The Drama of St. Anthony

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Gustave Flaubert’s imagining of an episode from the late, third-century saint, experiments with form, incorporating elements of both the novel and drama. Although the majority of the work is formatted according to dramatic conventions, the imagery, perspective, and descriptions point to the form of a novel.

The opening of the work recalls both the opening paragraph of a novel and stage directions. After locating us in the Thebaid, Flaubert notes that “the Hermit’s cabin appears in the background” (9). The use of the word “appears” indicates a dramatic rather than novelistic convention. One easily imagines a spotlight slowly illuminating the cabin to create the illusion that it has appeared out of nowhere. The same paragraph catalogues items in St. Anthony’s cabin in the typical format of a play. The opening description, however, also creates problems of perspective. This opening frequently uses relative space, without orienting the reader. Flaubert refers to “some ten paces from the hut” (9). Whose ten paces are these? He describes the view “to the right and left” (9). To the right and left in relation to what? The stage would create spatial restraints for a drama. Each object would have to be in relation to another. This lack of orientation places the reader within the work—a reader might imagine his or her own paces and a view to his or her own right and left. In the final sentence of this opening, “the shrubs, the pebbles, the earth, all now seem hard as bronze” (10). The word “seem,” like “appears” forces a perspective that the stage directions in a conventional drama would not.

St. Anthony often speaks aloud in monologue form. If much of the narrative is focalized through him and his thoughts, why not use the form of a novel? This monologue forces St. Anthony to speak out loud to himself, perhaps emphasizing his lonely, isolated, and ascetic life. He is the only concrete human in the vicinity, but his speech may express a desire to communicate with others. Instead, illusions visit him, respond, and torment his thoughts. The form of drama also allows other characters to express their own philosophies without causing a change in the perspective of the work. This could also be done through the use of dialogue in a novel, prompting the conclusion that the dramatic form, specifically the monologue component, may benefit St. Anthony more than his temptations.

Finally, at times, the drama has its limits, not only in the sense of stage directions, which read like prose descriptions stocked with provocative imagery throughout the work, but also in the sense of the dialogue. Flaubert cannot control the delivery of actors on stage, so he provides more direction, like the way dialogue would be described in a novel. Hilarion “solemnly exclaims” (126) and Anthony delivers a question “ironically” (127). At one point a “SHE” simply “replies” (174). Although directions for the actors might appear in a play, the simple “replies” likely would not. When drama reaches its limitations, Flaubert turns to prose form.

This mixture of the forms of drama and the novel allow Flaubert the most expressive and unconventional way to show St. Anthony’s unconventional story. Although the overall narrative might better lend itself to the novel, the dramatic form allows St. Anthony to engage in extensive dialogue with his tormentors and speak out loud to himself, underlining his loneliness and isolation. In addition to the injection of perspective, lenthy prose descriptions, and dialogue indicators that appear throughout the work, the use of the dramatic form may also be a reflection of the historical moment of St. Anthony—a time before prose fiction when drama reigned. -KJO

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

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