Gustave Flaubert was a French novelist associated with the realist school that emerged during the mid nineteenth century. Although his reputation as a significant literary figure was already well established during his lifetime, today his novels are considered among the most important works of modern Western literature. Critics have often emphasized Flaubert's painstaking attention to detail and description in his prose, a stylistic trait that became a hallmark of his mature fiction writing and served to influence numerous writers who came after him. Owing to his scrupulous and often deliberate writing style, Flaubert sometimes took years and even decades to complete his novels. However, the personal journals that he kept regularly throughout his career and the copious letters he sent to cohorts and friends during his lifetime have provided an abundance of material detailing Flaubert's thoughts and craftsmanship.
Though he is an iconic figure of the realist movement, Flaubert is equally well known for his imaginative Orientalist works of fiction. Edward Said identified Flaubert as an archetypical Orientalist of the nineteenth century, noting the themes of desire, sensuality, and exoticism that suffuse the author's writing on the East and Eastern civilization. Flaubert's Orientalism stemmed from an interest in antiquity and classical history, as well as an intellectual curiosity with regard to Christianity and religion in general. While various critics have insisted that Flaubert's realism and Orientalism are oppositional in nature and content--the first focusing on modern themes and the latter on antiquity--scholars assessing the place of the Orient in Flaubert's thought have often discouraged such a conception, claiming, as Ildikó Lorinszky has, that Flaubert's later Orientalist works were a synthesis of projects the author had worked on intermittently throughout his long literary career.
Gustave Flaubert was born on 12 December 1821 in Rouen, a city situated in the northern province of Normandy. His father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, worked as a medical practitioner and surgeon, affording the family a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle in the provinces. Flaubert received his education at the Collège Royal and later the Lycée Impérial in Rouen. While attending to his studies, Flaubert worked under Adolphe Chéruel, a young professor who inspired in Flaubert an interest in history that would remain constant throughout the author's life. Many of Flaubert's earliest stories, written while he was still a student, revealed a fascination with historical themes, presenting medieval and Renaissance subjects derived from Chéruel's lessons. That interest perisisted; Flaubert's Orientalist works were greatly inspired by his love of antiquity, with his later novels embracing subjects set in ancient Rome and the early Christian world of the Near East. His fascination with the ancient East was already evident at the age of twelve when he made repeated visits to Rouen's harbor to view The Luxor, a boat carrying an obelisk transported from Egypt and destined for the Place de la Concorde in Paris, where it remains today.
Flaubert revealed an interest in Orientalist themes from the start of his writing career. The stories he wrote while an adolescent were heavily influenced by the romantic Orientalism of literary figures such as Victor Hugo; Lord Byron, George Gordon; Alfred de Musset; and Francois-René de Chateaubriand. Much as in the works of these premier Orientalists of the day, Flaubert's conception of the Orient relied heavily upon themes of exoticism and desire, demonstrating a taste for fantasy and romantic reverie in his writing. In an early story titled "Rage et impussiance," written three days after his birthday in 1836, Flaubert narrated the fate of M. Ohmlin, a German doctor who takes opium and falls into a comatose state that leaves his servants and colleagues to believe that he is dead. Buried alive and facing his inevitable demise, Ohmlin dreams of voluptuous females and brilliant landscapes, evoking a sense of ecstatic fulfillment only attainable once the monotony and daily concerns of life have been relinquished. "He dreamed of the Orient!" Flaubert claimed; "the Orient with its burning sun, blue skies, gilded minarets and stone pagodas; the Orient with all its poetry and love of incense."
