What is Writer Gustave Flaubert Known For?

In the annals of French literature, one name shines with an incandescent brilliance, illuminating the very essence of 19th-century France. It’s Gustave Flaubert.

Oct 30, 2023By Milos Milacic, BSc Literature

what is gustave flaubert known for


In the history of literature, Gustave Flaubert has his rightful place as an architect of words, a master craftsman who sculpted realistic portraits of a bygone era while subtly intertwining surrealistic threads into his narratives. Like a painter deftly blending colors on a canvas, Flaubert defies literary categorization, conjuring a veritable chiaroscuro of storytelling that captures the spirit of his time and transcends the boundaries of reality.


Gustave Flaubert: The Beginnings 

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Gustave Flaubert, via New Republic


Gustave Flaubert wove his own destiny with the golden threads of literary brilliance. His upbringing, steeped in the tranquil rhythms of Normandy, instilled in him a profound sensitivity to the human condition and an insatiable curiosity about the intricacies of existence. Guided by his voracious appetite for knowledge, Flaubert embarked on a literary odyssey, traversing the landscapes of classic literature and the tumultuous currents of societal upheaval that defined his era.


As the flickering flames of Romanticism dimmed, Flaubert emerged as a torchbearer of a new literary movement called realism. With unflinching precision and an unwavering commitment to capturing the spirit of daily life, Flaubert etched the contours of his characters with a surgeon’s precision, breathing life into their thoughts, desires, and flaws. Through his seminal work, Madame Bovary, he carved a niche for himself, etching his name upon the literary sky. Yet, it is in the interplay of realism and surrealism that Flaubert’s unique brilliance flourishes.


Flaubert’s works held up a mirror not only to society but also to the labyrinthine recesses of the human psyche. Within the pages of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert delves into the realms of the inexplicable, defying the constraints of conventional reality as he guides his protagonist through a phantasmagoric landscape of dreams and hallucinations. In Bouvard and Pécuchet, madness dances hand in hand with reason, revealing the inherent absurdities lurking beneath the veneer of social normalcy. It is in these surreal interludes that Flaubert defied the boundaries of reality, transcending the limitations of his contemporaries and beckoning his readers to journey beyond the veil of the ordinary.

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hugo landscape with burg
Landscape with Burg by Victor Hugo, via Gazette Drouot


Flaubert left a lasting mark on literature that still reverberates today. His pen, which was once the work of a lone genius, today stands as a lasting example of how art has the ability to withstand the test of time and enthrall future generations. They may be seen in the wonderfully interwoven prose of Marcel Proust and James Joyce as well as in the convoluted narratives of Oscar Wilde. Gustave Flaubert’s marriage of realism and surrealism, like a prism refracting light into a kaleidoscope of colors, continues to enthrall and inspire, leaving an enduring imprint on the culture of 19th-century France and beyond.


Flaubert’s Contribution to Realism

gustave flaubert illustration
An illustration of Gustave Flaubert by J.J. Sempe, via New Yorker


The literary realism movement, which aspired to portray daily life and society through a precise and objective lens, was greatly influenced by Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert’s contributions to this artistic movement were varied, demonstrating both his remarkable ability to construct vivid and approachable characters as well as his insightful observation of the human condition. Flaubert’s profound awareness of the complexities of 19th-century France, which he painstakingly documented in his works, was essential to his realism.


Readers can feel the social structure, cultural conventions, and prevailing attitudes of his day by immersing themselves in Flaubert’s meticulous descriptions and perceptive insights. For instance, Flaubert paints a realistic image of the oppressive routines, the narrow-mindedness of the bourgeoisie, and the yearnings for escape that permeated society in his well-known work Madame Bovary, which serves as an important portrayal of provincial life. Flaubert provided a thorough analysis of a complicated society through his accurate depiction of 19th-century France, which not only revealed its virtues and strengths but also revealed its shortcomings and contradictions.


Flaubert’s talent for developing people who have a strong emotional impact on readers enhanced his reputation as a master of realism. His characters, such as Emma Bovary from Madame Bovary or Frédéric Moreau from Sentimental Education, are portrayed with such psychological depth and complexity that they end up becoming archetypal depictions of the human condition. Flaubert painstakingly crafted each character’s personality, driving forces, and inner conflicts, exposing the nuanced layers of their aspirations, fantasies, and follies.


manet in the conservatory
In The Conservatory by Édouard Manet, 1879, via Google Arts and Culture


The author provided readers with a mirror through which they might see their own hopes, anxieties, and vulnerabilities. The vividness and relatability of Flaubert’s characters transcend time, making them generally resonant across nations and eras while simultaneously illuminating the particular environment of 19th-century France. In works like Sentimental Education, Flaubert explores societal themes and criticizes the bourgeoisie, demonstrating his dedication to exposing the socioeconomic realities of the day.


