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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Though he finally began to study law in 1843, he hated every moment of it and felt tremendous stress, possibly the result of a conflict between his literary interests and the pressure to learn a respectable profession. In January 1844, while returning to Rouen for a vacation with his family, the twenty-two-yearold Flaubert suffered a seizure that marked the beginning of a lifelong nervous disorder. On his parents' advice, he gave up the study of law and settled in at the family estate in Croisset, which would become his permanent home. Flaubert became very familiar with provincial living and would draw on this to describe the small, boring towns of Tostes and Yonville in Madame Bovary.
Though solitary, Flaubert traveled and kept the apartment in Paris. But when his father and sister died within a few months of one another in 1846, his hostility toward the world intensified and he became even more of a loner. He eventually became known as the "hermit of Croisset."
Avoiding interruptions, he started work on a long historical novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. His style, marked by attention to detail and tightness of construction, began to take shape. Over the next few years he would become a perfectionist, spending days writing and rewriting a single page, researching his material, or searching tirelessly for the famous mot juste, the "exact word." This belief in the precision of language would become a permanent obsession and would characterize his style more than any other technique or device. In Madame Bovary, Emma's search for the perfect romance might be said to parallel Flaubert's quest for the mot juste.
After spending three years on Saint Anthony, Flaubert was shocked that his close friends didn't like it. They suggested he tackle a more realistic subject from daily life that would take him farther beyond his Romantic roots. He shelved the book and went to the Middle East, a setting that was hardly likely to suppress his Romantic tendencies. Ironically, however, the book that he began upon his return was based not on the attractions of exotic locales, but on the everyday life he knew so well.
Madame Bovary parallels the true story of Eugene Delamare, a former student of Flaubert's father who had practiced medicine as an army officer and had married an older woman. After her death, he married a young woman named Delphine Couturier and took up residence in the town of Ry, not far from Rouen. Delphine was unfaithful to him, ran up many debts without his knowledge, then died, leaving him with a young daughter-all of which Emma does in Madame Bovary. After a few months, Eugene, like Emma's husband Charles, died in despair.
Flaubert insisted that Madame Bovary was entirely fictitious, and when asked about Emma's identity, he would argue, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" ("I am Madame Bovary," or "Madame Bovary is my creation"). His intention was to create a type of character, not a specific individual, and he claimed that Emma was "suffering and weeping at this very moment in twenty villages in France"- that is, there were women everywhere in France who were stifled and bored like Emma.
The writing of Madame Bovary dominated Flaubert's life from 1851 to 1856. On completing the novel, he made no effort to publish it. But at his friends' insistence, he sent it to the prestigious Revue de Paris, which published Madame Bovary in installments in 1857. The editors suggested he cut certain "offensive" passages, but the author refused. He might have reacted differently if he had known what lay ahead. Both Flaubert and his publishers were thrown into court on grounds that the novel was morally and religiously offensive to the public. Ironically, when the defendants won their case, Madame Bovary became a national best-seller.
The book was also recognized as marking a turning point in the history of the novel. The combination of realistic detail, objective narrative technique, harmony of structure, and language chosen to reflect the characters' personalities created a realistic, yet beautiful, picture for the reader. Drawing on both the Romantic emphasis on inner feelings and the Realist's concern for truth, Madame Bovary serves as a bridge between Romanticism and the modern novel.
In Flaubert's next book, Salammbo (1862), he returned to an exotic setting and attempted to recreate the civilization of ancient Carthage. In the mid-1860s, he began his most autobiographical novel, Sentimental Education, which centered on Frederic Moreau's failure in an impossible love affair. During this period, he went back to The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but his solitude was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). After the war, Flaubert finally finished Saint Anthony (1874) and in 1877 published a group of three short stories (Trois Contes). In May 1880, while hard at work on his comic novel Bouvard and Pecuchet, Flaubert collapsed and died.
Readers note that few outward events of importance occur in Madame Bovary, and the same can be said of Flaubert's life. His concentration on the inner lives of his characters-their memories, dreams, and fantasies-might be said to reflect his own obsessions with love, sexuality, and art. The next generation of French novelists-Emile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, and Guy de Maupassant-considered themselves disciples of this man who has been called "the novelist's novelist." Shortly afterward, in the early twentieth century, the innovative work of the French writer Marcel Proust and the Irish writer James Joyce would be deeply influenced and inspired by Flaubert's techniques of depicting the realities of inner experience.