, another solution was required in this desperate struggle, one that held out the promise of genius in politics and gave some recognition to the voice and energy of the “people.” Hamilcar Barca and his charismatic leadership embodied this solution; its French equivalent was Bonapartism.

Much has been said and written about Flaubert's political views and, allowing for exceptions, there is a consensus that essentially he was either apolitical, or so fickle in his opinions that no firm position could be discerned. He did not belong to a political party, nor did he ever hold political office. Hence his politics are deduced from three sources: his conversations, his letters, and his fiction. His contemporaries attest to his lack of interest in political discussion and relate that whenever he voiced opinions, they were highly contradictory. The impressions of the Princess Mathilde, whose salon in the rue de Courcelles Flaubert frequented, are quite typical: “Absolute and versatile, wanting to die for his country, yet getting along well with everyone, victors and vanquished, he had no political convictions whatever. One moment he demanded all kinds of repression, and another he did not accept any.”31 Maxime Du Camp, his friend, writes in Souvenirs littéraires that he appeared as little affected by the revolution of 1848 as by the coup d'état of 1851. A similar case can be made on the basis of Flaubert's letters where 1848 and the ensuing events find scant mention, and when they are mentioned one cannot ascribe firm political opinion to their author. On the basis of such evidence the sagacious Anatole France, who called Flaubert's politics “an abyss of uncertainties and errors,” noted in bewilderment: “[…] his ideas will drive every man of good sense crazy. They are absurd and so contradictory that anyone who attempted to reconcile only three of them will soon clasp his temples with both hands in order to prevent his head from bursting.”32

The lack of direction in his pronouncements and the absence of substantial commentary on the most significant political events during his young adulthood may be all the more surprising since the author of L'Éducation sentimentale and Bouvard et Pécuchet has won recognition as one of the foremost transcribers of the revolution of 1848 into fiction. Several explanations may be offered regarding the discrepancy between Flaubert the private person and Flaubert the novelist. Venturing occasionally into good society, the hermit of Croisset may have enjoyed playing the role of “I'enfant terrible,” or “le poète maudit,” or the devil's advocate who provoked his listeners in order to draw out their responses as raw material for his fiction. His letters, however, are an altogether different matter. As we know, he wrote them late at night in a state of nervous exaltation, after he had completed his literary labors. Hence the violence of their assertions and the crassness of their formulations.33 They express his intuitions of a given moment, and they are addressed to a particular person, facts that most likely had an impact on what he said and how he said it. An explanation by Thomas Mann of Theodor Fontane's relationship to politics should throw light on the matter: “His political awareness was complicated by his temperament as an artist, it was, in every elevated sense, not reliable. […] A great painter may become official, a great writer never. For everything that constitutes the rank, the charm, and value of his personality, the subtle intellectual distinctions, the problem-posing, the wilful undiscipline, must make him seem in the eyes of the ruling classes both disloyal and suspect.”34 Although Mann was highly self-conscious about the writer's unreliability regarding specific political situations and choices, this did not prevent him from authoring Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen, an apology of the politics of cultural conservatism, nor did it prevent Flaubert from offering in Salammbô a penetrating analysis of the rise of charismatic leadership. Ultimately, however, the writer's gift of empathy or negative capability may be the cause for his/her contradictory political views. Nevertheless, in his fiction political figures and events are presented in a balanced and, as Flaubert thought, objective way. As a critic he assumed the same position, for concerning Louise Colet's fulsome poem Servante he reproached her for allowing personal animosities and dislikes to set the tone of her work and determine her characterizations to the detriment of her poetic achievement.35

As a novelist, then, Flaubert tried not only to be objective, but also “impassible” toward what he described. His ambition as a writer consisted in ferreting out the truth about things, for which task he was resolved to employ all resources available to the modern novelist. Of course he relied on this approach in his portrayal of Hamilcar, the man who won the Mercenary War which had been caused by the avarice of the Rich. He is the political hero of the novel, yet a mixed character with extraordinary gifts and grave flaws. In his retort to Sainte-Beuve's criticism Flaubert points out that he had “not been commissioned to sing [Hamilcar's] praises,” but that he had drawn him as a character who, aside from his merits, forges his merchandise, orders the incompetent and disloyal masters of his slaves to be whipped bloody, substitutes the child of a slave for his own son as a sacrificial offering to Moloch, and has the leaders of the mercenaries crucified. He is a complex figure, a fact Flaubert stresses by observing that “people who let themselves be addressed as Son of God or Eye of God (e.g. the inscriptions of Hamaker) are not that simple […].”36 As has been shown, Flaubert depicts Hamilcar as the embodiment of the charismatic leader whose gifts of divine grace are manifest in his names, his military leadership, his administrative skills, his resourcefulness, his oratory power, and his claim to prophecy. These gifts and qualities combine to make him the savior of the Punic nation. If one reads Salammbô with an open mind, the similarities and correspondences of its politics to those of France since 1789 become evident. The critical effort of Bosse and Stoll who see the novel as an allegory of the era of Napoleon I or the phenomenon of Bonapartism is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the work. It is also true, however, that they do not make sufficient political distinctions in their interpretation of the historical narrative as an allegory of Flaubert's own political present.37

Bosse and Stoll perceive the Carthaginian suffete as another incarnation of “Bonapartism” without properly defining the concept. The same pertains to the adjective “charismatic,” which they use once in a general way to characterize the rules of the two Napoleons. Max Weber's significant work on charismatic leadership receives no mention, nor are its insights applied to the study of Salammbô. The origin of the title “suffete” is disregarded. This is most likely due to the authors' assessment of Hamilcar, whom they portray as a monster, for his reign appears to build on such immense horror that it destroys its own legitimacy. Since the sympathies of Bosse and Stoll lie with the rebellious soldiers who are perceived as defrauded revolutionaries, and with Salammbô, the “paternally oppressed woman” who is sacrificed to the interests of a male-dominated world, Hamilcar and Bonapartism are not treated impartially.

For is it altogether appropriate to regard Hamilcar in terms of Bonapartism without qualifying the concept, particularly when recent scholarly investigations make such qualifications necessary? Bonapartism is a particular form of charismatic leadership, and a modern form at that. It signifies the rule of an individual who has attained this position through a coup d'état, justified by the perilous state of the country. In 1799 Napoleon claimed to have acted because of the danger posed by the “exclusifs”; in 1851 Louis Napoleon pointed to the threat of the “Reds” as his justification for seizing power. Like Hamilcar, both Napoleons presented themselves as saviors of their country. They rose out of revolutionary fermentation and tamed the unruly forces of society. Both Bonapartes pretended to stand above all political parties and resorted to plebiscites in order to demonstrate that their rule expressed the will of the entire nation.

