Flaubert has put his memories of his travels in the East even in Madame Bovary . In his travel notes he writes: “[Kuchiuk-Hanem, a famous courtesan] smelled fresh, something like the smell of sweet turpentine”. In Madame Bovary , when Emma goes to the pharmacist, a customer asks for sugar acid and turpentine …
The 19th century was first and foremost the time of a gigantic upheaval on all floors. Activation, mechanisation, rationalisation, publishing, building, exchange of values and ideas : “progress” is pursued in all areas.
The heroes of this frenzy of activity are the bourgeoisie, the new ruling class, the locomotive of society. But for Flaubert, the bourgeois is the enemy. Reasonable, mediocre, self-satisfied, absorbed in his “business”, he found the bourgeois deeply revolting .
To avenge himself, he peopled his novels with characters incarnating the contempt that the bourgeoisie inspired in him, such as Homais the pharmacist in Madame Bovary, or Arnoux the entrepreneur in Sentimental Education.
Flaubert was a learned writer who read and documented himself a lot (for Bouvard and Pécuchet, his last work, he had studied more than 1,500 books!).
Regardless of the subject, what matters to him is the life and charm that emanate from the work (in the strong sense of magical charm), through the force of style. Flaubert will therefore work to give the novel prose that will “charm” the reader, like a poem or a song. Taking up the language specific to the novel, he will produce many innovations in the narrative processes: relativity of points of view, impersonality of the writer, refusal to conclude.
“Tonight I am so exhausted that I cannot hold my pen, it is the result of the boredom caused by the sight of a bourgeois. The bourgeois is becoming physically intolerable to me. I would cry out.”
To Ernest Feydeau, January 25, 1861
This is perhaps what fascinated Flaubert the most: the immensity, the universality, and even “the depth” of the stupidity. He did not consider himself immune to it. Most of the characters in his stories speak only in clichés, including the “hero” of Sentimental Education . Sometimes, on the contrary, characters who seem there to embody stupidity express Flaubert’s personal ideas. Such is the empire of stupidity for this author: we are always a little caught up in it, we do not know whether we are expressing our own ideas or preconceived ideas that we are reciting. It has no borders, no limits, and that’s what makes it so formidable: you don’t know where it starts and where it ends.
Like many of his contemporaries, Flaubert was fascinated by the Orient. In the first place, the Orientals seemed to him the antithesis of his bourgeois his compatriots. He saw them as dreamers detached from the obsession with progress, and indifferent to “good taste”in the artistic field.
Stifling in the moral order of his time, he built his work on an alternation between novels on contemporary France and stories about an ancient East, where he felt free to let his lyricism gallop (La Tentation de Saint Antoine, Salammbô, Hérodias).
« Life ! Life ! To have erections ! That’s the point ! That’s why
I love lyricism so much. »
To Louise Colet, July 15, 1853
« Have you sometimes reflected, dear old companion, on all the serenity of imbeciles?” Stupidity is unshakeable; nothing attacks it without breaking against it. It is of the nature of granite, hard and resistant. In Alexandria, a certain Thompson, of Sunderland, has on Pompey’s column written his name in letters six feet high. It reads a quarter of a league away. There is no way to see the column without seeing Thompson’s name, and therefore without thinking of Thompson. This moron is incorporated into the monument and lives on with it. »
To his uncle Brice Parain, October 6, 1850