The Family Idiot makes it sufficiently clear that writing three volumes and twenty-eight hundred pages about Gustave Flaubert was not for Sartre a labor of love. But there were many other occasions on which he explicitly voiced his antagonism to the great novelist. “That’s Flaubert for you—a heavy Norman gent who walks in mud, drives a horse and buggy, a ponderous, provincial character,” he said during an interview published by L’Arc in 1980. “I’m not talking about his style (although it, too, has its clumsy moments); I’m talking about his personal reality. He’s a man whom one would not have liked to spend much time with.”

Certainly Sartre considered Madame Bovary a masterpiece—an “absolute” masterpiece whose refinement is the more remarkable for being so at odds with the oafishness of its author—and he originally planned to analyze it in a fourth volume. But the fourth volume, like the concluding one of Les Chemins de la liberté, the end of L’Etre et le Néant, and the second part of La Critique de la raison dialectique, never got written. Having seen Flaubert through what may euphemistically be called a labyrinth, Sartre leaves him just before he emerged from it with the work that illuminated and dignified his grim journey underground.

Why, then, did he ever undertake this task and then spend his failing eyesight on it? A partial answer lies in the preface, where Sartre defines the subject of his book not as a man but as an epistemological problem the investigation of which required that he bring to bear upon “a test case” the combined lights of Marxism and existential psychoanalysis: “What, at this point in time, can we know about a man?” All else being equal, the case might have been Proust, Mallarmé, or Robespierre. But among these would-be clients, none offered such ready access to his intimate being as Flaubert, in whose juvenalia and abundant correspondence Sartre found, or believed he found, information of a kind that neurotics divulge while free-associating on the analyst’s couch. “I thought it permissible, for this difficult test case, to choose a compliant subject who yields himself easily and unconsciously,” he declared, adding that, like him or not, Flaubert, as creator of the modern novel, is a figure with whom we must reckon whenever we confront the problematical state of literature today. In other words, the victim of a patriarchy, who found refuge from the real world in the imaginary, became, as Sartre understood it, the patriarch of our alienation.

Volume I, which addresses itself to Flaubert’s childhood and adolescence, while drawing for substantiation upon events that took place later in his life,1 begins with a social and psychological portrait of the family into which he was born. Sartre shows us a brood absolutely subservient to the personality, ambitions, and precepts of its head, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, whom Gustave never knew except as chief surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu in Rouen, meaning Normandy’s foremost physician. Had life followed a customary course, Achille-Cléophas would have practiced veterinary medicine in the Champenois boondocks, like his father and uncles. But, driven by a will to rise in French society and endowed with superior intellectual gifts, which did not go unrecognized during the Napoleonic era, he left the provinces for Paris, where Dupuytren, a noted professor of medicine, took him under his wing. After writing a dissertation entitled “On the Manner of Treating Patients Before and After Surgical Operations,” he received an appointment at Rouen, France’s third largest city, and established himself there.

This is the background that made for a mongrel who professed the rational, materialist creed of eighteenth-century philosophes while upholding, within his own family, the mores of the ancien régime; who had entered a class inherently bound up with ideas of movement, progress, and individuality, but who himself set store by the generational redundancy of his father’s world; who aspired to place the Flauberts in the upper reaches of the Rouennais bourgeoisie and yet always, during his medical rounds, wore a goatskin coat as rustic as thatch, which would eventually fall upon his elder son Achille, like a royal mantle, or a straitjacket. Having made good his escape from a world locked in time, Achille-Cléophas sired upon the woman he married a clan indoctrinated with the belief in its superiority, whose individual members were asked not to grow as individuals, but to derive their identities from the corporate self, to advance the designs—both scientific and social—of their eponymous hero and reflect his image ad infinitum.

