Gustave Flaubert, circa 1860; carte-de-visite portrait by Étienne Carjat

Collections de la Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen

Gustave Flaubert, circa 1860; carte-de-visite portrait by Étienne Carjat

“The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” That’s Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, paying homage to Gustave Flaubert as James Joyce’s literary godfather. In Flaubert’s version, in a letter to Louise Colet written in 1852 during the composition of Madame Bovary: “The author in his work should be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”

We may have lost sight of how radical this doctrine of artistic impersonality and impassivity was, and how much contested by Flaubert’s contemporaries; it has now become standard advice handed out in American writing programs. We tend to forget also that the novel that would change literature was the work of a provincial Frenchman in his mid-thirties who up to that point had published absolutely nothing. Not only Joyce but all the major novelists of the twentieth century learned from Madame Bovary (as, one might add, radical innovators such as Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett found inspiration in Flaubert’s late, unfinished Bouvard and Pécuchet). Madame Bovary was published after much agony over its composition in La Revue de Paris in 1856 (with passages expurgated by the editors), then in book form in 1857. In the meantime Flaubert was put on trial for outrage to public morals—which assured the public success of his novel.

The Flaubert–Colet correspondence is in part responsible for the legend of Flaubert as the hermit of the small town of Croisset—near Rouen, where he shared a house with his aged mother—since he expended so much ink explaining why he couldn’t find time for more frequent erotic rendezvous. His art, he insisted, left little room for women. The laborious hours devoted to writing were true enough, testified to by many of his acquaintance, including the dearest friends of his mature years, Ivan Turgenev and George Sand. “I beg you, don’t get so absorbed in literature and erudition,” Sand wrote him in 1872.

Get out, move about, have mistresses, or wives, as you wish, and during these phases, don’t work, because you don’t want to burn the candle at both ends, you need to change the end you’re lighting.

He had many friends, but not so many mistresses: the stormy liaison with Louise Colet was the longest-lasting, except possibly the episodic top-secret tender affair with Juliet Herbert, his niece’s English governess; there were also a few actresses such as Béatrix Person and Suzanne Lagier and the fashionable courtesans Jeanne de Tourbey and Aglaé Sabatier. No wife ever. He told Sand that the very idea of a wife seemed “fantastic,” for reasons he didn’t understand. “There is an ecclesiastical side to me that people don’t know,” he wrote. He added a motto from Epicurus: “Hide your life.” Or as he wrote to Turgenev a month later: “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower. But a floodtide of shit beats at its walls, to bring it down.”

The familiar image of Flaubert as martyr to art obscures other truths. Ever since Jean-Paul Sartre in his enormous The Family Idiot analyzed Flaubert and his possible epileptic or hysterical attack as a young man (the diagnosis is uncertain) as part of his choice of the writer’s life, there has been a tendency to see him as aloof and disconnected from his time, like Stephen Dedalus’s indifferent artist. Some of Flaubert’s most perceptive critics have argued otherwise, notably Edmund Wilson in his essay “Flaubert’s Politics,” from The Triple Thinkers (published in 1938, revised in 1948). Wilson claims:

Really Flaubert owed his superiority to those of his contemporaries—Gautier, for example—who professed the same literary creed, to the seriousness of his concern with the large questions of human destiny. It was a period when the interest in history was intense; and Flaubert, in his intellectual tastes as well as in his personal relations, was almost as close to the historians Michelet, Renan and Taine, and to the historical critic Sainte-Beuve, as to Gautier and Baudelaire.

Wilson offers a crucial corrective to traditional views of Flaubert as somehow apart from his time. Especially when we come to his later novel Sentimental Education (1869), and to the vast historical and political upheavals that followed in 1870 and 1871, with the Franco-Prussian War, the fall of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, the rise and bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, and the difficult birth of the Third Republic, Flaubert’s historical consciousness takes on central importance.