At this point it is important to point out a distinction between “Bonapartism” and “Bonapartisme” made by a group of experts at a recent Franco-German symposium. While the German scholars tended to see Bonapartism38 as a modern version of Caesarism and were prepared to apply it to similar political phenomena outside France, their French colleagues insisted that “Bonapartisme” owes its peculiar character to its commitment to the nation and the revolution of 1789. “The Blue-White-Red,” Karl Ferdinand Werner summarizes, “had definitely replaced the colors of the dynasty; royalty by divine right no longer had a place in France; and the politically organized people, which expressed their will in elections and plebiscites, was no more the subject, but the sovereign whom even the emperor or the president had to serve. The country and its wealth did not belong to the ruler, but to the nation […]. In universal suffrage, in the ideals of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ and in the concept of the ‘citoyen’ the achievements of the great revolution lived on, even if the strong central executive power and administration Napoleon imposed on the revolution as its most permanent features were suited to prevent new revolutions.”39 Although this definition of Bonapartisme sounds rather idealistic (particularly the claim that even the emperor served the people rather than vice versa), Bonapartisme was attractive to large segments of French society which, on the basis of the gains of 1789, expected to live in a national community united in and stratified by the central government.

In contrast to Bonapartist forms of rule outside France, Bonapartisme displayed a republican character and claimed democratic legitimization, even if the parliamentary component was not given much weight. The denigration of parliament undoubtedly meant that the government had to contend with fewer checks and balances. In spite of outrageous transgressions, Imperial France was a state under the rule of law. The basis of government and its most formidable counterweight consisted in the people and public opinion. There are three other important elements of Bonapartist rule: control of the press which is used to celebrate the achievements of the sovereign and to mythify his name, effective administration, and success in foreign policy where military victories figure prominently.

The military exploits of Napoleon I have become proverbial; Napoleon III sought to emulate his renowned uncle (though not as the general in command) by participating in the Crimean War, by intervening in the Italian states' confrontation with Austria, and by sending an expeditionary force under Bazaine to Mexico where a puppet emperor was installed. The Mexican adventure, which turned out to be a costly failure, was conceived as the first step toward establishing a mystical French protectorate over all Latin peoples. It also proved to be the beginning of the end for Louis Napoleon, for having become unsure of himself, he allowed his subordinates to draw France into war with Prussia (and its Southern German allies) against his own better judgment. His defeat at Sedan, his capture, ensuing deposition, and exile corresponded to the great Napoleon's fortunes at and after Waterloo. It is significant that both dynasties ended with their founders' removal from office, signalling the termination of imperial government. Bonapartisme obviously requires success abroad in order to maintain itself. Hamilcar's career in Flaubert's novel and that of his son Hannibal in history confirm this view.

Although the people and public opinion could be influenced and controlled by the press, such manipulation had its limits of effectiveness. The press proved especially useful in identifying the name of the Bonapartist leader with noteworthy deeds and accomplishments, and thus was instrumental in justifying his coup d'état and securing his rule. It was also employed to gloss over internal conflicts and scandals. Ultimately, however, the fate of Bonapartist rule depended on the standing of France among the leading nations of Europe. Regarding Bonapartisme in this light, Jean Tulard observes: “The legend celebrates at one and the same time the fate of an exceptional individual and a national adventure. Therein lies the explanation of its success.”40 Of recurring significance in the discussion of Bonapartisme is the cult of the leader's name. The case of Napoleon Bonaparte serves as a model of the devices a charismatic leader might employ in order to make himself a legend in his own lifetime, to create a personal myth, and to inscribe himself in the annals of history. Louis Napoleon, on the other hand, who could not point to any great personal deed when he staged his coup d'etat, relied solely on the mythical quality of his inherited name in his proclamation of December 2, 1851 to the French people: “My name guarantees strong and stable government, and good administration.”41

The place allocated to the propertied classes during the rule of the two Bonapartes is considerably more difficult to describe. In general terms one can say that in both cases they had to share power and opportunities with groups of political neophytes. Because of its claim of impartial detachment from all parties, Bonapartisme invited the political and economic participation of socially stratified elements. While the first Napoleon relied on the best from the middle-class, the nobility (in 1801 he even allowed the émigrés to return to France), as well as genuine talent of socially non-descript origin, the social background of those supporting the reign of Napoleon III is at once more complicated and dubious. The latter was, by and large, supported by an uneasy coalition of the bourgeoisie and the peasantry, which had been legitimized by Napoleon I in their aspirations of securing possessions or political influence. The peasantry, reeling in debt due to mortgages and taxation, did not play a significant role in the government of Louis Napoleon except as a provider of “blind” votes he could always count on. The “bourgeoisie” constituted a considerably more thorny problem.

Although the bourgeoisie had been one of the motivating forces of the revolution of 1848 by demanding a share of power for its yet unrepresented segments, and though its representation was enlarged considerably, this class proved unable to consolidate its gains after 1848 because of internal divisions. Aside from defrauding the proletariat of its spoils from the overthrow of the July-Monarchy, the bourgeoisie with its factions of moderate and radical republicans, Legitimists, and Orleanists, all of which were united for some time under the banner of the Party of Order, felt unable to resist consistently the pressure exerted by the left, i.e., by the discontented and ambitious elements of the peasantry and the urban workers. Hence the bourgeoisie, distrustful of its radical opponents and its own fragmented interests, opted to support Louis Napoleon in 1848 and in subsequent elections, partially because he promised law and order, and conditions conducive to the unimpeded pursuit of happiness, partially because the popularity of his name among the majority of rustics allowed him to mobilize a broad social spectrum of the electorate. Karl Marx has characterized the strange interaction between the president and later emperor and the bourgeoisie with sardonic acumen:

As the autonomous power of the executive, Bonaparte felt it was his calling to secure “bourgeois order.” Yet the middle-class is the backbone of this bourgeois order. Thus, he sees himself as the representative of the middle-class and issues appropriate decrees. On the other hand, he is what he is only because he has broken the power of the middle-class and continues to do so every day. Hence he sees himself opposed to the political and literary power of the middle-class. Yet by protecting its economic power, he generates once more its political power. The cause must therefore be kept alive, whereas the effect must be erased whenever it shows itself. However, this cannot be done without confounding cause and effect since both lose their marks of distinction in their reciprocal affects. Therefore he issues new decrees devised to blur the borderlines. At the same time Bonaparte sees himself as the representative of the peasants and the people at large against the bourgeoisie, who wishes to improve the lives of the lower classes. He issues new decrees designed to deprive the “true socialists” in advance of their future government wisdom. But Bonaparte sees himself above all as Head of the Company of December 10, as the representative of the rabble, to which he himself belongs, his entourage, his government, his army. Their main concern is to take care of themselves […].42