As "Rage et impussiance" makes evident, Flaubert associated the Orient with the individual's escape from the concerns and formalities of daily life, and this sense of escapism was more pronounced in a second story, "La Spirale," written shortly after "Rage et impussiance." In "La Spirale" the painter Frédéric Moreau has just returned to Paris after living abroad in the East. Finding himself disillusioned with modern Parisian life upon his return, Moreau dreams of returning to the Orient, where the confines and formalities of modern Europe are nonexistent. His desire for escape compels him to inhale the scents from a box containing hashish in order to induce a state of constant somnambulism. In these dreamlike states, he is capable of evading the boredom and sadness of contemporary life, highlighting a constant tension between the quotidian and the dream, which figured heavily in much of Flaubert's early fiction. The use of hashish--a drug closely associated with the Orient in the nineteenth century--to conjure up this oneiric state of consciousness underscores Flaubert's conception of the Orient as a dreamlike place juxtaposed against the formalities of modern life and society.
By the mid 1840s the romantic influences that had been central to shaping Flaubert's vision of the Orient began to wane. The first indication of this turn away from his early romanticism occurred in 1845 during a three-week trip through Italy with his family as they accompanied his sister Caroline Flaubert and her new husband Émile Hamard on their honeymoon. The young writer expressed admiration for the architecture and culture he found in Italian cities and spent a great deal of time visiting museums. At the Balbi Palace in Genoa, Flaubert encountered Pieter Breugel's The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1557) a painting that left a profound impression on his imagination and provided the inspiration for his own narrative on Saint Anthony. On 15 September 1846 Flaubert wrote to his friend Emmanuel Vasse de Saint-Ouen, reporting that he was beginning to take up his studies on antiquity again. In particular, he wanted to know whether Vasse de Saint-Ouen could recommend any works on the religions and philosophies of the Orient. This inquiry marked the beginning of his growing curiosity with Eastern religions. In the following years Flaubert sought out a more detailed and scholarly appreciation of the Orient that eclipsed the fantastic and romanticized impressions of his youth.
Among the texts that Flaubert consulted, the work of the German philologist Georg Friedrich Creuzer had an especially important influence on his thinking and writing. Creuzer's Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (1810-1812) focused on the origins of myths and mythology in the ancient world. The book was recommended to Flaubert by his close friend Frédéric Baudry, who was personally acquainted with Alfred Maury, one of the principal collaborators to translate Creuzer's work into French. In a letter to Maxime Du Camp on 7 April 1848, Flaubert informed his friend that he also had been reading Creuzer's Religions de l'antiquité (1825) and was finding it useful in acquiring knowledge on oriental religious beliefs. Flaubert employed Creuzer's work in preparing the first draft of his novel La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; translated as The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1895), which was completed by September 1849 and dedicated to Alfred Le Poittevin, a close friend whose untimely death the previous year had left the author shaken.
Set in late antiquity, La Tentation de Saint Antoine details a single night in the life of Saint Anthony as he sits in the desert and struggles with the numerous enticements that confront him. An ascetic, Anthony believes that social isolation and solitude are necessary for the proper worship of God, and throughout the book a host of monsters, gods, and heretics appear before him, each attempting to convince Anthony to abandon his asceticism. The setting of the story is of particular importance, as it takes place in a period when the beliefs and practices of the Christian religion are first being developed and debated. Anthony is attempting to make sense of Christianity and religion in general, and in detailing this endeavor, Flaubert drew upon the comparative mythology and forms of mythological interpretation laid out by Creuzer in his studies on the ancient Near East. The desire to interpret is, ultimately, one of the temptations confronted by Anthony, with Flaubert suggesting the impossibility of ever being able to establish an authoritative interpretation in religious and spiritual concerns.
Upon completing the first draft of the manuscript, Flaubert was encouraged by Du Camp and the poet Louis Bouilhet to read the work aloud to them. Over the course of four nights, Flaubert read his manuscript uninterrupted. After he had finished, his two friends gave their opinions on the work, expressing their disappointment in Flaubert's first serious literary undertaking and convincing him it would be best to shelve the work and not seek publication. According to Du Camp in his Souveniers Littéraires (1882-1883), published after Flaubert's death, it was after passing opinion on the draft of La Tentation de Saint Antoine that he suggested Flaubert consider writing the story of Eugène Delamare, a local medical officer who had studied under Achille Flaubert before being both morally and financially ruined by his unfaithful wife--the story that became Madame Bovary (1857). The veracity of this account is, however, highly circumspect. As Francis Steegmuller has argued, it was only after Flaubert returned from abroad that the subject of Delamare's tragic tale was suggested to him as a possible subject for a novel, and by Bouilhet, not Du Camp.
