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Gustave Flaubert | Biography

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Early Life, Friendships, and Great Love

Writer Gustave Flaubert became one of the first French novelists to master the realist style. His books portray the unpleasant truth about the lives of bourgeois or materialistic middle-class French citizens, including their emotions and suffering. His novels, Madame Bovary (1857) and Sentimental Education, satirize bourgeois life (middle class) through uncompromising realism. Flaubert himself was born to a middle-class family on December 12, 1821, in the small town of Rouen, France.

Flaubert's literary career began at school. In 1832 he attended boarding school at the College de Rouen. He and his friend, Alfred Le Poittevin, invented an imaginary character called "Le Garçon," or "the boy." Le Garçon made jokes the two friends considered anarchic and grotesque. Le Poittevin's pessimism influenced Flaubert, who claimed to be "disgusted with life" at a young age. Flaubert detested what he saw as the narrow minds of the upper class. Flaubert's friendships with other men continued to have a strong influence on him.

On a seaside vacation with his family in Trouville, France in 1836, Flaubert met an intriguing older woman named Elisa Schlesinger. Young Flaubert quickly fell in love. His passion for Schlesinger inspired Sentimental Education protagonist Frédéric Moreau's love for the older, married Madame Arnoux. Schlesinger, like Madame Arnoux, had a charismatic husband who was a Parisian entrepreneur. When Flaubert was 16 he wrote a book called Memoirs of a Mad Man, an early draft of what would become Sentimental Education. Memoirs of a Mad Man novelized Flaubert's love for Schlesinger.

Paris, Revolution, and Madame Bovary

In 1842 Flaubert moved to Paris to study law. Like Frédéric in Sentimental Education, Flaubert was a mediocre law student. He failed his second-year exams in 1843. Flaubert also began struggling with depression and nervous attacks as a young man. He returned to Rouen in 1846 after his father died and spent much of the rest of his life there. In 1848 Flaubert returned temporarily to Paris, the center of the political revolution in France that was happening at the time. He and poet Louis Bouilhet witnessed the fighting and chaos of the revolution. Flaubert recreated several of these scenes in Sentimental Education as Frédéric observes the turmoil in Paris.

Flaubert's first and most famous novel was Madame Bovary. He published the work as serial installments in the periodical Revue de Paris in 1856 and as a novel in 1857. The novel dramatizes the affairs of Emma Bovary, an unhappily married woman in the French countryside. The content was overtly sexual and scandalous for the time period, forcing the author to appear in court on charges of indecency. Although he was acquitted, the novel's negative reception scarred Flaubert.

Madame Bovary, however, established Flaubert's reputation as a fearless writer. He went on to join elite literary circles in Paris, befriending French writers Guy de Maupassant, Maxime du Camp, and George Sand, among others.

Sentimental Education

Flaubert began working on drafts of Sentimental Education in 1843. He focused on the tragic, unfulfilled love of Frédéric and Madame Arnoux. As Flaubert watched the turbulent events of the next decade, he expanded Sentimental Education into a historical novel covering France's July Monarchy (the reign of King Louis-Philippe from 1830–48), the revolt against the king, and subsequent events. He intended the book to be "the moral history of the men of [his] generation." Young men in 1840s Paris were caught in a rapidly changing society, balancing old ideas of art and romance with new interests in money and progress. By 1864 Flaubert had a new version of the novel in mind. He published the final version in 1869.

Meanwhile, Flaubert endured his own unrequited and complicated romantic relationships. As a law student, he spent time with the Schlesingers in Paris. He and Elisa Schlesinger had an intimate, but platonic relationship. The Schlesingers left Paris in 1849, and Flaubert always wondered what might have happened if circumstances had been different. By 1863 he heard from a friend that Elisa Schlesinger had grown old and been sent to a mental hospital. The tragic image of his former love's lost youth stuck in Flaubert's mind and became an inspiration for the end of the novel.

Later Work and Legacy

Flaubert later spent time traveling through the Middle East. He met some of the greatest artists and writers of his time, including Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev. Fellow writer Guy de Maupassant saw himself as Flaubert's disciple.

In 1875 Flaubert gave up his fortune to save his niece's husband from bankruptcy. His final works included a collection of stories, Trois Contes or Three Tales (1877), considered by many to be his masterpiece. Flaubert died of a stroke on May 8, 1880. He left behind a rich legacy as the first writer of the modern novel and a pioneer of modern narrative.

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