Gustave Flaubert - World Literature

World Literature

Gustave Flaubert


BORN: 1821, Rouen, France

DIED: 1880, Croisset, France


GENRE: Fiction, drama


Madame Bovary (1857)

Salammbo (1863)

Sentimental Education (1870)



Gustave Flaubert. Popperfoto / Getty Images



The most influential French novelist of the nineteenth century, Flaubert is remembered primarily for the stylistic precision and dispassionate rendering of psychological detail found in his masterpiece, Madame Bovary (1857). Although his strict objectivity is often associated with the realist and naturalist movements, he objected to this classification, and his artistry indeed defies such easy categorization. Flaubert struggled throughout his career to overcome a romantic tendency toward fantastic imaginings and love of the exotic past. A meticulous craftsman, he aimed to achieve a prose style ‘‘as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science.''


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Tumultuous Century in French History. France during the nineteenth century was a place of frequent political turmoil and intrigue. The monarchy had only recently been removed from power during the French Revolution, in the final years of the eighteenth century. A republic was established in its place, though the country eventually came under the control of military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, who declared himself emperor and whose tyrannical and imperialist rule was in many ways not unlike the monarchy that had recently been deposed. After Napoleon was removed from power in 1815, an official monarchy was established once again, though the royal family’s power was no longer absolute. This resulted in a period of relative peace during the 1830s and 1840s; however, the dissatisfaction of the working class—who for the most part were not able to vote, since they did not own property—erupted in 1848 with another revolution. Once again the vacuum of power left in the newly established republic led to a single leader with extensive powers, and once again his name was Napoleon: Louis Napoleon, nephew of the former emperor. He ruled from 1852 until 1870, when he was removed from power and yet another republic—known as the Third Republic—was established. These tumultuous times inevitably informed Flaubert’s writing, most notably in his last novel, Sentimental Education (1870).

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France, where his father was chief surgeon and clinical professor at the city hospital, the Hotel Dieu, and his mother was a well-known woman from a provincial bourgeois (middle-class) family. Flaubert lived with his parents, brother Achille, and sister Caroline in an apartment at the hospital. As a youth he attended the College Royal de Rouen, traveled with his family throughout France, and spent summer vacations at Trouville. It was in Trouville that he first met Maria-Elisa Schlesinger, a married woman for whom he harbored a lifelong infatuation and who deeply influenced the character and direction of Sentimental Education. Although Flaubert was interested in literature and began to write at an early age, upon receiving his baccalaureate he honored his parents’ wishes and reluctantly began law school in Paris. In 1844 his studies were disrupted when he experienced the first attack of what is now believed to have been epilepsy. As a result, he abandoned his plans for a law career and devoted himself to writing. Both his father and sister died in 1846, and the author, his mother, and his infant niece moved to the family home at Croisset, near Rouen. Except for several trips abroad and to Paris, including one to that city in 1848 to observe the February Revolution ‘‘from the point of view of art,’’ Flaubert remained at Croisset until his death.

Madame Bovary. Often described as a satire on romantic beliefs and the provincial bourgeoisie, Madame Bovary relates the story of Emma Bovary, a bored housewife whose dreams of romantic love, primarily gathered from popular novels, are unfulfilled by her marriage to a simple country doctor. She attempts to realize her fantasies through love affairs with a local landowner and a law clerk, and later through extravagant purchases. Unable to pay her debts and unwilling to bear her disgrace or conform to bourgeois values, she commits suicide. This novel, Flaubert’s first to be published despite years of writing and several completed manuscripts, initially appeared in installments in La Revue de Paris. Although serious critics immediately recognized in Madame Bovary a work of immense significance, the French government censored publication of the Revue. Flaubert, his printer, and his publisher were tried together for blasphemy and offending public morals. All were eventually acquitted, and both Flaubert and Madame Bovary acquired a certain notoriety. Flaubert came to resent the fame of Madame Bovary, which completely overshadowed his later works, saying he wished to buy all the copies, ‘‘throw them into the fire and never hear of the book again.’’

