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Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821. He is best known for his adulterous heroine Emma Bovary, of whom he allegedly declared, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” in one of literature’s most notorious cases of over-identification. But Flaubert paid the price for putting the then-scandalous book into the world: In 1856, the author’s debut novel was put on trial for obscenity. Christine Haynes revisits the trial—and contends that Flaubert’s daring outspokenness may not have been as large a factor in his prosecution as scholars once thought.

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In the past, says Haynes, scholars overlooked the extent to which Flaubert’s prosecutors targeted the act of publishing something obscene rather than the act of writing it. After all, the trial took place in an environment in which press freedom was a low priority.

Flaubert’s refusal to tone down the sexual passages of his book appears to have been his legal downfall. The book hardly reads as scandalous today, but its depiction of a bored housewife who embarks on a life of infidelity was nothing less than revolutionary 200 years ago. Though his publisher did dial down a few passages, the author angrily insisted that a disclaimer appear along with the book, which in turn alerted the authorities to its incendiary content.

That subject matter and Flaubert’s refusal to temper it with moral messages were at the heart of the obscenity trial, as were evolving norms in terms of publication and press freedom in France. Authors, printers, and publishers were expected to serve as moral “sentinels,” notes Haynes, and licenses to print required businesspeople to swear they would control content.

These legal norms—themselves relics of pre-revolutionary guild codes—were accepted by authors of the day. Despite Flaubert’s refusal to alter the book’s content, says Haynes, he did not protest what amounted to government censorship of his book. Instead, he insisted his book was moral and that he was too bourgeois to be prosecuted. Despite his private views of artistic freedom, he did not agitate against the laws under which he was prosecuted. Nor did any of his contemporaries.

Were Flaubert and his contemporaries afraid? Perhaps, says Haynes, but they were likely more concerned about upholding their newfound right to make money from their own work. Property trumped the right to expression, and the general feeling was that publishing professionals were public servants. As a result, many writers like Flaubert seem to have been ambivalent about how much they were willing to fight forces of censorship.

Flaubert was eventually acquitted, and his book quickly became a classic. Ironically, the very descriptions of sin to which the prosecution objected are what make his book stand strong to this day. Perhaps the book’s artistic achievements are even more astonishing given that it was written at a time of uncertain freedom of the press.


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French Politics, Culture & Society , Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer 2005), pp. 1-27
Berghahn Books