Soledad Fox

Flaubert and Don Quixote

The role of Cervantes’s Don Quixote in the overall literary development of Gustave Flaubert is one of the most important, and least studied, examples of influence and imitation in the history of the novel. While many classical and modern authors shaped Flaubert’s ideas about literature, it was Don Quixote that helped Flaubert reconceive his method of writing and led him to write his first great and successful novel, Madame Bovary, published in 1857, when he was forty-six.
     The presence of the Quixote in Flaubert’s imagination can be traced back to his childhood. When he was a young boy, his favorite pastime was to have Don Quichotte read to him aloud, in an abridged French edition edited by Florian. Once he had learned how to read for himself, he collected other editions of the novel, and the impact of these readings is made evident in a letter he wrote in 1832, when he was only ten years old, to his friend Ernest Chevalier:

I know I had told you before that I wanted to be a playwright, but on second thought, I’ve decided against it . . . I have decided instead to become a novelist and I’ve already got some ideas for my first books. I’ll write about Cardenio, about Dorotea, and one about Ill-Advised Curiosity. (1)

     These precocious declarations reveal several fundamental things about Flaubert, including his sense of his vocation (writer), the genre to which he was to dedicate himself (the novel), his literary method (imitation), and his great inspiration (Cervantes). Any reader of the Quixote knows that all of these “ideas” that Flaubert mentions, such as Cardenio, Dorotea, and the tale of Ill-Advised Curiosity, were lifted right out of Cervantes’s great novel.
     These lines from a childhood letter are just the first of dozens of references to Cervantes that Flaubert made during his lifetime and that can be found in his collected correspondence. But this childhood reference is especially significant because it clearly indicates that his love of the Quixote is fundamentally linked to his dream of becoming a writer himself. He himself saw the Quixote as a life source, and years later he would write to his lover Louise Colet:

You know that our first impressions are never erased. We carry our past within us, and we feed off it throughout our lifetime. . . . Whenever I analyze my own inner core, I always find the same thing: Don Quixote.

     Before investigating how Flaubert came to write a novel with many important parallels to Don Quixote, it is important to consider how his writing career began. In his youth, Flaubert, like so many others of his generation, was seduced by Romanticism. Even though he was already quite well read in many other modes, genres, and periods, for a number of years Romanticism eclipsed all other influences. His first novels, what critics call his “oeuvres de jeunesse,” reflect the different types of Romantic literature he saw around him, and he tried his hand at nearly all of them: the historical tale, the fantastic tale, the mystical tale, the autobiographical tale. The titles alone give a pretty good idea of how much he yielded to the Romantic fashion: “The Fiancée and the Tomb: A Fantastic Tale,” “Fury and Impotence: An Unhealthy Tale for Sensitive Nerves and Devoted Souls,” “Memories of a Madman: Memories, Notes, and Intimate Thoughts.” Flaubert’s approach to these works was Romantic to the hilt, as Shoshanna Felman has pointed out in her study entitled Writing and Madness (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985). He wanted to pour his “soul” onto the page, without any mediation or calculation. His only guiding artistic principle was spontaneity. One wonders how this early Flaubert could ever have become the calculating author of Madame Bovary—the work that has been called the “end of Romanticism.” The transition was not an easy one.
     Between 1848 and 1849, Flaubert began to tire of Romanticism, and started to look for another way of writing altogether; but his Romantic tendencies were extremely difficult to overcome. In his attempt to create something different and original, he began writing the first version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony. To his closest friends and critics, Flaubert announced that this time his work was going to be completely different: very well thought out in advance, and with a more prosaic style and subject—in other words, a far cry from the Romantic elaborations that were his weakness. But all this was easier said than done, and Flaubert wasn’t able to stick to any of these goals and resolutions. He wrote Saint Anthony, which was 541 pages long, at breakneck speed, without thinking ahead or looking back, and the result was a novel that was out of control in its style—a mix of fantastical and lyrical—and in its subject: the parade of civilizations before the eyes of a third-century monk.
     Oblivious to the impression he would make with this novel, Flaubert summoned his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxim du Camp as soon as the novel was completed. He spent four days reading it to them aloud, and they were altogether horrified. Maxim du Camp remembered:

