Gustave Flaubert (December 12, 1821 – May 8, 1880) was a French novelist who, with near contemporaries Stendhal and Honore de Balzac, is credited with the development of literary realism. Decades before Henry James' explicit defense of the novel as an art form on equal standing to other fine arts, Flaubert elevated the novel through exacting literary craftsmanship. Flaubert's attention to the diction and cadences of prose—he sometimes spent a week in the completion of one page—contrasted with popular English novelists, like Charles Dickens or Anthony Trollope, whose prolific, often melodramatic, plot-driven novels were serialized for publication and composed under deadline constraints.
Flaubert's best-known and influential novel, Madame Bovary, explored the provincial life of the bored and adulterous Emma Bovary, realistically rendering her relationships and psychology without projecting moral judgment. Presenting Emma as a stifled and repressed romantic, Flaubert poured scorn on the banality of bourgeois conventions. The subject matter and realistic treatment outraged French society and Flaubert was brought up (and acquitted) on charges of obscenity.
The never-married Flaubert was notorious for his prodigious appetite for prostitutes and often expressed misogynist attitudes toward women. His disdain for women as moral, emotional, and intellectual beings provided a precedent for misogynistic treatment of women in Western literature.
Flaubert's aesthetic ideals influenced the development of the novel in Europe, America, and around the globe.
Flaubert's father, who serves as a model for the character Dr. Larivière in Madame Bovary, was a surgeon in practice at Rouen; his mother was from some of the oldest Norman families. Flaubert was educated in his native city and did not leave it until 1840, when he went to Paris to study law. As a youth he is said to have been idle at school, but to have been occupied with literature from the age of 11. In his youth, Flaubert was reported to be full of vigor with a certain shy grace, enthusiastic, intensely individual, and apparently without a trace of ambition.
He loved the country and found Paris extremely distasteful. He made the acquaintance of Victor Hugo, and towards the close of 1840, he traveled in the Pyrenees mountains and Corsica. Returning to Paris, he wasted his time daydreaming and living on his patrimony. In 1846, Flaubert abandoned Paris and the study of the law, returning to Croisset, close to Rouen, where he lived with his mother. This estate, a house in a pleasant piece of ground which ran down to the Seine, became Flaubert's home for the remainder of his life. From 1846 to 1854, he had an affair with the poet Louise Colet. His letters to her have been preserved, and according to Émile Faguet, their affair was the only sentimental episode of any importance in the life of Flaubert, who never married.
His principal friend at this time was Maxime du Camp, with whom he traveled in Brittany in 1846, and to Greece and Egypt in 1849. This trip made a profound impression upon the imagination of Flaubert. From this time forth, save for occasional visits to Paris, he rarely stirred from Croisset.
Flaubert was notorious for his prodigious appetite for prostitutes. "It may be a perverted taste," he once confessed in private correspondence, "but I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects." Flaubert contracted syphilis from his many liaisons.
In 1850, on returning from the East, Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary. He had previously written a novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony, but was unhappy with the result. It took him six years to write Madame Bovary. The novel was serialized in the Revue de Paris in 1857. The government brought an action against the publisher and against the author on the charge of immorality, but both were acquitted. When Madame Bovary appeared in book form, it met with an enthusiastic reception. Flaubert paid a visit to Carthage in 1858, in order to gather material for his next novel, Salammbô, which was not finished until 1862, despite the author's ceaseless effort.
Making use of many recollections of his youth and childhood, he took up the study of contemporary manners again, writing L'Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education). The composition occupied him for seven years, and was published in 1869. Up to this time, Flaubert's sequestered and laborious life had been comparatively happy, but soon suffered a series of misfortunes. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Prussian soldiers occupied his house. It was then that he began to suffer from nervous maladies.
His best friends had been taken from him by death or misunderstanding. In 1872, he lost his mother, and his circumstances became greatly reduced. He was very tenderly cared for by his niece, Caroline Commanville. Flaubert enjoyed a rare intimacy of friendship with George Sand, with whom he carried on a correspondence of immense artistic interest. He occasionally saw his Parisian acquaintances, Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev, and Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt; but nothing prevented the close of Flaubert's life from being desolate and melancholy. He did not cease, however, to work with the same intensity and thoroughness. La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, fragments of which had been published as early as 1857, was at length completed and sent to press in 1874, but in the same year he was subjected to the disappointment caused by the failure of his drama Le Candidat. In 1877, Flaubert published Three Tales (Trois contes), Un Cœur simple, La Légende de Saint-Julien l'Hospitalier and Hérodias. He spent the remainder of his life toiling over a vast satire on the futility of human knowledge and the omnipresence of mediocrity, which he left unfinished. This is the depressing and bewildering Bouvard et Pécuchet (posthumously printed, 1881), which he believed to be his masterpiece.
Flaubert aged rapidly after 1870, dying from apoplexy in 1880 at the age of only 58. He died at Croisset but was buried in the family vault in the cemetery of Rouen. A beautiful monument to him by Henri Chapu was unveiled at the museum of Rouen in 1890.
Flaubert was shy, and yet extremely sensitive and arrogant; he passed from silence to an indignant and noisy flow of language. The same inconsistencies marked his physical nature; he had the build of a guardsman with a Viking head, but his health was uncertain from childhood, and he was neurotic to the last degree. This ruddy giant was secretly gnawed by misanthropy and disgust of life. His hatred of the bourgeois began in his childhood and developed into a kind of monomania. He despised his fellow men, their habits, their lack of intelligence, and their contempt for beauty with a passionate scorn that has been compared to that of an ascetic monk.