Later Work. After Madame Bovary, Flaubert sought a new subject that would be far from the bourgeois provincial setting over which he had labored so long. Once again turning to the past, he traveled to Carthage to gather material for Salammbo (1863), a historical novel whose exotic subject matter and opulent setting are reminiscent of the romantic tradition but whose descriptive technique is rigorously objective. In 1859, well into the writing of Salammbo, he wrote to Ernest Feydeau: ‘‘The deeper I plunge into antiquity, the more I feel the need to do something modern, and inside my head I’m cooking up a whole crew of characters.’’ Commentators agree that this ‘‘crew of characters’’ ultimately became the cast of Sentimental Education. Although not as well known or as widely read as Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education is currently regarded as one of his greatest achievements, both for its commentary on French life in the nineteenth century and for what it reveals, through its autobiographical content, about one of the greatest writers of France.

Flaubert was burdened in his last years by financial difficulties and personal sorrow resulting from the deaths of his mother and several close friends. He was also saddened by the feeling that his works were generally misunderstood. He enjoyed close friendships with many prominent contemporaries, however, including George Sand, Ivan Turgenev, Henry James, and Guy de Maupassant, the latter serving as his literary apprentice. A complex personality, obsessed with his art, Flaubert is perhaps best understood through his voluminous Correspondence (published 1894-1899). In these candid and spontaneous letters, Flaubert chronicles his developing literary philosophy and the meticulous research and writing of his works.



Flaubert's famous contemporaries include:

Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893): Flaubert's protege, Maupassant is considered one of the first, and greatest, modern short-story writers. His stories often feature intricate and clever plot twists and sudden, unexpected endings.

Harriet Tubman (1821-1913): African American abolitionist and Union spy during the United States Civil War; Tubman rescued more than seventy slaves using a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. In the postwar era, Tubman struggled for women's suffrage.

Emile Zola (1840-1902): Zola is remembered as both an important naturalist writer and a leader in radical French politics. In 1898 Zola came to the defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer who had been railroaded partly on anti-Semitic grounds; Zola's essay "j'accuse" (''I accuse'')—for which he was brought up on libel charges—remains one of the best examples of political agitation against institutionalized oppression.

William Henry Vanderbilt (1821-1885): American businessman, philanthropist, and wealthy son of Cornelius Vanderbilt. During his life, Vanderbilt was the richest man in the world as no living person, even the world's richest royalty, approached him in wealth at the time of his death.

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883): In contrast to his contemporaries and fellow novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Turgenev lobbied for increased westernization of Russia. His views put him at odds with many of his countrymen, and he spent much time abroad, forging a close friendship with Flaubert during his time in Paris.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885): A leader of the French Romantic movement, Hugo was also a poet, playwright, politician, and essayist. He is best remembered today for his novels Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre- Dame.


Works in Literary Context

Flaubert’s name has long been linked to realism, and Madame Bovary has long figured as a sacred text of literary ‘‘mimesis’’ (the representation of reality). Flaubert’s lesser-known The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1895) uses autobiography as both theme and inspiration to tell the story of a fourth-century Christian hermit. The novel revisits other common Flaubertian themes, including destruction and creation.

Realism. The earliest recorded use of the term realism came in a Parisian periodical of 1826. Having defined it as a ‘‘literary doctrine ... that would lead to the imitation not of artistic masterpieces but of the originals that nature offers us,’’ the journalist added that realism ‘‘might well emerge ... as the literature of the nineteenth century, the literature of truth.’’ Realism was not to achieve wide currency until the 1850s, however, and then it would be used in conjunction with a certain style in painting, in particular the paintings of Gustave Courbet. Realism was rarely used without the epithet sordid or vulgar. Despite the fact that Flaubert refused to think of himself as a realist, his name has been long associated with realism. In fact, Madame Bovary figures often as its canonical text. In fact, Flaubert’s descriptions in this novel were considered so grotesquely realistic that the government charged both the author and the publisher with immorality (though both parties were acquitted).

Flaubert believed writers must write about observed, actual facts, which relates to the devotion to science indicative of this period. In this sense, he was very much a realist. He wished the writer to be, like the scientist, objective, impartial, and impersonal. Flaubert was also a Platonist who believed in the Socratic dictum that the True, the Beautiful, and the Good are one. He was convinced that if the writer presented the true through the beautiful, his work would also be morally good.

