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Trois Contes B&P Religion Notes

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Trois Contes B&P Religion Revision

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Olivia Alter

HT07 A. Jefferson What role does religion play in Flaubert?
Throughout his Correspondances, Flaubert did not claim to be Christian or

follow any particular religion, although he maintained that he had led 'une existence laborieuse et austère'1. Whilst many would spend their lives searching for God or working towards salvation, he extolled Art as his own form of religion, and Beauty as his salvation, inviting George Sand to agree when he asked whether there is 'une vertu intrinsèque…une espèce de force divine' in 'la précision des assemblages…l'harmonie de l'ensemble'2. He did have clear views about religion, and it constitutes a theme in not just the Trois Contes but in part of Bouvard et Pécuchet too; yet while it is plausible to examine these texts to discover what those views are, and what the role of religion is in such a context, one must also remember that for Flaubert, his aim was to 'bien écrire', so the link between religion and his ideals regarding style cannot be ignored either. Flaubert was never completely against religion, even defining it as 'nécessaire pour le peuple', albeit in the satirical Dictionnaire des idées reçues. Rather, what he deplored was the dogmatic and idolatrous aspect of religion, much like Rousseau and Chateaubriand, telling Mme Roger des Genettes that he was annoyed by 'ceux qui ont le bon Dieu dans leur poche et qui vous expliquent l'incompréhensible par l'absurde.'3 This can be seen in Bouvard et Pécuchet, which will be discussed later, but was pertinent at a time when the continuing philosophy of Enlightenment and new scientific discoveries led to conflict with the reviving Catholic Church, which claimed to answer any questions and resolve any issues through its principles and beliefs, such as the existence of fossils being proof of the Deluge. All four texts studied here contain elements elaborating upon Flaubert's view that religion itself is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is the approach people take to it, especially in social contexts, that make it problematic. Neither Un Coeur Simple nor Saint Julien l'Hospitalier contain central characters who follow a particular religious doctrine, yet both Félicité and Julien receive a spiritual reward at the end of their lives, suggesting that it is faith and sentiment which Flaubert values above religious practice, especially when one sees that they are not typical saintly 1

Letter to his niece Caroline, 8th July 1875 Letter to George Sand, 3rd April 1876 3 Letter to Mme Roger des Genettes, 14th March 1879 2

Olivia Alter

HT07 A. Jefferson

characters. For example, Félicité, the maid in Un Coeur Simple, leads a miserable and monotonous, impoverished life, being successively deprived of those she loves, until she becomes a deaf old woman who, in dying, confuses a moth-eaten, stuffed parrot with the Holy Spirit. The one quality she does have and retains throughout, however, is an unquestioning faith. It is through this that she remains innocent, and since her religious education was 'négligée dans sa jeunesse', her ignorance actually works in her favour; she does not understand the dogma discussed in church, and does not wish to understand it. Instead she lives a life of illusion, persevering for the sake of others, and forgiving those who hurt her, whether she realises she does this or not: '« Ah votre neveu! » Et, haussant les épaules, Mme Aubain reprit sa promenade, ce qui voulait dire: « Je n'y pensais pas!...Au surplus, je m'en moque ! un mousse, un gueux, belle affaire !...tandis que ma fille...Songez donc !... »
Félicité, bien que nourrie dans la rudesse, fut indignée contre Madame, puis oublia. Il lui paraissait tout simple de perdre la tête à l'occasion de la petite.' As such, the reader is inclined to interpret the final confusion of the parrot with the Holy Spirit as Flaubert described it, 'très sérieux et très triste'4, a reward for Félicité's lifelong kindness and compassion, and not as an ironic view of religion. Julien, too, leads a largely miserable existence, where he keeps having to flee from the crimes he has committed, until a leper he takes care of reveals himself as Christ and takes him to heaven. Before this final revelation, God does not feature in his thoughts, even when he decides to be a ferryman: 'l'idée lui vint d'employer son existence au service des autres.' Instead, like Félicité, Julien is seen to make sacrifices and endure physical suffering, and is willing to help others without hesitation, so he is redeemed. However, despite these characters showing how faith can be rewarding, both stories could also be viewed as ironic or satirical, such as Félicité's adoration of her dead parrot implying the arbitrariness of religious representation, and represent the 4

Letter to Mme Roger des Genettes, 19th June 1876

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