Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

Major works:
Madame Bovary (1857)
Salammbô (1862)

The Sentimental Education (1869)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874)

Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881)

Biographical Notes

Flaubert, second son of an eminent Rouen doctor, was raised and educated in comfortable circumstances. He studied law in Paris beginning in 1840 but was never fully engaged and ultimately failed his exams. In 1844 he suffered his first violent attack of epilepsy, and after repeated epileptic episodes, in 1846 he returned to Rouen, where excepting some winters in Paris and an 1849-1851 tour with writer Maxime du Camp of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy, Flaubert would live the remainder of his life in relative seclusion on his family's country estate in Croisset (some called him "the hermit of Croisset"). He lived with his mother until he was fifty and never married, though he had a long-running affair with the poet Louise Colet and occasional other mistresses. Flaubert enjoyed a "prodigious" appetite for prostitutes and contracted syphilis and other venereal diseases from which he suffered until his death by cerebral hemorrhage.

From his early teens Flaubert had dreams of being a writer, and during his Paris years he formed friendships with a number of eminent writers he would maintain throughout his life (among his most notable literary acquaintance were Charles Baudelaire, George Sand, Emile Zola, and Ivan Turgenev). During their North African travels Flaubert shared with Du Camp and the poet Louis Bouilhet a early-draft manuscript of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, which was in that early state a romantic work "filled with voluptuous language, rich color, and intense personal feeling."  Bouilhet was harshly critical of the novel's excesses, advising Flaubert, "Your Muse must be kept on bread and water or lyricism will kill her. . . . Write a down-to-earth novel."

Flaubert took this criticism to heart and set about writing Madame Bovary as something of a training exercise, stripping his style of all vestiges of romanticism and writing of pointedly mundane subject matter. While some scholars praise other of his novels as greater accomplishments, Madame Bovary has long been recognized as his his most important work, and all literary historians agree that Madame Bovary is one of the early masterpieces in modern realism.    


From its initial serial publication in La Revue de Paris in 1856, Madame Bovary generated considerable uproar for its "scandalous immorality."  Despite the publisher's attempt to suppress particularly racy passages, Flaubert was charged with obscenity and blasphemy—he was acquitted, and the novel was published as a book in 1857 fully intact as originally written.

Flaubert the painstaking artist

In contrast to other nineteenth-century novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, and Dostoevsky, who wrote at great speed, Flaubert approached his mature fiction with virtually unprecedented dedication to craft. A comfortable financial situation allowed his complete immersion in his work with a perfectionism found then more usually in poetry than prose fiction. In composing Madame Bovary over nearly five years, Flaubert averaged about a page of text per seven or eight hour workday. We have manuscript drafts of single passages in as many as eleven different versions, as Flaubert searched relentlessly for "le mot juste" (just the right word), the one most perfect expression for exactly what he wanted to say.  "What a bitch of a thing prose is!" Flaubert wrote in one letter, "it is never finished; there is always something to be done over. However, I think it can be given the consistency of verse.  A good prose sentence should be like a good line of poetry—unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous."

Radical Innovation

Madame Bovary is commonly considered the most influential work of fiction in the nineteenth century largely for its innovation in realism both in subject and style. Counter to his own acknowledged infatuation with "bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase and the high points of ideas," as he wrote to Louise Colet, Flaubert wanted to "treat a humble fact as respectfully as a big one, [being] one who would like to make you feel almost physically the things he reproduces. . . . What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style, just as the earth, suspended in the void, depends on nothing external for its support."  Not that the life of Emma Bovary is "nothing," but her life, as the subject of the novel, is in many respects a purely common or even trivial matter, not something "grand" or glamorous or brilliant or intrinsically remarkable.  What Flaubert strove for in the novel was a presentation of mundane life, to an extent, as it is really lived.

And counter to the larger mainstream tendency of his contemporary novelists to enter into their fiction with heavy-handed didacticism and flights of unabashedly self-conscious narrative discourse, almost as participating characters in the fictions they narrate, Flaubert set out to write Madame Bovary "in an entirely different manner. Nowhere in my book must the author express his emotions or his opinions."  Flaubert hoped to portray the “reality” of the narrated world objectively, without the author’s subjective presence evident anywhere in the text. He intended that Madame Bovary contain “No lyricism, no comments, the author’s personality absent,” working on the principle that “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.” While Flaubert is not so wholly successful in eradicating the presence of the narrating author from his narrative as writers are more nearly today, still, in this important respect Flaubert was the first major innovator in a line of narrative development that would in the twentieth century be championed by Henry James and Percy Lubbock, and which would become the almost exclusive practice of novelists writing today. 

A few themes, motifs, and features to consider as you read Madame Bovary

purple bullet The "absence of the author in the text": impersonality and conscious restraint of narrative discourse.

purple bullet Flaubert's thematic treatment of education.

purple bullet An echo of Don Quixote? On the dangers of reading and the romantic sensibility.

bullet The question of whether it is possible for art to convey life accurately or effectively.

bullet Flaubert's criticism of the bourgeois aspirations of the middle class.

"Aesthetics of the ugly": realism in subject matter—the mundane, the average, the trivial, the unremarkable as in "real life."

Artistry in symbolism, metaphor, and imagery.

Authorial irony: how do we know how to view the characters and their world?

How in particular or (why) do we identify with the somewhat insipid protagonist?

The carefully wrought spiraling progress of Emma's downfall.

Continuing relevance of the novel's central themes.