Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert [Book Thoughts]

Gustave Flaubert may be a legend from his era but 100 years on the moral fable is outdated. Three Tales is hard to appreciate in the 21st century.


Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert is a French novelist most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary. Aside from his walrus moustache, there is little I can describe about the man as Three Tales is my first contact with him. Apparently he wrote the book to raise funds while broke but it went on to become one of his most celebrated works. Three Tales is a collection of short stories (three in total) that many have (apparently) praised for their style.

A Simple Heart tells the life story of a simple-minded (simple-hearted) servant girl. Felicite is poor and uneducated and her life is characterized by uneven harshness, but she demands little and has a great capacity for love. The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller begins with Julian’s parents being told that their son will marry into an emperor’s family and become a saint. But as Julian grows older, he develops a fondness for butchering animals and hunts them relentlessly until a stag prophesies to him that he will one day kill his parents. Herodias is Flaubert’s retelling of the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas and is said to have inspired Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

The three stories are unconnected plot-wise, but each describe a different saintly figure and share common threads in their sombre undertones and Christian overtones. Flaubert takes the role of distant narrator: observing the events and jotting them down but passing little judgement. The result is three stories that are enigmatic and minimalist but grounded in realism. Below the surface I failed to see anything else than Christian morality and symbolism , so either I’m digging in the wrong place or Three Tales isn’t for me.

I simply could not find in Three Tales what so many other literary patrons admire. Perhaps the Tales don’t translate well from French (I’ve heard them praised for style) or perhaps I don’t speak Flaubert’s literary language. A Simple Heart evoked little sympathy in me as Felicite felt more of a torture puppet than a character. Saint Julian I enjoyed the most but I found it so ambivalent in tone that I finished it without a clear response one way or another. Herodias did manage to evoke in me a feeling of lurid disgust but by far I enjoyed it the least (in fact, not at all).

I do, of course, realize that Three Tales was written in 1877 in French, but if it was influential then it has likely been surpassed by now. Thinking about it, Three Tales strikes me more as a relic from a forgotten time when Christian mythology was more embedded in thought and art. It’s essentially a collection of moral fables, a form of storytelling that approaches obsolescence in modern times, surpassed perhaps by the psychological novel and the character study. By comparison, old-school black-white morality seems one-dimensional.

Gustave Flaubert may be a legend from his era but 100 years on the moral fable is outdated. Three Tales is hard to appreciate in the 21st century.

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