The most striking feature of the relationship between Napoleon III and the bourgeoisie was a trade-off. His government created an economic climate in which the entire class was able to enrich itself, together, of course, with the emperor and his clique of adventurers in the government and at court. The price for these economic gains was a reduction of bourgeois political influence. For as Emperor who stood above all parties, he could not afford to be ostensibly identified with a particular social class. In order to appear equitable, he had to take away one thing after he had bestowed another. Marx even claims that Louis Napoleon stole all of France in order to give it back to the French, whereby he deducted a certain percentage for himself and his own. He had, as his critic notes, transformed the imperial eagle into a thieving crow.

Much of this is present in the Carthaginian “realities” of Salammbô. Hamilcar, for instance, evinces personal greed the major aspects of which are comparable to those of Bonapartist avarice displayed by Napoleon I and his nephew. According to the standards of the Punic oligarchy of landowners, manufacturers, and merchants he is, like the Bonapartes, a parvenu bent on increasing his possessions in order to beat his rivals for power on their own turf. Michelet observes that of the spoils of war which fell to his Carthaginian armies, Hamilcar delivered one third to the state, handed over another third to his soldiers, but kept the remaining third for himself: thirty-three percent. This explains some of his wealth, but the larger part is probably due to his highly diversified commercial enterprises, and to fraud. As Jeanne Bem has pointed out, Hamilcar even defrauds the goddess Tanit (a parallel to his defrauding Moloch of his son) who is to receive ten percent of all revenues. By declaring only seventy-five percent of his commercial income, he deprives Tanit of the taxes from the remaining fourth.43 The forging of goods from his factories, though a measure of the private Punic citizen Barca, must nevertheless be seen as a bad omen for a future empire dominated by the practices and interests of his family. For does this kind of fraud, arising from the discrepancy between appearance and substance, not point directly to the discrepancy between the outward glitter of the Second Empire and its inner rot? In L'Éducation sentimentale Flaubert contrasts the conspicuous extravagance of the public balls and dinner parties of high society with the immorality of their participants. Long before Flaubert published Salammbô or L'Éducation sentimentale Karl Marx had labeled the government of Napoleon III as an assembly of “kept men,”44 thus preparing the way for seeing the Second Empire as an era where everything was for sale and prostitution reigned ubiquitously.

Hamilcar's position between the Punic Rich and the masses, which he plays off against one another, constitutes another major parallel to the political stance of Napoleon III. The novel shows how, once given command because there is no alternative, Hamilcar gradually disempowers the Council of Elders and the Assembly of the Rich by two means: military and organizational urgency, as well as the wrath of the masses with which he threatens his social peers. However, while taking away their political power, Barca also does not touch the private wealth of the Rich, except when military expenditures require contributions. He is prudent enough not to drive them to despair. After the end of the Mercenary War his strong rule and the conquest of Spain allowed Carthage to make a stupendous economic recovery, which enabled the Punic bourgeoisie of merchants and financiers to enrich themselves on an unprecedented scale. Also, like Louis Napoleon, Hamilcar did not promise to bring economic benefits just to one class, but he held out the prospect of wealth for all Carthaginians to motivate them.45 Thus he, too, presented himself as a truly national leader with the well being of all at heart. The fact that his actions are occasionally motivated by cynicism make him—in contrast to Alexander for instance—a more modern figure whom readers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can more readily understand. The charge of “modernization” Lukács levelled against Salammbô is based on such grounds, yet it is, as shall be shown later, inappropriate since it disregards historical facts and crucial aspects of historical fiction.

Other parallels between Flaubert's Carthaginian novel and France under the reign of the Bonapartes consist in the use of religion as a political instrument and the entire range of military questions. As has been shown, Hamilcar is not a religious man in the sense of Punic orthodoxy. At one point the text states that the gods are but symbols and names for him (107), at another he feels “stronger than the baals and full of scorn for them” (235). Although he does not believe in the gods, he accepts the people's acclamations of “Eye of Khamon!” His red mantle connects him with the priests of Moloch. As a lay priestess of Tanit, his daughter Salammbô is the most exalted woman of the city in religious matters. Through his own associations with Khamon Baal and Moloch, and Salammbô's with Tanit, the house of Barca appears to enjoy privileged relations with the three foremost Punic gods. Quite obviously Hamilcar uses religion as a means to buttress and increase his political power by playing on the credulity of the people and by acting as champion of Carthaginian beliefs.

Napoleon III behaved in a comparable way. While his support did not come from the “people,” except for the conservative farmers and the petits bourgeois—the radical workers whom he first disenfranchised and then bloodily suppressed (1850-51) were his bitter enemies—he exploited the religious sentiment of the nation, although he himself was a free thinker. In 1848, as President of the Second Republic, he dispatched French troops to break up the Roman Republic and to restore the pope. A year later he allowed the clergy to regain a large measure of control over the educational system in France by signing the Falloux law. In other words, the free thinker Napoleon III followed and used the mood of the time, which was characterized by a religious revival among the middle classes and the farmers. Fearing the rise of socialism and the outbreak of social revolution, they considered the church a bulwark of the status quo concerning property rights. His marriage to the Spanish countess Eugénie Montijo capped his religious policy, for her clerical inclinations and charitable activities made her the favorite of France's devout Catholics, and even of a good number of workers. On the other hand, Napoleon III's encouragement of Italian nationalism alienated him from the clerical party of France. He was no Hamilcar, but only a weak modern reflection of the antique leader.

Bosse and Stoll have interpreted the immense horror of the military operations in Salammbô (without mentioning the inhumane, frequently outright sadistic, treatment of Punic prisoners by the Mercenaries) as a phenomenon characterizing the establishment of Barca's rule. According to their reading, the victims include the woman Salammbô, Mâtho and his army, the troops of the republic, the sons of the old oligarchy, and the (Carthaginian) slaves.46 This view of events in Flaubert's novel appears to be arbitrary, if not unduly polemical. Indeed, it is conditioned by the critics' own political convictions, although no political stance justifies the distortion of facts. Bosse and Stoll have, however, done just that in order to account for their indictment of Hamilcar. In their interpretation of Salammbô he is the villain. But is that really so? While it is true that he annihilates the rebellious mercenaries, he does so only after they rejected all offers of reconciliation. It also is erroneous to classify the Carthaginian dead as victims of Hamilcar's political ambitions.

