Flaubert’s Art: Beauty versus Tragedy?

  • David Gervais


An English critic who asks whether Flaubert allows Emma to fly the flag of herself needs to be on guard. It is so easy to look at her in terms of Anglo-Saxon notions of selfhood which are foreign to the tradition of French fiction. As Emma relapses into self from the high point of being she reaches with Rodolphe or in looking down on Rouen on her way to see Léon, a comparison with an English meditation on selfhood and egoism has often suggested itself to me: Leavis’s fine essay on ‘Tragedy and the “Medium”’ in The Common Pursuit. The crux of this subtle argument is the idea that, in tragedy, our self goes beyond its own ego to an awareness of its common place in a larger world. As the veil of ego is torn, awe and wonder pour through the rent to give a new and fuller sense of the world. This ‘tragic experience’ is ‘incompatible’ with any ‘indulgence in the dramatisation of one’s nobly-suffering self’:2

At any rate, it is an essential part of the definition of the tragic that it breaks down, or undermines and supersedes, such attitudes. It establishes below them a kind of profound impersonality in which experience matters, not because it is mine — because it is to me it belongs, or happens, or because it subserves or issues in purpose or will, but because it is what it is, the ‘mine’ mattering only in so far as the individual sentience is the indispensable focus of experience. (Ibid., p. 130.)


Creative Experience Definite Line Poetic Vision Prose Poem Moral Beauty 
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© David Gervais 1978

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  • David Gervais

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