Biography of Gustave Flaubert

The son of a doctor, Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen, France, on December 12, 1821. He was in poor health for much of his childhood and was not expected to live to adulthood. Flaubert's younger sister Caroline also was often ill, and she finally died in childbirth at age twenty-one. Despite her early death, she greatly affected Flaubert and was a strong feminine influence on him, while his older brother Achille was nine years his senior and the brothers never developed a friendship. At age three, Flaubert began to be cared for by Julie, a servant hired by his parents, who stayed with the family until her death in 1883 and actually outlived all the Flaubert children.

After performing poorly in home schooling lessons taught by his mother, nine-year-old Flaubert was placed in the College Royal de Rouen, a strict, militaristic school. He vividly describes his life at the College Royal in his Memoirs d'un Fou (1838), his only autobiographical work. In 1842 Flaubert began to study law, but he did not dedicate himself to the work and left the law school in 1844 due to illness. At this time Flaubert was diagnosed with epilepsy, with which he struggled for the remainder of his life.

At a very young age Flaubert began to compose historical works of literature. La Lutte du sacerdoce et de l'Empire Chronique Normande, Derniere Scene de la Mort de Marguerite de Bourgogne, La Mort du Duc de Guise, and Le Moise des Chartreax were all written between the ages of eleven and fourteen. In fact, his most renowned play, Loys XI, was written when he was fourteen. As he grew older, Flaubert grew more philosophical in his work and began to develop more direct commentary on social injustices while learning more about the class conflicts that raged within French society. One such learning experience occurred in 1836, when the young Flaubert attended a fancy ball given by the rich Marquis de Pomereu, an event that inspired his description of the ball that Emma and Charles attend in his novel Madame Bovary.

Flaubert's father died in January 1846, and nine weeks later his sister Caroline died in childbirth. Upon their deaths, Flaubert received a sizable inheritance, which he used to retire to the family estate at Croisset. There he focused purely on his writing.

Flaubert commissioned an artist to sculpt a bust of his sister Caroline, and when he arrived at the artist's studio, he met Louise Colet, a well-known poet and a great beauty, who was posing for the sculptor. Immediately smitten, Flaubert and Colet developed a tumultuous affair that became one of the most celebrated in literary history. His many letters to Colet are of literary significance in that they reflect his struggles with composing Madame Bovary, a novel he worked on for five years. The couple's relationship ended in 1855.

Madame Bovary first appeared in the 1856 Revue as a magazine serial, and it was published in book form the following year. Because the subject matter was so shocking to French society, Flaubert was prosecuted for immorality; he had given frank and detailed descriptions of Emma's adulterous affairs. Flaubert was acquitted in 1857, escaping the fate of most victims of censorship during the time.

In the 1860s, Flaubert became a member of the intellectual court of Napoleon III, and his writing became highly appreciated by the developing school of naturalistic writers. Henry James called Flaubert a "novelist's novelist," and Nabokov stated that "Without Flaubert there would have been no Marcel Proust in France, no James Joyce in Ireland. Chekhov in Russia would not have been quite Chekhov. So much for Flaubert's literary influence."

Flaubert's later major works include Salambo (1862), L'Education Sentimentale (1869), La Tentation de Saint Antoine (1874), and a book of short stories titled Trois Contes (1877). Flaubert never married, instead focusing on care for his mother and his niece. In his final years he suffered financial troubles resulting from the generous act of giving away his fortune to save his niece's husband from bankruptcy. On May 7, 1880, Flaubert died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Croisset, leaving unfinished his novel Boulevard Et Pécuchet. A press clipping found on his writing table described him as "one of the uncontested masters of the contemporary novel, perhaps the only one who owes nothing to anyone, and whom everyone else has more or less imitated."

Study Guides on Works by Gustave Flaubert