Authors: Gustave Flaubert

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

French novelist, short-story writer, and playwright

December 12, 1821

Rouen, France

May 8, 1880

Croisset, France


Gustave Flaubert (floh-behr), French novelist, was born in Rouen on December 12, 1821, the fifth child and second surviving son. His father was a doctor and director of the Rouen city hospital, his mother a retiring woman of bourgeois background. He had a younger sister Caroline with whom he was close. High-strung and imaginative, Gustave eagerly consumed all the fanciful stories that he could induce his nurse or his neighbors to tell him. As a student he joined in the anticlassical revolt that was sweeping France. Solitary by nature and not of a happy temperament, Flaubert became absorbed with literature and history and early became aware of his vocation as a writer. {$I[AN]9810001422} {$I[A]Flaubert, Gustave} {$I[geo]FRANCE;Flaubert, Gustave} {$I[tim]1821;Flaubert, Gustave}

Gustave Flaubert

(Library of Congress)

During a summer vacation in 1836 he became emotionally attached to Elisa Schlésinger. He also soon found a companion and confidant in Alfred Le Poittevin, with whom he had a deep and lasting friendship. Flaubert’s mood throughout his youth was in keeping with the fashionable romantic temper, one of ennui and lassitude, partly genuine, partly affected. He suffered from fits of depression throughout his life.

In 1839 Flaubert traveled to Corsica, stopping in southern France for sightseeing and amorous adventures. After his return he wrote November, a romantic tale of love and longing. In the autumn of 1842 he became a law student in Paris, where he renewed acquaintance with Schlésinger (who refused to become his mistress). In January, 1844, he suffered a serious nervous attack and spent a year recuperating. He abandoned the idea of a law career and devoted his energies to literature.

Upon the death of his father in 1846, Flaubert inherited a comfortable annuity and pursued his literary career with fervor. That April, his sister also died, and Flaubert saw to his young niece's education. In July he met the poet Louise Colet, with whom he had a stormy liaison. In the spring of the following year he took an extended trip through Brittany, which he described in Over Strand and Field, a work that first shows Flaubert’s almost paralyzing capacity for self-criticism and his determination to avoid self-revelation.

Glad to see the July monarchy overthrown, Flaubert participated in a minor way in the revolution of February, 1848. He then completed The Temptation of Saint Anthony, which he had begun in 1846, but his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp urged him to discard the manuscript in favor of subjects with which his rhetorical bent would have less scope. In the opinion of many critics, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, though not a superior book, more purely reflects Flaubert’s temperament than his later, more successful works.

With du Camp, Flaubert set out in October, 1849, on a journey of more than eighteen months to Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Greece, and Italy, a journey involving much sightseeing and some lovemaking. In the course of his travels he deepened his understanding of humanity, which he detested no less than before. In the autumn, 1851, he began work on Madame Bovary, which was to absorb him until its completion in April, 1856. His extreme pains with the style of Madame Bovary were rewarded when, upon publication, the book was acclaimed. (The broad success of the novel was also attributable to a widely publicized morals suit against the author.) Madame Bovary, a study of the effects of romantic notions on a sensitive woman, ranks as one of the great novels of European literature. In it Flaubert was undoubtedly effecting a self-cure, for Emma Bovary embodies a number of character traits and yearnings of the author. The book has usually been considered a masterpiece of realism, but stylistically Flaubert had little in common with his realist contemporaries, who had no time for his type of quest for beauty. As for realism in the sense of a dispassionate examination of reality, Flaubert carried the doctrine to its farthest limits, avoiding judgments and stoutly maintaining that the artist’s function is to understand humanity, not to explain or reform it. His approach has been characterized as objective, scientific, and deterministic. His observation and his efforts to express reality through the perfect word and phrase were tireless and uncompromising; he was never hurried or harried by ambition for fame or success.

In 1857 Flaubert began his research for Salammbô, traveling to the site of ancient Carthage in order to develop a feel for his material. Published in November, 1862, Salammbô was totally unappreciated by the critics. After some unsuccessful attempts at theater, Flaubert wrote A Sentimental Education, a novel about Paris in the 1840’s. In this work scrupulous historical documentation is fused with personal reminiscences so numerous as to make the book a gold mine for Flaubert’s biographers. The book was published in November, 1869, and Flaubert considered it his masterpiece, but it met with hostility from the critics and indifference from the public. Flaubert's mother died in April 1872. Flaubert next reworked his manuscript of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, which he published in 1874 without success.