“For his children…the surrender to the family is experienced as a feudal surrender to the father,” Sartre asserts. “They will practice virtue out of love, out of respect…. This association of atheists therefore has in spite of itself religious underpinnings: it faithfully reflects the image of its founder.” Although he held opinions considered somewhat liberal during the Bourbon restoration, his reverence for science, far from making him irreverent of authority or sympathetic to egalitarian modes of social organization, led him, as it did Ernest Renan later in the century, to envision a new aristocracy with scientists as the peers. His reverence was yet another form of self-reverence, and a gift for scientific thought was the patrimony, not to say the birthmark, that would distinguish his noble offspring.


To help him institute this regime, Achille-Cléophas found an ideal accomplice in Caroline Fleuriot. She was, Sartre argues, born to the part. Her mother died while giving birth to her and her disconsolate father (a physician) died ten years later. She thus carried with her no weight but a burden of guilt, and no family but a host of scruples that kept her, like so much ballast, from flying off the earth. When Achille-Cléophas married her, she acquired through him, at age eighteen, all that life had hitherto denied her: a raison d’être, place, identity. Some other waif might have taken vows and entered a convent; Caroline, who would settle for nothing less than a literal troth with God, happily set up house inside Achille-Cléophas’s ego and made it a quasi-religious stronghold, which would secure her from her own history of death, remorse, and separation. What she craved was not room for self-assertion but the self, or role, that was provided within a hieratic order at whose summit stood father, the Almighty. Had Achille-Cléophas acknowledged in her an independent being, his liberalism would have been wasted upon a woman—Sartre persists in calling her a “Stalinist”—for whom independence signified exile. “Her whole existence from marriage until death was marked, directed, penetrated—to the core of this patriarchy—by conjugal love,” he declares. “She became the accomplice of the all-powerful progenitor in order to defend the unity of this couple against the whole world….”

To her sons, who impinged upon her consciousness only as indeterminate extensions of her adored husband and bearers of the patria potestas, Caroline automatically transmitted orders from above. Content to have been the medium through which Achille-Cléophas could reproduce himself and to have found, in these otherwise alien creatures, her own maternal capacity, she mothered her sons with diligence but without tenderness, making amends for her mother’s death by becoming a mother. “It was a relationship only with the self” is what Sartre concludes. Her history was written at birth, or rather, her conjugal life, which she lived with a view to rewriting her orphaned past, was a second, ideal childhood; it brought her full circle in a scenario that could not admit anybody but understudies to the original cast. This hermeticism found its fullest expression after thirteen years of marriage when she at last bore the daughter for whom she had longed before each previous birth, and to whom she gave her own name. The heir to Achille-Cléophas’s golden substance was Achille; the heiress to Caroline’s dream of childhood—Caroline.

Between the heir and heiress came Gustave, born eight years too late to enjoy what Sartre would have us think were the fatal blessings that attended primogeniture in Achille-Cléophas’s kingdom, and of the wrong sex to command Caroline’s tender devotion. If this were not reason enough for feeling de trop, the fact that several infants had died before he arrived (there would be one more death when he was eighteen months old) cast a shadow over his cradle. This caused him to be treated by Madame Flaubert not as a native who had entered her family for real but as a stranger visiting her on a short-term visa. From the first glimmer of consciousness, then, everything combined to foster the belief that he was “the Other,” that he had fallen object-like into a world in which he did not belong and which he could know only through the mediation of “subjectivities” who owned its language, its culture, its meaning.

Sartre deduces this fall from Flaubert’s work and particularly, in the first volume, from his adolescent stories. But the theory hinges mainly on several anecdotes related in Souvenirs sur Gustave Flaubert by Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Commanville (Caroline’s Caroline bore a Caroline), who had heard them, decades before, from her grandmother. The first one shows Gustave to have been a slow reader. Whereas Caroline Flaubert had taught Achille with immediate success, her younger son, though he was “avid for knowledge and his brain was always working” (Commanville), could not readily understand the signs into whose meaning she tried to initiate him. Painful scenes followed during which he would ask why reading on his own account should be necessary since an old family friend read to him. The problem was resolved when he became old enough for school, and he then applied himself so earnestly that he soon made up the lag. In the second anecdote he is described as a boy given to losing himself in daydreams, who “would sit for hours, one finger in his mouth, absorbed, looking almost stupid.” By his remarkable capacity for being gulled, he would provoke adults to amuse themselves at his expense. “He didn’t understand that they wanted to fool him, and in the face of their laughter he remained a dreamer, glimpsing a mystery,” wrote Caroline Commanville.


