Posted by: gdevi | March 5, 2010

Nineteenth Century and Realism/ Flaubert

Dr. G. Devi

English 220

Nineteenth Century Realism/ Gustave Flaubert

Almost all modern literature, at least in the West, grew out of Nineteenth century literature as it evolved in the hands of its monumental practitioners: the novelists Zola, Balzac and Flaubert in France, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov in Russia, Hardy and Dickens in England, Henry James and Mark Twain in America, Ibsen the Norwegian dramatist, poets Heine and Rilke in Germany, Baudelaire in France to list just a few of these Titans of literature. In order for us to fully comprehend the aesthetic, philosophical and literary movement known as Realism in Nineteenth Century Europe we have to go back to the second half of the Eighteenth Century and to the social and cultural changes that percolated across western Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The French Revolution of 1789 created a total and complete break with the past in Europe; on the political level, first the Revolution, then the Reign of Terror, and later the 1830 Revolution paved the way for the irreversible destruction of absolute monarchy (through beheadings, no less) and replaced it with constitutional monarchy; on the social level, the combination of the political changes with the continued growth in science and technology resulted in the Industrial Revolution which paved the way for the growth of a moneyed and substantial middle class; in literature and art, this turn is often manifested as celebrating the power and presence of common people—heroes were no longer kings and queens but men and women of common origins; on the philosophical level, the Age of Enlightenment’s apotheosis of Reason got dismantled with a renewed celebration of passions, feelings, imagination, and partly out of the artistic temperament’s intrinsic horror for the ugly urban sprawl of the newly industrialized cities, a return to Nature became the vogue as a source of sublime power and stimulation. We find a concrete expression of all these new ideals in the literary and visual arts movement known as Romanticism, which originated in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and fast spread into France and England and from there to other parts of the world. Romanticism celebrated the power of the individual as a source of sublime attributes; people were all intrinsically good and could be perfected even better and common humanity was the proper subject for art. Thus you have poets such as Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge in England writing about chimneysweepers, and finding the extraordinary out of the ordinary and ennobling common humanity through their art. Romanticism stressed a return to Nature as a source of inspiration and celebrated the primitive, the uneducated and the rural to be repositories of natural goodness.

Nineteenth century Realism, broadly speaking, is a revolt against the above optimism of the Romantic Movement. The Real is a slippery term; what is real to you might be very different from what is real to me. Still, Realism, as a literary movement in the nineteenth century shared the following characteristics: art is a mirror to reflect faithfully the surface of life with all its details; when the surface is reflected truthfully, it will inevitably reflect the depths; one has to be selective in choosing the reality one wants to explore; nature and the world contain everything that you need to know about life and its meaning, God, Truth etc; the challenge of the artist was to learn to be precise in representing this content faithfully. The realist method was a selective method and for the most part the realists picked common people with their common lives to focus in their writings.  (This is in response to the Romantic Movement’s approbation of the common people as repositories of natural goodness; in the hands of Realist novelists the common people are like any other people; they are not apriori “good” as the Romantics insisted. And Realist writers such as Flaubert had an instinctive horror of the middle-class; the middle-class as you will see in Flaubert are cash-counters; money/property/things contain the most value in their universe. Very different from the Romantics here as well.) The realists often went out of their way to pick the least likeliest of characters and settings to explore in their stories—the mad man, the fallen woman etc.  Our modern “slice-of-life” sorts of stories are direct descendents of the realist method. The realist narrative perspective is often the third person omniscient but with a narrative restraint that creates the illusion of reality by withholding narratorial intrusions or comments. The narrator is often completely absent in the best examples of the realist novel.  The masterful realist novels are tightly plotted explorations of character and paved the way for the psychological novel and to the stream-of-consciousness novels of the twentieth century.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) – A Simple Heart

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (Flaubert)

Compared to his contemporaries or by modern standards Flaubert was not a prolific author, but his reputation as one of the greatest of novelists is well deserved. His 1857 novel Madame Bovary about the provincial housewife Emma Bovary driven to eventual ruin by her overwhelming need for sexual passion and money is a classic of character study as well as social corruption. Flaubert’s restrained but savage satire of middle class life targeted not merely the romantic aspirations of the bored housewife living beyond her means, but also the worrisome pretensions of honesty and nobility surrounding such fixtures of bourgeois life as the free-thinking husband, the conniving money-lenders, the banal lovers; in short, a society so mired in delusions that it becomes its own reality. Flaubert’s celebrated “objective style” presents this society with little commentary; the facts speak for themselves. (The “objective style” itself is selected and arranged though; the realists carefully selected their “scenes.” For instance, there is a scene where Emma Bovary is sitting in her room and this scene is inter-cut with a street scene from where Emma hears a song, a children’s rhyme about a girl whose skirt was blown up by the wind exposing her knickers. Objective? Yes. Such a scene is possible. Is it a point of view? Yes. It certainly is. You can see this in A Simple Heart as well; right after Felicite learns of her nephew Victor’s death and we see her doing laundry down by the river, we are told that the tall grass reeds waved to and fro like the hair of corpses floating in the water (p. 531). This scene is clearly narrated through Felicite’s eyes.)

Here are study questions for A Simple Heart

  • Study Flaubert’s style carefully. Where are the descriptions neutral? Where are they loaded with point of view and narrative significance? How would you characterize Flaubert’s style in your own words? Select any one or two passages and study the point of view and perspective.
  • In what ways is Felicity a “simple heart”? What is Flaubert telling us about the scope for simple hearts in the society that he describes? Is Felicite naïve? Is she genuinely a simple heart?
  • Study the master-servant relation between Madame Aubain and Felicity. What does it mean for Flaubert to tell us without any commentary that Madame Aubain was envied by all her friends because of Felicite, her wonderful, efficient servant? What are the values upheld by this society? Does the figure of the “perfect servant” have any significance beyond the obvious?
  • What is Flaubert’s attitude towards religion and religious rituals? Why does he end the story with the Corpus Christi ritual?
  • How does Flaubert use family relationships to illustrate moral or ethical values in the story?
  • How do you read Flaubert’s use of the device of the parrot in A Simple Heart? What does the parrot represent? Is the treatment of the parrot ironic or literal?
  • What arguments can you bring to read the story as a satire of middle-class society in a small town?

Have a great spring break! We read Dostoevsky next. Remember to watch the Oscars this Sunday.  Flaubert would have loved movies!



  1. We enjoyed your review, thank you. A Simple Heart is a wonderful story.
    A vintage postcard reminded us so strongly of Felicite of the Simple Heart we bought it, we also visited Pont l’Eveque to see her home for ourselves!
    Have a look at the postcard and more here

    • Thanks. Yes the card quite captures Felicite. Charming. GD.

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