Literature: World Masterpieces



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Background to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
Read pp. 852-858 of Literature: World Masterpieces for some background to 19th C. Europe.
In pairs, take notes on the artistic movements Romanticism (pp. 857-58 ) and Realism (p. 858).
Gustave Flaubert Biography

  • 1821 Flaubert born in Rouen: father surgeon, mother was doctor's daughter;

  • 1836 passion for Elisa Schlésinger, a married woman eleven years his elder;

  • 1840-41, studied law in Paris against his will, failed exams;

  • 1843 likely suffered a nervous breakdown -- gave up law and returned home;

  • 1846 death of his father from gangrene; sister Caroline died shortly after childbirth;

Flaubert retired to Croisset, near Rouen on the Seine, with his mother and infant niece;

  • 1847 walking tour of the Loire and Brittany's coast

  • 1849-51 travels with Maxime du Camp through the middle east, Egypt, Greece, Italy

  • 1851 began work on Madame Bovary

  • 1857 Madame Bovary published after five years’ work



  • Flaubert’s philosophical influences: pessimism, nihilism, the unknown; science and religion as two poles of thought

  • hate of the bourgeois, middle class ideology and way of life (despite very much being bourgeois himself); decried bourgeois institutions like marriage (viewed his sister’s husband as “mediocrity incarnate”)

  • pursuit of perfection: "le seul mot juste" (took five years to write Madame Bovary)

  • attempt to create a beauty beyond conventional morality and social realities

  • combination of Romantic ideals (though very critical of them as well) and attempt at objectivity, scientific detachment

  • Realism: focus on small, very life-like details of ordinary lives

  • Rise of industrialism in Europe: communications revolution through rail, telegraph; new printing techniques (newspapers became commonplace for all classes to read)


Madame Bovary (1857)

  • antiromantic novel with underlying Romantic impulses

  • portrayal of bourgeois life

  • Flaubert tried on charges of immorality for the adulterous scenes

  • Emma as unfulfilled dreamer, failed Romantic hero (a sort of female Don Quixote)

  • triumph of the banal and base (i.e. Homais)

  • minimal dialogue: “the unspoken comes into sharp focus” (Wall, ix); unclear narration (seems to switch)

  • "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"

  • "the author, in his work, must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere" (Flaubert)



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