Yet, Du Camp can be credited with persuading the young author to undertake a trip to the East in 1849. That year, Du Camp had been awarded an assignment by the national Académie des Inscriptions to photograph antiquities in Alexandria and Cairo, and he hoped to have Flaubert accompany him. He even convinced Flaubert's mother to agree to the voyage and provide her son with the necessary funds by having Jules Cloquet, a doctor and close friend of the family, inform her that a brief stay in a warmer climate might prove beneficial to Flaubert's overall state of health. With his mother's consent and the funds obtained, the two set out for Egypt in October 1849 on a grand tour of the Orient and Eastern Mediterranean that would last more than a year and a half.
The trip was to be Flaubert's first encounter with the actual Orient, and unsurprisingly the author found that many of his preconceptions about the East, no matter how informed by scholarly texts, were challenged by direct experience. Yet, unlike other travel accounts left by French authors visiting the Levant and North Africa, Flaubert was not unpleasantly disillusioned with what he found in the "real" Orient. "You ask me if the Orient is everything I imagined it to be," he wrote to his mother from Cairo on 5 January 1850. "Well it is, and even surpasses what I had anticipated. Everything that was once foggy for me is now made clear . . . so much so that it often feels as if I am suddenly rediscovering old forgotten dreams." Throughout the voyage in Egypt, Flaubert found himself overcome by feelings of déjà vu, claiming that the mysticism and religious fervor of the early Christian world he had read about for La Tentation de Saint Antoine was, in fact, still present in Oriental civilization. "Here," he informed Cloquet in a letter written on 15 January 1850, "the Bible is a picture of contemporary habits." Everywhere he looked he encountered the "old Orient, land of religions and flowing robes." Flaubert was even encouraged to go native while in Egypt, shaving his head save for a single lock of hair and donning a red tarboosh that he wore throughout the trip.
Such observations drew upon the works of earlier romantic writers such as Chateaubriand and Byron, who had been inclined to view the East as static and intimately tied to the origins of Christianity. In the perspectives of leading French Orientalists, time had been suspended in the Orient, leaving an archaic civilization still steeped in old practices and sublime religious mysticism. In his many letters, Flaubert detailed his efforts to seek out traces of antiquity in the daily habits of the native population, visiting mosques and Coptic convents to satiate his curiosity. Yet, the antique allure of the Orient remarked on by Flaubert remained tied to an awareness of ruin and deterioration in the present as descriptions of camel carcasses rotting in the sun, mounds of ash and pottery shards, and pyramids covered with bird droppings filled his detailed accounts of the Egyptian landscape.
Equally romanticized was Flaubert's intimate association between sensuousness and oriental civilization. Frequenting brothels while touring Egypt, Flaubert chronicled his and Du Camp's numerous sexual exploits, which resulted in the contraction of venereal disease that pestered both writers throughout the trip. Flaubert gave a highly eroticized account of an evening spent in a brothel with the dancer Kuchuk-Hânem, describing the rhythmic movements of her body and the sexual pleasures she offered to her clients. According to Edward Said in Orientalism, Kuchuk-Hânem is symbolic of the oriental woman in Flaubert's writing and, ultimately, of Flaubert's Orient itself, constructing a perception of the East through erotic and sensual themes that cast the Orient as a place of boundless pleasure and unrestrained desire.
