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is Flaubert overrated compared to other French greats

Flaubert didn’t have Stendhal’s cool, telescopic, analytical detachment, Balzac’s sweep and insight into human destiny, nor Proust’s psychological penetration and sensitive social radar. What Flaubert had was a powerful artistic vocation and an obsession with perfection of style. Do such qualities alone a great writer make?

…[Henry James] wrote that “style itself moreover, with all respect to Flaubert, never totally beguiles; since even when we are so queerly constituted as to be ninety-nine parts literary we are still a hundredth part something else.” James concludes that Flaubert is best spoken of “as the novelist’s novelist.” And so his cultists are pleased, even proud, to have him. Yet, how much better to be the reader’s novelist.


I find this article interesting because, although I admire Flaubert’s impressive command of detail, I’m finding it hard to sustain my interest in Madame Bovary. Full story at the link above. What do you think?



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

4 thoughts on “is Flaubert overrated compared to other French greats

  1. Ooh my kind of debate! Well, I read the article and it’s an opinion. I know plenty of people who would hold a very different opinion. For myself, I have to take the 19th century greats as a happy families set -Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert and Zola. They work together, each having things the other doesn’t. For a pure reading experience, you’d want Balzac or Zola, but neither is as clever or thought-provoking as Stendhal and Flaubert. If you want someone to study, who raises questions about the very nature of narrative, then it has to be Flaubert. But they are all flawed in their way, and all gifted in their way. That’s what makes them interesting to me. I note, though, that the writer of the article ignores what was Flaubert’s best work to my mind, his Trois Contes (Three Tales). I think they are far and away the best thing he did.

  2. Flaubert has little appeal for me, although his journals are kind of interesting. My take on Madame Bovary (my 18-year-old take on it, anyway) was somewhat similar to yours. I started out thinking, “Wow, this is Great Writing, ’cause look how richly imagined every last detail is!” and ended up thinking, “Who fucking cares?”

    These days, I’m inclined to steer clear of the horse-race approach to literature. I’d rather consider what’s useful about a given book. From that standpoint, Madame Bovary actually was pretty important to me, in that my attempt to figure out why it didn’t work was something of a turning point, for better or worse.

    Anyway, I think Epstein’s article is silly.

    Flaubert is the correct answer. He simply isn’t of the same calibre as the other three great French writers.

    If you ask me, this is to intelligent criticism what sawdust is to nutrition. I especially like his use of “simply,” given that he not only fails to provide grounds for his complaint, but also fails to establish that there’s any actual need for a judgment of this type. The assumption that this reactionary, middlebrow approach to “great writers” is helpful or interesting stands far more in need of deconstruction than Flaubert’s reputation. And the time Epstein spends attacking the “cult” of Flaubert underscores the point that this brand of criticism has more to do with competitive consumption, and the economics of manufactured controversy, than serious appraisal.

    1. Phila, I started to highlight the first line of your comment to reply to it, but as I kept reading (for the 2nd time), I wanted to include the next sentence, and the next, etc. As always, you are so sharp in your analysis and witty in its expression. Thanks–a delight to read and consider. I’ve started and not finished several books this week. You make me want to finish Madame Bovary just to know what I don’t like all that well about it.

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