Gustave Flaubert was born on Dec. 12, 1821, in Rouen. Rouen’s medieval charm, the bustle of its business (which revolted him), and the comfortable bourgeois ease that flowed from his father’s position as chief surgeon at the municipal hospital marked the sensitive child. Fearing his father, he found outlets for his overflowing affections in his mother and younger sister. His sister died in childbirth when Flaubert was 24, but his mother lived (usually with him) until his fiftieth year. He was tied to her by bonds of love and exasperation, which he never fully understood.
As an adolescent of 15, Flaubert fell platonically in love with an older married woman, Elisa Schlésinger, and remembered her ever after as a pure and unsullied love. A few years later he toyed briefly with the idea of marriage but never again seriously considered it. The young man was sent to Paris to study law, where his desultory efforts were largely unsuccessful. He had easy access to what he called “the bitter poetry of prostitution,” and this led to venereal disease, from which he never recovered. His attitudes toward women were colored by these experiences, and the subject of love became an obsessive focal issue in his works. He early linked sexuality to religion, which he felt was a similar longing for certainty always frustrated by doubt. Both areas brought him notions of doom, death, and annihilation.
In 1845 Flaubert had his first attack of temporal-lobe epilepsy. He was helplessly crippled by his seizures, which became hideous terror for him and recurred at intervals throughout his life. In 1846 he had to face the deaths of his father and his beloved sister. He abandoned his legal studies, since any emotional excitement brought on an attack of his malady. He must, he felt, become an observer of life and not a participant in it; thereafter he gave himself fully only to his writing. He did have love affairs, but they were never central to his life; most important were his stormy affairs with the poet Louise Colet in 1846-1847 and again in 1851-1854 and his affectionate relationship with Juliet Herbert, the governess of his niece, which began in the mid-1850s and lasted to the end of his life.
In literature alone Flaubert found no unbearable conflict, for he had been slowly evolving away from his childhood romantic ideal of the writer caught up in wild emotion as he wrote. Even before his illness he was moving toward a concept of writing as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” an esthetic of detachment easily concording with his physical state. It allowed quiet consideration of style, which he felt as essential to prose as it had long been considered to poetry. After several false starts he turned to writing TheTemptation of Saint Anthony, the story of the desert hermit of Egypt, which was a convenient focus for his concerns with religion and sexuality and for giving scope to his enjoyment of erudite research. He completed the first version in 1849, but unfortunately it proved unpublishable. This was a bitter blow, and during the next 25 years he intermittently revised the work.
After this failure Flaubert left immediately for a longplanned 20-month journey through the eastern Mediterranean, accompanied by his lifelong friend Maxime Du Camp. He had studied Egypt and the Holy Land for Saint Anthony, and their familiarity upon first sight confirmed his view that art could conjure up reality. He returned via Greece and Italy, the classical lands whose esthetic, with its insistence on simplicity, control, and serenity, formed a further focus in his work.
In 1851 Flaubert embarked upon Madame Bovary, on which he worked until 1856. It was published in 1857 and created a storm; Flaubert in fact was unsuccessfully tried on the charge of contributing to public depravity. In addition to satirizing the provincial bourgeoisie, this work tells of Emma Bovary, who as a girl attends a convent school where she acquires romantic notions of a lover who will live for her alone. She marries a good but simple doctor, Charles Bovary, who adores her but does not understand her romantic fantasies, and she then has two love affairs. When, at the end, she finds her dream world in shreds about her, she prefers death to accepting a world not consonant with her fantasies and commits suicide.
At a more profound level the book is the profession of faith of an author who had outgrown romanticism and knew its premises were false. The man of whom Emma dreamed could not exist; the only man who would tell her what she wished sought only an easy seduction. She was foredoomed from the moment she adopted romantic fantasies in the convent.
Madame Bovary can also be read as Flaubert’s view of modern woman, who has been perverted by society to shallow or false ideals and thus cannot follow her own nature to its true fulfillment in real love, which would combine in one transcendent experience the fullest physical experiences with the richest spiritual ones. These concepts, coupled with Emma’s death, embody Flaubert’s principal themes: sexuality, religion, and annihilation. The book is a masterpiece because of these underlying concerns and Flaubert’s analysis, and because of his success in giving them form in his novel.
Madame Bovary displayed a new technique for writing ironic novels which writers were to imitate for many generations. Flaubert’s doctrines may be readily summarized. He believed writers must write of the observed, actual facts; his documentation became legendary. To this extent he partook of the scientism of his period. He wished the writer to be, like the scientist, objective, impartial, impersonal, and impassive. But while the scientist generalizes his truths into a law of nature, Flaubert asked the writer to generalize his observations into an ideal, a type, whose dynamic power becomes apparent through the artistry of its presentation. Finally, Flaubert was a convinced Platonist who accepted the Socratic dictum that the True, the Beautiful, and the Good are one. If the writer presented the True through the Beautiful, his work would also be morally good.