After leaving Egypt in July of 1850, Flaubert and Du Camp made their way through Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus, Istanbul, and Greece. By the time they arrived in Italy in December to meet Flaubert's mother, the author had abandoned the tarboosh, clipped his long beard, and adopted his familiar bourgeois style of dress. Flaubert's voyage to the Orient proved to be a transformative event in his literary career. Upon his return to France, he abandoned his old projects and began reflecting intensely on future works. Numerous scholars have insisted that Flaubert first began to fully contemplate Madame Bovary while abroad, reporting in his letters that he was considering writing a "Flemish novel" of a woman conflicted by religious passion and desire. The publication of Madame Bovary brought charges of immorality from the government regarding the story's themes of female sexual desire and controversial depictions of religion, resulting in a trial in which Flaubert and his publisher were eventually acquitted of all charges. The affair, however, made Madame Bovary a cause célèbre that contributed to the novel's success. By the time his novel appeared in book form, Flaubert was being hailed as a literary figure of merit and a leader of the modernist movement emerging in French literary circles.
With his newfound notoriety, Flaubert briefly took up residence on the Boulevard du Temple in Paris and began associating with prominent writers and authors such as Théophile Gautier and Ernest Feydeau. Between 1856 and 1857 he had begun publishing sections of his La Tentation de Saint Antoine in the Revue L'Artiste, edited by Gautier. Yet, in light of the scandal generated by Madame Bovary, Flaubert had reservations about attempting to publish the manuscript, feeling its treatment of religion and graphic eroticism would be even more shocking to the prudish government censors than the story of Emma Bovary. Although undertaking some cursory research in anticipation of once again working on the manuscript, the project quickly transformed into a new project that ultimately assumed the shape of his orientalist opus Salammbô (1862). In a letter to his confidante Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie on 18 March 1857, Flaubert indicated his desire to write a novel about ancient Carthage, claiming he was currently occupied with "a formidable archeological work on a little known period from antiquity." "I feel the need to leave the modern world," he confessed, ". . . which tires me by reproducing what is disgusting for me to see." Interested in history since his youth, Flaubert was contemplating taking up the role of both novelist and historian in his latest endeavor.
In the spring of 1857 Flaubert began extensive research on the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage in 264 B.C. In attempting to visualize ancient Carthage, he consulted classical histories by Procopius and Polybius, recent articles published in the Revue Archéologique, and transcriptions from the Académie des Inscriptions; he even inquired with correspondents known to possess a detailed knowledge of current archeological excavations taking place in North Africa. He often complained to friends that he was encumbered by notes, writing to Feydeau on 6 August 1857, "I am accumulating notes on top of notes, books on top of books and I am hardly conscious of myself in the process. I can't see my objective clearly." Writer's block was becoming a problem, and by summer of 1857 Flaubert decided a trip to Tunisia was in order so he could encounter the subject of his prospective novel firsthand. "I am going to place myself in the new," he wrote to Charles d'Osmoy on 22 July 1857. "It is a story which occurs 240 years before Jesus Christ. It has caused me a terrible and ineffable agony, like when you leave for a long voyage."
During his six-week stay in Tunisia, Flaubert broke with his usual habit of working late and taking leisurely mornings. He awoke early each day to see as much as possible and took copious notes on the ruins, the landscape, the sites of famous battles, and the scant artifacts he could find in North Africa. Returning to Croisset, he set to work writing, informing his friends in epistolary exchanges that his current project was a laborious and grueling effort requiring his complete attention. He also confessed his doubts that a narrative chronicling a war and subsequent mercenary revolt that had occurred two thousand years ago would be of any interest to modern readers. Nevertheless, he was excited for the new approach he was taking in his writing, utilizing archeological and historical details to produce a work of fiction that aimed to be as accurate as possible in its descriptions and details of the past. Moreover, the success of Madame Bovary facilitated the sale of his new novel to his publisher, Michel Lévy, who agreed to purchase it unread for 10,000 francs, a sum far in excess of what Flaubert had received for his prior novel.
