Gustave Flaubert was born December 12, 1821, in Rouen, France, and died May 8, 1880. He was the fourth child of a distinguished doctor who was the head of the hospital in that city. Gustave was a sensitive and quiet boy; he read a lot, and since the family lived in a house on the hospital grounds, he early gained a knowledge of scientific techniques and ideas. He attended a secondary school in Rouen, and in 1841 was sent, against his will, to study law in Paris. In the capital he made new friends and moved in literary circles. His talent for writing was stimulated by these experiences.
In 1844, Flaubert became the victim of a serious nervous illness, which cannot be identified precisely, but which was probably related to epilepsy. For reasons of health he retired to the family's new home in Le Croisset, a suburb of Rouen. He gladly took this opportunity to give up law and most of his time was now spent at Le Croisset, where he lived quietly and devoted himself to writing and his studies.
Flaubert made a trip to the Near East in 1849-50, where he traveled widely in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Greece, and in 1857, he visited the site of ancient Carthage in North Africa. As the years passed, he became acquainted with most of the important literary figures of the period, including Victor Hugo, Georges Sand, Sainte-Beuve, Gautier, Turgenev, the de Goncourts, and de Maupassant. He was respected and admired by all of them.
Flaubert had few close friends, but there were two unusual relationships with women in his life. The first involved Elisa Schlessinger, a married, older woman whom he met at Trouville when he was fifteen and who for many years was the object of his platonic and idealized affection. The other was Louise Colet, a poet, who was his mistress between 1846 and 1854. She and Flaubert saw each other only very rarely, however, and their liaison existed mainly in their letters. As with so many other things, Flaubert found to his dismay that Louise in the flesh was not the same as Louise in his imagination. As a result, he usually preferred a solitary life at Le Croisset to other pursuits.
Flaubert has often been considered a misanthropic recluse. He was characterized by morbidity and pessimism, which may have been partly due to his illness, and by a violent hatred and contempt for middle-class society, derived ultimately from his childhood in bourgeois Rouen. He was often bitter and unhappy because of the great disparity that existed between his unattainable dreams and fantasies and the realities of his life; for example, his mystical and idealized love for Elisa adversely affected all his later relationships with women. Flaubert's unhappiness and loneliness is perhaps best expressed by his famous remark, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi."
Although Flaubert gained renown as a writer within his own lifetime, he was not financially successful (he made only 500 francs for the first five years' sales of Madame Bovary), and he was hurt by the enmity and misunderstanding of his critics and readers. At the height of public hostility, in 1857, he and the publisher of Madame Bovary were tried for an "outrage to public morals and religion." However, the case was finally acquitted.
Flaubert's works include Madame Bovary (1857); Salammbo (1862), a weighty historical novel about the war between Rome and Carthage; A Sentimental Education (1869), a novel dealing again with the theme of the frustrations of middle-class life and human aspirations; and The Temptation of St. Anthony (1874), a rich and evocative series of religious tableaux. In 1877, he published Three Tales, which contains the beautiful short stories, "A Simple Heart," "The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitalier," and "Herodias." These justly famous stories are masterpieces of short fiction and are among his finest and most moving works. Flaubert's play, The Candidate, failed after a few performances in 1874, and his last novel, Bouvard and Pechuhet, which was unfinished on his death, was published posthumously in 1881.
Flaubert was one of the most important European writers of the nineteenth century, and with him the French novel reached a high level of development. None of his later works, except the three short stories, ever equaled the artistic and technical quality of his first novel, and it is primarily on Madame Bovary that his reputation rests. Flaubert combined a feeling for the ideals of the Romantic era with the objective outlook and scientific principles of Realism to create a novel which has stood as a monument and example to writers ever since.