Contrary to the assumption of Bosse and Stoll, Hamilcar does not sacrifice his daughter; rather, she is victimized by the mystical causality determining the religious and moral life of Carthage. In political terms she dies because in the secularized world of the new politics represented by her father, there is no longer a place for comet-like figures she embodies (i.e., she follows a course of action incomprehensible from a rational perspective). In this sense, and only in this sense, does Hamilcar's political advent necessitate Salammbô's demise.47 As to the troops of the republic, the sons of the Rich, and the slaves,48 none of them can be considered victims of Barca's rise to power, for with whom should he have defended Carthage against the deadly threat posed by the insurrection? In the face of the extreme military situation threatening the existence of the Punic state, it is inappropriate to downplay the merits of Hamilcar's leadership in saving his people and to blame him for Carthaginian casualties. Michal Ginsburg's thesis that the mercenaries are a multi-national entity, in whose ranks no particular segment dominates, and who would therefore be willing to take in the Carthaginians as one additional group (whereas the latter insist on their racial exclusiveness), is just as questionable.49 For the Mercenary War was a struggle between an ancient state and “barbarians,” and although an infusion of “alien blood” might have benefitted Carthage (Michelet), the mercenaries' demand for Carthaginian women could never have received a favorable response from the republic. Ginsburg argues from a postmodernist position, but there is the textual reality of proportions. The Carthaginians numbered around 500,000 as compared with the rebels' force ranging from 40,000 or 80,000. How could the Barbarians absorb or integrate the former?

To be sure, Carthage approached the problem of the rebellious mercenaries in the worst possible way. Regarding the annihilation of the rebels an analogy can be drawn to an event of 1848, the June insurrection of the Parisian proletariat, where the workers of the city tried to safeguard their stake in the revolution. In the course of this truceless conflict between the proletariat and the united bourgeoisie, which Marx termed “the most colossal event in the history of European civil wars,”50 three thousand insurgents were brutally cut down by the regular army of the new republic under the command of General Cavaignac and Colonel Bernard, while another fifteen thousand men were deported without trial. The brutality of the suppression, supported by the bourgeoisie, the middle-class, the clergy, most of the peasants, and many intellectuals, undoubtedly moved Flaubert, for in Salammbô he graphically describes the analogous fate of the “barbarians.” Thus, the reigns of Napoleon III, who was elected President of the French Republic on December 16 of the same year, and of Hamilcar were built on comparable acts of brutality.

As a charismatic leader, Hamilcar embodies elements of both Bonapartisme and Bonapartism. A Carthaginian of the third century B.C. he could of course not build on the achievements of the French Revolution (in particular “les droits de l'homme”) but, on the other hand, his deeds correspond so closely to those of the Bonapartes that analogies cannot be denied. Moreover, parallels to the reign of Napoleon III appear to predominate. Obviously Flaubert used the historical Carthaginian setting, where such gruesome events took place, in order to decry the political confrontations and ruthless means of settling them in his own present. In his France he took issue with class warfare; in Carthage the case was more complex. There tens of thousands of uprooted and impoverished foreign soldiers of disparate national backgrounds fought with a reputedly rich nation of transplanted Canaanites led by wealthy merchants, industrialists, and landowners. Hence the Mercenary War was not only a class struggle of the poor against the rich, but it was also a fight of “Barbarians” with a state. The conflict displayed noteworthy racial overtones, a feature of Carthaginian history Flaubert found fully developed in Michelet's treatment of the subject.

In his preoccupation with questions of race, Michelet was by no means an eccentric thinker and scholar. Quite the contrary, the nineteenth century was awash in racial theories which frequently went hand in hand with the new nationalism engendered by the wars of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic armies, and Romanticism. In France, historians and critics such as Guizot, Thierry, Renan, and Taine followed Michelet's lead by attributing the characteristics of nations to their constituent races. Between 1853 and 1855 Joseph-Arthur, Comte de Gobineau published his influential Essai sur I'inégalité des races humaines which thematized the racial problem and declared it predominant over all other issues in history. Yet these historians did not voice uniform views on the question of whether racial purity was more desirable than racial braiding. Michelet, for instance, thought that an occasional infusion of barbarian blood would reinvigorate older civilized nations, whereas Gobineau argued that the imminent decline of France was due to racial intermingling, as a consequence of which social status was no longer based on racial descent, but on wealth.

It is hardly surprising that Flaubert's attitude toward racial questions was ambiguous. What can be said with certainty, however, is that he considered “race” an interesting issue, though he was not a racist. His diary and letters from his Oriental journey do not contain any disparaging remarks about other races. In Salammbô he presents the Carthaginians as an exclusive race that tenaciously adhered to the ancient Canaanite gods and missed the opportunity of expanding and solidifying Carthage into a truly North African empire. Yet in his description of the Punic Elders he points out that the physiognomies of some betrayed an admixture of African nomad ancestry, but he refrains from making any value judgments. He also read in Michelet's Histoire romaine that Hamilcar's bravery and outstanding qualities of military leadership derived from his North African heritage (his family came from Kyrene), while Hanno, greedy, ruthless, and incompetent at war, embodied the true Carthaginian. All this indicates that Flaubert may have favored a mingling of the races in Salammbô,51 particularly in view of Michelet's implication, confirmed by Gobineau, that the Carthaginians, contemptible as they were, could only be improved by foreign admixture. On the other hand Flaubert deplored in his correspondence that “there was no [French] race any more!” or that in France “the aristocratic blood was exhausted,”52 lamentations which ought, however, to be read with some caution.

