Flaubert's Laughter

Gustave Flaubert's booming laugh, and its written equivalents in his letters, which Jean-Paul Sartre considers a pretense on Flaubert's part, actually expressed a native comic sense that significantly shaped his writing. Flaubert's earliest juvenilia and correspondence exploited laughter attributed to characters, as well as laughter implied on the author's part or invited in the reader, which was mocking and superior in tone, tinged with hostility and contempt. As the works and letters grew more autobiographical, after 1838, self-mockery became a significant theme, and the harshness was muted. The 1845 version of L'Education sentimentale combined the satirical laughter with the self-mockery, both tempered by a universal sense of irony. His letters to Louise Colet, after 1845, developed these ingredients into a coherent theory of comic art applicable to his novels. The highest form of this art, Flaubert feels, is the sadly comic – le grotesque triste – that is beyond laughter. Thus, the comic range of Flaubert's mature masterpieces, and their disconcerting blend of pessimism and irony, result from his experiments with the literary uses of laughter in his formative years. (MS)

Sachs, Murray
Volume 1974-1975 Fall-Winter; 3(1-2): 112-23.