Gustave Flaubert

Born in Rouen, in the French province of Normandy, Gustave Flaubert was the second surviving son of a distinguished and wealthy doctor, the chief of surgery at the main hospital of Rouen.

Flaubert showed his talent early, and by the age of 10 he was writing plays, histories of French kings, and a tribute to Pierre Corneille, the French playwright. During his school years at Rouen’s College Royal, where he won prizes for his academic work, he wrote several stories at age 13, and more the next year: gothic tales of assassins, ghosts, and ravished women. At 15 he published his first story to appear in a journal for adults—a story about a bookseller who steals the first volume ever printed in Spain. On the whole, his early writing might be called escapist, or at least Romantic. He admired Byron, the celebrated English Romantic poet, and at 17 he wrote a passion play that shows Byron’s influence. He also admired and defended Victor Hugo, a leading light of French Romanticism. And in the great Romantic tradition of subjectivity and self-exploration, he produced at the ages of 16 and 20 two autobiographical narratives: Memoirs of a Madman and November.

‘Rescued’ from Life as a Lawyer

image of a young Gustave Flaubert
A young Gustave Flaubert

At the time he wrote November, he was living in Paris and studying law at his father’s insistence, but all he really wanted to be was a writer. Fate granted his wish. In 1844, after failing his second law school exam, he was rescued—so to speak—by an attack of epilepsy. This gave him the perfect excuse to abandon the study of law and take up residence in Croisset, a village on the River Seine just a couple of miles downstream from Rouen. It was there—in his parents’ new house overlooking the river—that Flaubert would spend most of the rest of his life.

But he was hardly under house arrest. By March of 1845, aged 23, he was well enough to travel with his parents to Italy. In Genoa he saw a painting that would haunt him for the rest of his life: The Temptation of St. Anthony, attributed to Peter Brueghel the Younger. Father of Christian monasticism, St. Anthony was an Egyptian hermit of the 3rd and 4th centuries who ruled a community of hermits before going off to the desert, where we are told that the devil tempted him repeatedly—and in vain. Brueghel’s painting of the temptation thrilled Flaubert. Against a crowded landscape of variously deformed figures shown on foot, on horseback, and in the air, St. Anthony sits pensively in the foreground. Flanked by two naked women flaunting their charms, the bearded old man “turn[s] his head,” as Flaubert wrote, “to avoid their caresses” and the whole scene, he adds, is “swarming, crawling, mocking in a grotesque and wild manner.”

image of Maxime Du Camp, the French writer and photographer
Maxime Du Camp, the French writer and photographer

It is not hard to see why this painting would have captivated Flaubert. He himself was not only tempted by sensuous, beautiful women, but sometimes enraptured by them. He was seduced at the age of 18 by a tall brunette nearly twice his age: the voluptuous Eulalie, daughter of a hotel keeper in Marseille, which he visited during a tour of Southern France in the summer and fall of 1840. And almost 10 years later, during a long tour of the Middle East with his friend and fellow writer Maxime Du Camp, he seems to have bedded just about every single prostitute who caught his eye.

But if women could rouse his body, they never took possession of his mind. That was already spoken for—by his relentless determination to make himself a writer. Though Eulalie loved him passionately, he didn’t return her passion; he wrote to her simply to practice and polish his style.

image of Louise Colet, the French poet
Louise Colet, the French poet

Even after launching a long-running affair with a beautiful Parisian poet named Louise Colet, who loved him dearly, he never lived with her and he never married her or anyone else. They met periodically for passionate trysts, but his first love was always his work.

A False Start

So here is the young Gustave Flaubert, monkishly working away in his room at Croisset—a man of Romantic imagination and keen sexual appetite who is nonetheless firmly dedicated to the religion of art. In quest of a subject, is it any wonder that he would have been irresistibly drawn to the temptation of St. Anthony? Before meeting Louise Colet in July 1846, he had already started research on this topic, and before starting to write he devoured all sorts of recondite books ranging from histories of the origins of Christianity to the writings of mystics such as St. Teresa of Avila. He then spent 16 months writing 500 pages.

image of Louis Hyacinthe Bouilhet, the French poet and dramatist
Louis Hyacinthe Bouilhet, the French poet and dramatist

When he was finished, he called in two of his closest literary friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet. He brought them to Croisset so they could listen to him read the entire book aloud—on the understanding that neither of them would say a single word about it until he was done.

The reading took place in September 1849 in Flaubert’s bedroom and study at Croisset. It lasted four days, with eight hours of reading per day: noon to four in the afternoon, then eight o’clock to midnight. On the first day, before he started to read, Flaubert waved the manuscript like a flag and said to his friends, “If you don’t cry out with enthusiasm, nothing is capable of moving you!” Flaubert was in for a shock. As the reading dragged on, hour after hour, day after day, nobody cried out with enthusiasm, but now and then the two friends would exchange significant glances, and privately they agreed that they would tell him exactly what they thought of it, no holds barred.

“We think you should throw it in the fire and never speak of it again.”

It’s midnight in Flaubert’s study, and he’s just read aloud the last word of a 500-page novel on which he’s been working for almost five years. He puts down the last page, turns to his two dear friends, and says, “It’s your turn now. Tell me frankly what you think.” And speaking for both, Bouilhet says simply, “We think you should throw it in the fire and never speak of it again.”

Flaubert was flabbergasted. And of course he did talk about it—the three of them argued about it heatedly all through the night, right up until eight o’clock the next morning—with Flaubert’s mother listening anxiously at the door. Flaubert defended it as best he could, pointing out fine passages here and there, but fine passages alone don’t make a good book. His friends saw no progression in the story, no vitality in the figure of St. Anthony himself, no real grip on the theme. Essentially, they argued, Flaubert had taken a vague subject and made it vaguer. He had fatally indulged his own Romantic tendency toward lyricism—toward the fantastic, toward the mystical. To get a grip on these tendencies, Flaubert needed something that could not be treated lyrically.

Brilliant Advice from Good Friends

“Take a down-to-earth subject,” they said, “one of those incidents bourgeois life is full of . . . and force yourself to treat it in a natural manner.” Notice what they’re asking him to do here. Gus, stop dreaming! Stop wandering in the sterile deserts of antiquity. Come back to your native ground, to the here and now, to a story of bourgeois life in France in the middle of the 19th century. So finally—after eight hours—Flaubert throws in the towel. More beaten down than persuaded, he says at last, “It won’t be easy, but I’ll try.”

Did ever before such simple words express the birth of a writer’s resolution to do something radically new in the world of fiction? Now it’s true that Flaubert did not throw into the fire his book about St. Anthony, which he later cut and polished for publication in 1874. But he was now looking ahead—not backward.

A scene from Madame Bovary—Emma Bovary at the ball
A scene from Madame Bovary—Emma Bovary at the ball

On the day after the long night of the argument, the three friends took a walk through the gardens of Croisset by the River Seine. According to Maxime du Camp, Bouilhet suddenly proposed that Flaubert write a novel based on the true story of a public health officer whose second wife committed adultery, got herself into debt, and then poisoned herself. On September 20, 1851, a little less than two months after getting Du Camp’s letter, Flaubert started writing Madame Bovary. 

From the lecture series Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition
Taught by Professor James A. W. Heffernan, Dartmouth College