Background Research Questions Gustave Flaubert English Literature Essay

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French novelist and perfectionist Gustave Flaubert was most known for his classic novel Madame Bovary. Flaubert was born in 1821 in France in a hospital run by his father, a distinguished doctor. As a child he developed a lifelong love for reading, a passion that he shares with the character Madame Bovary. (Gustave) Flaubert's familiarity with the practice of medicine gave him personal knowledge about operations, drugs, and doctors. This familiarity is evident in his novel, in which doctors play critical roles. Doctors in Flaubert's time were not as wealthy and well regarded as they are now; medicine was considered a professional trade that provided a decent living-but doctors were not necessarily rich or highly honored. (Biography)

Flaubert's family was solidly middle class and his father was quite respected. He reluctantly went to Paris in 1841 to study law as his father insistence. He had already published a few works at the time, mostly biographical pieces and stories of love affairs (often with married women). Despite his father's effort to achieve middle class prosperity, Flaubert detested that part of society called the bourgeois. He thought that the bourgeois lacked imagination and tolerance. He even had a motto for that, "Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of virtue." This dislike of the bourgeois is an undercurrent in Madame Bovary. (C.D. Merriman)

While home during law school, Flaubert had an experience that changed his life. He was riding on a wagon on the country road one dark night in 1844, when suddenly the lights of a neighboring farmhouse and the lights of his and an approaching carriage seemed to merge into a golden brightness. As the light grew brighter, both inside him and around him, it seemed to fill him with joy as he saw thousands of memories from his life. These episodes with light reoccurred a few times over the following week. (C.D. Merriman) His family felt his should discontinue law school. He officially retired from the world at the age of 23, because of a sudden attack of epilepsy; however he remained incredibly active in his literary life and later in travels abroad. (Biography)

Flaubert's experiences resurface throughout the novel Madame Bovary. He lived at his family's country home for the rest of his life, although he travelled and corresponded with some of the best known names in French literature. He also visited Paris where he met the woman who was his mistress for almost ten years. (Encyclopedia) Louis Colet was thirty eight and Flaubert was twenty five when they met. She was a poetess and a single mother, and she wanted Flaubert to live with her in Paris. Since he preferred his country life, most of their relationship existed through letters. Legend has it that Colet gave Flaubert a cigar holder with the same inscription "Amor nel Cor" that appears in Madame Bovary; it means, literally, love in the heart. Some historians think that Colet was Flaubert's model for the character Madame Bovary. Whether she was or not, their relationship is similar to Madame Bovary's relationships-in that the power of the relationship was more a product of imagination and correspondence than actual life. (C.D. Merriman)

This leads to another similarity between Flaubert and the character Madame Bovary, their minds had great imagination for what love should be and love in real life is no match on a superficial level for the love we invent in our minds. This is not to say that Flaubert was romantic, in fact many people felt that his novel was a pessimistic condemnation of romantic love. (Biography) But Flaubert was certainly aware of how it works and of the reading material that inspires it. He worked very hard, especially on writing Madame Bovary. It took Flaubert five years to write Madame Bovary. His style and research were meticulous as he searched for just the right word, or as the French say: Le mot juste. He drew maps of the settings in Madame Bovary, and wrote extensive analyses. After the novel's publication Flaubert was asked who Madame Bovary was, her real life identity; he answered, "Madame Bovary is me." Flaubert considered himself as the principle character in his own masterpiece. (Encyclopedia)

When the novel first appeared in 1856, it caused a lot of controversy and outrage. The editors wanted to cut certain scenes out, but Flaubert refused knowing that each point throughout the novel is critical. He did not only have a hard time with his editors, he and his printer were also charged by the government with having committed offenses of outrage against public and religious morality indecency. Although there are no graphic sexual scenes, the government at the time was bourgeois and closed minded not like the middle class. They objected to the explicit states of mind and ways of thinking in Madame Bovary. The court believed that the novel was offending. Later on the court could not deny Flaubert's intent or artistry and in the end they decided that he only committed the crime of forgetting that literature, like art, must be pure in its form as in its expression. (Biography)

In 1857 Flaubert dedicated the novel to his attorney who won the acquittal. Although the novel gave him a place in French literature, it was not a financial success moreover; many critics and readers did not like it. (Gustave) None of Flaubert's other books had the impact of Madame Bovary. He continued to have many deep friendships with other French authors and an active life in literature. (C.D. Merriman)