Flaubert examined the bourgeois society’s hypocrisies and moral decline through the experiences of his characters. He highlighted the inherent conflicts between romantic aspirations and the pursuit of one’s goals, the pretense of respectability’s shallowness, and the negative effects of individualism and consumerism. Flaubert questioned the dominant norms and ideas with his sharp social commentary, igniting discussions and inspiring reflection among his readers.


Flaubert’s painstaking attention to detail, descriptive language, and profound psychological depth are distinguishing features of his use of realism. His stories are filled with details that completely engross readers in the sights, sounds, and sensations of the period, giving them a real-life experience. Flaubert transports readers to the very heart of 19th-century France in everything from the detailed descriptions of Emma Bovary’s surroundings to the evocative representation of Parisian society in Sentimental Education. He also adds layers of depth by delving deeply into the psychological states of his characters, helping readers comprehend their motivations, inner struggles, and emotions. Flaubert improves the realism of his stories by digging into the depths of the human mind.


Gustave Flaubert’s Legacy

film sentimental education
A still from the movie Sentimental Education, via IMDb


Beyond his contribution to the rise of realism, Flaubert had a tremendous influence on literature. His original method of storytelling and his stylistic innovations have had a profound impact on later generations of writers. His rigorous attention to detail highlighted the value of accuracy and linguistic skill, as seen by his concept of le mot juste (the proper word). For writers hoping to hone their prose, Flaubert’s commitment to finding the ideal articulation for each idea and image served as a benchmark. Flaubert’s dedication to language precision had a significant impact on writers like Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, who were all influenced by the pursuit of linguistic excellence.


the temptation of st anthony
The Temptation of Saint Anthony after Gustave Flaubert by Lovis Corinth, 1908, via Tate, London


Additionally, Flaubert’s investigation into the inner lives of his characters had a long-lasting influence on the evolution of the book as a form. He pioneered an original approach to the inner life that paved the way for writers like Woolf and Joyce to use the stream-of-consciousness style. Flaubert discovered a more complex and introspective portrayal of characters in literature.


It is impossible to overestimate Flaubert’s impact on how female characters are portrayed. Flaubert’s development of complicated and fully formed female heroines contradicted the established norms at a time when women were frequently portrayed in conventional or constrained ways. Characters like Frédérique in Sentimental Education and Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary were multi-dimensional. They displayed agency, desires, and weaknesses. Later feminist fiction was made possible by Flaubert’s sophisticated examination of female subjectivity and his refusal to follow conventional tropes. Flaubert’s representation of female agency and independence was further developed by authors like Kate Chopin and Virginia Woolf who opened up new opportunities for female characters in literature.


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Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Auguste Renoir, 1876, via Orsay Museum, Paris


Flaubert’s stylistic innovations are also part of his legacy. His exacting attention to the finer points of description sometimes referred to as Flaubertian description, established a new benchmark for vivid and evocative writing. Authors like Thomas Hardy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who refined their art by reading Flaubert’s works and imitating his ability to bring scenes to life, are examples of those who have benefited from his impact in this way.


gustave flaubert bouvard et pécuchet
Bouvard et Pécuchet, an artistic depiction of Flaubert’s unfinished novel, via Electric Literature


In addition, Flaubert distinguished himself as a literary provocateur by being prepared to question social norms and investigate taboo issues. His candid handling of sexuality, as shown in Madame Bovary and Salammbo, went beyond what was once thought to be appropriate in literature. Flaubert’s audacity in confronting taboo subjects like infidelity, desire, and political instability paved the way for exploring taboos and difficult subjects. Gustave Flaubert’s novel narrative techniques, nuanced portrayals of characters and female protagonists, scrupulous attention to descriptive detail, and willingness to defy social standards have all irrevocably changed literature.

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By Milos MilacicBSc LiteratureMiloš is a professor of language and literature, but in his free time, he is a writer of short stories and poetry and an author of academic papers. His main interests in the field of literature are related to the theory of literature, literary criticism, and the history of literature, with special reference to the works created in the age of modernism and postmodernism. As a cultural worker and creator, he has a mission to make culture accessible to all members of society.