The hours that Bouilhet and I spent listening were lamentable . . . the lyricism that was such an important part of Flaubert’s personality and his talent, had taken over in such a way that he was completely lost . . . We heard the words of the Sphinx, of the Queen of Saba, of Simon the Magician, Pluto, Diana, Hercules . . . What a waste; we couldn’t make sense of anything, nor could we grasp what he was trying to achieve. The truth was that he achieved nothing. (2)

     His friends openly gave Flaubert their views of his novel, and he was, of course, devastated. In light of such a failure, he couldn’t face trying to write anything new, so he resolved to go abroad for two years. During his travels, which included his famous sojourn in Egypt, he began for the first time to doubt his calling as a writer. He was obsessed with trying to figure out a way to get out of his rut and to write a great, successful novel. When he finally returned to France, he sat down again with Bouilhet and du Camp, and the three hatched a plan. They told Flaubert that the best way to put a damper on his lyricism would be to choose a wholly unlyrical subject. He had to write about something pedestrian. In order to avoid the risk of going overboard with his enthusiasm, he had to choose a subject he regarded as unappealing. It was decided that the life of the contemporary bourgeoisie would meet all of these requirements, for there was nothing that Flaubert detested more. Du Camp issued his instructions:

To fight that mad lyricism you must choose a subject that simply can’t be lyrical, and that way you’ll be forced to censor yourself. Write a novel that deals with normal, bourgeois subjects, like Balzac’s Cousine Bette, and force yourself to use a tone that is natural and familiar. Avoid digressions and meanderings, for though they can be beautiful, they detract from the development of the narrative and are boring for readers.

     In the long run, Flaubert would be grateful for this advice—claiming later that these words had cured him of the “cancer of lyricism.” He shelved Saint Anthony and set out to find a vulgar and unappealing subject. At the same time, he began rereading a new translation of Don Quixote. It was this reading combined with the strict advice of his friends that set him on the path to Madame Bovary.
     For the first time, he began to plan every line meticulously and to lay out a blueprint for each part of his new project with enormous care. His new approach to writing reminds us of the example of the painter Orbaneja in Don Quixote—an example that must have been quite important to Cervantes as it is included not once but twice in the book. Orbaneja is a sloppy artist, and when he sets out to paint, he lets himself be guided by inspiration alone. Thus, when he paints a portrait of a rooster, the painting looks nothing at all like a rooster. In fact, it is an unrecognizable figure, to such an extent that the artist has to hang a sign on the picture saying “rooster,” or nobody would have any idea of what it’s supposed to be. Flaubert’s first Saint Anthony had ended up a bit like the rooster, and Flaubert was extremely careful now not to make the same mistake again.
     The influence of Cervantes is apparent in both the style and the subject matter of Madame Bovary. It is important to point out that though Cervantes and Flaubert wrote in periods and places that were altogether different, there were some significant cultural parallels between their historical contexts as writers. First of all, both authors felt obliged to take on the popular literature of their respective times—the chivalric novel for Cervantes, and the sentimental romance for Flaubert. By the time Cervantes was writing Don Quixote, the chivalric novels, while still read, were outdated. He wanted to supersede them and to make fun of their weaknesses (including the abuse of literary convention, as well as incoherence, repetition, and escapism), while at the same time preserving their positive qualities (they were entertaining, imaginative, and they drew the reader in). The chivalric romance was at least partially responsible for keeping prose fiction relegated to the literary lower class, oppressed by the upper classes of theater and poetry. Under these circumstances, Cervantes set out to rehabilitate and reconceive the prose narrative, seeking to give it a new status within the Spanish literary canon.
     In Flaubert’s time, the conventions of the sentimental romance had also been recycled ad infinitum, and as he sought to renew the novel’s form and meaning in his time, he was very much aware of how Cervantes had achieved a similar renewal in his own. He came to see Cervantes as a true ancestor or literary antecedent. In a letter to his mother, written around the time he began work on Madame Bovary, Flaubert again confessed how much a part of him Don Quixote was:

I believe in race more than in education. In our hearts we carry the dust of our ancestors . . . The same is true for literature. My origins are all in the book I knew by heart before I could even read: Don Quixote.