Here is what Sartre calls “the family idiot”; in the Sartrean argument, Gustave’s innocence, his “stupors,” his slowness at “inserting himself into the alphabet” all suggest the dilemma of a child “made passive” by a mother whose heart was elsewhere, who stifled him with indifference and ministered to every need save the need to assert, or indeed develop, a self. Nothing came of nothing. Caroline’s unresponsive gaze nurtured in him such emptiness as all his future requests for an “I,” and even his consecration of authorial impersonality, could never fill. Aware how little she valued his existence, he himself held it to be worth nothing, one consequence of this “nonvalorization” being the “stupor” which expressed his withdrawal from a world he saw as radically inhospitable and altogether beyond his comprehension. Possessing the world by cognitive acts, entering it through practical work, required the assurance that his mother had never furnished him, the assurance that what lay “out there” might yield its mystery to his exertions.

When Caroline Flaubert made her son passive, she made him a believer for whom language was not a vehicle of “self”-expression or an analytic tool but a material substance that came from outside, bearing its own irrefutable evidence, like the stone decalogue given the faithful. Words were objects, and they contained the meanings that only those who lorded over him were privileged to assign Creation. Hence Flaubert’s naïveté, which, when Gustave became Flaubert, would go hand in hand with his view of language as dense, alien matter and of himself the writer as a lapidary artist obliged to fashion it at a Virgilian pace. The man who claimed that he had “no ideas” descended from the child in whose clouded mind truth was what the adults around him, and notably his parents, said, for what they said, or rather, speech itself, constituted a gift. “To speak is to act; since he suffers it, names are imposed on him which he learns without recognizing himself in them, that is, without claiming them as his own,” Sartre writes.

These are alien imprints, landmarks for the others; when he fathoms their use and is penetrated by a slow osmosis of their meanings, he is quite far from inferring the beginning of a reciprocity…. The younger of the Flaubert sons did not experience the designation of surrounding objects as his enterprise.

It was not until adolescence, with stories such as “Quidquid volueris,” that Flaubert sought to make legitimate a nature disconnected from objects, whereupon the speech he had considered a gift became quite the opposite. He believed, says Sartre in a play on Proudhon’s aphorism, that “culture is theft.”

As words constituted given objects, so in a general way did the self by which others designated Flaubert. It would have been unthinkable for an ego to assemble itself spontaneously from the vapors and foreign particles that made up his inner life. Without the “structures of assertion,” he remained his own proxy, which is to say an indeterminate being clad in a third person singular, who might, anticipating Rimbaud, have declared, “I is another,” or, being so unassertive, inverted the terms (not “I am Madame Bovary,” but “Madame Bovary is myself”). “For Gustave…the ego comes to him through others; he doesn’t dream of ratifying it but only of playing it in the sense it is proposed to him and in the way that confirms the demands of others,” Sartre asserts. “His ego is not only a psychic object but an external and other object introduced into the subjectivity from without.”

It stands to reason that during his teens Flaubert should have thought quite seriously of becoming an actor (and, so he told Louise Colet, sacrificed the thought to bourgeois convention). In Sartre’s view, he was an actor. Beset with the sense of his own unreality, he played Gustave Flaubert. Credulous, he depended for dear life upon the credulity of others and invented a persona he strove to make his audience believe, in order to believe it through them. Selfhood originated only from the outside in the form of the “character” he could never altogether be. This image-making, together with the lack that inspired it, condemned his relationships to fraudulence.