The new novel, titled Salammbô after the Carthaginian general Hamilcar's daughter, chronicles the story of a band of mercenaries who, unpaid by their Carthaginian superiors, rise up in revolt in the wake of the First Punic War. Mâtho, the leader of the mercenaries, falls in love with Solammbô, prompting him to lead an invasion against the state. Yet, by the conclusion of the novel, Mâtho is defeated and dies in the presence of his beloved. This story of conquest and love was punctuated with graphic depictions of lust and fetishized violence, including highly descriptive scenes of human sacrifice and torture. Many in Flaubert's literary circle praised the book upon its release in late November 1862. Gautier extolled Flaubert's historical accuracy and scholarly methodology, claiming in Le Moniteur Universel on 22 December 1862 that "just as Cuvier could recompose an antideluvian monster from a tooth [or] fragment of bone . . . so too does the author of Salammbô resurrect a building from a stone or a line of text." The author George Sand, whom Flaubert had met four years previously and whom he had visited on brief occasions since, wrote a glowing review of the novel, prompting a letter of gratitude from Flaubert that marked the beginning of a close friendship.
Not all critics were as approving as Gautier and Sand, however. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, one of the most prominent literary critics of his day, wrote a long review in his weekly column run in Le Constitutionnel that, while complimentary in some respects, was largely unfavorable. The obscure historical subject and the lengthy descriptions were not, in his opinion, a suitable follow-up to his modern novel, Madame Bovary. Lesser critics took their cue from Sainte-Beuve, writing scathing critiques in the coming weeks. Religious conservatives equally criticized the work, provoking Catholic ministers to compare Flaubert to Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade in their sermons, warning that Salammbô encouraged paganism. Yet, despite being panned by critics and religious spokesmen, the novel did attract attention, ultimately going through four editions in its first six months. The novel inspired a parodic play, Folammbô, ou les Cocasseries carthaginoises (Mad-ammbô, or Carthaginian High Jinks), which premiered at the Palais Royal on 1 May 1863. Empress Eugenie considered atttending an upcoming imperial costume ball dressed as the heroine of Flaubert's book before deciding that a costume based on Salammbô would be too risqué for polite society.
While branded a controversial writer, Flaubert did manage to ingratiate himself with both influential circles and political society in the coming years. His connections to writers and savants like Gautier, the Goncourt Brothers, Ernest Renan, and Hippolyte Taine placed him in constant contact with the Parisian literary world during the 1860s, while his connections with Princess Mathilde Bonaparte, the niece of Emperor Napoleon III, brought invitations to her prestigious salons and garnered him a nomination for the Legion of Honor in 1866. Yet, his acceptance by both French literary and high society did not ensure favorable reviews of his work as his next book, L'Education sentimentale, histoire d'un jeune homme (1869; translated as Sentimental Education: A Young Man's History, 1898 ), revealed. Marking a return to the modernist style that had been applauded in Madame Bovary, the novel did not fare well with critics who attacked it for its sprawling plot and vulgarity. In addition to hostile critics, Flaubert was equally beset by financial hardship and personal loss. In July 1869 his longtime friend Bouilhet died suddenly, followed by the death of other close friends soon after. In mid 1870 he began to work on a third version of his yet-unpublished manuscript La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Just as he set to work, however, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, placing the country under siege. Serving in the local citizens' militia and later, with the advance of German forces toward Paris, forced to flee Croisset, Flaubert complained that he was incapable of doing any writing throughout the so-called terrible year of 1870-1871.
