Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055

Gustave Flaubert began writing the first version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony on May 24, 1848, nine days after a communist uprising in Paris had briefly overturned the French government. He completed it on September 12, 1849, nine weeks after the French had restored Pius IX to the papal throne in spite of all Giuseppe Garibaldi had done to prevent it. Flaubert was, however, persuaded by his friends that the work was something unsuitable for public consumption, and he put it away. He turned his attention to a much more prosaic tale of temptation, Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), before returning to The Temptation of Saint Anthony in 1856. The resulting second draft was also shelved. The version that he published in 1874 was very different, being rather more compact and much more distanced as well as having a markedly different ending.

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Critics who hail Flaubert as the parent of French naturalism and Madame Bovary as a masterpiece of realism tend to dismiss The Temptation of Saint Anthony as a kind of aberration, but the posthumous publication of Flaubert’s earlier writings has revealed that it was a natural culmination of that work. In “Rêve d’enfer” (a dream of hell), written in 1837, for example, an alchemist encounters Satan, who also appears briefly in the rhapsodic “La danse des morts” (the dance of death, 1838) before giving a very elaborate account of himself in the phantasmagoric drama “Smarh” (wr. 1839), which almost qualifies as a preliminary sketch for The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The subject matter of The Temptation of Saint Anthony was decided when Flaubert saw Pieter Brueghel’s painting on the theme in 1845. The novel is the last and best of a series, then, in which the character and power of the Devil are minutely examined. The Devil is the central character of the story; Saint Anthony is merely a convenient lens through which the Devil’s works can be viewed.

Flaubert was wont to reply, when asked whether he had a model in mind for Emma Bovary, that she was himself. What he presumably meant by that was that his own imagination had been excited by romantic notions of much the same kind as those that lead her astray. As she does, he became desperate for a means of escaping from the appalling dullness of provincial life. He found his escape not so much in the various expeditions to the East that took him away from his mother’s house as in the work of literary composition in which he immersed himself profoundly—perhaps more profoundly than any other writer. When he prepared the 1874 version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony for publication he was in his fifties and his triumph over temptation was secure enough so that the Devil had become a figure of abstract interest whose devices he could describe and analyze in a relatively clinical fashion. In the 1874 version the Devil is not personally present in the final section, the last illusions that he sends are chimerical, and the final ecstatic revelation climaxes with a tranquil vision of Jesus. In the earlier versions, by contrast, the Devil remains present in person after waving aside his last illusions (science and the seven deadly sins), and his laughter continues to mock Anthony’s desperate prayer to the end. The final version has Anthony proclaiming, “O bliss! bliss!” The earlier ones have him wailing, “Pity! Pity!” Such is the distance a man may travel between youth and maturity.

In all its versions, The Temptation of Saint Anthony is an allegory of self-discovery in which religious faith is a sturdy but not invulnerable construction battered by all the doubts that intellect and imagination can raise. Flaubert differs sharply from other writers of Faustian fantasies in taking it for granted that the temptations of wealth and sex—the former represented by the cup and the coins and the latter by the Queen of Sheba and Ennoïa (the companion of Simon Magus)—are by no means the most powerful levers that can be applied against virtue. When other writers add further lures to these two old favorites (and very few have seen the need), they tend to do so in terms of some search for more extreme sensations. Flaubert, however, is much more interested in the intellectual temptations of paganism and heresy. The bribery implicit in Simon’s magic is easy enough to resist, but the mockery of Apollonius of Tyana is not, and the grandiose vision of the scientific cosmos displayed by the Devil is harder still to resist. This astonishing intellectual reach—reflected in the imaginative ambition of the melodrama—makes the work a masterpiece.

In the 1874 text, the wonders of nature, which provide the final challenge to Anthony’s piety, are quickly redrawn into the perverted image of the Chimera and the Sphinx. Anthony’s rejection of his tempters is represented as a victory, in stark contrast to the 1848-1849 text and the 1856 text, which rule any such victory impossible. In the earlier versions the Devil wins, not by carrying Anthony off to hell in the vulgar manner of some Gothic shocker but by granting him the intellectual legacy of his discoveries and condemning him to live with the sound of diabolical laughter forever resounding in his ears.

It is understandable that a novel first composed during Europe’s year of revolutions should have a much sharper awareness of the vulnerability of religious and political faiths than one prepared for publication in a relatively peaceful year, when stability seemed to have been restored after the horrors of the Paris Commune of 1871. The real change was, however, in the author’s own attitude. He had found his own particular domestic stability and intellectual security. Whether he had achieved this state by compromise or capitulation, and whether it was a triumph or a defeat, must remain a matter of opinion. The decision as to which of the various versions of The Temptation of Saint Anthony to rank most highly will follow in train. Critics who prefer the sobriety of middle age to the recklessness of youth, and the safety of careful conservatism to the hazards of radicalism, inevitably agree with Flaubert’s friends that the first version should have been hidden from public view, and perhaps that it should have remained hidden forever; others are free to have different opinions.

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