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Gustave Flaubert (1821 - 1880)

Flaubert, Gustave

Gustave Flaubert was born into a family of doctors in Rouen. His father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, was a chief surgeon at the Rouen municipal hospital, who made his money investing in land. Flaubert's mother, Anne-Justine-Caroline (née Fleuriot), was the daughter of a physician, and she became the most important person in his life. Early on, Flaubert found this bourgeois background burdensome. His rebellion against it led to his expulsion from school, and Flaubert completed his education privately in Paris.

Flaubert started to write during his school years. A disappointment in his teens - Flaubert fell in love with Elisa Schlésinger, who was married and some ten years his senior - inspired much of his early writing. In the 1840's Flaubert studied law at Paris, a brief episode in his life, and in 1844 he had a nervous attack. "I was cowardly in my youth," Flaubert wrote once to George Sand. "I was afraid of life." He was recognized as suffering from a nervous disease, although it could have been epilepsy. However, the diagnosis changed Flaubert's life. He failed his law exams and decided to devote himself to literature. In this he was helped by his father who bought him a house at Croisset, on the River Seine between Paris and Rouen.

In 1846 Flaubert met the writer Louise Colet. They corresponded regularly and she became Flaubert's mistress, although they met infrequently. In Lui (1859), Colet gave her account of their relationship. After the death of both his father and his married sister, Flaubert moved to Croisset, the family's country home near Rouen. The household also included his niece Caroline. His maxim was: "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Flaubert lived with his mother until he was fifty years old.

Although Flaubert once stated ''I am a bear and want to remain a bear in my den,'' he kept good contacts to Paris and witnessed the Revolution of 1848. Later he received honors from Napoleon III. From 1856 Flaubert spent winters in Paris.

Flaubert's relationship with Colet ended in 1855. From November, 1849 to April, 1851 he traveled with the writer Maxime du Camp in North Africa, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. It took several Egyptian guides to help Flaubert to the top of the Great Pyramid - the author was at that time very fat. On his return Flaubert started Madame Bovary, which took five years to complete. It appeared first in the Revue (1856) and in book form the next year. The realistic depiction of adultery was condemned as offensive to morality and religion. Flaubert was prosecuted, though he escaped conviction, which was not a common result during the official censorship of the Second Empire. When Baudelaire's collection of verse, The Flowers of Evil, was brought before the same judge, Baudelaire was fined.

Madame Bovary was published in two volumes in 1857, but it appeared originally in the Revue de Paris, 1856-57.

Emma Bovary is married to Charles Bovary, a physician. As a girl Emma has read Sir Walter Scott, and she has romantic dreams and longs for adventure. "What exasperated her was that Charles did not seem to notice her anguish. His conviction that he was making her happy seemed to her an imbecile insult, and his sureness on this point ingratitude. For whose sake, then was she virtuous? Was it not for him, the obstacle to all felicity, the cause of all misery, and, as it were, the sharp clasp of that complex strap that bucked her in on all sides." Emma seeks release from the boredom of her marriage in love affairs with two men - the lawyer Léon Dupuis and then Rodolphe Boulanger. Emma wants to leave her husband to be with Rodolphe. He rejects the idea, and Emma becomes ill. After she has recovered, she starts again her relationship with Léon, who works now in Rouen. They meet regularly at a hotel. Emma is in heavy debts because of her lifestyle, and she poisons herself with arsenic. Charles Bovary dies soon after her, and their daughter, Berthe, is taken care of by the Bovary's poor relatives. Berthe starts to earn her living by working in a factory.

The character of Emma was important to the author - society offered her no escape and once Flaubert said: "Emma, c'est moi." Delphine Delamare, who died in 1848, is alleged to have been the original of Emma Bovary.

In the 1860's Flaubert enjoyed success as a writer and intellectual at the court of Napoleon III. Among his friends were Zola, George Sand, Hippolyte Taine, and the Russian writer Turgenev, with whom he shared similar aesthetic ideals (dedication to realism and to the nonjudgmental representation of life). Their complete correspondence was published in English in 1985. Flaubert's other, non-literary life was marked by his prodigious appetite for prostitutes, which occasionally led to venereal infections.

''The thought that I shall see you this winter quite at leisure delights me like the promise of an oasis. The comparison is the right one, if only you knew how isolated I am! Who is there to talk to now? Who is there in our wretched country who still 'cares about literature'? Perhaps one single man? Me! The wreckage of a lost world, an old fossil of romanticism! You will revive me, you'll do me good.'' (from Flaubert & Turgenev. A Friendship in Letters, edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont, 1985)

Flaubert was by nature melancholic. His perfectionism coupled with long hours at his work table with a frog inkwell only made his life harder. In a letter to Ernest Feydeau, he wrote: "Books are made not like children but like pyramids... and are just as useless!" His last years were shadowed by financial worries.

In the 1870's Flaubert's work gained acclaim by the new school of naturalistic writers. His narrative approach, that the novelist should not judge, teach, or explain, but remain neutral, was widely adopted. Flaubert himself detested the label 'Realist' - and other labels. Among Flaubert's later major works is Salammbô (1862), a story of the siege of Carthage in 240-237 BC by mercenaries. In 1998, the novel inspired Philippe Fénélon's opera. The libretto was written by Jean-Yves Masson. The composers Berlioz and Mussorgsky had also planned opera adaptations, but their plans were never realized. Trois Contes (1872) was a collection of three tales. The Italian writer Italo Calvino has praised it as "one of the most extraordinary spiritual journeys ever accomplished outside any religion."

L'education Sentimentale (1869) was a panorama of France set in the era of the Revolution of 1848. The story depicted the relationship between a young man and an older, married woman. The hero is full of vague longings. He meets people who have nothing else to offer but pessimism and cynicism. The ironic title means the education of feeling and refers to the failure of Flaubert's generation to achieve its ideals. La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874) was based on the story of the 4th-century Christian anchorite, who lived in the Egyptian desert and experienced philosophical and physical temptations. Its fantastic mode and setting were inspired by a Brueghel painting. Flaubert's long novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, was left unfinished at his death. Flaubert spent his last years in relative poverty and was called the ''hermit of Croisset.'' He died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 8, in 1880.

Famous quotations by Gustave Flaubert:

  • To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.

  • A thing derided is a thing dead; a laughing man is stronger than a suffering man.

  • The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of stupidity attained by the bourgeois.

  • Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times. People have always been like this.

  • Suggested sites for Gustave Flaubert:

    Encyclopedia article about Gustave Flaubert
    Texts by Flaubert
    A Simple Soul
    The world as seen from the point of a view of a housemaid, Felicite, who lives a difficult life, but is happy in spite of it. She endures loss and attempted rape, but finds solace in her life, the Church, and her position in life.

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