Does all this evoke Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (as well as The Words)? It does, because Sartre would seem to have found in Flaubert an egregious instance of the rule he formulated forty years ago: “Nous ne pouvons rien être sans jouer à l’être.” We can’t be anything without playing at being it.

Caroline set him up for his estrangement, but the official malediction that he would have no role in the family except to be its idiot came from Achille-Cléophas, who, as Sartre imagines this Biblical scene, delivered it with a gaze of surgical penetration. His whole life as a novelist was haunted by Achille’s gaze, which compelled him—for he adored his father—to judge himself the lesser of the two, the impoverished Flaubert, the alien surrounded by relatives. Beginning with stories written during adolescence, he showed the effects of this rejection in the vengeance he imagined himself wreaking on humankind as a satanic figure who discredits everything the ordinary bourgeois deems real. Such was his piety that he could look only to hell for grace and alleviate the paternal curse by exemplifying it.

Banished from humanness, he accepted Achille-Cléophas’s judgment as a matter of course, but transformed non-being into a subversive vocation. What he told Ernest Chevalier at age seventeen, that “if ever I play an active part in the world it will be as a thinker and demoralizer; I shall merely tell the truth but it will be horrible, cruel, and naked,” was not the manifesto of a realist. Sartre detested the positivist categories that might suggest such a conclusion. His was a plot conceived by a forsaken son imbued with his father’s will to grandeur but denied his father’s force, who sought transcendence in absolute negation. After the manner of Achille dissecting cadavers downstairs at the Hôtel-Dieu, he hoped to strip from mankind its raison d’être and become the patriarch of an alienated family comprising even souls yet unborn. A friar’s lantern dancing over marshland is all that would remain of the human enterprise.

Flaubert’s struggle for value inspired various strategies, all of which, insofar as they left intact the image Achille-Cléophas urged upon him, brought him home to roost. There was a futile reaching toward God, in whom he envisioned a suprapaternal order that would recognize as virtue what the analytical atomist deplored as mere feebleness of mind. There was a movement downward which saw him produce tales calculated to restore, if not to glorify, the subhuman. And finally there was art itself.

Although Sartre’s argument does not fully take shape until Volume II, he lays the ground here for his contention that Flaubert’s literary triumph was also the denouement of a long, slow suicide. He who had been asked in childhood to obliterate himself achieved greatness with an aesthetic program that called upon the novelist to be, like God, every-where felt but nowhere visible. Rationalizing the impersonality of the author, absenting himself from his own handiwork, and performing feats of mortification under the despotic rule of beauty all served to make Flaubert’s career, as Sartre interprets it, a ritual drama commemorating, or sublimating, the family romance.

That this drama took place when it did, during the mid-nineteenth century, gives it still another dimension, however. At once creator and creature, master and slave, Flaubert internalized not only a singular domestic conflict but also a general social predicament from which the leap into a timeless doctrine, otherwise known as art for art’s sake, offered no escape. Sartre will claim that Flaubert solved his “finite alienation” by “alienating himself to the infinite” and thus, as the tool of Platonic idea, equipped capitalism with its aesthetic theology.


The translator, Carol Cosman, has acquitted herself brilliantly of her unenviable task. When it comes to one writer talking up a storm about other writers, the world may never see Sartre’s equal. For sheer logorrhea, The Family Idiot surpasses even Saint Genet as the author drives home his points again and again in every mode of discourse at his command: expository prose, psychoanalytic jargon, phenomenologese. To say that this book has its longueurs understates the issue. One feels collared by an indefatigable monologuist who is intent not only on squeezing every drop of meaning from his subject but on creating a plethora of words. One third as many might have done the job, but one third as many might have left unsatisfied some other ambition. In The Words, where Grandfather Schweitzer tells Jean-Paul to heed the lesson in observation Flaubert taught Maupassant, Sartre wrote that it was not his fault “if the budding century gave me an epic cast of mind.” Goaded by adults who demanded revenge against Germany, he exercised his imagination on Alsace-Lorraine. Perhaps Flaubert ended up decades later bearing some of the brunt of it.

