Celebrating Gustave Flaubert's Famous Work

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Celebrating Gustave Flaubert's Famous Work

Madame Bovary is one of the most important French novels of the 19th century. It is vastly regarded as Flaubert's most important work, and is also considered socially relevant because it inadvertently served to inspire, if not signal the dawn of feminism. Flaubert's adulterous heroine, the author's alter-ego of sorts, was happy in her transgressions, her actions seemingly justified by her dull and lifeless marriage.

On this website, you will learn about Gustave Flaubert's life leading up to the publication of his novel, see from where he drew his inspiration, and which events in his life led to, or were the result of the publication of his book.

Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary, an unhappily married woman who seeks escape through forbidden relationships with other men. The book could be viewed as an expose of the situation of women in the 19th century; women who had not yet been emancipated and were expected to obey their husbands, to stay in their homes while the men went to work, or left for months on end to fight in wars. Emma Bovary also serves as a voice for Flaubert, who patterned the character's personality after his own. Emma Bovary's "rebellious" attitude against the accepted ideas of the day, reflects Flaubert's views of the bourgeoisie. Ultimately, Madame Bovary's indiscretions and her obsession with Romance lead to her downfall, which not only appeases the guardians of morality, but shows us Flaubert's view of the world wasn't one of naive optimism.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12th, 182, in Rouen France. His father, Achille-Cléophas was surgeon and clinical professor at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Rouen, and the Flaubert family lived in a home connected to to the hospital, which no doubt made for a morose existence for the young Gustave, who would have been happier living in a regular neighborhood, away from illness and death.

Flaubert began writing at the age of 9, hi s first work being, Louis XIII, Eloge de Corneille, followed by "Une Belle explication de la fameuse constipation. A few years later, Bibliomanie, Une leçon d'histoire naturelle, was published in Le Colibri, a small literary review.

Flaubert befriended philosopher Alfred Le Poittevin, who not only shared the young writer's negative attitude towards life, but influenced him to further explore his dark thoughts. Sharing a profound dislike of the bourgeoisie, the pair created "Le Garçon" (the boy), a character to whom they attributed every vile personality flaw they felt like exposing. While Flaubert was at the Collège de Rouen, he became fascinated with the works of Victor Hugo, Lord Byron, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and other Romantic literary giants.

Flaubert enrolled at the Faculty of Law in Paris, but had to abandon his studies due to a mysterious form of epilepsy. Flaubert saw this as the perfect opportunity for him to delve further into his writing and that of others. Following his father and sister's death, Flaubert invited his mother and niece to live with him at his estate at Croisset, near Rouen, which would remain a principal place of residence until his death.

In addition to his Croisset residence, Flaubert would often visit friends and colleagues in and around Paris, where he would often rent an apartment during the winter months. Flaubert was fiercely independent, and even his romantic life was marred by problems stemming from his reclusive behavior and anti-social attitude. He believed that an active social life would hinder his creativity, distracting him from focusing on his writing.

One of Flaubert's most important romantic liaisons was with Louise Colet, a smart, politically minded, not to mention married proto-feminist poet who hobnobbed with the literary elite of the day. Their romance was somewhat tumultuous, an on and off thing; passionate yet stormy, and not surprisingly, the spark which gave Flaubert the inspiration to write Madame Bovary. In addition to basing some characters and events on people he had known throughout his life, Flaubert used his adulterous affair with Colet as source material for the novel, and attributed some of his own personality traits and values to Emma Bovary; in fact, one famous quote from Flaubert is, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!" (I am Madame Bovary).

Needless to say, Louise Colet wasn't amused, seeing that some of the details in Emma Bovary's romantic liaisons echoed her own experiences with Flaubert. She retaliated with a poem entitled Amor nel cor.

But his former lover's literary retaliation was the least of Flaubert's worries, like his contemporary Charles Baudelaire had been for his controversial novel, Les Fleurs du Mal, he was prosecuted following the publication of Madame Bovary in "La Revue de Paris" in 1851, for having offended the Church and public morals. Fortunately, Flaubert was acquitted, thanks to his lawyer Jules Senard, to whom he later dedicated his novel when it was finally published in book form in April of 1857.