      It is, of course, highly ironic that he would set out to imitate a novel whose protagonist goes mad from imitating novels. For Flaubert, though, imitation was nothing to be ashamed of—in fact Flaubert believed that imitation should be a key part of any writer’s apprenticeship and he took pride in having studied all the literary classics at close range. He used to urge Louise Colet, who also had literary ambitions, to read much more. He was convinced that any writer needed a deep background in literature and that that background was to be achieved through reading and rereading Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Goethe, and Cervantes, among others.
     But of all the great authors, Cervantes had an exceptionally privileged position in his hierarchy. Cervantes had managed to take the most undistinguished character, a provincial hidalgo, and to turn him into the most famous hero in modern literature. Flaubert was determined to do the same with Emma Bovary. Through Cervantes he learned that a novel didn’t have to be set somewhere exotic, nor did it need to have a Helen of Troy as a protagonist. The point of departure could be the most commonplace setting and character in the world. And as Cervantes indicted the chivalric romances through their effects on Don Quixote, Flaubert would do the same with the sentimental romances through their effects on Emma.
     Just as Alonso Quijano is a fanatical reader of chivalric romances, Emma is addicted to the sentimental romance. The fact that both characters are incorrigible readers of the popular literature of their respective eras is an unending source of action and irony—especially because the novels they favor are démodé and represent worlds that are completely fantastical vis-à-vis the contemporary “reality” they actually inhabit. Emma’s desires to become an aristocratic romantic heroine are as absurd as Alonso Quijano’s dreams of being a knight. Even the characters’ names show how Cervantes, and Flaubert after him, pit the ideal against the real in every detail. “Emma,” a typical name for a Romantic heroine, loses its connotation when combined with the decidedly unromantic last name “Bovary”—evocative of the bovine world and specifically of the bouverie or cowshed. El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha echoes the great novels of chivalry such as Amadis de Gaula, but at the same time alerts the reader to the fact that this will be a very different type of adventure. The mythic chivalric knights were never from La Mancha (which in Spanish means “stain” and refers to a particularly dry, dusty region of Spain), and they were great and invincible, not ingenious.
     The novels that keep Alonso Quijano and Emma busy are pure entertainment and are thus the type of literature that has often been deemed immoral or dangerous. Neither Cervantes nor Flaubert was concerned with the moral effects of these popular romances on people, though: what they were concerned with was the degrading effect such works had on literature. If prose fiction always told the same kind of story and relied on repeating the same worn-out literary conventions, it inevitably devalued the novel form. In their respective novels, both Cervantes and Flaubert show how absurd a certain type of reader of a certain type of literature may be judged to be, but both authors also make it clear that there may be other possibilities for literature. There may be a type of novel that can entertain and also lead the reader to reflect deeply on experience, rather than making a fool of the reader, or driving him mad.
     Within both novels, the act of reading is essential. Alonso Quijano and Emma Bovary are both idle, lead monotonous lives, and are stuck in the provinces. They have a great deal of time to spend reading. Don Quixote’s addiction to reading reaches such a point that he can’t even sleep anymore and so stays up all night:

. . . on those occasions when he was at leisure, which was most of the year around, he was in the habit of reading books of chivalry . . . our gentleman became so immersed in his reading that he spent whole nights from sundown to dusk in poring over his books . . . He had filled his imagination with everything that he had read, with enchantments, knightly encounters, battles, challenges, wounds, with tales of love and its torments, and all sorts of impossible things . . . He would remark that Cid Ruy Diaz had been a very good knight, but . . . he preferred Bernard del Carpio, who . . . had slain Roland. . . . And he would have liked very well to have had his fill of kicking that traitor Galalón, a privilege for which he would have given his housekeeper and his niece thrown into the bargain. (3)

     For her part, Emma discovers novels when she is studying at a convent, thanks to a local seamstress who introduces the older girls to these illicit reading experiences. The books they read surreptitiously were:

. . . filled with love affairs, lovers, mistresses, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely country houses, postriders killed at every relay, horses ridden to death on every page, dark forests, palpitating hearts, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, skiffs in the moonlight, nightingales in thickets, and gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one really is, and always ready to shed floods of tears . . . Later, with Sir Walter Scott, she developed a passion for things historical and dreamed of wooden chests, palace guards and wandering minstrels. She wished she could have lived in some old manor house, like those chatelaines in low-waisted gowns who spent their days with their elbows on the stone sill of a Gothic window . . . watching a white plumed rider on a black horse galloping toward them from far across the countryside . . . She worshipped Mary Queen of Scots and venerated other illustrious or ill-starred women. For her, Joan of Arc, Héloïse, Agnès Sorrel, La Belle Ferronière . . . stood out like comets against the dark vastness of history. (4)