Whatever The Family Idiot may be—and it is, among other things, a virtuoso performance—it is not in any sense a responsible biography. Where source material was lacking, Sartre speculated at leisure; where source material was available, he often felt free either to flout sound testimony that detracted from the coherence of his brief or, on the contrary, to summon witnesses (e.g., Maxime du Camp) famous for their unreliability. This volume is full of errors, fantasies, and unwarranted inferences. Part of Sartre’s argument has it that Flaubert’s inconclusive flirtation with God during adolescence reflected the influence exerted upon him by a mother who was moderately devout and a father whose religion was science. But documents suggest no such discrepancy in the household. Madame Flaubert ate meat on Friday and didn’t celebrate Easter. Nearly everything Sartre wrote about Gustave’s brother Achille’s being an emasculated replica of Achille-Cléophas was cut from thin air to suit his thesis.

The recorded stories that authorize one to picture Caroline’s feelings toward her younger son in a different light simply don’t enter the narrative. And, quite apart from Flaubertiana, the clinical literature providing evidence that physical rather than psychological factors may be responsible for reading lags of the kind Gustave experienced are given scant attention. Of course, Sartre anticipated criticism with the pronouncement that what he had written was a roman vrai, a “true novel.” But this term, by which he allowed himself both the honor of virtue and the pleasures of vice, hardly squares with the discipline that a psychoanalyst “over-hearing” a neurotic free-associate would feel compelled to observe.2

Nor does it accommodate the emotional substance on which creative genius nourishes itself. What Sartre describes as Achille Flaubert’s undoing—the fact that “the father’s lessons and their logical rigor…had brutally repressed, crushed all the deep feelings, all the irrational thoughts that each of us ponder and that constitute our richness”—may be turned against his disquisition, which, shrewd though it often is, cramps Gustave into narrow polarities and grants him no more depth than is conceivable in the hall of mirrors Flaubert family life comes to resemble. With an ego that is only the simulacrum of one and an id that is only an intruder, how can the inner drama achieve real inwardness? Doesn’t it beggar the imagination that the quasi-autistic child Sartre conjures up before us should have acquired Gustave Flaubert’s consummate power to shape experience? One would not guess, moreover, that Gustave performed physical functions of the kind neurotics, along with everyone else, dwell upon, for the body enters this narrative mainly to weigh Flaubert down and thus carry Sartre’s thesis that with him “verticality was structured as a fall.”

So, when Flaubert in his correspondence with Louise Colet avows his innate taste for things “ignoble,” which he calls “the down-under sublime,” and declares that “all great voluptuaries are very chaste,” one might expect the writer-analyst to show him gazing with erotic pleasure at the window display of a ladies’ shoemaker and to comment on, say, the anxiety such displacements often betray (at the other extreme, decapitation fantasies abound). We will be told instead that “the ground represents for his body a perpetual invitation to drop into baseness.” This sounding remark calls to mind the one Sartre made in The Words by way of explaining how Alberto Giacometti felt as he lay on the Place d’Italie after an automobile had struck him: “What thrilled him was the menacing order of causes that was suddenly unmasked and the act of staring with the petrifying gaze of a cataclysm at the lights of the city, at human beings, at his own body lying flat in the mud: for a sculptor, the mineral world is never far away.” Never mind that Giacometti, whom the accident hurt, was furious at being made a dummy for Sartre’s absurdist illumination. The author of “true novels” ventriloquizes as he sees fit, now through characters, now through real people; by definition, he does not recognize the boundary between them.