Finally able to return to his mother's house in Croisset in summer 1871, Flaubert took up revising the Saint Anthony manuscript with alacrity. He carried out new research in both Rouen and Paris and expanded upon the story's religious themes by consulting Frédéric Baudry's 1855 Étude sur les Vedas (Study on the Vedas) and a French translation of The Lotus of the Good Law. At this time Renan was serving as curator of oriental manuscripts at the Bibliothèque Impériale, which was customarily closed to the general public. Yet, capitalizing on his friendship with Renan, Flaubert was granted access to any documents he desired, allowing for an extensive research agenda. The pace of his work was, however, soon interrupted when in April 1872 Flaubert's mother passed away. Following her death, Flaubert lamented that the house in Croisset had become a mausoleum, and it was not until late May that Flaubert began writing again. In revising this lifelong project, Flaubert made some important alterations, replacing the tripartite scheme of the 1849 and 1856 manuscripts and organizing the narrative into seven chapters. In the new version, he intended to expand upon the saint's decline into insanity and drew upon his new research on Eastern religions to further demonstrate the inner struggles engendered by conflicting beliefs and myths.
Although completed by mid 1872, Flaubert left the manuscript untouched for another eighteen months, eventually submitting it for publication in early 1874. In the interval, Flaubert had broken with his longtime publisher Michel Lévy after an argument over the publication of Bouilhet's posthumous book. For the newly revised La Tentation de Saint Antoine, Flaubert signed with Georges Charpentier, an editor with a fine-tuned appreciation for modern French writers like Émile Zola and Alphonse Daudet. Under the terms of the contract, Charpentier agreed to republish Flaubert's past novels in addition to his latest work. La Tentation de Saint Antoine, a work which Flaubert had dedicated nearly thirty years to perfecting and which the author considered his masterwork, was finally released that spring. Critical reception was negative, with conservative reviewers impugning Flaubert for his obsessive attention to detail and indifference to morality in his choice of subject matter. Sand consoled her friend, writing to him on 10 April with an injunction not to succumb to despair over the barbed words of critics. In her opinion, La Tentation de Saint Antoine was "a masterpiece," a "magnificent book."
La Tentation de Saint Antoine marked Flaubert's last major orientalist work of fiction. In 1877 he published his Trois contes (Three Tales), which featured the story "Hérodias," a retelling of the story of Saint John the Baptist, who is ordered to be beheaded upon the request of the seductress Salome. "Hérodias" reflected the author's lifelong fascination with myth and the biblical Near East, and the story is thought to have influenced Oscar Wilde's more famous tragedy Salome, published in 1893. Yet, in spite of this return to his interest in the early Christian world of late antiquity, Flaubert dedicated much of his attention during the remaining years of his life to Bouvard et Pécuchet, an unfinished novel focused on modern bourgeois society, published posthumously in 1881. The preoccupation with more-contemporary themes did not, however, indicate that Flaubert had lost interest in the Orient during the last years of his life. In a letter written to his niece two weeks before his death, Flaubert claimed that he was "gripped by a longing to see a palm tree standing out against the blue sky and to hear a stork clacking its beak at the top of a minaret." Flaubert did not have the chance to fulfill this wish. On 8 May 1880 he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at Croisset. While scholarly attention has tended to favor Flaubert's modernism and marginalized appreciation for his more historically inspired orientalist works, today Flaubert is considered one of the preeminent European orientalists of the nineteenth century. His travel writings on Egypt, which until recently remained unpublished, have become an important source in evaluating Flaubert's work, stimulating a rethinking of the role that antiquity and oriental romanticism played in the career of the most celebrated modernist writer. Orientalist studies spurred by Said's theories have provided a new context through which to interpret Flaubert's major novels, including Salammbô and La Tentation de Saint Antoine. Flaubert's characterization of the Orient in his fiction and journal travel writing has been noted as marking a crossroads in the French Orientalist tradition, evincing a lingering appreciation for the romantic vision of an exotic and fantastic Orient while employing a meticulous and scientific methodology to accommodate desires for more-realistic and accurate depictions in literature.
From: Murray-Miller, Gavin. "Gustave Flaubert." Orientalist Writers, edited by Coeli Fitzpatrick and Dwayne A. Tunstall, Gale, 2012. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 366.