Flaubert’s childhood could provide great insight into his predisposition for depression. He was born on December 12th in 1821. He had four brothers and a sister. Three of his brothers, who were very close in age to Flaubert, died at a very young age (Gastaut et al., 1984). Flaubert had a complicated relationship with his younger sister, Caroline. They were close to one another; however, Flaubert struggled to keep up with her academically (Gastaut et al., 1984). Flaubert was believed to have dyslexia, which could have resulted in feeling isolated and contributed to low self-esteem as a child (Gastaut et al., 1984). His niece, Madame de Commanville, described Flaubert’s dyslexia, stating, “My grandmother taught her eldest son to read and then wished to do the same with the second child. Little Caroline learned rapidly at a time when Gustave was still trying, but could not succeed. After great effort to understand the symbols, which meant nothing to him, he would burst out in great tears” (Gastaut et al., 1984). It seems likely that Flaubert’s early childhood had a great influence on his confidence. Seeing his sister have an easier time learning to write and read as his first introduction into schooling, could have made him feel incompetent and powerless. Growing up in the 1820s, there were no scientific terms for dyslexia or any other learning disabilities. Without the words to describe or understand why he had a difficult time learning to read and write, only compounded his feelings of frustration with himself.
As Flaubert entered school, he dedicated his time to learning to read in order to keep up with his peers. Madame de Commanville commented on Flaubert’s voracious reading, “But when Gustave was almost nine and entry into College came near, it was essential to learn [to read]…Gustave became resolute and then over several months caught up with other children of his age” (Gastaut et al., 1984). By ten years old he was reading the works of French historians and writers such as Michelet, Froissart, Commines, and Hugo. By 13 years old, he was writing plays, historical dramas, and novels (Gastaut et al., 1984). He once stated, “My life is not its acts, but its thoughts.” (Gastaut et al., 1984). Flaubert internalized his childhood more so than one would expect a young thirteen year old would. Despite Flaubert overcoming dyslexia, he seemed to never be on the same intellectual or emotional developmental timeline as his peers. Due to Flaubert spending his childhood writing novels and plays, it seems as though he did not dedicate time to making friends. Spending his youth primarily alone may have contributed to his feelings of depression and disconnection to those around him. Flaubert had made comments in his adult life contemplating his ‘melancholia’ (Steegmuller, 1980); however, we see that his habits of rumination were present as a young boy, expressing that his life is about ‘its thoughts’. Research has shown that rumination is a symptom and ‘perpetuator’ of Major Depressive Disorder (Papageorgiou & Wells, 2003). Both young Flaubert’s statement and avid desire to write could be symptoms of his depression, as writing is a form of rumination. It is evident that Flaubert’s level of intellectual curiosity and drive was unparalleled as a child, making him stand out amongst his peers. This could have contributed to having him live a life of ‘thoughts’ rather than actions because he did not find common interest among his peers who were not reading french philosophers as a young boy, thus feeling isolated.
Further contributing to Flaubert’s proneness to depression was his closeness to his father’s work as a doctor. Flaubert’s correspondence exhibited an interest in death as a young boy. On recounting his childhood, he discussed his infatuation with his father’s work on cadavers. He stated, “The dissecting room of the hospital gave on our garden. How many times my sister and I used to climb the trellis, cling to the vines, and peer curiously at the cadavers on their slabs! The sun shone on them, and the same flies that were flitting about us and about the flowers would light on them and come buzzing back to us…I still see my father raising his head from his dissecting, and telling us to go away” (Steegmuller, 1980). Flaubert remembers this ominous part of his childhood quite vividly, even the flies that would hover around him and the bodies evoke a feeling of unease. This appeared to be a common occurrence for Flaubert, as his father would repeatedly tell him to go away. Other accounts of Flaubert described him as visiting the morgue quite frequently as a child (Steegmuller, 1980). It appears as though Flaubert had an infatuation with death that is unusual for a young child.
Further adding to Flaubert’s unusual childhood habits is his description of observing the mentally ill as a young boy. He remembered, “The first time I saw insane people was here in Rouen, in the asylum, with poor Pere Parain. Sitting in cells, chained around the middle, naked to the waist, disheveled, a dozen women were screaming and tearing their faces with their nails. I was then perhaps six or seven. These are good impressions to have when young: they make a man of you” (Steegmuller, 1980). Flaubert looks fondly back on what would typically be extremely traumatic experiences for a young child. It is challenging to understand mental illness and violence as a six or seven year-old; yet Flaubert remembers this as an integral moment of maturity for him. It is possible that Flaubert felt connected to the mentally ill and even deceased. Such experiences would indubitely affect one’s own mental health. This is not to say that Flaubert’s peculiar upbringing caused his depression, but it is possible that there were markers of mental illness at a young age that have been overlooked.