The Controversy Surrounding Madame Bovary

It is difficult to understand how Madame Bovary could be construed as an affront to public morals and the Church, but bear in mind the era in which it was written; with contemporaries such as Baudelaire and Verlaine, and the burgeoning dissent towards the Catholic Church by intellectuals, almost every book, or text published in literary journals was subject to scrutiny and censorship. Flaubert's novel, with its protagonist being an adulteress, would certainly not be overlooked by those dedicated to uphold standards of decency.

Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, and Flaubert's "soulmate" George Sand, are just a few of a long list of authors who were censored and listed in the infamous Index librorum prohibitorum, the Catholic Church's list of banned authors.

Even in the early 20th century, the works of James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller were enough to stir some degree of outrage in all but the most educated and open-minded individuals; in fact, it wasn't until 1948 that the Index librorum prohibitorum was last published by the catholic church, and even at that point, some of the books and authors included therein have remained banned until now.

In Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s makes his views on marriage, love, and sexuality quite clear. By using some of his own youthful infatuations as well as some of his experiences as an adult in love, the author paints accurate highly portraits of all the characters in his book; from the young Justin's unrequited love for Emma, based on Flaubert's own youthful obsession with married woman Elisa Schlesinger, to Emma's liaisons with Rodolphe and Leon, for which he used his affair with Louise Colet as source material.

During the trial, the prosecution argued that Emma Bovary's joy in committing adultery was reprehensible, and that reading Flaubert's work would inevitably lead to the decay of public decency. One's freedom to think, fantasize, and form "illicit thoughts" was what really worried the prosecution; a matter of the righteous against the morally bankrupt. Flaubert makes it quite clear that Emma's romantic longings are in essence fulfilled through her written correspondence with Rodolphe and Leon, while her husband could not, even if he was in the same room, satisfy her needs.

The Trial

As you may have noticed when reading the introduction to Madame Bovary, Flaubert enthusiastically dedicates his novel to Marie-Antoine Jules Senard, Member of the Paris Bar, Ex-President of the National Assembly, and Former Minister of the Interior; for it is Senard who is to thank for the publication of Madame Bovary in book form, as without his eloquent defense, not only would the book not be available to anyone, but Flaubert may have even wound up in prison.

Madame Bovary was originally published in 1851, in "La Revue de Paris", a popular literary journal. Shortly thereafter, Flaubert receives a court summons from prosecutor Joseph Pinard for having offended the Church and public morals. Flaubert is shocked; not only had the work been censored by the editor prior to publication, but he himself did not find any of it to be offensive in the least.

The prosecution argued that the novel challenged public mores, blasphemed against the Church by trying to justify the mortal sin of adultery, and included provocative images intermingled with religious affairs, therefore promoting the concept of a fictional utopia devoid of decency and moral values.

Jules Senard's rebuttal to Pinard's allegations was that the character flaws displayed by Madame Bovary served to strengthen the case for strong moral values by being socially maladjusted.

Flaubert was acquitted, and Madame Bovary was published in book form, in April of 1857, less than two months following the trial, and to great public acclaim.

Amor nel cor (Love in my heart)

Louise Colet was born Louise Révoil in 1810, at Aix-en-Provence, later acquiring the surname Colet from her union with flautist Hippolyte Colet, a teacher from the Paris Conservatory.

But her marriage was rather unsuccessful mainly due to the fact that Louise was a rising star in the literary world. Hippolyte tried his best to tighten the reins on his firebrand of a wife, dictating what she was to wear in public, who she was allowed to speak to, and how she was to behave.

Louise became both lover and muse to many of her literary contemporaries, including Alfred De Musset, Alfred de Vigny, and Victor Cousin. Of course, it is her relationship with Gustave Flaubert which had the most resonance, as it inspired him to write Madame Bovary, and led her to relate her experiences with him in some of her autobiographical work and poems.

Louise Colet died in 1876, in relative obscurity.

She wrote this poem, which was subsequently published in Le Monde Illustre, in retaliation to Flaubert's usage of details from their personal relationship as source material for Madame Bovary.

Amor nel cor

"It was for him, for him whom she loved like a god,
For him, callous to all human sorrow, uncouth to women.
Alas, she was poor and had little to give
But all gifts are sacred that incarnate a soul.

Well! In a novel of traveling-salesman style,

As nauseating as a toxic wind,
He mocked the gift in a flat-footed phrase,
Yet kept the fine agate seal."

The title of this poem makes reference to the motto engraved on a cigarette case containing a family jewel she had given to Flaubert as a symbol of her affection. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert used this motto on a signet ring Emma gives to her lover Rodolphe.


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