Zielonka on Guitton (2021)

Guitton, Georges. Le phoque de Flaubert. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2021, pp. 296, ISBN 978-2-7535-8269-9

Georges Guitton presents an extended meditation and commentary on a seemingly minor and little-studied motif in Flaubert’s life and writings, that of the seal, ‘le phoque.’  The starting point of this study is the final two pages of Par les champs et par les grèves (1885, omitting the passage about the seal, and 1910,  with the seal passage published for the first time), the narrative of the journey that Gustave Flaubert and his close friend Maxime du Camp took through Normandy and Brittany in the summer of 1847, a book by the two authors that was not published until several years after Flaubert’s death.  In these pages Flaubert describes his encounter with a performing seal that he observed in a market fair in Rennes: “Comme  il avait bien travaillé, on l’a gratifié de deux ou trois anguilles qu’il avalait lentement en les mangeant par le milieu, et les deux bouts lui sortant de la bouche faisaient de chaque côté de son museau comme deux longues moustaches blanches (10). As Guitton points out at the outset of his study, the seal’s droopy moustache leads Flaubert to self-identify with the marine mammal and to meditate on it, and on his own resemblance to it, in the years that followed, even writing to Louise Colet, in November 1851: “J’ai grande envie de devenir phoque” (12).

The seal episode also allows Flaubert to make a satirical final comment on the city of Rennes, which he appears to find singularly devoid of any other points of interest or attractions: “Voilà ce que nous vîmes à Rennes.  Quand le phoque n’y sera plus, qu’y aura-t-il à y voir ?’’ (10) . Flaubert records his surprise at seeing the performing seal in the market fair and notes his interest in the parallels between the sea mammal, humankind, and himself, meditating on what he sees as his own strange, wild, solitary, melancholy, and dreamy character and, as he advances in age, on his ideas about his own transformation into a kind of seal. Guitton points out that the entire seal episode was omitted from the first editions of Par les champs et par les grèves, in 1885 and 1886, probably because of an editorial decision made by Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Franklin-Grout, and that it did not appear in print until Volume VII of Flaubert’s Oeuvres complètes was published by Conard in 1910.

Guitton’s study is divided into thirty-six brief chapters (of three or four pages each), on various aspects of Flaubert and du Camp’s journey through Normandy and Brittany.  He also discusses other contemporary writers who took an interest in the seal motif, including Jules Michelet, who, in La Mer (1861), comments on emotional attachment and family structure in seal communities, and Alexandre Dumas, who notes his own seal-like appearance in his Mémoires (1847).  Gérard de Nerval describes the antics of a performing seal in Versailles in his novel, Les Faux-Saulniers (1850), and writes about a seal that was adopted as a pet by a fisherman’s family.  Eugène Sue, in his novel Martin, l’Enfant trouvé (1846) presents a young hero who has been transformed into an amphibious mammal.  Balzac introduces the expression: “souffler comme un phoque” in La Cousine Bette (1847). In L’Enfant (1881), Jules Vallès compares the appearance of the history teacher presenting him a class prize to that of a seal.  In chapter twenty four, Guitton reveals that Judith Gautier reported that Flaubert had read to her portions of a story or fantaisie entitled Le Phoque par amour that he never completed, in which a male character disguises himself as a seal in order to win the love of a young lady.  Flaubert seems to have been genuinely fascinated by the idea of ‘l’homme—animal’ and by the seal as a marine and land mammal that can appear as an amphibious counterpart resembling some aspects of the lives of human beings.  

Guitton draws attention throughout this study to the interest that many nineteenth-century writers took in the motif of the seal and in amphibious mammals in general.  They were all influenced by Buffon, who, as Guitton reminds us, devoted one hundred pages to the seal in his Histoire naturelle (1749).   Flaubert’s ideas on this subject were deeply influenced by his extensive readings in zoology and by the natural history lessons of his much-admired science teacher at the Collège in Rouen, Félix-Archimède Pouchet, for whom he wrote an essay on seals while he was his student.

Guitton relates the seal motif to the many examples in Flaubert’s writings in which he expresses an interest in the lives and experiences of animals, including snakes, fish, and bears.  Such passages appear in all of his novels. Guitton presents a convincing argument that Flaubert was fascinated by the lived experiences of all sentient beings, not just of human beings, and that those experiences were inter-related and inter-dependent, as is evidenced by Flaubert’s practically lifelong fascination with the figure of Saint Anthony and his visionary apprehension, and his  obsession with all forms of life and animate as well as inanimate aspects of nature.  The study concludes with an interesting epilogue, end notes and a detailed bibliography, and includes thirty-seven black and white illustrations. Guitton adds his own personal reflections and musings on Flaubert’s life, the journey to Brittany, and how his experiences related to those of contemporary writers, and thus sheds much new light on a fascinating, if minor, topic in Flaubert’s writings that has, until now, been virtually ignored or overlooked.

Anthony Zielonka
Assumption University