In his last years Flaubert’s best friend was the Russian novelist and playwright Ivan Turgenev, but for the most part he lived in relative solitude, whether in Paris or in Croisset, near Rouen. His scorn for humanity had become more intense and more generalized with each novel, and in the comic Bouvard and Pécuchet, unfinished at his death, he presented a devastating picture of the emptiness of modern people’s most fundamental aspirations. Between 1875 and 1877 Flaubert wrote Three Tales (“La Légende de Saint-Julien-l’Hospitalier,” “Un Coeur simple,” and “Hérodias”). Of the three stories “Un Coeur simple” is the most remarkable, showing none of Flaubert’s irony and misanthropy but only the tenderness and compassion which often characterize the last works of the greatest artists. The Three Tales were immediately and almost universally hailed as masterpieces. Flaubert’s fierce artistic integrity and cult of perfection made him, in his late years, France’s most eminent and respected literary artist. He gave counsel generously to many young writers, especially Guy de Maupassant, whom he subjected to a long and rigid apprenticeship. Despite his fame, Flaubert suffered in his last years from financial insecurity. He died of a stroke at his home in Croisset in 1880 and was buried in Rouen.

A number of Flaubert's works were translated into English in the decades following his death. His early works and volumes of his correspondence with contemporaries and mentors such as Maupassant and George Sands were published in French as well.

