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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Already disappointed with humanity by the age of twenty-two, Gustave Flaubert abandoned the outside world and retired as a hermit to his family's estate in the small town of Croisset, France. It was in this provincial Normandy setting that he created one of the world's great novels, Madame Bovary, and in which he spent most of his life almost mystically devoted to literature. Since he was deeply affected by stress and believed that a life of activity would damage the creative process, he wanted to shut the door, close off all distractions, and bury himself in work.
Yet Flaubert was not an altogether unsocial man. He kept an apartment in Paris for the winter months, entertained friends, traveled periodically, and enjoyed being a favorite of Princess Mathilde, cousin of the Emperor of France. He never wrote for fame or money, but nonetheless enjoyed the glory his success brought-and if you see this as a contradiction to his need for seclusion, then you've already spotted one of several major conflicts within this talented writer.
Born on December 12, 1821, Flaubert was the son of a prominent surgeon in Rouen, France. Having spent much of his childhood in the grim environment of the hospital where his father worked, he had an idea of the gruesome pain and suffering that plagued the sick. He also had a good idea of the incompetence that plagued the medical profession. This early exposure to human frailty and professional mishaps no doubt contributed to Flaubert's general pessimism about life, but it also provided the solid background of medical and scientific information he drew upon to describe the middle-class medical practitioners in Madame Bovary. The bungled clubfoot operation on the stable boy, for example, resembles incidences of malpractice he had encountered in real life.
Another result of Flaubert's familiarity with medicine (his brother Achille was also a doctor) was his awareness that middle-class lip service to science and progress could be mere pretentious nonsense. While he believed in true science, he was wary of people, like the pharmacist Homais, who invoked the spirit of progress to justify their own comfortable positions in society.
Flaubert's youth coincided not only with the rise of the bourgeoisie during the reign of King Louis-Philippe (1830-48), but with the period of Romanticism. This literary and artistic movement, begun in the late eighteenth century, rejected the predominant view of that century's thinkers that "reason" was the guiding principle of life and man's most important attribute. French education was still grounded in the previous century's ideals, so that its models of art and literature were from the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome-a world that glorified the rational. The Romantics reacted by "rediscovering" other sides of life. They looked to nature and indulged in colorful, often excessive, explorations of human emotions.
As a boarder at the College de Rouen, a secondary school similar to the one Charles Bovary attends at the beginning of Madame Bovary, Flaubert devoured the Romantic writing of Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott (among others), writers who extolled sentiment, feeling, and beauty, often in exotic historical settings. As with other young Frenchmen, Flaubert's turn toward Romanticism led him to reject as coarse, ugly, and unfeeling the middle-class culture that had increased its influence steadily since the end of the Napoleonic era (1815). The very symbol of this culture was the king himself, Louis-Philippe (called the "Citizen King"), who along with his supporters, became the targets of the cartoonist Honore Daumier (1809-1879) and the novelist Honore de Balzac (1799-1850). Flaubert and a school friend created their own fictional target, called "le Garcon" (the boy), who represented everything they disliked about middle-class life-its obsession with money and politics, its intellectual pretenses, its vulgarity, and its sexual hypocrisy. Their feelings about this hypocrisy were confirmed somewhat humorously when the respectable vice-principal of the school was discovered in a local brothel.
Flaubert's own attitudes toward love and sexuality, which were to occupy a good part of his later work and correspondence, found their first expression when he was fifteen and fell in love with Elisa Schlesinger, a married woman eleven years his senior. Although she became a friend throughout his later life, Flaubert's obsession with this unattainable "perfect" woman set the tone of later relationships and literary themes. This type of unfulfilled yearning is typical of Romantic love relationships. In Madame Bovary, young Justin, the chemist's assistant, longs for Emma in the same way, and Emma's unfulfilled longing for the perfect love echoes this relationship. Even though Flaubert depicts Emma's desires as the product of an excessive addiction to Romantic ideals, it is possible that he himself was equally their victim. It may also explain in part why Flaubert devoted himself primarily to the search for perfection in his writing rather than in personal relationships. His later relationship with Louise Colet, a poet, confirmed the pattern set by the earlier Schlesinger experience. Colet was also considerably older than Flaubert. Although in love with her, Flaubert carried on their affair primarily through letters; they only saw each other six times during the first two years. In Madame Bovary, Emma's romances with Rodolphe and Leon rely heavily on letterwriting.
In 1841, at his father's insistence, Flaubert went to Paris in order to study law, but for two years he led a rather aimless existence, traveling, socializing, and writing. He resumed his friendship with Elisa Schlesinger and became close friends with Maxime DuCamp, a writer and editor. He finished (but did not publish) November, a Romantic work about a man's love for a prostitute. Although Flaubert would eventually create a more objective and realistic style, this early novel was typical of the emotional intensity of Romantic literature.