Social Criticism. Although Flaubert sought to depict objective reality in his works, themes of social criticism are apparent as well, with a clear reflection of specific attitudes regarding social class. In Madame Bovary, the ambition and vanity of Emma Bovary leads her to live beyond her means; many see this as a condemnation of the bourgeois middle class of the period, many of whom envied the life of aristocrats but still had to work for a living. Likewise, ambition becomes the downfall of Emma’s husband, Charles, who is a doctor. He is convinced by a colleague to attempt a risky and unnecessary surgery that could possibly expand his reputation; the surgery is disastrous, however, and the patient loses a leg. Flaubert also depicts the complicity of merchants and moneylenders in creating an atmosphere of unhappiness through the character of Monsieur Lheureux. He convinces Emma to buy unnecessary goods on credit, which leads to a destructive cycle of debt from which she never escapes.

Autobiography. The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a difficult work to describe. It could be called a philosophical prose poem or a dramatic narration and dialogue. Flaubert’s identification with Anthony is at the heart of this strange work. There can be little doubt that this is a portrait of the artist himself, of an obstinate artist who resisted all self-doubt and every temptation in order to remain faithful to his self-imposed mission to his text. It also reflects the fear of decadence that haunted the nineteenth century. This was the legacy of the historical relativism of the Enlightenment related to the comparative study of religions in Flaubert’s day.



Flaubert is perhaps the most well-known realist author, but he was hardly the only writer to produce classic works in that genre. Some others are:

Germinal (1885), a novel by Emile Zola. A writer of the naturalist school, which followed directly and built upon the tropes of realism, Zola's meticulous approach to his research and writing put even Flaubert to shame. In this, his thirteenth novel and widely acknowledged masterpiece, Zola tells the story of a French miners' strike in unrelentingly harsh and realistic terms.

Adam Bede (1859), a novel by George Eliot. The pen name of Mary Ann Evans, who used a male name to make sure her books would not be dismissed out of hand, Eliot was one of the most successful realist writers of the nineteenth century. This, her first published novel, tells a story of accusations of child murder set in a small rural village.

War and Peace (1869), a novel by Leo Tolstoy. Perhaps the best-known novel of all time, Tolstoy's first great masterpiece, which traces the fortunes of five Russian families during the Napoleonic wars, is also considered by some to be the pinnacle of realist literature.

''The Necklace'' (1884), a short story by Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant was a protege of Flaubert and took the latter's novelistic techniques and refined them to masterly usage in the short-story format. In this, the most well-known of his short stories, the author weaves a tale of middle-class aspirations and lost dreams and ends with one of his trademark twist endings.


Works in Critical Context

Although some critics fault his pessimism, cold impersonality, and ruthless objectivity, it is universally acknowledged that Flaubert developed, through painstaking attention to detail and constant revision, an exquisite prose style that has served as a model for innumerable writers. Today, commentators consistently acknowledge Flaubert’s contribution to the development of the novel, lauding Madame Bovary as one of the most important forces in creating the modern novel as a conscious art form. Recognized for its objective characterization, irony, narrative technique, and use of imagery and symbolism, Madame Bovary is almost universally hailed as Flaubert’s masterpiece.

Madame Bovary. Perhaps because of the notoriety that Madame Bovary earned upon its serial publication in 1856, the book enjoyed popular success. Its charms were not entirely lost on reviewers, either, with many popular figures—including Charles Baudelaire—commenting positively about the work. Critic Charles Augustin Saint-Beuve, writing in Causeries du Lundi, stated, ‘‘Madame Bovary is first and foremost a book, a carefully composed book, amply premeditated and totally coherent, in which nothing is left to chance and in which the author or, better, the painter does exactly what he intends to do from beginning to end.’’ An unsigned essayist from the Atlantic Monthly, writing in 1891— several years after the first English translations of the novel had appeared—contended, ‘‘The truth of Madame Bovary has stamped its impress deeply into literature, and the word ‘realism’ would have to be widely diverted from its simple and spontaneous meaning to exclude such a work from its category.’’ Harry Thurston Peck, in an 1895 essay for Bookman, offered this evaluation: ‘‘The vividness and truth of its every character, the compact and muscular form in which it is cast, the absolute perfection of its style, all raised it to the rank of a classic from the moment of its completion.’’ Critical opinion of the novel has only improved in the decades that followed, and it is widely recognized as one of the greatest novels ever written. Michael Dirda, in a 2004 review for the Washington Post, called the book ‘‘the most controlled and beautifully articulated formal masterpiece in the history of fiction,’’ and further stated that ‘‘if you’ve never read it, or if you’ve only worked through it in first-year college French, you need to sit down with this book as soon as possible. This is one of the summits of prose art, and not to know such a masterpiece is to live a diminished life.’’ Nearly fifty American editions have been issued, while there have been more than a dozen different translations into English. T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound all found in Flaubert a master from whom a lesson in writing could be learned. Pound unabashedly proposed Flaubert to his compatriots as an example to be appreciated and followed: ‘‘America needs a Flaubert to generalize and register the national folly without a tender hand.’’ Joyce is said to have read everything by Flaubert that was in print and to have learned whole pages by heart.