Michel Winock, author of a new biography of Flaubert, is a much-published historian, not a literary critic or a professional biographer. Some will find that his Flaubert scants literary analysis, but others, like myself, will be grateful that it places Flaubert within the fevered history of his time. It is not that Flaubert was politically engaged or even particularly well informed: he didn’t like newspapers, which seemed to him part of the cretinization of the modern world; he didn’t vote during most of his lifetime, though as an affluent bourgeois property owner he qualified for the voting rolls. He claimed that disputes about the form of government—empire or republic—reminded him of theological debates about the nature of grace. Nonetheless, Flaubert’s consciousness of human destiny is, as Wilson suggested, deeply historical, and Sentimental Education is one of the greatest historical novels ever written.


Madame Bovary c’est moi!” Flaubert is said to have exclaimed (the source of the quotation is unverified). Winock titles his chapter on Sentimental EducationFrédéric c’est nous,” “Frédéric is us,” claiming that the main figure (“hero” he isn’t) of the novel represents a certain collective historical consciousness. Flaubert set out in that novel to write what he described as “the moral history of…my generation” (moral in French meaning psychological as well), then corrected himself to say that “sentimental” would be more accurate—an education in the emotions, including love and betrayal, that they don’t teach at school.

Frédéric’s story takes him through many varieties of disillusion, as in Balzac’s Lost Illusions, which so much lies in the background, but without Balzac’s melodramatic plots and scenes. Frédéric’s desires dissipate too quickly; his willpower is always already etiolated. Henry James was outraged by such a “limited register and reflector” of the world: “Why, why him?” asks James. The answer is implicit in Winock’s “us”: Frédéric’s unexceptionality makes him an effective witness, at times a kind of weak participant as well, in the unfolding of history.

The third and last part of Sentimental Education, which the first two parts carefully prepare, stages the crucial event of Flaubert’s generation, the Revolution of 1848. Flaubert, along with a couple of companions, had been a witness to the beginnings of that revolution, when the government’s prohibition of a banquet protesting the limits on suffrage (since public assemblies were outlawed, banquets were a favorite substitute) led to a demonstration that ended with the “massacre of the Boulevard des Capucines,” in which a number of demonstrators were killed, and then the torch-lit parade of their bodies through the streets of Paris, followed the next day by a formidable insurrection that by day’s end had become a revolution. Flaubert was a witness as well to the sacking of the Tuileries Palace and the declaration of the Second Republic. And then in 1851, a witness to the coup d’état brought off by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the first president elected by universal manhood suffrage, who put an end to the republican dream for twenty years. In between revolution and reaction, Flaubert, with his friend Maxime Du Camp, was off to the Near East where he could realize some of his exotic reveries.

When it came to composing his novel in the 1860s, Flaubert by no means confined himself to his own impressions. He read extensively, in all the histories of the event, the memoirs of participants and observers, the writings of all the socialists and reformers he could put his hands on, supplemented by scores of letters to friends for their own recollections. Every detail had to be precisely right and accurate. Among other things, Sentimental Education is one of the most historically authentic novels ever written.

Comparing the ever-popular Madame Bovary to Sentimental Education, panned by the critics upon publication and to this day never as widely appreciated as the earlier novel, Winock writes that one may judge the earlier novel more successful

because of the dramatic intensity of its plot, while Sentimental Education presents a kind of stasis, monotony, and immobility that frustrates the reader expecting a gripping tale with lots of twists and turns. But one could argue that the true masterpiece is actually this—shall we say—atonal novel that follows the mediocre lives of ordinary humanity. It represents another step away from the ruins of the heroic novel—a genre to which Madame Bovary still belonged because of its flamboyant central character.

The drama and violence of the novel are furnished by politics, by the attempt to change lives in a radical upheaval. When that fails, we return to mediocrity.