The publication of Madame Bovary made Flaubert a celebrity. A floundering school of French writers who called themselves realists (markedly inferior to their later American counterparts) imitated Flaubert’s use of careful documentation and a rather commonplace subject and proclaimed him their master. In Paris he came to know most of the important people of his day: members of the imperial court, the Goncourt brothers, George Sand, to whom he became devoted, and later the younger men such as Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, and Ivan Turgenev. He withdrew, however, each spring to Croisset, a village near Rouen.
Flaubert’s next work, Salammbô (1862), recounted the revolt of the mercenaries against Carthage in the 3d century B. C. In it he gave free rein to his penchant for archeological documentation and his delight in the ancient world. Unfortunately the novel is tedious and repetitious, and few readers have been moved by this mythological account of the fusion of sexuality with religion and their joint culmination in death and annihilation. Flaubert’s scrupulously accurate reconstruction of antiquity, however, did influence later historical novels.
In 1864 Flaubert started work on A Sentimental Education, which was published in 1869. His great Parisian novel, this work is the equal of Madame Bovary although less popular. It presents a satiric panorama of Flaubert’s generation. The weak, cowardly hero, Frédéric Moreau, experiences early adoration for an older married woman, Marie Arnoux. This situation is drawn from Flaubert’s own life, and Marie Arnoux is one of his greatest creations. Frédéric tries many careers and penetrates most of the important milieus of France at the mid-century. Each new episode is a new hope for him; each ends in disillusionment. “A symphony in gray,” Flaubert’s Sentimental Education suggests that unfulfilled dreams are always superior to reality, which annihilates them. Henry James, James Joyce, and the “new novel” in France since World War II all owe something to it.
The end of the 1860s and the start of the 1870s were a period of disasters for Flaubert. He was stunned by the deaths of many of his closest friends. The minor poet and dramatist Louis Bouilhet had been his constant counselor and confidant for 20 years, and his death in 1869 was an irreparable loss. Flaubert also mourned the deaths of the critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1869) and the writer Théophile Gautier (1872). In 1872 he lost his mother, the culminating blow.
Flaubert’s despair shows in his next work, a revision (the third) of his earlier Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874). It summarizes his lifelong preoccupation with religion and proposes the doctrines of his friend Ernest Renan that all religions are equally true and equally false, equally beautiful and equally a source of anguished nostalgia since they all must perish. Religion and annihilation thus inform the book; sexuality, too, leads to the same end.
Flaubert had brought up the orphaned niece of his beloved sister. His niece met financial disaster in 1875, and he sacrificed his fortune in a vain attempt to stave off her ruin. Impoverished, unable to help her further yet despairing over both their plights, he turned with a humility he had never known before to the preparation of his Three Tales (1877). The first two of these are among the best 19th century French short stories.
“A Simple Heart” recounts the selfless devotion of a servant, Félicité, through a lifetime of service. The second, a retelling of the medieval “Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller,” shows the saint killing his father and mother and making atonement during the rest of his life. Neither tale is ironic; each conveys a symbolic message. The third tale, “Hérodias,” is less successful but states the message directly through John the Baptist, who gladly accepts his fate: for the Messiah to come, he, the predecessor, must willingly die. Félicité and St. Julian had also learned to put the welfare of others above their own and to seek happiness only in the fullness of love. It was the wisdom Flaubert had learned in his own sacrifices for his niece.
Flaubert began his uncompleted last work, Bouvard and Pécuchet, before the financial crisis of his niece; he continued it after he had finished the Three Tales. He thought of it as inaugurating a new genre, the philosophical novel; it has been the subject of much dispute. Two rather simple copy clerks come into an inheritance, retire to the country, and study one subject after another, each time with renewed excitement and hopefulness and each time ending in disaster. A Sentimental Education had reviewed all of contemporary society and found it hollow; all of religion had been examined in Saint Anthony and had been found wanting; so in Bouvard and Pécuchet, all knowledge is scrutinized and found futile. Much in Bouvard and Pécuchet is great satire; much is hilarious; much becomes deeply sad; but some of it has been deemed tedious. And in the absence of its second half, it is not absolutely clear what Flaubert intended to suggest. It was, however, a seminal work for James Joyce.
On May 8, 1880, Flaubert was struck down by a brain hemorrhage after having spent his last years in anguish.