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.
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...
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