Gustave Flaubert was a French leading novelist of the second half of the nineteenth century, largely considered today as having been one of the most important writers of all time. Flaubert would mark French literature and literature in general in several ways. By the depth of his psychological analyses, his concern for realism, his articulate transparent look at the behavior of both individuals and society, and finally by the sheer force of his style in great novels. This started from the beginning with his very first one, today a classic: Madame Bovary (1857).
Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12 1821 at the hospital in Rouen, a port city in northwestern France where famously Joan of Arc was tried and burned at the stake a few centuries before Flaubert in 1431. Hi father, Achille-Cleophas, was chief surgeon of that very same hospital. His mother, Justine-Caroline, was also the daughter of a doctor. Gustave had an older brother born in 1813 as well as a younger sister, Caroline, born in 1824. The family lived in a house attached to the hospital. The little Gustave’s childhood would be quite sad, spent mostly in the rather austere atmosphere of a hospital away from his older brother, a brilliant student who carried all of the family’s ambitions. By comparison Gustave felt rather passive, unstable, different and took refuge in literature.
Flaubert was a contemporary of the famous French poet, essayist and art critic Charles Baudelaire, and together with him he would come to occupy a pivotal position in nineteenth century literature. In his time both contested for moral reasons and admired for his literary force, he is today critically acclaimed as one the greatest novelists of his century. Over the many years Flaubert’s commitment against the aesthetics of serial novels by writing longer “slow novels” has been pointed out by many. Additionally, Flaubert’s ironic and pessimistic outlook on humanity as a whole makes him a great moralist. HisDictionnaire des idee recues (Dictionary of Received Ideas) provides an ample overview of his talent in that domain as well.
Strongly and personally influenced by the work of the famous French writer Honore de Balzac, Flaubert would take up some of the same themes and position himself in Balzac’s line of realistic novels: Madame Bovary is clearly inspired by Balzac’s La Femme de trente ans - The Thirty year old woman andL’Education sentimentale - Sentimental Education is another version of Balzac’sLys dans la vallee - Lily of the Valley. Flaubert would also become very concerned with aesthetics, hence the long process of preparation he famously would go through for each work. Going as far as, for example, testing each of his texts by using the “gueuloir” (screamer) technique, which consists of reading them out loud. Additionally, he is clearly so obsessed by Balzac’s example that we can read in his revealing notes, often in the margins of his original manuscripts, things like “stay away from Lys dans la vallee” and “be wary of Lys dans la vallee.” We may attempt to do justice to his overall writing by talking of four pillar works in Flaubert’s impressive oeuvre.
With his first novel, Madame Bovary (1857), he would found what has come to be known as “bovarysm”, a term still denoting today an inclination toward escapism, that is, daydreaming in such ways that the dreamer imagines being heroic while ignoring reality. Flaubert would start the novel in 1851 and would work at it for five years. In October 1856 the text is published in the “Revue de Paris” (Paris Review) in a serialized form as a kind of soap opera in text. It is published little by little all the way until December of the same year. In February 1857, the manager of the review, the printer, and Flaubert himself are put on trial for “outrage a la morale publique et religieuse et aux bonnes moeurs” (insulting public and religious morality). In the end Flaubert would be blamed for the vulgar and often shocking realism in which he portrayed his fictional characters. However, he would soon be cleared thanks in part to his supporters in both artistic and political fields. Subsequently, the novel itself would become a major bestseller. The story begins as follows:
After completing his studies in a country town school, Charles Bovary sets himself up as a medical officer and gets married to a rich widow. On the death of this one Charles marries a young woman, Emma Rouault, who had been brought up in a convent, and who now lived on a farm with his father, a wealthy farmer who was also a patient of Charles. Emma would let herself be seduced by Charles and married him. But as time went by she started despising her husband. Fascinated by her teenage readings of romantic novels, she dreamed of a new life and would leave her maternal role behind and meet despicable lovers who end up turning her life upside down.
Second, Salammbo, which would be the novel Flaubert writes right afterMadame Bovary. Flaubert indeed begins to work at it in September 1857, just a few months after winning the lawsuit that had been filed against Madame Bovary. It seems clear the trial had taken its toll on Flaubert, for a few months later he had written a letter to the French writer Mrs. Leroyer de Chatepie, with whom he would correspond during 19 years, telling her at that point of his wish to extricate himself from the contemporary literary world, and to instead work on a novel taking place three centuries BC.
From April to June 1958 Flaubert moved to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, a port on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, in order to soak himself in the environment of the story he was working on. Even though the plot is fictional Flaubert got inspiration from Greco-Roman texts by Polybius, Appian, Pliny, Xenophon, Plutarch and Hippocrates, in order to create the right authentic atmosphere. Right upon its release in 1862, the novel was an immediate success and that in spite of some criticisms by the French writer and literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve. Moreover, even writers such as Victor Hugo, Jules Michelet and Hector Berlioz who had a critical eye on the piece did give Flaubert encouragements.
The novel begins with the paragraph entitled “The Feast”. Mercenaries are celebrating the end of war in General Hamilcar’s gardens in Carthage, which was an ancient city situated on the North African coast near present-day Tunis. Hamilcar was a Carthaginian general and father of Hannibal, who would be another Carthaginian general. Upset by both Hamilcar’s absence as well as the memory of the injustices they had endured in Carthage the mercenaries wound up and started to ravage Hamilcar’s property. Salammbo, Hamilcar’s daughter whose name the novel is entitled after, at that point comes down from the palace to try and calm them. Matho and Narr’havas, both leaders in the mercenaries‘ camp end up falling in love with Salammbo. Spendius, a slave who had been liberated during the rampage becomes at the service of Matho and advises this one to prepare a coup in order to take over Carthage and thus get Salammbo.
Third, with L’Education Sentimental (Sentimental Education) Flaubert positions himself between a psychological novel such as the ones known at the time by Stendhal, and what would become the naturalistic movement of say Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, both of whom would in fact acknowledge years later Flaubert as being their master. The novel is written between September 1864 and May 1869. It contains many autobiographical elements such as the first meeting with Marie Arnoux and Elisa Schlesinger. The latter would become known as Flaubert’s muse and both of them would in fact also become the model of some of his fictional characters. The novel’s protagonist is the eighteen years old provincial Frederic Moreau who had come to study in Paris. Flaubert describes that from 1840 to 1867 Frederic experiences the unfailing friendships, but also the power of stupidity, art, politics, the revolutions of a world that wavers between monarchy, republic and empire. Several women go through his life but none compare to Marie Arnoux, wife of a wealthy art dealer, and somebody who he is madly in love with. It is in the experience of this unconsummated passion together with that of the world’s contingencies that Frederic gets his “Sentimental Education”, which amounts essentially to gradually burning each and every single one of his illusions.
Finally, fourth, we have Bouvard et Pecuchet. Flaubert?s project with this novel goes at least as far back as 1872 since we know he states his intention to write it in a letter to the famous French woman known as a powerful writer under the alias of George Sand. Flaubert’s intention is to write a mockery of the vanity of his contemporaries. Between the idea of the novel and the writing interrupted by his death on May 8th 1880 he would have the time to collect an impressive research documentation made of about 1500 books, which is what the novel is often known for. Flaubert had entertained the idea of giving the novel the subtitle of “Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity”. The comedy in what Flaubert did write of the book comes from the frenzy of two friends who want to know and experience everything but who are clearly unable to actually understand anything correctly. Flaubert would be able to write only the first part of the book outline and while many were reserved in their reception of it, some do consider the work to be a masterpiece.