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.
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.
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.