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  • Flaubert's Proposition
  • Claire Chi-ah Lyu

Flaubert's "La légende de saint Julien l'Hospitalier" presents a conundrum: how are the readers of 21st-century post-modernity to approach a text of 19th-century modernity, which tells a hagiographic legend of the Middle Ages? The difficulty stems from the immense distance that separates the medieval hagiographic genre from Flaubert's modern style. Hagiography's principal purpose was to renew and deepen faith and incite readers to live a Christian life by producing an affective response, considered to be the first step in the process of conversion. It sought "the complete conversion of intelligence into feeling (affectus) and action (opus)" as Robertson writes (Saints' Lives 14). In the eleventh and twelfth centuries when "adult conversion [was] of essence to all religious movements," saints' lives "serve[d] as recruitment propaganda" for the church, which was "actively reaching out to the laity" (13). More than anything, saints' lives were to be imitated.1 Through the injunction to follow in the footsteps of saints, hagiography brought the readers to the original model one was to imitate: the passion of Christ. Telling and reading a hagiographic tale amounted to accompanying Jesus through his birth, death, and resurrection through empathetic participation. Saints' lives guided the readers in their life-long journey of conversion toward God, which, as Morrison informs us, referred less to a single dramatic event and more to a perpetually renewed process of transforming "the entire direction of human existence itself from a movement toward the grave into a transit toward endless life" (xii). In the Christian tradition, "the idea of continuous conversion intersected with that of God's continual creation of the world" (xv). Hagiography pointed to a life rightly lived as created beings of God: reading led to believing and to believing in God. [End Page 41]

This is not quite the case with Flaubert in the 19th century. In Madame Bovary, reading and believing (in God) are inflected otherwise, to say the least, than in traditional hagiography. For Emma, believing in the love stories she reads leads her nowhere and even contributes directly to her own disastrous demise: believing in what one reads has fatal, not salutary, consequences. For we readers of the novel, Flaubert's signature style—free indirect discourse and irony—denies us any possibility of relying on a providential point of view; we are uncertain whom to believe in, or whether to believe at all in what we read. The relationship between reading and believing unravels from within and without. Moreover, although acquitted, Flaubert was taken to court for outrage to religion and public morality for the publication of Madame Bovary in 1857, accused, among other things, of glorifying adultery and devaluing the institution of marriage sanctified by the Church.2 Even though it appeared twenty years after Madame Bovary, the publication in 1877 of "La légende de saint Julien l'Hospitalier" as part of his Trois contes cannot fail to surprise. For in a genre that seems radically contrary to his, Flaubert re-opens issues that he seemed to have dismissed as non-issues, because deflated and emptied of meaning, in Madame Bovary: imitation, conversion, and edification. If the edifying "happy" ending of Flaubert's legend follows the genre of traditional hagiography, it is profoundly and puzzlingly at odds with the ironic tenor of Flaubert's fictional universe.

Flaubert in fact has written on two other saints: Saint Anthony in La Tentation de saint Antoine of 1874, and Saint John the Baptist in the third and last tale "Hérodias" of Trois contes. On June 19, 1876, Flaubert writes to Edma Roger des Genettes: "je trouve que, si je continue, j'aurai ma place parmi les Lumières de l'Eglise. Je serai une des colonnes du temple. Après saint Antoine, saint Julien; et ensuite saint Jean-Baptiste; je ne sors pas des saints. Pour celui-là je m'arrangerai de façon à ne pas édifier" (Correspondance 5: 58, original emphasis). He informs with delight Léonie Brainne on August 23, 1877: "les Trois contes de 'ce bon M. Flaubert' sont recommendés sur le catalogue d'une librairie catholique, comme pouvant circuler...


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pp. 41-60
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