Gustave Flaubert

French novelist (1821–1880)

Gustave Flaubert (December 12 1821May 8 1880) was an influential French writer who was perhaps the leading exponent of literary realism of his country. He is known especially for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857), for his Correspondence, and for his scrupulous devotion to his style and aesthetics.

Exuberance is better than taste...
See also:
Madame Bovary


Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed in.
  • The brazen arms were working more quickly. They paused no longer. Every time that a child was placed in them the priests of Moloch spread out their hands upon him to burden him with the crimes of the people, vociferating: "They are not men but oxen!" and the multitude round about repeated: "Oxen! oxen!" The devout exclaimed: "Lord! Eat!"
What is beautiful is moral, that is all there is to it.
One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes a stool pigeon when he cannot be a soldier.
  • Don't talk to me about your hideous reality! What does it mean — reality? Some see things black, others blue — the multitude sees them brute-fashion. There is nothing less natural than Michael Angelo; there is nothing more powerful! The anxiety about eternal truth is a mark of contemporary baseness; and art will become, if things go on in that way, a sort of poor joke as much below religion as it is below poetry, and as much below politics as it is below business. You will never reach its end — yes, its end! — which is to cause within us an impersonal exaltation, with petty works, in spite of all your finished execution.
    • Pt. 1, Ch. 4
  • Without ideality, there is no grandeur; without grandeur there is no beauty. Olympus is a mountain. The most effective monument will always be the Pyramids. Exuberance is better than taste; the desert is better than a streetpavement, and a savage is surely better than a hairdresser!
    • Pt. 1, Ch. 4; the most famous portion of this statement is "Exuberance is better than taste..." [Mieux vaut l'exubérance que le goût.]
  • Rien n'est humiliant comme de voir les sots réussir dans les entreprises où l'on échoue.
  • For some men, the stronger their desire, the more difficult it is for them to act. They are hampered by mistrust of themselves, daunted by the fear of giving offence; besides, deep feelings of affection are like respectable women; they are afraid of being found out and they go through life with downcast eyes.
    • Pt. 2, Ch. 3
  • He is so corrupt that he would willingly pay for the pleasure of selling himself.
    • Pt. 3, Ch. 3


  • Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire comme un bourgeois, afin d'être violent et original dans vos œuvres.
    • Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
      • To Gertrude Tennant (December 25, 1876) (Correspondence v4, pg280)
  • There is no 'true'. There are merely ways of perceiving truth.
    • Quoted in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1857-1880, ed. and trans. Francis Steegmuller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), xii.

Letters to Madame Louise Colet

You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it.
  • One must not always think that feeling is everything. Art is nothing without form. (12 August 1846)
  • To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost. (13 August 1846)
  • Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n'est-ce pas?
    • What a horrible invention, the bourgeois, don't you think? (22 September 1846)
  • One becomes a critic when one cannot be an artist, just as a man becomes a stool pigeon when he cannot be a soldier. (22 October 1846)
  • An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. (9 December 1852)
  • The idea of bringing someone into the world fills me with horror. I would curse myself if I were a father. A son of mine! Oh no, no, no! May my entire flesh perish and may I transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence. (11 December 1852)

Letters to Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie

  • The artist must be in his work as God is in creation, invisible and all-powerful; one must sense him everywhere but never see him. (18 March 1857)
  • Do not read as children do to enjoy themselves, or, as the ambitious do to educate themselves. No, read to live. (June 1857)
  • Tout le rêve de la démocratie est d'élever le prolétaire au niveau de bêtise du bourgeois.
    • The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of bourgeois stupidity. (4 or 5 October 1871)
  • Notre ignorance de l'histoire nous fait calomnier notre temps.
  • Axiom: hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of wisdom. But I include in the word bourgeois, the bourgeois in blouses as well the bourgeois in coats. It is we and we alone, that is to say the literary men, who are the people, or to say it better: the tradition of humanity. (10 May 1867)
  • L'homme n'est rien, l'oeuvre – tout
    • The man is nothing, the work — all. (December 1875)
    • Slightly misquoted in "The Red-Headed League" by Arthur Conan Doyle as L'homme c'est rien – l'oeuvre c'est tout.



Quotes about Flaubert

  • I see now, looking at this little book, November, by Flaubert, so many of the themes that he was going to explore so wonderfully later are just touched upon, he didn’t have the skill to carry them any further. And then, as his life went by, he followed them, he followed these dark tunnels.
  • When I was working on China Men, I remember reading a critic who was praising the great male writers, like Flaubert and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Henry James, who were able to write great women characters. I don't remember if they said women had done men in this way or not, but I remember thinking that to finish myself as a great artist I'd have to be able to create men characters. Along with that, I was thinking that I had to do more than the first person pronoun.
  • Madame Bovary is written entirely according to the system of tanka. Flaubert wrote it so slowly and painstakingly, because he had to begin it anew after every fifth word.
    • Osip Mandelstam THE NINETEENTH CENTURY translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)
  • I want to think that every character is a little-I guess like Flaubert saying "Emma Bovary, c'est moi"-that I am the characters but the characters aren't me
    • 1996 interview in Conversations with Bharati Mukherjee Edited by Bradley C. Edwards (2009)
  • Thus Flaubert has two quite different conceptions of himself. One is at the level of banal description, for example when he writes to his mistress Louise: ‘What am I? Am I intelligent or am I stupid? Am I sensitive or am I stolid? Am I mean or am I generous? Am I selfish or am I selfless? I have no idea, I suppose I am like everyone else, I waver between all these. . . .’ In other words, at this level he is completely lost. Why? Because none of these notions has any meaning in themselves. They only acquire a meaning from inter-subjectivity, in other words what I have called in the Critique the ‘objective spirit’ within which each member of a group or society refers to himself and appears to others, establishing relations of interiority between persons which derive from the same information or the same context.
    Yet one cannot say that Flaubert did not have, at the very height of his activity, a comprehension of the most obscure origins of his own history. He once wrote a remarkable sentence: ‘You are doubtless like myself, you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths’—les mêmes profondeurs terribles et ennuyeuses. What could be a better formula for the whole world of psychoanalysis, in which one makes terrifying discoveries, yet which always tediously come to the same thing? His awareness of these depths was not an intellectual one. He later wrote that he often had fulgurating intuitions, akin to a dazzling bolt of lightning in which one simultaneously sees nothing and sees everything. Each time they went out, he tried to retrace the paths revealed to him by this blinding light, stumbling and falling in the subsequent darkness.
    • Jean-Paul Sartre, "Marxism and Subjectivity", 1961 lecture published in New Left Review (July–August 2014)
  • [L'Éducation sentimentale displays Flaubert's] nervous analysis of the smallest facts, a notation of life that is both meticulous and alive.
    • Émile Zola, La Tribune (28 November 1869), in Oeuvres complètes, X: Oeuvres critiques 1 (1968), p. 918, quoted in Robert Gildea, Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799–1914 (2008), p. 191
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