     These two passages are extraordinarily similar, with respect to both the type of reading Don Quixote and Emma engage in, and the passionately yearning way in which they read. The two accounts also serve to bring into sharp focus the main characteristics of the chivalric and sentimental romance, respectively, and to list some of the best-known heroes and heroines in these genres. The underlying parody in both descriptions is aimed at the impossibly idealized nature of the romances, which in no way prevents either Don Quixote or Emma Bovary from wanting to emulate them.
     In the end, of course, it is not enough for Don Quixote to live vicariously, so he decides to become a wandering knight himself. No longer satisfied with reading about passionate adventures, Emma in her turn also decides to become a romantic heroine. As Amadís de Gaula will become the work on which Don Quixote will try to model his new identity, Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor serves as the example for Emma. Both characters are semi-aware of their madness, and after bitterly disappointing attempts to live like their models, they do their best to restrain themselves. Parallel examples of this are Don Quixote’s reaction to the puppet show of Maese Pedro and Emma’s response to the performance of the opera based on the story of Lucy of Lammermoor.
     When Don Quixote begins watching the puppet show, which is derived from a chivalric tale, he interrupts the performance several times, revealing what at first seems to be a critical distance. He knows the plot well, and is annoyed that Maese Pedro diverges from the particulars. But he soon gets so absorbed with the story that he becomes not only mentally but physically caught up in it, in a scene that is extremely funny but also quite violent. When the young Melisendra is finally abducted, Don Quixote brandishes his sword and decapitates the puppet kidnappers. In the end, his fury is such that he destroys the whole puppet stage.
     Emma also does her best to approach the opera Lucia di Lamermmoor as a sophisticated viewer. She recognizes that confusing art and life is a trap, and after at first becoming completely involved emotionally in the familiar plot, she tries to look at the stage with detachment, telling herself that the kind of happiness depicted is no doubt only a lie invented to make one despair of all desires. Acquainted with the actual pettiness of the passions that may be exaggerated by art, she forces herself to take her mind off her sorrows, attempting to see in this theatrical elaboration of feelings nothing but a visual fantasy designed to produce her aesthetic pleasure.
     This great resolve lasts only a few seconds, however, for as soon as the handsome actor is back onstage:

All her determination to disparage the emotions vanished into the poetry that swept over her, and drawn to the man by the illusion of his role, she tried to imagine what his life was like, that radiant, extraordinary, glorious life which she herself could have led if chance had willed it. They would have met and fallen in love! . . . A mad idea came over her: he was looking at her now, she was sure of it! She longed to rush into his arms . . . to . . . cry out to him, “Carry me off . . . All my passion and all my dreams are yours, yours alone!”

     Thus even when Don Quixote and Emma seem fully aware of their weakness for fictions and are determined to remain on guard against them, neither character can resist being smitten by a commanding literary ideal.
     Another important parallel between the novels is the role of the inns—the venta in Don Quixote and the Lion D’Or in Madame Bovary—as a nucleus of provincial life and also the place where novels are discussed. Even the particular characters present in the inn scenes are very similar—in the venta we have the priest and the barber, and in Flaubert’s Yonville the priest and the pharmacist. Both inns allow us to see a full range of responses to the experience of literature across the social spectrum.
     In Don Quixote, the innkeeper and his family are illiterate, but they have a few chivalric romances that a traveler left behind and they wait for guests who can read the stories aloud to them. The inn’s barmaid Maritornes loves to hear the romantic parts, such as when there is a lady embracing her knight under the orange trees; for her part, the innkeeper’s daughter likes the way the knights lament when they are far from their beloved ladies. She says these scenes often bring her to tears.
     The innkeeper himself is absolutely convinced that everything in the chivalric romances is true—that they are historia in the sense of history, and not merely in the sense of story. To him there is nothing unlikely in the tale of Felixmarte de Hircania chopping five giants in two with one blow, and the adventures make him as excited as they do Don Quixote. He also wishes he could enjoy the romances twenty-four hours a day. However, the innkeeper insists, he is not at all like Don Quixote, for although he, too, thinks the romances are true, he shows his subtle discernment by pointing out that they happened a long time ago and could not be true today. When the priest replies that the nonsense in the romances is pure fiction and was never true at all at any period in time, the innkeeper argues that if that were the case, the books would obviously not bear the official stamp of the Consejo Real! This debate at the inn recapitulates some of the absurd but quite typical arguments surrounding prose fiction in the era in which Cervantes was writing.
     At the Lion D’Or in Madame Bovary we are made to see that Emma is not the only character affected by novels. The young clerk Léon (who will later become her lover) shares Emma’s romantic affinities and explains how he also longs to let literature carry him away:

“What could be better than to sit beside the fire at night with a book and a glowing lamp while the wind beats against the windows . . . The hours pass, and, without leaving your chair, you wander through countries that are clearly visible to you. Your imagination is caught up in the story and you see all the details, experience all the adventures; it seizes the characters and you have the feeling that you are living in their costumes.”