What interested him much more as a writer and a thinker of the nineteenth century were two other aspects of the new racial consciousness. One of them clearly had to do with the fact that when filtered down to the crowd, racism could—like nationalism, democracy, and socialism—become an instrument of mass hysteria and unprecedented destructiveness. In two letters to George Sand shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War Flaubert asks whether “we have returned once more to racial wars and the horrible slaughter they entail, for which there is no reason but the lust of fighting for the sake of fighting.” A fortnight later he writes more explicitly:

Perhaps the racial wars will commence again. Before this century will have run its course, we shall see how several million people will kill each other in a single clash of arms. The entire Orient against the whole of Europe, the old world versus the new. Why not? The great collective works like the Suez Canal are perhaps—in another form—projections and preparations for such immense conflicts we are yet unable to imagine!53

These, then, were Flaubert's apprehensions about the future which, as a retrospective prophet, he depicted on a large canvas in Salammbô in terms of the social and racial conflict of the Mercenary War. The large number of combatants (at its peak the 40,000 rebellious soldiers were augmented by another 40,000 African insurgents and adventurers), the merciless nature of the conflict, and the shameless abuse and torture of prisoners (by rebels and Carthaginians alike) combined to make this struggle the kind of truceless war that was enacted once more in his own time and in the twentieth century. Obviously, the author of Salammbô shared the apprehension of many thinkers and artists of the nineteenth century that the involvement of the masses in politics would cause a lowering of standards and turn wars into instruments of savagery and mass destruction. This dread of politically and militarily mobilized masses was, for instance, also widespread among British intellectuals and members of the upper classes who believed that extension of the franchise beyond that of the Reforms of 1832 would bring about chaos and doom.

Another aspect of racial and class struggles that interested Flaubert was the question how a civilized group or class behaved when confronted by a relatively primitive aggressor. Would it be able to maintain civilized demeanor, or would it allow itself to be dragged down to the enemy's level? Evidence suggests that Flaubert considered “culture” but a thin veneer that readily peeled off when put under pressure. Counting its Canaanite-Phoenician origins, the civilization of Carthage was more than two thousand years old at the time of the Mercenary War. Nevertheless, it resorted all too quickly in kind to atrocities committed by the Barbarians. After some fierce fighting, especially the siege of Carthage and the battle for the city walls, no distinction exists any longer between Carthaginians and the Barbarians with respect to giving free reign to the lower instincts of vengeance, blood-thirstiness, and cruelty. Hamilcar, the Rich, the artisans, and the “people” are equally guilty of atrocities. The French experience of a comparable outburst of inhumanity during the June insurrection of 1848, which the military suppressed with rare brutality, became inscribed in Flaubert's consciousness. In this respect, too, ancient Carthage provided a suitable model for the present and the future.

The acts of organized violence Flaubert describes in his Punic novel as a precondition of charismatic rule and as a reflection of that of Napoleon III are all the more remarkable as an authorial accomplishment since he was not opposed to the emperor or Bonapartisme. Rather, the contrary is true, for as Jean-Paul Sartre has demonstrated along the lines of Flaubert's thought, “the personal regime, which is demonic in essence and antibourgeois in principle, cannot exist without constructing a strict hierarchic order from the top downward; hence it is the only [regime] that suits the artists or, at the very least, does not harm them. Therefore they must not question the Second Empire, but the props it had to pick […].”54 Flaubert not only forgave the emperor the insult of 1857 (the trial concerning Madame Bovary), but after being received in Saint-Gratien, Compiègne, and the Tuileries, and after he had indeed become the representative writer of the Second Empire, he identified with it. “Absolute art, pessimism, and the Second Empire, they all hang together.”55

While Flaubert supported the Second Empire and the institution of personal rule, his attitude toward Napoleon III remained ambivalent. Occasionally he belittled him as “Badinguet,” yet on the whole he approved of his reign for several reasons, both good and bad. As to the latter, the Realist writer and dissector of Emma Bovary was deeply gratified in perceiving the new president as a demoralizer who, on account of the poverty of his ideas and his lack of respect for everything, appeared to be the very leader the nation deserved: “[…] I am not of this century, for among my compatriots I feel as if I were in Nubia, and I am beginning seriously to admire the Prince-President who squashes this noble France under the heel of his boot. I would even kiss his behind in order to thank him personally, if there were not such a crowd that has already taken up this position.”56 Flaubert even took sardonic pleasure in the thought that with Louis Napoleon an incarnation of “le Garçon,” a foolish, humdrum, and conventional bourgeois, had seized power in France. But this was only one side of the coin. Flattered by the attentions of the imperial family (including the soirées at the residence of Princess Mathilde), he evidently was not quite able to keep his distance from the court and came to appreciate the advantage of personal rule, particularly since he favored such government on ideological grounds. Undoubtedly it also pleased Flaubert that Napoleon III sought to aestheticize the state by supplanting the prosaic routine of public life during Louis Philippe's bourgeois July-Monarchy with the glitter and pomp of imperial ceremonials. Sartre even believed he had discovered correspondences between Louis Napoleon's coup d'état and that of Flaubert in the realm of literature: both were the results of serious application and concentration.

It should have become clear that Hamilcar was not conceived as an ancient embodiment of either Napoleon. He is considerably larger in stature than the second emperor of the French, and he differs in too many personal aspects from the first. Hamilcar is described in the process of carving out for himself the position of an ancient tyrant, according to Flaubert “the most splendid manifestation of man that ever was.” Modern tyrants he held in lesser esteem; they struck him as “stupid, weak, and timid.”57 As a figure of antiquity, Barca is more original and daring than his modern European equivalents; everything he achieves he brings forth out of himself, whereas both Bonapartes can be seen as incarnations of the tempers of their times. They seized the opportunities their epochs offered by means of charismatic abilities, became focal points of specific political, social, economic, and moral conditions, and of the disposition of the nation as a whole. What Flaubert tried to portray in Salammbô, then, was not an ancient mask of particular French statesmen in his own age, but a political process disclosing the rise of the charismatic leader, of Bonapartism, and of the necessary preconditions, realities, and consequences of personal rule.

There are, to be sure, other parallels that can be drawn between the Punic Empire and modern France such as the similarity of their administrations in North Africa, the much-decried decadence of their civilizations, as well as possible analogies in the grandiose architectural reconstructions of Carthage and Paris. These correspondences have been treated by Anne Green. Nevertheless, a few annotations are necessary regarding Punic and French colonialism in present-day Tunisia and Algeria. Flaubert repeatedly emphasizes that Carthage exploited the native populations of its North African dominion, including the Numidians. Particularly in times of need it squeezed and pressed them as one does grapes at wine-making. As we have seen, the Punic state inflicted horrible punishments on those who failed to meet its requirements. The Numidian king Narr'havas explains his initial siding with the rebellious mercenaries with these very “facts.” And there is the impressive metaphor/simile of the “Phoenician galley anchored on Libyan sand,” which is rocked by the slightest storm because the suppressed natives join every invader. Undoubtedly Flaubert was very effective in presenting the Carthaginians as grasping masters whose subjects desired nothing as much as free themselves from their yoke. This would confirm Bernal's assertion that on such grounds and its well-publicized abominations the total destruction of Carthage was justified in the eyes of nineteenth-century Europeans and in Flaubert's.

