Flaubert Publishes

Although Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary led to his being charged with obscenity but acquitted, the novel was notable for its perfection of style and craftsmanship, as well as the author’s keen and precise observation. Its publication heralded a new era of realism in the modern novel.

Summary of Event

During the nineteenth century, the French government and its courts were expected to protect public morality and decency and uphold moral and religious beliefs. When Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (book pb. 1857; English translation, 1886) first appeared in serial form in Revue de Paris
Revue de Paris from October 1 to December 15, 1856, a public scandal erupted. Author Gustave Flaubert, publisher Léon Laurent-Pichat, and printer Auguste-Alexis Pillet were prosecuted by Imperial Attorney Monsieur Ernest Pinard on morals charges at a scandalous obscenity trial in which the author was accused of “grossly offending against public morality, religion and decency.” [p]Flaubert, Gustave;Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary (Flaubert)
[kw]Flaubert Publishes Madame Bovary (Oct. 1-Dec. 15, 1856)
[kw]Publishes Madame Bovary, Flaubert (Oct. 1-Dec. 15, 1856)
[kw]Madame Bovary, Flaubert Publishes (Oct. 1-Dec. 15, 1856)
Flaubert, Gustave
[p]Flaubert, Gustave;Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary (Flaubert)
[g]France;Oct. 1-Dec. 15, 1856: Flaubert Publishes Madame Bovary[3110]
[c]Literature;Oct. 1-Dec. 15, 1856: Flaubert Publishes Madame Bovary[3110]
[c]Crime and scandals;Oct. 1-Dec. 15, 1856: Flaubert Publishes Madame Bovary[3110]
Laurent-Pichat, Léon
Pillet, Auguste-Alexis
Pinard, Ernest

Subtitled Mœurs de Province (provincial customs), Madame Bovary portrayed ordinary characters: Charles Bovary, a country doctor, married Emma, a convent-educated woman whose readings of romantic novels left her awaiting a great love who would enter her life and alleviate its dreariness. Through Emma, Flaubert depicted the inability of the romantic to live in the real world. Charles disappointed her, as did her lovers Rodolphe and Léon, and her financial disasters finally brought her to the depths of despair. She committed suicide by swallowing arsenic and died a horrible death described in vivid detail by Flaubert.

Flaubert was a scrupulous, slow writer, determined to find the exact word (le mot juste) to express his thoughts. He believed that writers had to discipline themselves to find precise words to describe perceptions, eliminate repetitions and awkwardness, and discover the correct rhythm and sounds to communicate just what they wished. He described what he called “the tortures of style” in his creative process. His exacting standards led him to write and rewrite sentences many times, even shouting them to himself in his garden in order to hone and polish them. Madame Bovary, therefore, was written in a controlled style over a period of six years, during which Flaubert wrote approximately twenty pages per month working seven hours per day. Each page took an average of five days to write. The book was filled with minutely detailed objective descriptions that resulted from keen observation. Literary critic Enid Starkie points out that Flaubert did his “laboratory work” beforehand, in order to obtain the ingredients that would go into his characters before he created them.

The novel was lengthy, and the jury at the morals trial had not read it. The prosecutor, Pinard Pinard, Ernest , therefore summarized the story line and chose four primary objectionable excerpts: Emma’s affair with Rodolphe, her religious experience between both affairs, her affair with Léon, and her death. He argued that Flaubert had painted his heroine in a lascivious light and that his poetic tone glorified adultery while condemning marriage and its banalities. Pinard argued that Emma’s lewd character and the novel’s sexual innuendoes and glorification of adultery portrayed French women as scandalous and immoral. Flaubert’s attitudes toward adultery and sex were considered unacceptable and in need of censorship. Censorship;French

Flaubert defended his novel as moral, claiming that his goal in writing it was to show what can happen if one received an education above one’s station in life. His plot, he held, served as a warning to others to try to save them from the same life endured by Madame Bovary. He contended that he had intended his novel to set an example: It demonstrated that girls who are naturally weak and vulnerable will give in to daydreams, leading to evil instead of strength.

The prosecution’s illustrations included the fact that Emma showed no remorse after committing adultery; in fact, she became transfigured by visible changes as she viewed her reflection in the mirror. She was happy about taking a lover. When she went to confession, she invented sins in order to remain on her knees for a longer period of time, aroused by thoughts of love. She addressed God with unnatural and inappropriate words normally addressed to a lover.

Flaubert said he was trying to illustrate the effect of Emma’s education on her personality. Raised on a farm and sent to a convent, Emma had received an education above her station and had been exposed to religious sentiment and romantic stories without strict discipline. He was aiming to depict society’s lack of control over children and the school curriculum. Flaubert was also criticized for having created characters who mocked religion (Emma’s priest and the pharmacist Homais), but his intention, he claimed, was actually to exhibit those who were skeptical of religion to a critical gaze. The third area of criticism related to Emma’s second affair, objectionable for the same reasons as the first. Finally, the language of Emma’s graphically described death scene was also criticized as immoral and sacrilegious. Flaubert countered that he was referring to the last sacrament. Ultimately, all three defendants in the trial were acquitted of all charges.


Madame Bovary, as its public reaction and trial make clear, announced a new trend in fiction, one that historians ultimately recognized as the modern realist novel. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the French novel, as well as poetry, drama, letters, and criticism, were dominated by the late eighteenth and early ninteenth century movement now known as Romanticism. With the political and social developments of the nineteenth century—the French Revolution (1789), the Napoleonic Wars, the expansion of capitalism, the Industrial Revolution with its consequent shifts in labor and increasing urban populations—the idealism of the Romantics and their preferred forms, poetry and poetic drama, declined. Their privileged literary position was assumed by the novel, a more suitable genre for registering the new social upheavals.

