The Temptation of Saint Anthony

by Gustave Flaubert

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796

. . . all turn their eyes toward the west, whence enormous whirlwinds of dust are seen approaching. It is the coming of the monks of the Thebaid, all clad in goatskins, armed with cudgels, roaring a canticle of battle and of faith with the refrain: "Where are they? Where are they?” Anthony understands that they are coming to kill the Arians. The streets are suddenly emptied—only flying feet are visible. The Solitaries are now in the city. Their formidable cudgels, studded with nails, whirl in the air like suns of steel. The crash of things broken in the houses is heard. There are intervals of silence. Then great screams arise. From one end of the street to the other there is a continual eddy of terrified people. Many grasp pikes. Sometimes two bands meet, rush into one; and this mass of men slips upon the pavement—fighting, disjointing, knocking down. But the men with the long hair always reappear. Threads of smoke begin to escape from the corners of edifices!

Here Flaubert's St. Anthony is imagining his monastic brethren of the desert descending in murderous fury upon on the great city of Alexandria and killing the prosperous Arian Christians. Anthony imagines himself among the righteous monks massacring his religious enemies, men, women, and children in a fury of righteous indignation. He spares none and ends up covered in blood as he and his fellow monks go house to house killing heretics, destroying their luxuries, and burning their fine city. This is a temptation that Anthony is indulging in. He wants his opponents killed and even to kill them by his own hand. He is struggling to overcome hatred of his enemies that Christ has taught him to love.

A white elephant, caparisoned with a golden net, trots forward, shaking the tuft of ostrich plumes attached to his head-band. Upon his back, perched on cushions of blue wool, with her legs crossed, her eyes half closed, her comely head sleepily nodding, is a woman so splendidly clad that she radiates light about her. The crowd falls prostrate; the elephant bends his knees; and the Queen of Sheba letting herself glide down from his shoulder upon the carpets spread to receive her, approaches Saint Anthony. Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by colored designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac. She wears very high pattens—one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle.

Here St. Anthony imagines himself courted by the Queen of Sheba. The image is almost comic. Clearly, the stories of the Torah or Old Testament have gone to his head and he is enraptured by the magnificence of her person and her retinue as he has conjured them in his own head. The Queen calls him handsome and tells him how long she has been looking for him and proposes marriage to him. She proffers the exotic wedding gifts she has brought to him and relates the magnificence of her domains and palaces, the fine clothes Anthony will wear, and not least her own feminine charms. Anthony rejects her advances with represent the pride of life and the lusts of the flesh. Passages like this also give the author the opportunity to display his talent for exotic imagery and settings which were highly prized in the age of literary romanticism.

Hypocrite! burying thyself in...

(This entire section contains 796 words.)

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solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires! What if thou dost deprive thyself of meats, of wine, of warmth, of bath, of slaves, or honours?—dost thou not permit thy imagination to offer thee banquets, perfumes, women, and the applause of multitudes? Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it!

In this penetrating passage Anthony's philosophical student Hilarion, whom he had presumed had abandoned him, castigates him for his foibles. Hilarion is right on the mark as Anthony has just been indulging every vain fantasy imaginable from striding the royal palace and public circus of Constantinople at the emperor's side, to imagining himself as King Nebuchadnezzar feasting and indulging in all manner of wickedness, to killing the Arian Christians of Alexandria with his own hands, and being courted by the Queen of Sheba. Hilarion reproves him by reminding him that Jesus himself traveled with friends, reposed beneath olive trees, and frequented the houses of publicans (pubs) and drank wine. The truth of the reproach strings Anthony to his core.