If fiction it be, then the work The Family Idiot most resembles is, not surprisingly, Sartre’s own, where characters from Lucien Fleurier to Orestes to Roquentin to Jean-Paul exhibit the stigmata of rootless beings who wander outside themselves in a histrionic daze even as they yearn to possess the essence of things. Gustave’s absences, as Sartre describes them, have an extra-Flaubertian history that began with the “curtain of fog” descending upon the hero of L’Enfance d’un chef and continued with the yellow mist enveloping the hero of La Nausée. By the same token, Charles Schweitzer’s library, in which Jean-Paul first saw books and saw them aligned like “menhirs,” prefigures Croisset, where the hewer of words found refuge from revolutionary times by putting himself outside time. Indeed, Schweitzer himself, whom his grandson says was awkward in every place except the library, where he would leaf through tomes with priestly nimbleness, embodied the same paradox as Flaubert. It was, it seems, a deformity endemic to nonengaged bourgeois.

For all that this book does to make one reconsider his life, The Family Idiot is less a case study of Flaubert than it is the final installment of Sartre’s mythology, which organizes itself around falls. Beyond Flaubert the man, there is a Flaubert who is an emblem of fallen man. He quite literally fell when he was twenty-three and swooned at his brother’s side in what Sartre diagnoses as a manifestation of hysteria. But the swoon began at birth with a child falling victim to a family whose patriarchal structure denied him the fruit of experience even before he had entered the world.3 Made to accommodate some pre-established design, he would necessarily live his future in the past tense. “Without a particular mission, he is deprived, from the start, of the cardinal categories of praxis,” writes Sartre. “Not that the future entirely escapes his purview, but…he sees it as the ineluctable result of an alien will; it can be prophesied but not shaped, since it is already accomplished.”

Only the self-made may escape this born alienation, and the Sartrean mythos does indeed postulate the existence of men who enjoy an absolute integrity for having broken with the family or started time anew. At dead center of The Family Idiot stands one such figure, Achille-Cléophas, from whom Sartre’s narrative ripples outward in circles that surround every other character (he was “the bird born from the snake,” says Sartre). But we have previously met a “new man” in The Flies where Orestes, after abolishing his mother along with the god that consecrates patriarchal authority, declares: “Everything is new here, everything has yet to begin. For me, too, life is beginning.” These two are the bookends of Sartre’s oeuvre. The tyrant, Achille-Cléophas, whose sons understood themselves to be the tenants of property that would always remain his, evokes the virtuous filiarch, Orestes, who abdicates his throne as soon as he mounts it, announcing that he would be “a king without land and without subjects.”

While any such radical critique of the bourgeois family brings to mind R.D. Laing, an equally pertinent reference is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s utopianism, and in particular his master idea that humanity lost its virtue when the “alien” entered consciousness, tearing inside from out. Behind the hell Sartre wrought with eyes and mirrors and reflections and stone, did he not envision a oneness, a hermetic transparency of mind akin to the prelapsarian state celebrated by Jean-Jacques?4 As Rousseau reviled theater for breeding secrets in and among men, so Sartre, who left us rather a numerous cast of characters sentenced to theatricality, including Flaubert, found fault with capitalist society for encouraging people to keep themselves hidden from one another.

“I think transparency should always be substituted for what is secret, and I can quite well imagine the day when two men will no longer have secrets from each other, because no one will have any more secrets from anyone, because subjective life, as well as objective life, will be completely offered up, given,” he told an interviewer six years ago.5 Rousseau’s boast that if his head had been a glass container showing all his thoughts he would nonetheless have walked in public without compunction echoes in Sartre’s pronouncement:

A man’s existence must be entirely visible to his neighbor, whose own existence must in turn be entirely visible to him, in order for true social harmony to be established. This cannot be realized today, but I think that it will be once there has been a change in the economic, cultural, and affective relations among men….

Such harmony might have induced Emma Bovary to give village life with Charles another try. It is a scheme of things that leaves no room for her, or indeed for most other characters worth remembering. And perhaps not even for character itself.

This Issue

February 4, 1982