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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 285

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...

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584

Anthony has lived the life of a hermit for more than thirty years and now has come almost to the point of despair. He is extremely weary of life and of the world as he sees it from the limited point of view of his cell high in the mountains. At one time people had made pilgrimages to see him and be advised by him; these same people had furnished him with whatever money and clothing he needed. Everyone stopped coming years ago, however, and Anthony has begun to fear that his life is worthless. He then begins to long for the money, women, and goods of this world through which he might regain some sort of recognition and pleasure.

One night Anthony’s solitude becomes too much. He remembers his early life as a monk, with its adventures and successes, and he thinks of the things he might have done if he had not become a hermit. At last he decides that it is merely his own stubbornness that keeps him alone in the mountains. Rather than allow himself to be guilty of such a sin, he prepares to depart, but he gets no farther than the cleared area in front of his cell. Realizing that he has almost yielded to temptation, he throws himself onto the ground. Then, in order to regain his strength and courage, he reads from the Acts of the Apostles and tries to think. His mind, however, keeps coming back to worldly matters that still tempt him.

Anthony then begins to review in his mind the things that are a credit to him in this world, the good works of his life. He praises himself for hardships he has suffered and for the things he has denied himself. Again, he begins to feel sorry for himself; the desire for the money, goods, and women he was earlier denied becomes unbearable. He falls into a trance, and while he lies on the ground the Devil appears, his wings spread like those of a giant bat to reveal beneath them the seven deadly sins. Anthony awakes hungry and thirsty. Taking up a scrap of bread, which is all that he can find to eat in his cell, he throws it on the ground in anger. Then there appears before him a table laden with all manner of meat and fruit from which he might satisfy himself. As he watches, the table grows, and delicacies he has never seen before appear on it. Anthony almost indulges himself, but he realizes in time that this also is the work of the Devil. When he kicks the table, it disappears.

Soon afterward Anthony finds on the ground a silver cup that has a gold coin at the bottom of it. When he picks up the coin, another coin appears, and then another, until the cup fills and begins to overflow. As Anthony watches, he begins to dream of the power that could be his because of so much wealth. He soon sees himself as second in power only to the emperor, and he begins to think of the revenge he could take on all his enemies. He even imagines himself as the emperor, taking precedence in Church affairs over the fathers of the Council of Nicaea. During this time, however, his bodily form has become more and more degraded, until at last he sees himself as a beast. At this point, he awakes.

Anthony flogs himself furiously for indulging in such sinful dreams, but as he is doing so he becomes aware of the arrival of a caravan. Soon the Queen of Sheba presents herself before him with many promises of love and luxury, the only condition being that Anthony must give up his solitary life and live with her. Although she uses all of her feminine charms to lure him away, Anthony firmly resists the temptation she offers.

After she has disappeared, Anthony notices that a child, whom he supposed has been left behind by the caravan, is standing in the doorway of his cell. The child is Hilarion, a former disciple. As Anthony watches, the child grows to the height of a man and begins accusing the saint of leading a sinful life. He charges that Anthony’s abnegation is merely a subtle form of corruption, that his solitude simply frees him from the outbreak of his lusts, and that he only thinks he holds all the wisdom of the world because he is too lazy to learn anything new. When Anthony defends himself by saying that the Scriptures hold all the wisdom necessary for anyone, Hilarion points out various contradictions in the New Testament. He then tempts Anthony by offering to lead him to a knowledge of the Unknown, the sources and secrets of life. At this point Anthony falls into another trance.

When he again becomes aware of his surroundings, he finds himself in a large congregation that includes all the great heretics of history, each propounding his own theories of God and the universe. Some suggest that God is feminine. Others are devoutly following one aspect of Christianity, such as drinking the blood of Christ, while completely ignoring all other aspects. Some are warming their naked bodies by an open fire in order to show the purity of Adam in paradise. Soon a man dressed as a Carthaginian monk leaps into the middle of the crowd, names them all for the impostors they are, and drives them away. Anthony recognizes the monk as Tertullian and rushes forward to meet him, but he finds, instead, a woman seated alone on a bench.

The woman begins to talk about Montanus, whom she believes to be the incarnation of the Holy Ghost. When Anthony suggests that Montanus is dead, Montanus appears before them in the form of a black man. Then follows another succession of people, each propounding a different heresy, until a woman called Marcellina suggests that she can cause Christ himself to appear if she invokes him with the aid of a silver image. When she is put to the test, however, only a python appears. It quickly wraps itself around Anthony, and the people begin to proclaim him the Christ. Anthony swoons in horror.

When he awakes again, he finds himself in prison with the early Christians who were thrown to the lions, and he finds himself wishing that he too could give his life to God in such a way. Then Simon appears before him with a woman; Simon claims that she is the embodiment of all the infamous women of history and that she has now been cleansed through him. He offers Anthony the secret of his magic but disappears at the mention of holy water. Apollonius and his disciple then appear before Anthony and offer to describe the long road to salvation and immortality. Anthony is about to yield to their eloquence, but he draws back in horror when Apollonius begins to describe his visions and his power of curing the sick and predicting the future. These prove the hardest to resist of the temptations offered thus far; it is not until Anthony clings to the Cross and prays that Apollonius and his disciple disappear.

Nevertheless, Apollonius’s taunts that Anthony’s fear of the gods keeps him from knowing them awakens in him a desire to see them. Hilarion then causes to appear before him the gods of all ages. When Anthony laughs at them, Hilarion points out that there is an element of truth in each one, a fact that causes Anthony to grieve that these false religions can so easily lead one astray. He himself almost succumbs to the beauty of Olympus and the Greek gods, but he is able to repel their images by repeating the Apostles’ Creed. Although Anthony has seen and learned enough of the false gods, the vision continues until he confesses to a desire to see the Devil. He hopes that his horror of Satan will rid him forever, once there is a confrontation, of such an evil. When the Devil appears, Anthony is immediately filled with regret, but it is too late to recall his wish.

The Devil carries Anthony into space in order to show him that humankind and the world are not the center of the universe, that there are no limits to space and no purpose in its being. While the two engage in a discussion on the nature of God, the Devil attempts to dispel all of Anthony’s beliefs in divine goodness, love, and infinite power. He tries to show that before they can understand a God that has no limitations whatsoever, people must first understand the infinite. Spreading his wings to cover all space, the Devil shows himself to be infinite and calls upon Anthony to believe in him and curse God. Only by raising his eyes in a last desperate movement of hope is the saint able to rid himself of this evil.

When Anthony next awakes, the figures of Death and Lust confront him, each begging him to come and escape the ugliness of this world. Refusing to yield, Anthony is no longer disturbed by what had seemed the disparateness of all things. As dawn begins to break, he no longer feels afraid; he enjoys life once more. When the clouds roll back and he sees the face of Jesus Christ in the middle of the sun, he makes the sign of the Cross and resumes his prayers.

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