Flaubert's Theory of Life


The French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, has a lot to teach us about the nature of life. To me, he is a great spiritual teacher. Flaubert saw the injustice in the world, the way people would judge so critically, and the way all of us are deluding ourselves. The remedy was to create a novel where we could see these different aspects of ourselves and how they would play out if we continued on our path of delusion. The experience of this causes us to see our own pitfalls, but also, how we can change them. 

Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in the late 1800s. The inspiration for the book came from reading the newspaper. I can imagine Flaubert sitting down in the morning to skim through the paper, noticing an interesting story about a woman who took her own life. The article detailed the tragedy of this woman's life, who had been married and had a small child, who had an enormous amount of debt from shopping, and who took many lovers. The article ended by supposing that her death was a kind of cosmic justice from her sins. Flaubert must of read this, and thought of the whole story. Surely, there must've been a reason why she would feel that life is not worth living any longer. Its the same compulsion we all get when we read a tragic story in the paper. Flaubert wanted to know the whole story, so that he could find compassion for her, and also, perhaps discover some deeper wisdom that would help all of us cope better with the obstacles in life. 

Compassion for Others

Compassion is something we all struggle with initially, because it means seeing the love in others, and ourselves. Flaubert observed that many people in his French, upper middle class society did not have this kind of emotional intelligence. In writing the story of Emma Bovary, he hoped that everyone would be able to see her with compassion, rather than judging her decisions. He hoped that this might extend into everyday life, so that everyone could look at each other with a little less judgement, and more compassion. 

When you read the final pages of the novel, when Emma Bovary is laying down in her bed after drinking arsenic, you don't feel harsh judgement for her, but rather, sadness and compassion. Flaubert does this by showing you through each scene in the novel her good qualities, and her down falls. We see Emma get married, and have a broken relationship, have a child, and grow distant from them, buy expensive things, and fall into debt. At the end of the day, when Emma is dyeing, you don't condemn her for her wrong actions, you can only feel compassion for her plight.

In this way, we are also seeing our downfalls. We see how we are not perfect, how we make mistakes, and how we would like to be treated with understanding, not judgement. Flaubert is calling us to see others in a gentle light, so that we can move toward a society that treats each other tenderly. 

Delusion is the Source of Suffering

One of the most amazing aspects of the novel is the concept of Maya or delusion, expresses through Flaubert's eyes. Maya is a Sanskrit term that describes the desires we all have for the delusions of life. These delusions are so irresistible that we cannot help but be attracted to them. However, these desires are often fruitless because they don't satisfy our need for fulfilment, they put us on a path of endless dissatisfaction.

In the novel, Emma reads romantic novels growing up, so in her mind she has a template for what her own marriage should be like. When she is married, Emma finds herself not gaining satisfaction in the way the characters did in the novel, and so she feels absolutely hopeless. She gets married to a man who can support her financially, but she becomes less attracted to him after the honeymoon phase wanes. She is then deluded into thinking multiple affairs will fulfil her, but they just cause her heartbreak. Motherhood then becomes her goal, but she grows distant from her child. All the delusions of what married life should be like are never fulfilled. The expectations she has for life are never met.

Its the same for us when we approach life with expectations, only to realise that these expectations are limiting us from seeing the beauty of life as it is. The fact that Emma fails in life is a reminder to us, not to approach life with a list of what life should be like, but rather, to appreciate life as it is. Flaubert wants us to take in the beauty of what we have, and not waste our life looking for the fulfilment of a delusion.

Confront your Addictions

During the novel, Emma becomes addicted to quite a few things. She becomes addicted to shopping by wasting her money on new clothes that she doesn't need, or home decor items that she cannot afford. She becomes addicted to lovers, because she doesn't feel love in her marriage. She even becomes addicted to travelling, as she becomes dissatisfied with each place she lives in. Flaubert shows us these addictions so that we can be brave enough to face our own addictions. He doesn't want our lives to end in the same way. Flaubert is warning us of the danger of addictions.

So how do we face our addictions? In the novel, there is this feeling that if Emma knew how these addictions would make her life miserable, maybe she would've confronted them early on. Flaubert wants us to look at why we feel addicted to shopping, affairs and moving houses constantly. He calls us to examine our behaviour, take responsibility, and see how we can change our lives for the better. Maybe Emma would've stopped spending if she had realised she is using shopping as an escape from her unhappy marriage, or lack of purpose in life. Looking at the underlying reason for our addictions allows us to release them, and create a happier life for ourselves.

See the Unity

It is amazing to me that around 200 years ago, a man found himself thinking, why are we living so separately, when we are all one? The quote below is my favourite quote from Flaubert, because it really speaks to our consciousness. When we really get it we can see ourselves as one, and see how separateness is really absurd. 

I’m no more modern than ancient, no more French than Chinese, and the idea of a native country, that is to say, the imperative to live on one bit of ground marked red or blue on the map and to hate the other bits in green or black, has always seemed to me narrow-minded, blinkered and profoundly stupid. I am a soul brother to everything that lives, to the giraffe and to the crocodile as much as to man.
— Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert lived in a time when the French middle class thought they were the pinnacle of civilisation. He thought that people who were arrogant and pompous were missing the point of life entirely. Flaubert was a person who saw that it doesn't matter which country you're from, what your class is, or even what animal you were, but that there was a quality about everything in existence that bound it together into unity. He saw countries as a needless idea that didn't make sense - after all, why should we grow to hate people on a particular piece of land just because we are on another piece of land? If we have lived multiple incarnations around the earth, does that mean we belong to every country and culture known today? Flaubert encourages us to see ourselves at one with everything. There is no real boundary, only the boundaries we create within ourselves. 

I love looking back through history to see the spiritual lessons, embedded in mainstream works. It shows that these philosophers and writers knew more than we thought. Anytime there is a need for spiritual knowledge, it always pops up in the most unexpected places.