Edmund Wilson cites Ford Madox Ford’s opinion that one must read Sentimental Education fourteen times in order to appreciate it fully. He notes that a first reading (in college, for instance, in my own case) baffles and even repels. Later on, in light of accumulated experience, it comes to seem one of the truly indispensable books. Wilson writes:


We are amazed to find that the tone no longer seems really satiric and that we are listening to a sort of muted symphony of which the timbres had been inaudible before. There are no hero, no villain, to arouse us, no clowns to amuse us, no scenes to wring our hearts. Yet the effect is deeply moving. It is the tragedy of nobody in particular, but of the poor human race itself reduced to such ineptitude, such cowardice, such commonness, such weak irresolution—arriving, with so many fine notions in its head, so many noble words on its lips, at a failure which is all the more miserable because those who have failed are hardly conscious of having done so.

Shortly after publication of the novel in November 1869 came the “Terrible Year” that began in the summer of 1870 with French defeat in the war with Prussia, the siege of Paris, capitulation, and then the insurrection of the Commune. The crisis came to its end with the massacre of the Communards by the French army, dispatched by the official government in Versailles, during a “Bloody Week” at the end of May 1871. Early in June, Flaubert visited the devastated streets of Paris with Du Camp and said to him: “If only they had understood Sentimental Education, this never could have happened”: if only his contemporaries had been able to understand the failures recorded in his novel, they would not have repeated their folly. A bitter lesson, not likely to be listened to.

Winock is effective at showing how the cast of characters Flaubert assembles in Sentimental Education provide critical perspectives on the society he represents, most deliciously in the most prominent member of the ruling bourgeoisie, Dambreuse (formerly d’Ambreuse: he finds it prudent to disguise his aristocratic origins), who manages to survive under all regimes, “cherishing Power with such a love that he would have paid to be able to sell himself,” whose career is represented by the coat of arms painted on his carriage with the motto quibiscum viis—“by whatever means.” And in perhaps the most sinister figure of the novel, Sénécal the schoolmaster-socialist turned factory foreman, then revolutionary enforcer in the mode of Robespierre, and finally—at the moment of the coup d’état—gendarme who will kill in cold blood the most sympathetic figure of the novel, the clerk Dussardier.

‘Homage to the Great Flau!’; drawing by Lucien Métivet for Le Rire on the occasion of Flaubert’s centenary, December 1921

Collections de la Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen

‘Homage to the Great Flau!’; drawing by Lucien Métivet for Le Rire on the occasion of Flaubert’s centenary, December 1921

Winock claims to find in Flaubert’s posthumously published Dictionnaire des idées reçues (Dictionary of Received Ideas), his compilation of all the clichés in common social usage, a “goldmine” for the historian since it gives us “a collective portrait of the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, through a sort of satirical version of an ideal.” One can string together the entries of the Dictionnaire to provide a narrative of the perfect bourgeois life. Winock in this manner reconstructs the target of the text that Flaubert claimed would not contain a single word by himself but only citations, mounted in such a way that the reader would not know how to take it. To paint a critical portrait of the bourgeois, get inside his language, use it so he won’t know whether he is the subject of mockery or not—ideally, reduce him to silence.

The Dictionnaire was probably destined for a place in the second volume of Bouvard and Pécuchet, the story of two hapless copyists who retire to the country and read books in order to become expert gardeners, and farmers, and antiquarians, and educators—all endeavors that end in abject failure. Curiously the Revolution of 1848 reappears in this novel, seen at work this time in the provincial Norman town of Chavignolles. And here Flaubert’s version of the revolution and its sequels appears considerably more sympathetic to the political left than in Sentimental Education, which seemed to pronounce a curse on all possible houses. Bouvard and Pécuchet react with increasing distress as the reaction sets in, the liberty trees are cut down, the priest tells the schoolmaster what to teach:

Three million voters were excluded from universal suffrage. The bond required of newspapers was raised, censorship reestablished. People railed against serial novels. Classical philosophy was considered dangerous. Bourgeois preached the dogma of their material interests and the people seemed content.

Those in the countryside returned to their former masters.

When they learn of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état of December 2, 1851, Bouvard and Pécuchet are shocked into speechlessness. Their political evolution seems to parallel their progress toward the sentiments of their creator: “Then, a piteous faculty developed in their minds, that of perceiving stupidity and no longer being able to tolerate it.”