Literary giants of the age of realism were Victor Hugo Hugo, Victor , Honoré de Balzac Balzac, Honoré de , and Émile Zola Zola, Émile . Naturalism and realism—with their painstaking attention to detail and their penchant for replacing idealized with common and gritty subject matter—came into vogue. François-René de Chateaubriand Chateaubriand, François-René de aggressively defended Roman Catholicism in his Le Génie du Christianisme (1799, 1800, 1802; The Genius of Christianity, 1802), and his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849-1850; Memoirs, 1902) is considered a French autobiographical classic.

The novel continued to evolve as passion became a driving force in George Sand’s Sand, George novels of country life and in Stendhal’s Stendhal epic Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898), containing irony and analysis that foreshadowed the psychological Psychology;in literature[Literature] novel of the twentieth century. Hugo, evoking medieval Parisian life in Notre-Dame de Paris (1831; The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hunchback of Notre-Dame, The (Hugo) 1833) and later in Les Misérables
Misérables, Les (Hugo) (1862; English translation, 1862), linked drama with questions of social morality. Balzac’s Balzac, Honoré de prodigious La Comédie humaine
Human Comedy, The (Balzac) (1829-1848, 17 volumes; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896; also as The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911) encompassed more than two thousand characters sweeping over forty years of French history, as it painted a major society in flux. His realist detail and emphasis on materiality as a force driving human behavior linked him with the realist movement of the second half of the nineteenth century.

This drive toward the modern realist novel in France is said to have been born with Madame Bovary through the craftsmanship of Gustave Flaubert. Through a synthesis of classicism, Romanticism, and a burgeoning realism, he sought to make literature a pure art. His aim was to write faultless, meticulously chiseled, realist prose, according to the particular definitions of those terms current in mid-nineteenth century France.

Often quoted as saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (“I am Madame Bovary”), Flaubert wished to hide all traces of himself as author in the novel. As Eileen Tess Tyler put it, “In projecting his own temperament upon this fictional character and subjecting it to relentlessly objective scrutiny, Flaubert was working to exorcise inner weaknesses that had bedeviled him all of his life.” He wished to present his subject matter in as impersonal a light as possible. His characters were so patiently studied that, as mediocre as they were, they appeared distinctly and strongly drawn. They came from everyday life—the towns he visited, the people he met. Flaubert said that he was observing the “most prosaically ordinary,” contending that while the representation was unpleasant, it was not criminal.

Nevertheless, Flaubert eschewed the term realism, and his work, he said, was written for educated men. In Emma’s revolt against her middle-class environment, Flaubert revealed his own contempt for the bourgeoisie. Flaubert’s correspondence expressed his hatred for reality and the drudgery of his work:

People think I am in love with reality, though I hate it; for it is out of hatred of realism that I undertook the writing of this novel [Madame Bovary].

The extent of the novel’s impact goes beyond the narrowly defined naturalism employed by Flaubert’s compatriot Zola in Thérèse Raquin (1867; English translation, 1881) and by his American counterpart Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie (1900). American writer Henry James called Flaubert “the novelist’s novelist,” although he found Madame Bovary “morally shallow.” Marcel Proust and James Joyce acknowledged their indebtedness to Flaubert’s insights into language and society. A literary scholar analogized Flaubert’s work as “the orchestration of effects comparable with those produced by music and painting, giving his novels a rigor and concentration that the genre had never previously attained.” Poets Théophile Gautier Gautier, Théophile and Stéphane Mallarmé, Flaubert’s contemporaries, spoke of Flaubert’s novels as “poems.”

Alongside the material realist detail and the sense of hopelessness and monotony that permeate the novel, there was much psychological Psychology;in literature[Literature] observation and insight in Madame Bovary. Many believe that in Emma, Flaubert created one of the greatest and best drawn women characters in French literature, arousing sympathy and compassion in readers. The novel depicts its historical context while presenting a universality of character and theme.

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Major Literary Characters: Emma Bovary. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. Brings together several major critical essays on the character of Emma Bovary.
  • Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Classic work studying the techniques and meaning of Flaubert’s novels and their historical significance.
  • Gay, Peter. Savage Reprisals: “Bleak House,” “Madame Bovary,” “Buddenbrooks.” New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Analysis of Madame Bovary, comparing it to novels by Charles Dickens and Thomas Mann. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Giraud, Raymond. Flaubert: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Compilation of critical essays dealing with the art of Flaubert.
  • Severson, Marilyn S. Masterpieces of French Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Contains a useful plot summary and thematic analysis of Madame Bovary, alongside other important works of French fiction.
  • Starkie, Enid. Flaubert: The Making of the Master. New York: Atheneum, 1967. Classic comprehensive study of the life and works of Flaubert.
  • Turnell, Martin. The Rise of the French Novel. New York: New Directions, 1978. A study of the novel’s rise in France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert: A Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. A scholarly biography of Flaubert, analyzing the life alongside the works.

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Honoré de Balzac; François-René de Chateaubriand; Gustave Flaubert; Victor Hugo; George Sand; Stendhal; Émile Zola. Flaubert, Gustave
[p]Flaubert, Gustave;Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary (Flaubert)