Places: The Temptation of Saint Anthony

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: La Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1874 (English translation, 1895)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical

Time of work: Fourth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSaint Anthony’s cell

Saint Temptation of Saint Anthony, TheAnthony’s cell. Hermitage in which Anthony lives. It is set on a crescent-shaped platform high on a mountainside in the Thebaid desert, above the Nile. It is constructed from mud and reeds, with a flat roof and no door. Its only furniture, apart from mats on the floor, is a wooden frame supporting a book. A single palm tree grows on the edge of the platform, whose only other embellishment is a wooden cross. The Libyan mountains are visible on the desert horizon.

Anthony has previously dwelt in a pharaoh’s tomb and a ruined citadel and has traveled a great deal. Here, his final refuge, is where he makes baskets, mats, and shepherds’ crooks, bartering his products to nomads in exchange for bread. This crude stage becomes the arena in which the Devil launches his most powerful temptations as the saint’s spirits fall into weary despair. Although Anthony never leaves this place, he is transported in his imagination to several different locations.


*Thebaid. Domain of Thebes in Upper Egypt. The site of Thebes is now occupied by Luxor, but the desert remains as desolate as it was in Anthony’s day.


*Alexandria. Egypt’s great seaport built by Alexander the Great after his capture of Egypt in 332 b.c.e. Anthony is transported to the Panium, an artificial mound in the city center overlooking Lake Mareotis. When the monks of the Thebaid invade the city to kill the Arian heretics, Anthony joins the slaughter, subsequently enjoying the hospitality of Constantine the Great, but it all disappears when he resists the temptation of power.


Basilica. Vast cathedral in which all the Christian faithful are gathered. Manes (the author of the Manichaean heresy) is preaching from a throne of gold, and his example is followed by many other heretics, who succeed in rousing the entire crowd to murderous violence. Beyond the limits of the basilica, Anthony meets more exotic heretics and representatives of many other religious traditions, in various sketchily described but appropriate settings.


Firmament. Ultimately, the Devil carries Anthony away from Earth. They pass by the Moon, a luminous sphere resembling a ball of ice, into the infinite realm of the stars. This lofty standpoint within an immensity of darkness is supposed to prove to Anthony the utter irrelevance of Earth, and hence of humankind, within the universe. The Devil’s plan backfires, however, because this journey into realms of abstraction and scientific imagination provides Anthony with a useful intellectual instrument. When he is returned to his hovel and presented with a parade of bizarre monsters, he is able to convert the vision in his mind’s eye into a panorama of life, in which animals become indistinguishable from plants and plants from minerals: an ecological free-for-all in which the fervor of creation is everywhere manifest. It is this vision that facilitates the reaffirmation of his faith.

BibliographyBrombert, Victor. The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. Chapter 5 offers an account of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.Donato, Eugenio. The Script of Decadence: Essays on the Fictions of Flaubert and the Poetics of Romanticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Chapter 4, “Gnostic Fictions,” includes an elaborate discussion of the temptations offered by the heretics.Ginsburg, Michal Peled. Flaubert Writing. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986. Chapter 2 includes a detailed critique of The Temptation of Saint Anthony.Griffin, Robert. Rape of the Lock: Flaubert’s Mythic Realism. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1988. A discussion of The Temptation of Saint Anthony is contained in pages 259 to 288.Osborn, E. B. Introduction to The First Temptation of Saint Anthony, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by René Francis. London: Bodley Head, 1924. A stylish essay setting out in scrupulous detail the reasons why Osborn considers the earlier texts to be much superior to the 1874 version. The book reprints the revised 1856 text in full, including passages that were dropped from the 1848-1849 text.
Categories: Places