Flaubert and Madame Bovary by Francis Steegmuller

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Madame Bovary was a landmark book in the ways it blended romanticism and realism. Yet, its author, Gustave Flaubert despised the minutiae of everyday life, as well as the traditions and morals of society. The story of his life and how he, who despised realism, came to write a monumental novel of realism, is particularly interesting.

Francis Steegmuller wrote his classic biography Flaubert and Madame Bovary, which he calls a “double portrait,” in 1939. There were plenty of things I didn’t like, but this mostly was because of Gustave Flaubert himself. Mr. Steegmuller’s inclusion of lots of M. Flaubert’s personal correspondence gives the reader a better understanding of the author himself. I found this a great way to give the reader a feel for the author’s personality and his writing style. I’m glad I read Mr. Steegmuller biography before I begin rereading M. Flaubert’s most popular novel.

Romanticism versus Realism

Because I’m not a professional literary critic or reviewer, I felt the need to reference my handy Harmon and Holman Handbook to Literature (7th edition) for some more context to M. Flaubert’s position in literary history. In his biography, Mr. Steegmuller regularly referred to M. Flaubert as a romantic writer writing realism as an experiment, and although I have a general idea about the two types of writing, I wondered what the “official” definitions were.

It turns out that romanticism, at least, has a pretty loose definition. In general, romanticism was “freeing of the artist and writer from restraints and rules” and “the predominance of imagination over reason.”

The term designates a literary and philosophical theory that tends to see the individual at the center of all life, and it places the individual, therefore, at the center of art, making literature valuable as an expression of unique feelings and particular attitudes and valuing its fidelity in portraying experiences, however fragmentary and incomplete, more than it values adherence to completeness, unique or the demands of genre.1

I think of Alexandre Dumas when I think of French romanticism.

On the other hand, realism is the describing of the details of everyday life. I think of Zola and Balzac. Neither of which I loved reading last year.2

The materials [realist writers] elect to describe are the common, the average, the everyday. Furthermore, realism can be thought of as the ultimate of middle-class art, and it finds it subjects in bourgeois life and manners.3

Romanticism and realism are pretty much what I thought they were. But I decided to include the definitions for my future reference, in case I find myself wondering again.

The Author

Reading about M. Flaubert’s life was not particularly fun. In my opinion, M. Flaubert seemed a particularly nasty individual. He despised the (in Holden Caufield’s words) “phoniness” of the bourgeoisie, of which he was a part. This included the morals imposed by society, which likewise disgusted him.

The contempt he had always had for the bourgeois he now extended to the entire human race, for “the bourgeoisie now is all of humanity, including the people.” 4

He believed in few things beyond himself and his friends, including that life was meant to be enjoyed. In short, from my perspective, Flaubert was selfish and self-centered. Although this made him a bit slimy in my mind, it certainly made him a unique character.

When he heard the true story which Madame Bovary is based on and decided to write a novel about the story, he thought it a great chance to paint “a scathing picture of the bourgeois.”5 He certainly wasn’t distracted by any morals or social constraints. Toward the beginning of his relationship with the married Louise Colet, he expressed this:

The word “adultery” had seemed to him the most beautiful of human words, vaguely enveloped with an exquisite sweetness, fragrant with a peculiar magic, full of a supreme poetry compounded of voluptuousness and blasphemy.” 6

This is the man who wrote Madame Bovary. One can see his own personality in the novel.7 When people asked him who was his model for Emma Bovary, he’d always say “Madame Bovary — C’est moi!” Mr. Steegmuller indicates that the novel was his ultimate expression of M. Flaubert’s self:  in M. Flaubert’s words, he had “les deux sexes.8

M. Flaubert wrote for nearly five years, and he had the entire novel outlined from the beginning. In politically repressive 1850s France, he was taken to court over some anti-religious and anti-moral aspects of the novel. It was criticized in the beginning, at times for being too unrealistic (no one wanted to admit there were adulteresses in their midst) and at others for being too realistic. Contemptuous M. Flaubert quickly tired of the novel, and especially given that he despised realism, he later wanted to burn all copies of the novel he could find. He did not want to be a poster child of realism.

I’m curious what I’ll find as I read Madame Bovary carefully this week. Will the realism stand out, or the romantic side? Will I sense Flaubert’s disgust of society?

M. Flaubert wrote this insight at one point during the lengthy writing process.

What I should like to write is a book about nothing at all, a book which would exist by virtue of the mere internal strength of its style, as the earth holds itself unsupported in the air – a book which would have almost no subject or in which, at least, the subject would be almost imperceptible, if such a thing is possible. The finest books are those which have the least subject matter; the more closely the expression approximates the thought, the more beautiful the book is.9

If you’ve read Madame Bovary, what do you think? Did Flaubert capture “nothing at all” and carry it by his distinct style?