Yet was it? As I have demonstrated, the sexual perversions of the Punics (e.g. holy prostitution, mass copulations, and orgies) may have attracted Flaubert to Carthage in the first place, for he and Du Camp engaged in comparable practices in the Orient, from Cairo to Beirut. Also, the sexual mores of the Parisian Bohème in Flaubert's time, especially the circle of the sculptor James Pradier, whose studio Flaubert frequented in the late 1840s and 1850s, were not that different from those of the Orient; if anything, they were more perplexing.58 Concerning Punic colonialism, Flaubert unquestionably knew two publications that compared Carthaginian and French methods of administration in dependent territories: Saint-Marc Girardin's article, “De la Domination des Carthaginois et des Romains en Afrique comparée avec la domination française” (1841) and Simonde de Sismondi's Les Colonies des anciens comparées à celle des modernes (1837).59 Both studies conclude that Carthaginian colonialism was more benign toward the native populations than that of modern France. For example, when French prisoners of war were murdered by Algerian freedom fighters, the French army responded with “razzias” in which natives were systematically slaughtered in order to intimidate the population as a whole and prepare it to submit more readily to French rule. The colonial French administration also expropriated the natives in order to settle French colonists. Of course Algerian Arabs and Berbers were not allowed to vote.

In his rendering of Carthaginian colonial measures, Flaubert obviously exaggerated their severity. One must assume that he who loved the Orient and did not voice any objections to the cudgelings in Alexandria, overstated the faults of the ancient Afro-Oriental empire in order to alarm his fellow Frenchmen about the perilous direction of their own government in Algeria. What should the fictional Carthaginians have done in lieu of their oppressiveness, emulated by the French? While it would be fashionable in today's sense of political correctness to demand that they should have built a multicultural society, such societies did not exist in antiquity nor in nineteenth-century Europe. In antiquity those genuinely “other” were “barbarians” or “gentiles” from Greek, Phoenician, and Jewish perspectives. In the nineteenth century such views continued to be upheld. Could Carthage have created a vast North African realm by granting citizenship to its subject peoples, as Rome did later?60 Rome survived for several centuries after enacting such legislation, but it, too, perished in the end.


  1. Together with the incisive Victor Brombert, there are Maurice Nadeau, Maurice Bardèche, R. J. Sherrington, Jonathan Culler, and Michal Ginsburg, as well as W. Wolfgang Holdheim in Die Suche nach dem Epos (1978) and Anne Green with the monograph, Flaubert and the Historical Novel: “Salammbô” Reassessed (1982). Except for Green's study, none of these works acknowledges the relevance of Flaubert's historical novel to the author's era.

  2. R. J. Sherrington, Three Novels by Flaubert (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1970) 231.

  3. R. B. Leal, “Salammbô: An Aspect of Structure,” In French Studies, 27 (1973) 17.

  4. Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, January 16, 1852.

  5. Even the Empress Eugénie asked Flaubert's advice for a “Punic” dress she intended to wear at a masked ball.

  6. For illustrations of works of art depicting Salammbô see “Anhang” to Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, transl. G. Brustgi, and commented by Monika Bosse and André Stoll (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1979) 365-400. See also Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in fin-de-siècle Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

  7. The quotation is taken from Hector Berlioz's homage to Salammbô. It appeared in Journal des Debats (December 23, 1863) and has been reprinted (in German) in “Anhang” to Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, transl. F. von Oppeln-Bronikowski, revised by Franz Cavigelli (Zurich: Diogenes, 1979) 360. Mussorgsky, on the other hand, incorporated substantial parts of the music he had written for “Salammbô” into his Boris Godunov.

  8. Besides Reyer's successful work, there were short-lived Salammbô-operas by Vincenzo Fornari (Salammbô e Zuma, 1881), Nicolò Massa (1886), and Joseph Mathias Hauer (1930). Also see Francis Steegmuller, “Salammbô: The Career of an Opera,” Grand Street, 4 (1984) 103-127.

  9. Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, transl. H. and S. Mitchell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983) 198.

  10. ———, Studies in European Realism, The Universal Library (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964) 91-92 and 89.

  11. ———, Studies in European Realism, The Universal Library (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964) 91-92 and 89.

  12. Gérard de Nerval is the exception, for he, too, saw the Orient with empathy.

  13. In fact, the much acclaimed “pax romana” never really existed, for Roman history appears to have been little more than a succession of wars, rebellions, invasions, etc. Yet Roman rule undoubtedly had a levelling effect on the cultural, social, and political particularities of its subject peoples. Of course this levelling effect was promoted by the use of Latin as the lingua franca.

  14. Michel Butor, Improvisations sur Flaubert, Éditions de la différence (Paris: Le Sphinx, 1984) 115-116.

  15. In lieu of “prostitution” some critics prefer to see Salammbô's act in the tent as a ritual sacrifice, but the term “prostitution” appears to be more appropriate in the context of Flaubert's other novels.

  16. Eugenio Donato, “Flaubert and the question of History: Notes for a Critical Anthology,” MLN, [Modern Language Notes] 91.2 (1976) 869.

  17. Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford and London: Oxford University Press, 1990) 5.

  18. Thomas Mann, “Der alte Fontane” [1910] in Adel des Geistes (Stockholm: S. Fischer, 1967) 486.

  19. This criticism of Sainte-Beuve, which he advanced in his well known review in Le Constitutionnel (December 8, 15, and 22, 1862), lies at the heart of all subsequent rejections of Salammbô as an Oriental historical novel.

  20. Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, transl. H. and S. Mitchell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963) 185.

  21. Indeed, some archaeological discoveries were made long after Flaubert had published Salammbô. This also pertains to a number of important coins which were either found or identified later.

  22. Christa Bevernis, “Vergangenheitsdarstellung und Gegenwartsbezug in Gustave Flaubert's Roman Salammbô,Beiträge zur romanischen Philologie, XI (1972) 22-38 and 29. See also Monika Bosse and André Stoll, “Die Agonie des archaischen Orients—eine verschlüsselte Vision des Revolutionszeitalters,” in Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, transl. G. Brustgi (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1979) 401-448; and Jeanne Bem, “Modernité de ‘Salammbô,’” Littérature, 40 (1980).

