Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was a French novelist noted for his mastery of the realist style of writing and his pervasive irony. His most famous work was the novel Madame Bovary (1857), which describes the adulterous, discontented life of a provincial wife. The book’s scanDalíous nature landed Flaubert in court on the charge of immorality, of which he was acquitted.
Flaubert influenced many other writers, including Joseph Conrad and the Italian novelist Giovanni Verga, who imitated his descriptive, realistic style. Flaubert is known to have agonized over the wording of every sentence he wrote. With this careful, meticulous approach, Flaubert developed a new school of writing known as realism, a style in which the author attempts to portray real-life scenarios as they are. The narrator does not judge the character, but leaves the reader to do so. Flaubert’s novels often contained mediocre, even miserable characters. He strove to portray them as vividly as possible, with details that shocked French society at the time.
Though Flaubert came from a family of doctors, he harbored a strong contempt for bourgeois society, which is reflected in his work. He was highly critical of the vanity and pettiness that he considered prevalent in society. Flaubert is also known for his extreme nihilism, in that he saw human life and time as empty and meaningless.
Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, Normandy, the son of a successful surgeon. During the 1840s he briefly studied law in Paris but failed his second- year exams. In 1844 he suffered a nervous attack, which led him to reevaluate his life and pursue a career in writing. During that time he also had an intimate relationship with the writer Louise Colet. After leaving Paris in 1846, Flaubert settled in Croisset, near Rouen. In 1848 he visited Paris and witnessed the February Revolution there, which gave rise to the Second Republic.
Flaubert’s most notable works include Salammbo (1862), a tale set in ancient Carthage, which he wrote following a visit there. He was awarded the Legion of Honor by Napoleon III shortly thereafter. He also wrote A Sentimental Education (1869), a story that deals with cynicism and doubt. Flaubert wrote this book to critique the failures of bourgeois society.
In The Temptation of Saint Anthony Flaubert demonstrates his deep interest in time and religion. The book is written as a play in which the protagonist, Saint Anthony, resists a succession of temptations during one night of prayer in the Egyptian desert. The early medieval Christian hermit stands firm against the Devil’s temptations, which come in various forms. Flaubert researched extensively for the book, reading 134 titles, in French and in Latin, on subject matter dealing with the ancient and medieval worlds. Flaubert worked on this book throughout his life, an attest to his perfectionist nature, and published a final version in 1874.
Some critics have classified Flaubert’s work with the romantic movement for its concern with the decadence of Western culture over time. Indeed, Flaubert viewed contemporary French society as vain and self-indulgent. He resisted labels, however, placing greater emphasis on style. Later in life, Flaubert became increasingly reclusive and rarely left Croisset, though he maintained correspondence with friends, including George Sand and Emile Zola. Following years of declining health, Flaubert died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1880, leaving his final novel, Bouvard et Pecuchet, unfinished.
James P. Bonanno
See also Alighieri, Dante; Joyce, James; Kafka, Franz; Mann, Thomas; Milton, John; Novels, Time in; Proust, Marcel; Woolf, Virginia
Lottman, H. (1989). Flaubert: A biography. Boston: Little, Brown.
Porter, L. M. (2001). A Gustave Flaubert encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Wall, G. (2001). Flaubert: A life. London: Faber and Faber.