La tentation de saint Antoine-Presentation Handout



Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) finally publishes his Tentation de saint Antoine in 1874. Flaubert has made a stylistic break from his former works, into a more ascetic or nihilistic text.

  • “Historical figure born around 251 and was said to have died in 365. Saint Anthony withdrew from society to the solitude of the Thebaid. For the first fifteen years, he was reportedly tempted by what are generally taken to be hallucinations engendered by fasting and lack of sleep.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 8).
  • La tentation de saint Antoine “[…] falls between genres. In terms of content, one could call it an “anatomy” in Northrop Frye’s sense—an encyclopedic compendium of information, this instance, involving the heresies of the early Christian period. In terms of form, it blends two genres.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 325)
  • The work demonstrates by his very eccentricity, not to say absurdity, the way writing for Flaubert was, for all its obvious external concerns, a profoundly personal enterprise. Both can be seen to reflect their creator’s struggle between his commitments to Art his acknowledgement of the monstrosity of the products of both the imagination and the intellect. Not for nothing did Henry James describe Flaubert as ‘almost insanely excessive’” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 16).

Contemporary and Critical Reception

Flaubert’s Saint Anthony is a removal from his previous realistic style into the realm of asceticism. Flaubert calls The Temptation of Saint Anthony the work of his life” as we had previously mentioned in class, Flaubert has worked and re-worked this piece from the 1840s all the way through its publication date in 1874. This step some said, was perceived as a “titubation” of sorts, or a stumbling for the great realist. In other words the book was badly received and quickly put to pieces by its critics.

  • La tentation de saint Antoine, finally published in 1874, was the last full-length work to appear during Flaubert’s lifetime. In it, critics believed, he seemed to have slid back into the incoherent, excessively bookish exoticism of Salammbô, depicting a limp-wristed saint, passively watching a parade of visions. Henry James condemned the work for consisting entirely of ‘a strangely artificial and cold-blooded picturesque—abounding in the grotesque and the repulsive…’” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 79).
  • Barbey d’Aurevilly (who had formerly revered Madame Bovary) spoke of La Tentation as incomprehensible, undecipherable, and found it “un ennui implacable, un ennui qui n’est pas Français, un ennui Allemand, l’ennui du second Faust de Goethe… An overwhelming boredom, a boredom which is not French, a German boredom, the boredom of the second Faust of Goethe(Barbey d’Aurevilly)

 Flaubert’s Influence on Wilde

For Wilde, like many others, Flaubert represented a sort of antidote, or a liberation from this Victorian literature that Wilde so despised. Wilde idolized Flaubert above many British writers of his time. Wilde uses Flaubert to create an artistic form that is his own by detaching himself from the British preconceived Victorian thought. This artistic trend as we have often seen it realizes itself in a decadent fashion without morality and relishes in impersonality. He finds his voice and pleasure in the new French culturally decadent and obscene.

  • In the Artist as Critic, Wilde says, “It is considered as an instrument of thought, the English spirit is coarse and undeveloped. The only thing that can cure it is the growth of the critical instinct.”
  • In a discussion with Max Beerbohm: “Of course I plagiarize. It is the privilege of the appreciative man. I never read Flaubert’s Tentation without signing my name at the end of it.”
  • Writing to W.E. Wenley in 1888: “Yes! Flaubert is my master, and when I get on with my translation of the Tentation I shall be Flaubert II, Roi par la grâce de Dieu, and I hope something else beyond.
  • And finally “Setting aside the prose and poetry of Greek and Latin authors, the only writers who have influenced me are Keats, Flaubert, Walter Pater, and before I came across them I had already more than half-way to meet them. Style must be in one’s soul before one can recognize it in others.”

3 Themes and Close-Readings

False Ascetic Discourse

An interesting disjuncture happens here, Flaubert who is striving to establish an ascetic character, does so by using a des Esseintes-like descriptive discourse.

-How can an ascetic lifestyle be described in such lavish terms?

-What do you guys make of this? How can the text be ascetic if it is written so similarly to the complex descriptions in À Rebours?

-Also, what do you make of this all of a sudden nihilistic ending?

Close reading

-Prophet Manes intricate description of asceticism pp. 102-103 in La tentation.

-Also Anthony’s nihilistic discussion with Satan in which there is no top or bottom etc. 290-293 in La tentation.

  •  “Flaubert had a lifelong fascination with sainthood: for him, the saint who chooses the unending martyrdom of an ascetic, lonely life was analogous to the dedicated artist, who likewise must struggle with doubt and despair” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 10)
  •  “Flaubert’s literary endeavors creates a durable image of an author torn between two opposite extremes, yielding first to one and then to the other, binging and then fasting like an anorexic.” (ibid 79)
  • “Jean-Paul Sartre who reads the suggestion in La tentation de saint Antoine that suicide’s creation of nothingness is equivalent to the nothingness from which god creates the world. If Being is suffering, Nothingess is Better, writes Sartre of Flaubert’s nihilism.”

