Women and Religion in “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

As someone who had only been previously exposed to the realist novel Madame Bovary, I have to say that Gustave Flaubert’s decadent style The Temptation of St. Anthony took me by an enormous surprise. After I got over the initial shock, however, I began to appreciate the unique characteristics that this book has, perhaps most especially the ambiguous role that women take in the book. In the Temptation of St. Anthony, it seemed to me that women had a special connection with religion. For example, the Queen of Sheba describes herself as a “world” to St. Anthony (42).  To me she represents sexual temptation, along with death, lust, and material beauty, even though interestingly enough she was not all that tempting to Anthony. The passage describing their encounter is laden with obvious religious references, intertwined with sensual imagery and description. For example, the Queen of Sheba tempts Anthony three times–a significant number in the bible—just as he rebuffs her each time. The whole encounter had strong parallels to a particular story in the bible, where the Devil approaches a fasting Jesus and shows him the kingdom that could be his if Jesus were to team up with him. The Queen of Sheba does essentially the same with Anthony, showing him everything that could be his if he gives in to her. I was also very fascinated by the description of the queen because it seemed to me as somewhat of a paradox; she is female, sexual, womanly, yet she is also a “world”, “not a woman”, described in places as very mechanical and powerful, a harsh, hermaphroditic machine. She projects this paradox onto Anthony; we see this in his sometimes “hysterical” and sometimes passive reaction to temptations, keeping in mind that “hysteria” means “wandering womb” and is almost exclusively used to describe females. Clearly, this scene serves as an important tool in establishing the sensuality of religion, a theme that we see over and over again in decadent literature. -MG


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

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