  23. Christa Bevernis, “Vergangenheitsdarstellung und Gegenwartsbezug in Gustave Flaubert's Roman Salammbô,Beiträge zur romanischen Philologie, XI (1972) 22-38 and 29. See also Monika Bosse and André Stoll, “Die Agonie des archaischen Orients—eine verschlüsselte Vision des Revolutionszeitalters,” in Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, transl. G. Brustgi (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1979) 401-448; and Jeanne Bem, “Modernité de ‘Salammbô,’” Littérature, 40 (1980).

  24. As to Hasdrubal, Gilbert and Colette Charles-Picard write in Chapter V of their study Daily Life in Carthage at the Time of Hannibal, transl. A. E. Foster (New York: Macmillan, 1961), that Hasdrubal determined Punic policy because he controlled the main revenues of the state and commanded the only large military force.

  25. Anne Green, Flaubert and the Historical Novel—Salammbô Reassessed (Cambridge, London, etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1982) 88.

  26. Monika Bosse and André Stoll, “Die Agonie des archaischen Orients—eine verschlüsselte Vision des Revolutionszeitalters,” 435.

  27. Bevernis, “Vergangenheitsdarstellung und Gegenwartsbezug …,” 29.

  28. Flaubert, Letter to George Sand, October 4 or 5, 1871.

  29. Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, May 15/16, 1852.

  30. Anne Green, Flaubert and the Historical Novel—Salammbô Reassessed, 60.

  31. Princess Mathilde, quoted in Flaubert, Lettres inédites à la Princesse Mathilde, ed. L. Conard (Paris: 1927) XXII.

  32. Anatole France, La Vie littéraire, III (Paris: Calmann Levy, n.d.) 298-299.

  33. See Eugen Haas, Flaubert und die Politik, Diss. (Heidelberg: 1931) 4-7.

  34. Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades, transl. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Knopf, 1948) 303.

  35. See Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, January 10-11, 1854.

  36. Flaubert, Letter to Sainte-Beuve, December 23-24, 1862.

  37. In his essay “Flaubert et le réel,” Mercure de France, Feb. 15, 1934, Jean-Jacques Mayoux asserts in a footnote that Hamilcar is Napoleon I.

  38. Karl Hammer and P. C. Hartmann, ed. Le Bonapartisme * Der Bonapartismus (Zürich und München: Artemis, 1977).

  39. Karl Ferdinand Werner, “Vorbemerkung,” ibid., XV-XVI.

  40. Jean Tulard, “Aux Origines du Bonapartisme: Le culte de Napoléon,” ibid., 8.

  41. Guided by the Code Napoléon as a guarantee of civil rights, the administration of Napoleon III regenerated the economic progress of the early 1840s through new banking institutions, international trade agreements, the tripling of railroad track, and public works improving the cities and harbors of France. Paris itself was transformed by the cutting of broad, tree-shaded avenues through ancient quarters, laying out large public parks, and the construction of monumental public buildings.

  42. Karl Marx, Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte (1852), (Berlin: Dietz, 1946) 111-112 and 113. See also Karl Marx, Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850 (1850), (Berlin: Dietz, 1951).

  43. Jeanne Bem, “Modernité de ‘Salammbô,’” Littérature, 40 (1980) 24.

  44. Karl Marx, Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, 114. The theme of prostitution, male and female, is also ubiquitous in L'Éducation sentimentale, where it manifests itself with particular explicitness in the figures of the banker Dambreuse, his wife, and Rosanette.

  45. This is a striking parallel to the reign of Napoleon III. Hamilcar not only poses as the spokesman of the people, but he also promised them their share in the golden future of Carthage. Indeed, once he launched his Hispanic venture after the conclusion of the Mercenary War, Carthage made a most speedy and remarkable recovery. Hispanic silver, labor, and troops provided the foundations of the Second Punic War with Rome. The North African metropolis enjoyed another, though short-lived, flourishing from which the people at large also benefited.

  46. Bosse and Stoll, op. cit., 433.

  47. At the conclusion of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre a comparable measure is enacted, when Mignon, another comet-like figure, is excluded from the rational Society of the Tower.

  48. The claim of the authors above that Hamilcar denies the proletariat a future by sacrificing his slave's child in lieu of his own son, cannot be maintained. Cruel as the deed is, the interpretation is all too pointed. The son of a slave does not constitute the proletariat, nor does the sacrifice of this one child signal the destruction of an entire class.

  49. Michal P. Ginsburg, Flaubert Writing (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986) 117-119.

  50. Karl Marx, Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, 17.

  51. Anne Green sees in the breaking down of the walls separating the various sections of Carthage a symbol of the mixing of the races. See Green, Flaubert and the Historical Novel—Salammbô Reassessed, 68.

  52. Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, March 25, 1853.

  53. Flaubert, Letters to George Sand, July 20 and August 3, 1870.

  54. Jean Paul Sartre, L'Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857 (Paris: Gallimard, l972) III, 463 and 469.

  55. Jean Paul Sartre, L'Idiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857 (Paris: Gallimard, l972) III, 463 and 469.

  56. Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, May 29, 1852.

  57. Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet, August 6 or 7, 1846.

  58. In mid-century fashionable Parisian society it was for example a disgrace to be seen with one's wife in the theater (only a mistress would do). As to sexuality, women were divided in two groups: those who were taboo and raised on a pedestal (mother, sister, bride) and available ones such as working girls (e.g the proverbial “grisette”), married women, and prostitutes). During the July monarchy of Louis-Philippe there was a proliferation of brothels in Paris, where customers could select from an extensive menu of sexual favors, including encounters with children and pregnant women. Child prostitution was not abolished in France until 1908. See Francine du Plessix Gray, Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet (New York, etc.: Simon and Schuster, 1994) 128-129.

  59. Saint-Marc Girardin, “De la Domination des Carthaginois et des Romains en Afrique comparée avec la domination française,” Revue des Deux Mondes, May 1, 1841, 413-414; and J. C. L. Simonde de Sismondi, Les Colonies des anciens comparées à celles des modernes (Geneva, 1837).

  60. The Romans granted citizenship to their allies (socii) in 89 B.C.; the inclusion of all “free provincials” followed with considerable delay in the Constitutio Antoniniana (A.D. 212).


My reading is based on Gustave Flaubert, Oeuvres complètes, 16 vols. (Paris: Club de I'Honnête Homme, 1971-75).