Sentimental Education. Flaubert encountered more critical woes with the publication of his novel Sentimental Education. During the writing process, he was tormented by doubts about the book. While he intended to sketch bourgeois characters, he scorned the bourgeoisie and feared his readers would too. He also doubted his ability to depict the characters effectively. Flaubert’s many misgivings about Sentimental Education were realized immediately after the work’s publication. Critics derided the book: They accused him, as they had with Madame Bovary, of baseness and vulgarity; questioned his morality; attacked the novel’s descriptive passages as tedious and redundant; deplored the absence of a strong hero; labeled the narrative awkward and disjointed; resented Flaubert’s exposure of illusions held dear about the political events of 1848; and even claimed that

Flaubert had lost forever what literary skills he may have once possessed. The reviews were so negative, in fact, that Flaubert suspected he was the victim of a plot to defame him. Yet modern scholars generally agree that the explanation is much simpler: Most readers were not ready for what appeared to them to be a novel in which subject, plot, and character were merely background features, and few could easily bear its despairing tone and bleak atmosphere.


Responses to Literature

1. Gustave Flaubert has been called the master of ‘‘Art for Art’s Sake.’’ Research the literary school of realism and the idea of ‘‘art for art’s sake’’ and discuss Flaubert’s work in those terms.

2. Flaubert, it is said, was attempting to write realistically, to report what he saw, and to write with the beautiful precision of the language of science. Discuss how a work of literature can be said to resemble, in style, tone, rhythm, or diction, a piece of music or a work of science.

3. Read Madame Bovary and discuss the various parallels between that novel and the short story ‘‘A Simple Heart.’’ In particular, examine the similarities and differences in the worldviews expressed in the two works.

4. Discuss the reaction to Madame Bovary at the time of its publication and how critical opinion has changed over time. What does this tell you about the changes in society from the time of its publication onward?

5. Investigate the lives of the French middle class during the nineteenth century. How strict was their class system? What moral standards did they follow?




Berg, William J., Michel Grimaud, and Georges Moskos. Saint/Oedipus: Psychocritical Approaches to Flaubert’s Art. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 119: Nineteenth-Century French Fiction Writers: Romanticism and Realism, 1800-1860. Edited by Catharine Savage Brosman. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Ginsburg, Michal Peled. Flaubert Writing: A Study in Narrative Strategies. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Green, Anne. Flaubert and the Historical Novel. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Haig, Stirling. Flaubert and the Gift of Speech: Dialogue and Discourse in Four ‘‘Modern’’ Novels. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Knight, Diana. Flaubert’s Characters: The Language of Illusion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

‘‘Madame Bovary.’’ In Novels for Students, edited by Jennifer Smith. Vol. 14. Detroit: Gale, 2002.

‘‘Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.’’ In Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Vol. 185. Edited by Russel Whitaker and Kathy D. Darrow, 162-315. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007.

Porter, Laurence M., ed. Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.

‘‘A Simple Heart.’’ In Short Stories for Students. Vol. 6. Ed. Tim Akers. Detroit: Gale, 1999.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert the Master: A Critical and Biographical Study (1856-1880). New York: Atheneum, 1971.


Dirda, Michael. Review of Madame Bovary. Washington Post, August 29, 2004: BW15.

Web Sites

The Complete Review. ‘‘Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.’’ Retrieved August 6, 2008, from Last updated November 20, 2005.