Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert


Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 in Rouen, France. His father, a respected surgeon, raised his family in quarters near the hospital where he worked. Young Gustave would sometimes observe his father’s procedures, including autopsies. The clinical, almost detached detail with which Flaubert depicted Emma Bovary inspired a famous cartoon recalling his childhood experience: Emma on the cadaver’s block, being dismembered by the surgeon’s son.

But Gustave was also a deeply romantic young man, and he developed an early and permanent disdain for the life of the French bourgeoisie. Its banalities and exigencies trapped him for a time, as he was encouraged to study law, like many a respectable bourgeois son. However, in 1844 his schooling in Paris came to an abrupt halt when he had a series of health problems resulting in seizures and a coma. These attacks, now thought to be symptoms of epilepsy, required Flaubert to leave school and return to the provinces. Established on his estate in Croisset, he dedicated himself to his true passion—literature.

Flaubert’s convalescence was soon disrupted. His father died in January 1846, and his beloved sister, Caroline, who had recently given birth, died six weeks later. In his mid-twenties, Flaubert became head of a household that now included his mother and his sister’s daughter. Although the three lived a placid country life together for many years, Flaubert often visited Paris, where he fell in love with Louise Colet, cultivated a friendship with writer and photographer Maxime du Camp, and witnessed the Revolution of 1848. He worked for many years on a novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (finally published in 1874), that in its early drafts was criticized by his friends for being overly romantic.

Upon returning in 1851 from a tour of the Near East, he began a novel in which he experimented with a new narrative style. Working tirelessly for almost five years, taking great care over each sentence, Flaubert composed his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, the story of a disenchanted provincial wife. When it was published (in installments in 1856, in book form in 1857) Madame Bovary caused a sensation; its frank depiction of adultery landed Flaubert in the courts on charges of moral indecency. Exonerated, the author became a respected frequenter of the Parisian salons, was awarded the French Legion of Honor, and formed friendships with George Sand, Emile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant.

Although he continued to visit Paris frequently, Flaubert lived for most of the year in Croisset, where he wrote and revised his works, and amassed an astonishing body of correspondence. He is also remembered for his novels Salammbô (1862) and A Sentimental Education (1869) and for the collection Three Stories (1877). Financial troubles beset him late in his life, and he spent his final years somewhat isolated and impoverished. Gustave Flaubert died on May 8, 1880, in Croisset.


1821 Gustave Flaubert is born on December 12 in Rouen, France. His father is a surgeon and medical professor; his mother is from a distinguished provincial bourgeois family.

1824 Flaubert’s sister, Caroline, is born.

1829 Honoré de Balzac publishes Les Chouans, his first literary success and the earliest of his works to be included in what he later will call La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy).

1830 Victor Hugo’s Hernani appears, as does Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black). The July Revolution results in the abdication of King Charles X and the establishment of the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe.

1831 Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is published.

1832 Gustave enters school at the College Royal in Rouen; he studies the ancient Greeks and Romans, and favors such Ro mantic writers as Goethe, Byron, Chateaubriand, and Hugo.

1833 George Sand’s Lelia appears. Jules Michelet publishes the first volume of his monumental Histoire de France (History of France); the seventeen-volume work will be completed in 1867.

1836 Flaubert falls deeply in love with Elisa Schlésinger, eleven years his senior; he later will take her as his model for several of his literary heroines.

1837 An avid writer from an early age, Flaubert publishes two stories.

1840—1841 He begins studying law in Paris.

1844 Flaubert has his first “nervous” attack, probably an epileptic seizure. The resulting coma and further illness cause him to

abandon his legal studies for the life of a writer at his estate in Croisset, on the River Seine between Paris and Rouen. Le Comte de Monte Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo), by Alexandre Dumas (père), is published.

1845 Flaubert completes the first version of L‘Éducation sentimen tale