Winock demonstrates that there is a distinct evolution in Flaubert’s own political and social thought. After the success of Madame Bovary, he became a celebrity who was welcomed in the circle of Princess Mathilde, the somewhat bohemian daughter of Napoleon III’s cousin, who ruled over the most important literary and artistic salon of the time. When in Paris, Flaubert donned tail coat and white gloves and mingled in society, though his closest associate in Mathilde’s family was Prince Napoleon (“Plon-Plon”), who was an overt liberal. And Flaubert rarely allowed the social world to interrupt his research and writing—Paris pleasures were always limited, the return to Croisset always imminent. Though Flaubert clearly enjoyed his access to the wealthy and influential, he was severe in his judgment of Napoleon III and his henchmen, who had stamped out the Second Republic and instituted a glittering regime rife with graft and exploitation, a period that—he and Sand agreed—created the industrial proletariat.

The real change in Flaubert’s politics comes with the Terrible Year of 1870–1871 and its aftermath. The war, which he saw as a human catastrophe that could only lead to barbarism and a France dedicated to revenge against Germany—true enough—and the coming of a world in which artistic achievement would be submerged in mass culture—true again—also turned him into a patriot. He even served briefly as a lieutenant in the National Guard in Rouen, giving his men bellicose pep talks.

The rise of the Commune exasperated him, but he predicted, accurately, that the coming reaction to it would be far worse. The reactionaries seemed to him so criminal and obtuse that he claimed he might become a Red. Not seriously, but the polarization of politics and the constant threat of class warfare proved over and over to him that the study of society and politics needed to be founded on “science,” on an enlightened understanding of how the world works, not on ideology.

Flaubert was appalled at the resurgence of the clerical and political right following the Terrible Year, especially the threat—very real for a time—that France would see the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in the person of the Comte de Chambord crowned as King Henri V. That didn’t happen largely because Chambord was such a perfect illustration of the adage that the Bourbons had learned nothing and forgotten nothing—he insisted that France return to the white flag with the fleur-de-lis of his ancestors and abandon the tricolore.

When in 1873 Adolphe Thiers (a prolific historian as well as politician) fell from power and was succeeded by Marshal MacMahon, a declared monarchist and partisan of “Moral Order,” Flaubert was nauseated. He found himself, to his own bemusement, becoming a republican. He came to accept the wisdom of Thiers’s belief that the republic was the regime that divided his compatriots the least. He liked the fact that Thiers’s administration was without ideology and without ideals: “It’s the first time that we live under a government that has no principles,” he wrote to Sand in July 1871. “Perhaps the era of Positivism in politics is about to begin?”

Even though he consistently thought Thiers the very incarnation of the French bourgeoisie at its most fatuous—he described the small and rotund Thiers to Sand as étroniforme, turd-shaped, and skewered his book On Property in Sentimental Education—when Thiers died in 1877, Flaubert joined his grandiose funeral procession. “He had a rare virtue: patriotism.” Then in 1878 he dined, at the home of his publisher, with Léon Gambetta, the outstanding leader of French republicans, the partisan of the “new social classes” emerging into political power.

As Winock concludes, “Tocqueville was the theorist of the great democratic transition of the nineteenth century and Flaubert was its novelist—a melancholy, afflicted, and ironic novelist.” That seems to me convincing, and it’s an important reminder that Flaubert didn’t simply sit out his century in the retreat of Croisset. One wishes that he had lived to complete not only Bouvard and Pécuchet but also his projected novel on the Second Empire, Sous Napoléon III, which exists only in fragmentary notes, from which one can surmise that it would have directly engaged the politics of the Napoleonic regime. One doesn’t of course want to reconcile the contradictions in Flaubert’s attitudes—they are integral to the way he lived the history of his time. He was not unaware of the contradictions. As he wrote to Louise Colet back in the 1850s: “Live like a bourgeois, and think like a demigod!”