Cover image for Savage reprisals : Bleak house, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks
Savage reprisals : Bleak house, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks
Gay, Peter, 1923-2015.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton, [2002]

Physical Description:
192 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


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PN3499 .G39 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Focusing on three literary masterpieces--Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1853), Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks (1901)--Peter Gay, a leading cultural historian, demonstrates that there is more than one way to read a novel.

Typically, readers believe that fiction, especially the Realist novels that dominated Western culture for most of the nineteenth century and beyond, is based on historical truth and that great novels possess a documentary value. That trust, Gay brilliantly shows, is misplaced; novels take their own path to reality. Using Dickens, Flaubert, and Mann as his examples, Gay explores their world, their craftsmanship, and their minds. In the process, he discovers that all three share one overriding quality: a resentment and rage against the society that sustains the novel itself. Using their stylish writing as a form of revenge, they deal out savage reprisals, which have become part of our Western literary canon. A New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of 2002.

Author Notes

Peter Gay lives in New York City and Connecticut.

Peter Gay (born Peter Joachim Fröhlich; June 20, 1923 - May 12, 2015) was the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and former director of the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers (1997-2003). Gay received the American Historical Association's (AHA) Award for Scholarly Distinction in 2004. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (1968), and the widely translated Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988). In 1967 he was awarded the History and Biography National Book Award for The Enlightenment, Vol. I: The Rise of Modern Paganism.

Peter Gay was born in Berlin, Germany in 1923 and immigrated to the United States in 1941. From 1948 to 1955 he was a political science professor at Columbia University, and then a history professor from 1955 to 1969. He left Columbia in 1969 to join Yale University¿s History Department as Professor of Comparative and Intellectual European History, and was named Sterling Professor of History in 1984. Peter Gay died at home in Manhattan on May 12, 2015, at the age of 91.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Historian Gay turned the Victorian era inside out in his most recent work of innovative scholarship and analysis, Schnitzler's Century [BKL O 15 01], and now trains his keen and questioning intellect on so-called realist literature. What facts are to be found in "imagined history" ? he asks in this piquant monograph. More specifically, what can readers learn about the past by immersing themselves in three works by three giants of the realist school: Dickens' Bleak House, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Mann's Buddenbrooks? As Gay conducts his discerning and entertaining guided tours through the much pondered pages of these nineteenth-century classics, he makes free with intriguing bits of author biography, mostly sexual in nature, then interprets them in unabashedly Freudian terms. But he also unpacks the writers' deeply conflicted feelings about their time and place (Flaubert's "aversion to his world," for example), and the undeniable slant of their vigorous if artfully concealed social commentary. There is history in fiction, Gay concludes, but it takes a subtle form as it traces the intersection between the individual and society. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

It's tempting to treat novels as beautifully crafted and precise reflections of a society's social, political and psychological realities, but noted historian Gay (Schnitzler's Century, etc.) is having none of it: "whoever enlists fiction to assist in the hunt for knowledge must always be alert to authorial partisanship, limiting cultural perspectives, fragmentary details offered as authoritative, to say nothing of neurotic obsessions." In short, the most realistic novel is not an objective work of history. And yet Gay's fine analysis does not conclude on such a sour note; rather, he offers magnificent insight into how, by knowing a work's "maker and his society," one can evaluate the historical evidence a novel contains. Gay illustrates this through a close study of the three supposedly quintessential works of Realism in the subtitle. Dickens, he says, was an "angry anarchist," whose portrayal of the British judicial system in Bleak House owed more to his rejection of all government institutions than to reality. Madame Bovary, he continues, was less a true depiction of French provincial life than "a weapon of harassment" reflecting Flaubert's jaundiced view of society. And Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks was "an act of retribution," an expression of his "animus against his privileged family history." None of this, Gay states, detracts from the greatness of these books as works of art. In an epilogue, Gay offers a spirited rejection of the postmodernist denial of historical veracity; and these essays, based on his W.W. Norton/New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers Lectures, offer a valuable contribution to literary studies. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Noted critic Gay proposes to change how we read by demonstrating that these three classics of realist literature are in fact not literally documentaries of an era but create worlds of their own. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

With his customary clarity and conversational tone, Gay (emer., Yale Univ.) points out the unreliability of realist novels as mirrors of the world. In the three chapters of this book (based on his October 2000 Norton Lectures at the New York Public Library), he focuses on the perspectives of three modern novelists: Charles Dickens, "the angry anarchist" of Bleak House; Gustave Flaubert, "the phobic anatomist" of Madame Bovary; and Thomas Mann, "the mutinous patrician" of Buddenbrooks. Gay observes that these works are really distorting mirrors that consciously manipulate perceived truth for literary, personal, and cultural motives. Thus, Gay cautions, even the most realistic of literary narratives should not be confused with "scientific" historiography; the three "were makers of literature, not mere photographers or stenographers of commonplace life." As the book's title properly indicates, these three great realist novelists shared a rage against their individual bourgeois societies: Dickens against the legal system, Flaubert against the bourgeois betrayal of self, and Mann (in his vengeful portrait of a family in decay) against the middle class. The author provides a helpful bibliographical essay on each of the three novelists. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. D. S. Gochberg Michigan State University

Table of Contents

Bleak HouseMadame BovaryBuddenbrooks
List of Illustrationsp. 13
Prologue: Beyond the Reality Principlep. 17
1 The Angry Anarchist: Charles Dickens inp. 35
2 The Phobic Anatomist: Gustave Flaubert inp. 71
3 The Mutinous Patrician: Thomas Mann inp. 111
Epilogue: Truths of Fictionsp. 149
Notesp. 165
Bibliographical Notesp. 177
Acknowledgmentsp. 188
Indexp. 189