Exploring the Life and Works of Gustave Flaubert, the Influential French Novelist


Learn about the life and temperament of Gustave Flaubert, the famous French novelist who is best known for his novel “Madame Bovary.” Discover his biography, writing style, and influence on literature.

Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert; (1821-1880), French novelist, whose fame and influence as a master of the craft of fiction are based on a fairly small body of major works. His best-known novel is Madame Bovary, published in 1857.

Temperament and Influence

The particular nature of Flaubert’s talent and temperament placed him in a central position with respect to the literary currents of the 19th century. By disposition Flaubert was a romantic—full of obscure longings, prone to passionate outbursts, and capable of lifelong admiration for Victor Hugo. But a highly critical intelligence led him to curb these proclivities and to impose tight control over his fiction. His keen sense of fact and his willingness to treat what were shocking subjects for the time identified him with the “realists” in the novel. Emile Zola and the school of naturalism later claimed him as their master.

Along with romantic and realist strains there was also in Flaubert a strong symbolist tendency, even though that literary attitude is generally associated with poetry rather than with the novel. His devotion to perfection and suggestiveness of style and to the intrinsic value of the created work of art give him a key role in the development of the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” in the midst of a philistine bourgeois society. Indi-ferent to the catchwords of social conscience, Flaubert had an unshakable aesthetic conscience based on his double allegiance to style and to reality.


Flaubert’s life has too often been dismissed as uneventful. Rather, it was a full and highly instructive one. He came to terms with a nervous condition sometimes diagnosed as epilepsy. He held together and turned to good purpose a profoundly divided character. He left behind not only his fiction but also an eloquent record, in the form of correspondence that fills numerous volumes, of the agonizing struggle to produce that fiction.

Some of the best literary minds of the past 100 years—from Charles Baudelaire and Henry James to Marcel Proust and Jean Paul Sartre-place Flaubert at the heart of the modern tradition. There is little reason to question his rank as one of the greatest masters in 19th century literature.


Literary histories refer to Flaubert as “the recluse of Croisset” and imply that he was almost an invalid. This is far from the case. During most of his career Flaubert spent several months of the year in Paris and was on intimate terms with many of the literary figures of his time. He took pains to be present in Paris to witness the uprisings of 1848, which established the Second Republic (1848-1851), and later, under the Second Empire, he accepted honors from Napoleon III. With his high-living friend, the journalist and novelist Maxime Du Camp, he enjoyed walking tours of France and also traveled for two years in the Middle East, including five months spent sailing on the Nile River. He had an active love life. Although unmarried, he carried considerable family burdens. His literary retreats lasted several months, after which he would emerge again to meet the world and see his friends.

A dedicated artist, Flaubert displayed deep-seated ambition and a growing confidence in his goals. It was not entirely inappropriate that his career should have been launched by the scandal of a trial in Paris in 1857 for offenses against public morality in Madame Bovary, as published serially in the Revue de Paris. Later that same year Baudelaire’s collection of verse, Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), was brought before the same judge. Baudelaire was fined, and six of his poems were suppressed. Flaubert’s qualified acquittal, however, was a rare case in which the official censorship of the Second Empire was defeated.

Early Years

Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, Normandy, on Dec. 12, 1821. His father was chief surgeon at the Rouen municipal hospital, where the family had residential quarters. His mother, the daughter of a physician, was a member of a family typical of the provincial bourgeoisie.

Flaubert’s literary activities began during his school days in Rouen, and his writings leave a fascinating record of the crisis he went through between 1836—when he fell deeply in love with Elisa Schlésinger, a married woman some 10 years his senior—and 1844, when he suffered his first serious nervous seizure while driving a carriage. A large, handsome, blond Norman, he found the strength to detach himself from his bourgeois background and from the uninspiring law studies he had begun in 1841 in Paris and to convert himself into a dedicated literary artist.

After the death in 1846 of both his father and his married sister, Flaubert settled with his mother and the infant daughter of his sister at Croisset, the family’s country home near Rouen. Drifting apart from his older brother, who entered the medical profession and succeeded their father at the hospital, he lived comfortably at Croisset and helped supervise the education of his niece. After his mother’s death in 1872 he continued to make his permanent home there.


Flaubert abandoned his writing in discouragement in 1849 to travel with Du Camp. They came back in time to see the coup d’etat in 1851 that ended the Second Republic and brought Napoleon III to power. Then he settled down to writing and rewriting Madame Bovary while carrying on a stormy liaison and correspondence with the writer Louise Colet, who later published Lui (1859), a scathing account of their relationship.

Later Years

In the 1860’s, after the appearance of Salammbo (1862), Flaubert enjoyed a period of social success in Paris and at the court of Napoleon III. But his last years—after the death of his mother and the marriage of his niece to an unsuccessful businessman, whose bankruptcy led Flaubert to sacrifice his modest fortune—were marked by financial worries and an increasingly gruff attitude toward the world about him.

A group of young writers who esteemed his accomplishments honored Flaubert with a dinner in 1877, at which the new school of naturalism was proclaimed. But such recognition and the friendship of writers like Zola, George Sand, and Hippolyte Taine and the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev did little to relieve Flaubert’s depression and the ill health from which he suffered. He died on May 8, 1880, of a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried at Rouen, where an important collection of his manuscripts has been preserved in the municipal library.

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