Happy Birthday, Gustave Flaubert!

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books

By: Robert Sarwark

This post originally appeared on the Bibliography of the Damned blog on November 15, 2017. It has been slightly re-edited from its original form.

Gustave FlaubertBanned novelist Gustave Flaubert’s birthday is December 12, 1821. Happy 197th! You don’t look a day over 150.


The subtitle of the original French version of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, moeurs de province (1857) is often translated into English as Patterns of Provincial Life. This is an important element to keep in mind when analyzing this world-renowned and perennially celebrated novel.

The theme of madness–due-to-stultifying-boredom cannot be separated from that of adultery, the topic for which the book is certainly most well known to this day. To put this broader theme into context, if it were ever adapted into a modern, and/or especially modern-American setting, making a slight alteration to Patterns of Suburban Life would not profoundly alter the essence of this story of an unhappy (and, yes, unfaithful) young wife and mother. (And if this hypothetical reboot were adapted to film, Todd Solondz would be a great candidate for director. No one else but New Jersey’s king of brutal pathos could capture so well how utterly insufferable and unfulfilled almost every single character of Madame Bovary is portrayed.)

With Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) was concerned with meticulously capturing not only the minutiae of deceit, but furthermore the root causes of such universal and perennial human emotions as ennui, jealousy, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, love, lust, and the fluctuating distinctions between the two.

Early-twenty-something Emma Bovary is a woman who, understandably, given the restrictions of class and gender of 19th-century rural and small-town France, has her life dictated to her at turns by nuns, her father, her hapless husband, her mother-in-law, her opinionated neighbors. But most tragic are her relationships with the two men with whom she engages in passionate love affairs over the course of several years.

The Naughty Bits

Throughout the course of Emma’s double life — which starts soon after she has her only child — her medical-officer husband Charles is almost comically oblivious to his being cuckolded. Complicating matters, she also falls prey to a rapacious goods dealer and money lender, Monsieur Lhereux. Lhereux’s lines of credit lead to a compounding of not only Emma’s debt but furthermore the web of lies she weaves in pursuit of a life of luxury that neither she nor her husband can afford as members of the petite bourgeoisie in Yonville, a rural everytown in the Normandy region.

The most deliciously voyeuristic elements of Madame Bovary are, of course, the “sex” scenes. Though clearly deemed sufficiently obscene by the Catholic Congregation of the Index for the book to be condemned in 1864 — seven years after its original publication — by modern standards the descriptions of Emma’s trysts with her lovers Rodolphe and Léon would be considered somewhat tame. Nevertheless, we read Flaubert’s masterpiece to this day not so much for what he explicitly wrote about these steamy moments, but rather their build-ups and aftermaths:

The broadcloth of her habit clung to the velvet of his coat. She leaned back her head, her white throat swelled in a sigh, and, her resistance gone, weeping, hiding her face, with a long shudder she gave herself to him.

Evening shadows were falling, and the level rays of the sun streamed through the branches and dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all about her, among the leaves and on the ground, were shimmering patches of light, as though hummingbirds winging by had scattered their feathers. All was silent; a soft sweetness seemed to be seeping from the trees; she felt her heart beating again, and her blood flowing in her flesh like a river of milk. (1957: 181)

As with any good art, the artist allows us to fill in the gaps ourselves.


Such risqué notions expressed so brazenly, together with a classic story of longing and desire, made Madame Bovary an immediate literary hit both critically and commercially. It was only a matter of time before this same notoriety brought it to the attention of the Congregation of the Index as well. The novel was condemned to be blacklisted on June 20, 1864, seven years after its original publication.

What’s more, the character of Monsieur Homais, the local pharmacist (and extreme busybody), presents the reader with a constant stream of anti-clerical, freethinking rhetoric:

‘On the contrary. I’m a very religious man, in my own way, far more so than all these people with their mummeries and their tricks. I worship God, I assure you! I believe in a Supreme Being, a Creator. Whoever he is — and what difference does it make? — he put us here on earth to fulfill our duties as citizens and parents. But I don’t have to go into church and kiss silver platters and hand over my money to fatten up a lot of rascals that eat better than you and I!’ (88)

Without spoiling too much of the plot (go read this book!), other instances of controversial topics can be found throughout the text. The specific canons of Catholic law that I have identified as the most likely grounds for this condemnation are:

§3: Books that attempt to attack religion or good morals;

§6: Books that scorn or ridicule the Church or Catholic dogma in any way;

§8: Books which declare duels, suicide, or divorce as licit, or that deal with Freemasonry;

§9: Books which professedly discuss, describe, or teach impure and obscene topics.

So…sorry not sorry that you were banned, Monsieur Flaubert. And santé to you for your bold and honest writing prowess. Let’s all wish him a happy birthday by going out and reading one or several of his works.


Work Cited

Flaubert, Gustave, Madame Bovary. Translated by Francis Steegmuller. New York: Random House, 1957; 1950.


Robert SarwarkRobert M. Sarwark is a librarian at the Art Institute of Atlanta and a 2018-2019 Visiting Fellow in Publishing History at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. He is originally from Chicago and enjoys dogs, pizza, and writing bios in the third person. Find him on Twitter @RobSarwark.

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