The Temptation of Saint Anthony

by Gustave Flaubert

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Anthony, having lived a hermit’s isolated existence for several decades, is having doubts about whether his retreat from the world is truly serving his spiritual dedication to God. He had previously found value in sharing advice with, and receiving food from, pilgrims who reached his mountaintop hut, but they no longer seek him out. Affected by hunger and the desert heat as well as the stirrings of doubt, he contemplates leaving his hideout and reads scripture to help him decide. In the dead of night, Anthony begins to hear voices and see visions—visits from the Devil, who brings with him the seven deadly sins.

Singly or in groups, monsters arrive to torment him and beautiful objects, money, and sumptuous meals appear to tempt him. Flaubert drew many of these creatures not just from the Bible but from other cultural traditions and writings, forming a panoply of bizarre apparitions. Anthony also dreams of power, imagining himself a great emperor, and in turn in degraded animal form. Sexual temptation arrives personified as the Queen of Sheba. Yet another temptation, a former pupil, offers him more knowledge, even of the great secrets of life.

A complicated conversation with a wide array of heretics then commences, offering equally diverse religious unorthodoxies that have arisen at various times. At his worst, Anthony imagines himself as Christ. He must reject all of them—even the glorious Greek gods of Olympus. Finally, the Devil manifests himself once more and bears Anthony out into the farthest reaches of space, tempting him with control of the entire universe. This too he manages to resist, and awakens purified and with faith reaffirmed. In the glorious morning sun, he beholds the face of Christ.

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