Author Works Long Fiction: La Première Éducation sentimentale, wr. 1843-1845, pb. 1963 (The First Sentimental Education, 1972) Madame Bovary: Moeurs de province, 1857 (English translation, 1886) Salammbô, 1862 (English translation, 1886) L’Éducation sentimentale, 1869 (A Sentimental Education, 1898) La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1874 (The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895) Bouvard et Pécuchet, 1881 (Bouvard and Pécuchet, 1896) Short Fiction: Novembre, wr. c. 1840, pb. 1885 (November, 1932) Trois Contes, 1877 (Three Tales, 1903) Drama: Le Château des coeurs, wr. 1863, pr. 1874 (with Louis Bouilhet; The Castle of Hearts, 1904) Le Candidat, pr., pb. 1874 (The Candidate, 1904) Nonfiction: Par les champs et par les grèves (Voyage en Bretagne), 1885 (with Maxime Du Camp; Over Strand and Field, 1904) Correspondance, 1830-1880, 1887-1893 Mémoires d’un fou, 1901 Fragment inédit sur la ville et le château de Blois, 1907 Dictionnaire des idées reçues, 1910, 1913 (Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, 1954) Notes de voyage, 1910 Pensées de Gustave Flaubert, 1915 The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1953 (Francis Steegmuller, editor) Correspondance, 1981 (Alphonse Jacobs, editor; Flaubert-Sand: The Correspondence of Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, 1993) The Letters: 1857-1880, 1982 (Francis Steegmuller, editor) Cahier intime de jeunesse, 1987 La bêtise, l'art et la vie: En écrivant Madame Bovary, 1991 Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour—A Narrative Drawn from Gustave Flaubert's Travel Notes & Letters, 1996 (Francis Steegmuller, editor) Gustave Flaubert-Alfred Le Poittevin, Gustave-Flaubert-Maxine Du Camp: Correspondances, 2000 (Yvan Leclerc, editor) Œuvres de jeunesse, 2001 Lettres à sa maîtresse, 2008 Miscellaneous: The Complete Works, 1904 (10 volumes) Œuvres complètes, 1910-1954 (31 volumes) Notes pour les livres à venir; précédées du, Cahier des vingt ans, 2010 Bibliography Addison, Claire. Where Flaubert Lies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A detailed study of Flaubert’s life and art, focusing on the relationship between his personal life, historical context, and his fiction. Bart, Benjamin F. Flaubert. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1967. This chronologically arranged and detailed biography places Flaubert’s works in the context of the events of his life. Chapter 24, devoted to the Three Tales, stresses psychological elements and events from Flaubert’s life that contributed to the compositions as well as noting revisions that the stories underwent. Includes a note listing manuscript sources and an index. Bloom, Harold, ed. Gustave Flaubert. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. This collection of fourteen essays with an introduction by Bloom covers multiple aspects of Flaubert’s life and work. Jane Robertson writes on the structure of “Hérodias,” noting the relative difficulty of the work. Shoshana Felman’s essay on “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler” stresses legendary and symbolic elements in the story. Contains a chronology of Flaubert’s life, a bibliography, and an index. Brombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. This work devotes a chapter to each of the Three Tales. Brombert’s thematic approach emphasizes Flaubert’s adaptation of the legend in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler,” the tension between sentiment and irony in “A Simple Heart,” and exotic descriptions, some derived from Flaubert’s own trip to Egypt, in “Hérodias.” Bibliography, index. Brown, Frederick. Flaubert: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown, 2006. A critically acclaimed biography of Flaubert that is thorough, detailed, and engagingly written. At more than 600 pages, this ambitious work sets Flaubert’s life within a cultural history of France in the middle of the nineteenth century. Cronk, Nicholas. “Reading Un Cœur Simple: The Pleasure of the Intertext.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 24 (Fall/Winter, 1995/1996): 154-161. Discusses the story’s allusion to eighteenth century works from the Rousseauesque tradition of sentiment and the Voltairean tradition of satire. Claims that Flaubert appropriates a character of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s as a model for Félicité. Greenbaum, Andrea. “Flaubert’s Un Cœur Simple.” The Explicator (Summer, 1995): 208-211. Discusses the satire in Flaubert’s story, particularly its mockery of religious devotion by means of the parrot, the story’s satirical centerpiece. Lottman, Herbert. Flaubert: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. A straightforward account of Flaubert's life. Draws on the writer's previously unpublished correspondence. Nadeau, Maurice. The Greatness of Flaubert. Translated by Barbara Bray. New York: Library Press, 1972. This biographical work devotes chapter 16 to the Three Tales, stressing how these works evolved from ideas that Flaubert had accumulated during his previous writing. Sources considered are largely biographical, and the chapter details the immediate context in which the three stories were written. Supplemented by a chronology and a bibliography. Porter, Laurence M., ed. Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. This collection of sixteen essays includes work by a number of authorities in the field. Two studies treat the Three Tales: Raymonde Debray-Genette studies “Narrative Figures of Speech” in “A Simple Heart” in a structural analysis that still insists on the importance of illusion, and Benjamin F. Bart examines “Humanity and Animality” in “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler.” Bibliography, index. Ramazani, Vaheed. The Free Indirect Mode: Flaubert and the Poetics of Irony. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988. A very helpful, detailed study of Flaubert’s use of verbal irony, point of view, voice, and language (especially metaphor). Includes notes and bibliography. Starkie, Enid. Flaubert, the Master: A Critical and Biographical Study, 1856-1880. New York: Atheneum, 1971. A biography considering Flaubert’s life only after Madame Bovary, this study devotes chapter 12 to the short stories. Special attention is given to sources and to events in Flaubert’s life, particularly close to the time of composition, that may have influenced the stories. With a bibliography and index. Stipa, Ingrid. “Desire, Repetition, and the Imaginary in Flaubert’s Un Cœur Simple.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 617-626. Argues that although Flaubert maintains an ironic perspective in the story, a pattern of repetitions of imagery makes the transformation of the parrot into a sacred symbol acceptable to the reader, a tactic that protects the protagonist from being the victim of the irony. Tarver, John Charles. Gustave Flaubert as Seen in His Works and Correspondence. 1895. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970. This relatively complete biography devotes only chapter 18 to the Three Tales. The bulk of the chapter summarizes the story of “The Legend of St. Julian, Hospitaler.” Index. Troyat, Henri. Flaubert. Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Viking, 1992. A thorough, engrossing biography that reconstructs Flaubert’s life based on the novelist’s remarkable and prodigious correspondence with his family and friends. Unwin, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Replete with tools for further research, this is an excellent aid to any study of Flaubert’s life and work. Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert: A Life. N.Y., New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002. A critically acclaimed narrative biography that gives Lottman and Troyat a run for the standard. Offers plenty of fresh detail and a great read. Williams, Tony, and Mary Orr, eds. New Approaches in Flaubert Studies. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1999. Part of the Studies in French Literature series, this is a contemporary study of Flaubert’s works. Provides bibliographical references and an index.

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