The Biography

As I mentioned, Mr. Steegmuller relies heavily on the correspondence and journals that M. Flaubert wrote. About a third of the 350-page biography is direct quotes from M. Flaubert’s writing (of which he was the translator). Rather than being odd, it was a wonderful technique. I really felt I knew Gustave Flaubert and his struggles, and I got a sense of his own voice, even before I’ve begun rereading the novel.

I found this book when I was browsing the NYRB Classics catalogue, and I was intrigued. I’m glad I read it. It was an interesting portrait of the era in literature and the unique man who wrote an innovative novel in the 1850s. It also was an important look in to the writing process.


  1. Harmon and Holman, “Romanticism,” page 452-453
  2. I “enjoyed” them well enough, but I’m not keen to read more by either author. But I have a Zola on a book club list later this year, so I’m stuck giving in another try. Let’s hope it’s a better experience.
  3. Harmon and Holman, “Realism,” page 428
  4. Steegmuller, page 278
  5. Steegmuller, page 229
  6. Steegmuller, page 63
  7. I haven’t read it for a few years, but I certainly look forward to it now! I hope it’s not a spoiler to mention that there is adultery in Madame Bovary…
  8. Steegmuller, page 342
  9. Flaubert writing to Louise Colet in the 1850s, quoted in Steegmuller, page 247
Reviewed on May 11, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Will I sense Flaubert’s disgust of society?

    Trust me, there is no way you can miss it. The over-the-top levels of Flaubert’s disgust for the bourgeois (which, as you point out, basically equals “humanity” as far as he’s concerned) at first amused, then tired, and by the end kind of angered me. He is, as Frances said during the readalong, not someone I would invite to dinner.

    He does have a very apt way with words, however.

    • Emily » oh he’s definitely not someone I’d want to invite to dinner either — I can tell by reading his biography! I’m really looking forward to reading the novel, though.

  • I love Steegmuller’s biography. I’m currently crawling through a 500-page bio of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, as it turns out, I don’t really need to know EVERYTHING about a writer. Steegmuller gives enough of Flaubert’s early life to provide a context for the fussy adult he became. That tight focus made the biography kind of exhilarating to read.

    These are some of my favorite bits:

    * I love that Steegmuller suggests that Flaubert’s early childhood epileptic episodes might just have been well-timed fits for when Flaubert didn’t get his way. (For instance, I think it’s when the family is thinking of leaving Italy and Flaubert doesn’t want to, so he has a fit, and they stay. And aren’t they all there with the sister on her honeymoon? Crazy!)

    * That creepy business where he sees the woman breastfeeding, becomes obsessed with her, and then whispers sweet-nothings into the ear of her dog? Really?

    * One of my favorite lines in a letter ever comes from Flaubert: “I can continue no longer a correspondence that is becoming epileptic.” (Weren’t he and Colet the worst?)

    * I loved everything about the trip with Maxime du Camp. I loved Flaubert’s newly discovered obsession with prostitutes and eunuchs and dwarfs. (“What would I not have given in the Orient, to become the friend of a eunuch! But they are completely unapproachable.”) I loved that Max kept taking photographs, using an extremely handsome Nubian man “for scale.”

    • Mike Bevel » I didn’t love the book or the man that much — in fact, I really didn’t like a lot of the trip with Max, for example, simply because I really didn’t like reading about Flaubert’s sexual escapades that much. I was much more interested in his writing process and inspiration. I do agree on he and Colet being the worst. I cannot believe it took them that long to break up, both so selfish and annoying….

  • Wow — he sounds like a snarling man. I picture Scrooge, now. 😉 An awesome post, particularly relevant to me, since I plan to finish reading the last 2/3 of Madame Bovary after Pride and Prejudice. I think I’ll see it with different eyes…

  • Been a while since I last visited here, Rebecca, but I really enjoyed this post. And even though I can understand your (and Emily’s) lack of affection for Flaubert the man, I have a feeling his eccentricities might amuse me given that I don’t have to spend time with him other than reading him. Loved Madame Bovary last year when I finally read it: found the writing spectacular, moving, and super riveting overall and far from the straightforward “realism” I had feared I might get. I hope to read Steegmuller’s bio some day because of how much I enjoyed Madame Bovary, but I think you’ve done a fine job describing its approach. Cheers!

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