The Temptation of St. Anthony by Gustave Flaubert.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1557).

The Temptation of St. Anthony (La Tentation de Saint Antoine) is a play by Gustave Flaubert inspired by the painting attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (above) which Flaubert saw in the Balbi Palace in Genoa in 1845. He worked on it from 1849 until its final publication in 1874.

In it, Flaubert describes one night in which St. Anthony the Great, a Christian monk from Egypt faced a night of temptation. St. Anthony (also spelled Antony) was a hermit and one of the Desert Fathers. It begins on a mountain in Thebaid where St. Anthony lived and we see him rather downcast and doubtful. In this first part (there are six in total) he describes his life before becoming a monk and then how he came to be there on the mountain living as a hermit. From the second part onward the temptations begin: he is met with the Seven Deadly Sins, magicians, science, lust, monsters, death, and then finally he is carried off by the devil himself before the sun rises and he is once again secure in his faith.

It is a simple plot, but what is impressive about it is Flaubert's ability to delve deeply into the psyche of the faithful. It's a wild and gripping work on extreme religious experience and, I would venture to say, shows more insight than a great many works on the psychology of religion (of which I've read a fair number but it was rather a long time ago!). We see a man who, living as a hermit, testing himself to the very point of endurance and we see him resist as he is assailed with increasing violence by the temptations, some symbolic and some literal.

The fact is, though I have written very little on this book here it is utterly remarkable and I think it ought to be looked at in a great deal more depth, and I think it would be enjoyable and very insightful to do so. For now, then, I'll finish by saying this is excellent, one of the best works of the 19th Century in fact, and, one day perhaps soon, I'll re-read it and go through it in a lot more detail. 

Comments

  1. I think I am of the very very few, who does not enjoy Flaubert! He terrorizes me and when I finally am able to finish reading hos work, I feel anxious that something is peculiar since I DID NOT enjoy what is cried out as classic and just a meh at the plot! But this one is intriguing and while it does seem to be a more difficult and indepth read, it's premises alone I think will give a lot of food for thought! Thank You for the nudge! :)

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    1. I think this is his best one! I do like Flaubert but I'm not a super fan, I can well see why you don't enjoy him so much :) I hope you enjoy this one though when you get to it!

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  2. I've still only read Madame Bovary and the Three Tales although every one of his books appeals to me. I see that St Anthony gets mixed reviews but I won't let that put me off reading it. I like the fact that each of his books are very different from the others.

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    1. They are, he's very broad (I'm sure there's a better way of putting that!). I really liked Madame Bovary but this one is definitely my favourite!

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