(1821 – 1880)
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. Gustave 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.’’
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 Napole´on 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 Napole´on 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 Napole´on: Louis Napole´on, 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 Hoˆtel 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.
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.’’
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 Salammboˆ (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 Salammboˆ, 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.