into a family of doctors and assumed to follow in their footsteps, Gustave
Flaubert made his Grand Entrance on the Planet Earth on December
12, 1821. Born in Rouen,
France, he was a novelist of the realist school of writing who is best
remembered for his monumental work, Madam Bovary (1857), a novel about a doctor's
wife who commits suicide because of her husband's infidelity and debt.
The book was first published in installments in the periodical, Revue de
Paris (October 1 to December 15, 1856). The French government
denounced the story as immoral and brought Flaubert to trial the following
year. He was not convicted, although six months later, the court found
poet Charles Baudelaire guilty of the same charges.
Flaubert's father, Achille-Cléophas, chief surgeon at the
Rouen city hospital, made most of his fortune investing in land. His
mother, Anne-Justine-Caroline (Fleuriot), a physician's daughter, soon became
the most influential person in her son's life.
Flaubert flaunted his bourgeois upbringing by rebelling
against societal rules. For fun, he created a
"dictionary" that defined the worst offenders. Expelled from school
for childish pranks, he finished his education privately in Paris. He
was ultimately forced to quit law school because of a "nervous disease" that
is assumed today to have been epilepsy. He moved into a house
that his father bought him and began writing. When his father died in 1846,
he moved in with his mother.
1846, Flaubert met writer Louise Colet. She was a stunningly beautiful
poet and feminist, 11 years older than he and married. They
corresponded for a short time before their relationship developed into a
turgid affair that lasted nearly a decade. He called her his muse, and
they discussed everything together, from writing and literature to science
and art. She later wrote an account of their affair in Lui in
After the death of both his father and his married sister,
Flaubert moved to Croisset, which was the family's country home near Rouen.
He lived there with his mother and his niece, Caroline, and stayed until he was 50
years old. Flaubert said, "Be regular and orderly in your life like a
bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
is sometimes thought to be the inspiration for the main character in Madame
Bovary, although Flaubert denied it, saying that the inspiration had been
himself. Of the book, Henry James wrote, "Madame Bovary
has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost
alone." William Faulkner claimed that he loved the novel so much,
he read Madame Bovary once a
In the 1860s, Flaubert savored his successes as a writer
and an intellectual in the court of Napoleon III. His friends included
authors Emile Zola, George Sand, Hippolyte Taine, and Russian writer
Turgenev, with whom he shared similar beliefs about nonrepresentational
Flaubert, often stricken with melancholy and depression,
wrote to his Russian compatriot, ''The thought that I shall see you this winter quite at
leisure delights me like the promise of an oasis. The comparison is
the right one, if only you knew how isolated I am! Who is there to
talk to now? Who is there in our wretched country who still 'cares
about literature'? Perhaps one single man? Me! The
wreckage of a lost world, an old fossil of romanticism! You will
revive me, you'll do me good.''
Flaubert once said, "Mediocrity cherishes rules; as for me,
I hate them; I feel for them and for every restriction, corporation, caste,
hierarchy, level, herd, a loathing which fills my soul, and it is in this
respect perhaps that I understand martyrdom."
Gustave Flaubert, the "Hermit of Croisset," spent his final years obese, in ill health,
and in relative poverty. He
died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 8, 1880.
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