     Mirroring the difference between the innkeeper and Don Quixote, however, Léon is not quite as susceptible to the effects of literature as Emma. As will be revealed subsequently, Léon, though he strikes a romantic pose, has his feet very much on the ground and would never risk his comfort or financial security for a romantic dream. Léon makes use of romantic ideals to seduce Emma, but when romantic feeling is no longer useful to him, he becomes entirely pragmatic.
     The worlds in which Don Quixote and Emma live are fundamentally hostile to literature. The wayward imaginings of literature clearly pose a threat to the very fabric of society in the provincial, Catholic, and conservative worlds of La Mancha and Normandy. In Don Quixote the romances in the main character’s library are ultimately burned in an inquisitorial ritual. The idea is that if the evil books are committed to the flames, our hero will regain his sanity. In line with such assumptions, the priest and the barber come to the conclusion that the only type of reading Don Quixote should be allowed is religious.
     In Madame Bovary, novels are also considered to be evil—especially by Emma’s mother-in-law: she is horrified by the dissolute habits of her son’s wife, who appears to do nothing but read. Madame Bovary senior insists that what Emma needs is something to keep her busy, and she begs Charles to cancel his wife’s library subscription. She does not burn Emma’s books, for this is civilized bureaucratic France, not inquisitorial Spain, but she does threaten to report the book lender to the police.
     There are many other similarities between the main characters of these novels; both Emma and Don Quixote ultimately wish to see their own names in print, to be assumed into a text. In addition, both experience their literary madness as a kind of religious martyrdom: they take vows, stop eating and become emaciated. And in the end, both are undone by the social class that the romances they read idealize and seek to glorify: the aristocracy.
     When in Part II of the novel Don Quixote meets the duke and duchess, who have heard of him and invite him to their castle, he feels that his dreams have finally converged with reality. For the first time he thinks he is a true knight-errant. But the aristocratic couple are just making fun of him, and their cruel games finally destroy all of his illusions and his life itself. Similarly, when Emma meets Rodolphe Boulanger, a handsome aristocrat with a manor house, she too thinks that her life has finally come to match the fictional ideals of which she has been dreaming since childhood. But like the duke and duchess, Rodolphe is only interested in Emma to pass the time—there is no great love for her on his part. In the concluding phase of Madame Bovary, it is Rodolphe who deals the final blow to Emma when she turns to him for money to pay her debts. Don Quixote dies of natural causes, and Emma commits suicide with poison, but the lives of both characters end in deep disillusionment. And both appear to have a moment of lucidity before they die, a moment in which they strive to repent for their follies and apologize to their faithful companions—Sancho and Charles.
     Following Cervantes, Flaubert compels us to reflect on the relationship between fiction and desire. To want to be a chivalric knight—or a romantic heroine—is not a natural desire but a desire evoked and mediated, as René Girard reminds us, by literary models that seduce us. Even for the most skeptical reader, these models are extremely powerful, and they regularly lead, however subtly, to the cycle of self-deception and desire that Don Quixote and Emma experience.
     Yet at the same time that they appear to denounce the profound untrustworthiness of imaginative literature, both Don Quixote and Madame Bovary ultimately have the effect of reaffirming literature’s seductive power. Perhaps that is why as readers we continue to yield eagerly to the indictment of reading that they offer.


1. Except where otherwise indicated, all translations in this essay are my own. The letters of Flaubert quoted may be found in the first volume of his Correspondance, 3 vols., edited by Jean Bruneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1973–91).
2. Quotations from Maxim du Camp are from “Souvenirs Littéraires” in Gustave Flaubert: Ouevres completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1981–88).
3. The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha in The Portable Cervantes, edited and translated by Samuel Putnam (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).
4. Quotations from Madame Bovary are from the translation by Lowell Bair (New York: Bantam Books, 1981).