Madame Bovary is Flaubert's first published and easily most famous novel. It remains one of the most frequently taught works of French literature both in that country and in comparative literature departments in universities across the world. The book was attacked for obscenity by public prosecutors when it was first serialized in La Revue de Paris between October 1 and December 15, 1856, resulting in a trial in January 1857, that made it notorious. After Flaubert was acquitted on February 7, it became a bestseller, and is now seen as one of the first modern realistic novels.
The novel focuses on a doctor's wife, Emma Bovary, who has adulterous affairs and lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life. Though the basic plot is rather simple, even archetypal, the novel's true art lies in its details and hidden patterns.
Madame Bovary takes place in provincial northern France, near the town of Rouen in Normandy. A doctor, Charles Bovary, marries a beautiful farm girl, Emma Rouault. She is filled with a desire for luxury and romance, which stems from her reading of popular novels. Charles means well, but is boring and clumsy. Emma believes that the birth of a baby boy will "cure" their marriage. After Emma gets pregnant and eventually gives birth to a daughter, she believes her life is virtually over.
Charles decides that Emma needs a change of scenery, and moves from the village of Tostes (now Tôtes) into an equally stultifying village, Yonville traditionally based on the town Ry. Emma flirts with one of the first people she meets, a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to share her appreciation for "the finer things in life." When he leaves to study in Paris, Emma begins an affair with a rich landowner, Rodolphe Boulanger. Swept away by romantic fantasy, she makes a plan to run away with him. Rodolphe, however, does not love her, and breaks off the plan the evening before it was to take place, with a letter at the bottom of a basket of apricots. The shock is so great that she falls deathly ill, for a time turning to religion.
Emma and Charles attend the opera in Rouen one night, and Emma again encounters Léon. They begin an affair: Emma travels to the city each week to meet him, while Charles believes that she is taking piano lessons. Meanwhile, Emma is spending exorbitant amounts of money. When Emma's debts begin to pile up and people begin to suspect her adultery, she sees suicide as her only means of escape. She swallows arsenic and dies, painfully and slowly. The loyal Charles is distraught, even more so after finding the letters that Rodolphe wrote to her. Soon after, he dies, leaving their daughter an orphan.
The book, loosely based on the life story of a school friend who had become a doctor, was written at the urging of friends, who were trying (unsuccessfully) to "cure" Flaubert of his deep-seated Romanticism by assigning him the dreariest subject possible, and challenging him to make it interesting without allowing anything out-of-the-way to occur.
Although Flaubert had little liking for the styles of Honore de Balzac or Emile Zola, the novel is now seen as a prime example of realism, a fact that contributed to the trial for obscenity. Flaubert, as the author of the story, does not comment directly on the moral character of Emma Bovary and abstains from explicitly condemning her adultery. Due to this decision, some accused Flaubert of glorifying adultery, creating a scandal—but it probably reflects instead the narrative strategy of the realist novel. The romantic writer generally is an omniscient author, inside the inner thoughts of each of his characters and free to comment on them. The realist approach tends to narrate from a more limited perspective of the individual character. Whether first person (subjective) or third (objective), this limited perspective depends on the plot to work itself and mete out justice or punishment. Considering Emma's perpetual disappointment and grim fate, the charge against Flaubert seems groundless, although it is clear that Flaubert does feel some sympathy for his character; Emma Bovary, c'est moi ("Emma Bovary is me").
Part of that sympathy derives from the pettiness and venality of the other characters in the novel. From the absurdity of the scientific "rational" figures, to the uselessness of the representatives of the church, to the self-serving bourgeois Lheureux (who tricks Emma into buying off credit from him), to the banality of Charles himself, Flaubert's creation depicts the world of proper society as spiritually bankrupt.
Realism aims for verisimilitude, the willing suspension of disbelief, through a focus on character development and on the plain details of everyday life. The movement was a reaction to the idealism of Romanticism, a mode of thought that rules Emma's actions. Emma's problem is that she is a romantic trapped in a realist novel. Her romantic delusions are crashed against the rocks of not only her social milieu, but also the rather ignoble characters with whom she falls in love. She becomes increasingly dissatisfied since her larger than life fantasies are, by definition, not able to be realized.
Flaubert's curious modes of composition favored and were emphasized by his own peculiarities. He worked in sullen solitude, sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page; he was never satisfied with what he had composed, violently tormenting his brain for the best turn of a phrase, the most absolutely final adjective. His incessant labors were not unrewarded. His private letters show that he was not one of those to whom easy and correct language is naturally given; he gained his extraordinary perfection only through his Herculean effort. Flaubert was a notorious perfectionist about his writing and claimed to always be searching for le mot juste (“the right word”).
The exactitude with which he adapts his expression to his purpose is seen in all parts of his work, but particularly in the portraits he draws of the figures in his principal romances.
Flaubert exercised an extraordinary influence over Edmond de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet and Emile Zola. But even after the decline of the realistic school Flaubert did not lose prestige; other facets of his genius became evident. His power of observation was second to none. Like his predecessor, Stendhal, Flaubert is most appreciated by other authors because of his craftsmanship. He viewed the lax felicities of improvisation as a disloyalty to the most sacred procedures of the literary artist.
His Œuvres Complètes (8 vols., 1885) were printed from the original manuscripts, and included, in addition to the works already mentioned, two plays, Le Candidat and Le Château des cœurs. Another edition (10 vols.) appeared in 1873–1885. Flaubert's correspondence with George Sand was published in 1884, with an introduction by Guy de Maupassant.
He has been admired or written about by almost every major literary personality of the twentieth century, including philosophers such as Pierre Bourdieu. Georges Perec named Sentimental Education as one of his favorite novels. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is another great admirer of Flaubert. Apart from Perpetual Orgy, which is solely devoted to Flaubert's art, one can find lucid discussions in Llosa's recently published Letters to a Young Novelist.
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