Vols. Xll to XVI contain his letters which follow Correspondance, ed. Louis Conard, 9 vols., fourth ed. (1926-33). The footnotes in my text concerning Flaubert's letters provide the dates of their composition. The translations are by and large my own. Although I am well aware of the fact that certain schools of contemporary criticism question the value of letters as an aid to interpreting literary works, I attach great significance to them. Flaubert, in particular, expressed his views on literature more freely in his correspondence than in any other medium. It is a matter of discretion how these epistolary views are applied.

In my text, citations from Flaubert's narratives are given in English. Those from Salammbô and from Flaubert in Egypt are followed by their page reference(s) in parentheses; quotations from other works are footnoted. All of them refer to the following editions:

Flaubert in Egypt, transl. and ed. Francis Steegmuller (New York: Penguin Books, 1996).

Madame Bovary, transl. Francis Steegmuller, Modern Library (New York: Random House, 1957).

Salammbô, transl. and intr. A. J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1977).

Sentimental Education, transl. Robert Baldick (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1975).

The Temptation of Saint Antony, transl. Kitty Mrosovsky (London, etc.: Penguin, 1980).

Three Tales transl. Robert Baldick (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1967).

Bouvard and Pécuchet, transl. A. J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1978).

Other Primary and Secondary Works

Bardèche, Maurice. L'Oeuvres de Flaubert (Paris: Les Sept Couleurs, 1974).

Bem, Jeanne. “Modernité de ‘Salammbô,’” Littérature, 40 (1980) 18-31.

Benjamin, Walter. “Literaturgeschichte und Literaturwissenschaft,” Gesammelte Schriften, ed. R. Tiedemann and H. Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1980), Werkausgabe III, 8, 283-290.

———. “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” Gesammelte Schriften, II, 1,2, 691-704.

———. “Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels,” Gesammelte Schriften, I, 1,1 203-430.

Bevernis, Christa. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung und Gegenwartsbezug in Gustave Flauberts Roman Salammbô,Beiträge zur Romanischen Philologie (1972) 22-38.

Bosse, Monika and Stoll, André. “Die Agonie des archaischen Orients—Eine verschlüsselte Vision des Revolutionszeitalters,” in Gustave Flaubert, Salammbô, transl. G. Brustgi (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1979) 401-448.

Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966).

Butor, Michel. Improvisations sur Flaubert (Paris: Le Sphinx, 1984).

Charles-Picard, Gilbert and Colette. Daily Life in Carthage at the Time of Hannibal, transl. A. E. Foster (New York: Macmillan, 1961).

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in fin‐de-siècle Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 1986).

Donato, Eugenio. “Flaubert and the Question of History: Notes for a Critical Anthology,” MLN, May-Dec. 91.2 (1976) 850-870.

———. The Script of Decadence: Essays on the Fictions of Flaubert and the Poetics of Romanticism (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993).

Du Camp, Maxime. Souvenirs littéraires (Paris: Librairie Hachette, 1882).

France, Anatole. La Vie littéraire, III (Paris: Calman-Levy, n.d.).

Gautier, Théophile. Le Roman de la momie (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966).

Ginsburg, Michal P. Flaubert Writing (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1986).

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. “Anhang” to his translation of Das Leben des Benvenuto Cellini (Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1981).

Goethe, Werke, 14 Vols, ed. Erich Trunz, Hamburger Ausgabe, 6th ed. (Hamburg: Wegener, 1965 ff.). The individual volumes were published in different years.

Gray, Francine du Plessix. Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet (New York, etc.: Simon and Schuster, 1994).

Green, Anne. Flaubert and the Historical Novel—Salammbô Reassessed (Cambridge, London, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1982).

Haas, Eugen. Flaubert und die Politik, Diss. (Heidelberg, 1931).

Hammer, Karl and Hartmann, Peter Claus, ed. Le Bonapartisme * Der Bonapartismus (Zürich and München: Artemis, 1977).

Holdheim, W. Wofgang. Die Suche nach dem Epos: Der Geschichtsroman bei Hugo, Tolstoi und Flaubert (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1978).

Leal, R. B. “Salammbô: An Aspect of Structure,” French Studies, 27 (1973) 16-29.

Lukács, Georg. “Erzählen oder Beschreiben? Zur Duiskussion über Naturalismus und Formalismus” (1936), in Begriffsbestimmung des literarischen Realismus, ed. R. Brinkmann (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1969) 33-85.

———. Studies in European Realism, (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964).

———. The Historical Novel (1937), transl. H. & S. Mitchell (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963).

———The Theory of the Novel (1906), transl. A. Bostock, sixth printing (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1983).

Mann, Thomas. Confessions of Felix Krull Confidence Man, transl. Denver Lindley, Vintage (New York: Random House, 1969).

———. “Death in Venice” and Seven Other Stories, transl. H. T. Lowe-Porter, Vintage (New York: Random House, n.d.).

———. Essays of Three Decades, transl. H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Knopf, 1948).

Marx, Karl. Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Napoleon (1852), (Berlin: Dietz, 1946).

———. Die Klassenkämpfe in Frankreich 1848 bis 1850 (Berlin: Dietz, 1951).

Mayoux, Jean Jacques. “Flaubert et le réel,” Mercure de France, February 15, 1934, 33-52.

Michelet, Jules. “Histoire Romaine,” in Oeuvres complètes, ed. P. Viallaneix (Paris: Flammarion, 1972) XI, 315-621.

Nadeau, Maurice. Gustave Flaubert, écrivain, Nouvelle édition revue (Paris: Les Lettres nouvelles, 1980).

Nerval, Gérard de. Oeuvres, 2 vols., ed. Henri Lemaître (Paris: Garnier, 1958).

Polybius. The Histories, 6 vols., transl. W. R. Paton, The Loeb Classical Library (London: W. Heinemann, 1922) I, 177-239.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism, Vintage Books (New York: Random House, 1994).

———. Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

Sartre, Jean-Paul. L'ldiot de la famille: Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1971-72).

Schwab, Raymond. The Oriental Renaissance—Europe's Rediscovery of India and the East, 1680-1880 [1950], transl. G. Patterson-Blackard and V. Reinking (New York: Columbia UP, 1984).

Scott, Walter. The Standard Edition of the Novels and Poems of Sir Walter Scott, ed. Estes and Lauriat (Boston: Dana Estes and Co., 1892 ff.).

Sherrington, R. J. Three Novels by Flaubert: A Study of Techniques (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1970).

Steegmuller, Francis. “Salammbô: The Career of an Opera,” Grand Street, 4 (1984) 103-127.

Weber, Max. “Die drei reinen Typen der legitimen Herrschaft,” in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, third ed. (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1923).

———. Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1923).


Critical Evaluation