Haunting and Madness

The book is riddled with mournful voices without faces that call out Antoine’s name, hauntings, illusions, visual objects that undergo transformations, a “silence” that separates Antoine from the world, being as if in a trance, and of course when he contemplates suicide at the end. Flaubert too is haunted, in part by his epileptic episodes during his youth, but also during most of his life.

-What do we make of this madness, by detaching it from this religious frenzy could we simply say that Anthony has been along too long and has fallen victim to the effects of asceticism the way des Esseintes did?

-Has his health been so affected that he can no longer function in what one considers the normal world (much like des Esseintes who is forced to regain Paris in the end)?

– I learned that Flaubert’s goal in his work was what he called “psychological realism”, or “psychic projection”, which is that of being outside oneself. What can we make of this?

Close Reading

-On page 49 and 50 in La tentation, Saint Anthony goes on a mad killing spree of his enemies. He later drinks their blood.

  • “Every other setting that appears in the novel, and every one of the hundred of characters who appear singly, in groups, or in processions come from the saint’s memories, readings, or imaginings. Every word they speak derives from the same sources. […] we may appropriately choose to believe that all the other characters are hallucinations and dreams” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 8-9.
  • On psychological realism, it is “a defense mechanism that attributes one’s own shameful feelings to beings outside oneself. The devils and monsters that beset Antoine in his hallucinations and dreams are extensions of his own personality, embodiments of his memories.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 79)
  • “In January 1844 Flaubert suddenly lost consciousness while he was driving the family cabriolet at night. As he describes it, he felt as if he were being carried off by a torrent of flames. […] He felt discomfort and saw streams of light, like fireworks passing before his eyes. […] the fits were brought on by any sort of nervous tension. […] Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that Flaubert’s problem was hysteria. […] Saint Anthony’s life may have been inspired by the author’s lived experience.” (Flaubert Encyclopedia 118)
  • Maxime Du Camp too describes Flaubert as being “permanently in a daze and “not quite there”, and Flaubert himself admits to a habitual state of mind resembling that of somebody who has had too much to drink. While for the former this state is negative, for the latter it is clearly something positive, involving a conscious enjoyment of the ability to experience life as a dream.”

Women as a World

While looking at the Queen of Sheba’s exclamation that she is a world, we can say that religion or a connection to religious euphoria IS her. She is no longer a woman, she is a tool to attain a higher state of being. The woman is therefore “dewomanized” in Flaubert’s work for a higher purpose. This reminded me also of des Esseinte’s locomotive woman. Woman as a powerful, steel, machine, as opposed to a personified human being. Women then are discrete forces that work towards enigmatic allusions, even women described as animals are replaced by metaphors.

-What does this dehumanized woman represent? To Flaubert, to the reader?

-What higher spirituality is one to attain through these women?

-What do awe and fear of a woman create, as opposed to lust and desire?

Close reading

-The Queen of Sheba exclaims she is not a woman but a world on page 78 in La tentation.

-The Prostitute of all Nations or Helen of Troy on pages 164-165 in La tentation.

-Atys who mutilates himself out of mad desire to become a woman on page 233 in La Tentation.

  • “Flaubert’s queen of Sheba represents lust-luxuria She offers Antoine unimaginable wealth and endless sexual delight.” (The Three Daughters of Lust 56)
  • “All three allegorical figures represent the daughters of the personified sin Luxure or the Queen of Sheba: Adultère (aldultery), Fornication (fornication) and Immondicité (immondicity)”. (Ibid)
  • “It will also be shown that these same images, in a remarkable continuity of vision, are associated with the female figure throughout Flaubert’s novels.” (Ibid 57)
  • “Echoes contemporary medical discourse on the physical manifestations of hysteria.” (Ibid 58)
  • “The bold lines of these three portraits are assimilated into the powerfully seductive vision of a single figure la Reine de Saba.” (Ibid 61)
  • “Masculinity […] sexual ambiguity and indeed hermaphrodism are repeated in the description of the queen.” (Ibid)


Flaubert, Gustave. The Temptation of St. Anthony. Chicago, IL: M. Walter Dunne, 1904.

Mikhail, E. H., Oscar Wilde. Interviews and Recollections, vol. I. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Tilby, Michael. “Flaubert’s place in literary history,” The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. T. Unwin, ed. Cambridge UP, 2004.

James, Henry. “Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony,” Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Laurence M. Porter. Boston, MA, 1986.

Reik, Theodore. “Flaubert and His Temptaion of Saint Anthony.” Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Laurence M. Porter. Boston, Mass, 1986.

Knight, Diana. Flaubert’s Characters, the Language of Illusion. Cambridge UP, 1985.

Neiland, Mary. “The Three Daughters of Lust: from Allegory to Ambiguity in Flaubet’s La tentation de saint Antoine.” Romance Studie, vol. 31. Minogue, Valerie, 1998.

Porter, Laurence M. A Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia. Westport, CT, 2001.


Flaubert-Revues critiques et génétiques:



Leave a comment

Filed under Week 7 reviews: Flaubert, Temptation of Saint Anthony

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s