A Dictionary of Received Ideas by Gustave Flaubert

Bouvard et Pécuchet

Gustave Flaubert died in 1880 while still working on his last book, Bouvard and Pécuchet. This tells the adventures of two petit bourgeois dunces, born and raised in Paris, where they work as respectable clerks, who meet and realise they share the same, second-hand, trite and clichéd ideas, and the same dim-witted insatiable curiosity, about everything.

Deciding they are The Best of Friends, they set off on a series of adventures designed to highlight not only their own stupidity, but the stupidity of much so-called ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’. So Bouvard and Pécuchet is less a novel than a fable, standing in a long line of books which satirise book learning, which includes Rabelais, Don Quixote, Jonathan Swift and Tristram Shandy.

Except that whereas those books were dominated by what’s been called ‘learnèd wit’ i.e. satires on the university-based, book learning of their times, with a great deal of effort spent ridiculing the arcane beliefs of medieval scholars (Rabelais), or the conventions of chivalry (Don Quixote) or the new fashion for ‘science’ and ‘experiments’ (Swift) – Bouvard and Pécuchet is determinedly modern and realistic in style.

In a letter Flaubert wrote that the novel is:

‘a kind of encyclopedia made into a farce… I am planning a thing in which I give vent to my anger… I shall vomit over my contemporaries the disgust they inspire in me…’

One element of the book is the way its two hopeless protagonists interpret everything in a relentlessly middle-brow way, failing to understand the finer points of every intellectual or practical effort they turn their hands to, but rewriting them, as it were, into their own personal language of clichés and stereotypes. And all the while they cheer themselves up with the irritatingly vacuous catch phrases and platitudes beloved of their type and class.

A Dictionary of Stupidity

This explains why, alongside researching and writing the novel, Flaubert also had a project to collect together all the most clichéd, stupid, vapid truisms, the most wretched commonplaces and inanities, the most hackneyed, trite and pitiful platitudes of his age.

He used some of these in the novel, attributing them to his earnestly second-rate characters. But over the course of decades, he built up quite a collection in its own right. He began sorting them into alphabetical order and found himself creating what he initially called a Dictionary of Stupidity and then toned down into ‘A Dictionary of Received Ideas’.

It is a list of the unthinking slogans and clichés which people prattle out in conversation, the same old opinions you read in the press, the empty formulas politicians make in speeches, the dreary subjects you endure at awful dinner parties. Received opinion, fashionable platitudes, accepted ideas.

As it grew, Flaubert seems to have planned to make the Dictionary of Stupidity form volume two of the completed Bouvard and Pécuchet but died before his plans could be finalised. It was only published in French in 1913, and had to wait till 1954 to be translated into English.

The Dictionary is usually published as an appendix to the larger novel, but Penguin had the bright idea back in the 1990s of publishing it as a stand-alone booklet which I picked up at the time (it seems to be out of print now).


What’s surprising is how funny it is. I laughed out loud on almost every page. Much funnier that Bouvard and Pécuchet (which is occasionally touching but isn’t, frankly, very funny at all).

This is partly because it is so compressed and pithy. Given half a chance Flaubert will write you a whole page about agricultural techniques or medieval siege machinery or Biblical ointments or whatever pedantic facts he’s come across in his immense background reading and which can be squeezed into one of his long narratives.

But all this verbiage is absent in the Dictionary. Its prose is incredibly compressed. It gives just the most commonplace interpretations of each subject in all their glorious banality. Frequently Flaubert places next to each other two completely contradictory views, both of which are in common circulation, to highlight how unthinkingly stupid we so often are.

I found it helps to imagine some of the phrases being spoken out loud by either a bluff colonel or a delicate maiden aunt (as appropriate).


ABROAD – Enthusiasm for everything foreign, sign of progressive thinking. Contempt for everything un-French, sign of patriotism.

ACCIDENT – Always ‘deplorable’ or ‘unfortunate’ (as though anyone would find cause to rejoice in misfortune).

AGE, THE PRESENT AGE – Always denounce vigorously.

AMBITION – Always describe as ‘insane’ except when it is ‘noble’.

ANIMALS – If only they could talk. Some of them are more intelligent than humans!

ANTIQUES – All forgeries.

ARCHITECTS – All imbeciles.

ARISTOCRACY – Treat with contempt. Regard with envy.

AUTHOR – Advisable to know a few authors. No need to remember their names.

And so on. In its way, The Dictionary is as much a portrait of the age as Sentimental Education. Sure a lot of it is dated. But the real eye-opener is how many of these clichés of the bourgeois mind, circa 1880, are still clichés of the bourgeois mind in 2018.

BEETHOVEN – Don’t pronounce Beet-hoven. Praise the legato.

TOYS – Should always be educational.

TRAVELLER – Always ‘intrepid’.

WALLS – Good phrase to use in an official speech: ‘Gentlemen, within these very walls…’

WATCH – The only decent ones are made in Switzerland.

WIT – Always ‘sparkling’. Brevity the soul of.

WORKER – Honest and reliable. Except when he’s rioting.

Flaubert wrote that ‘after reading the book, the reader should be afraid to talk, for fear of using one of the phrases in it’ and realising what a mug he is – a splendid ambition. We could do with more silence.

SEALED – Always ‘hermetically’.

PIKESTAFF – Plain as a.

KORAN – Book by Mohammed. Exclusively about repressing women.

INTERVAL – Always too long.

ILLEGIBLE – A doctor’s signature ought to be illegible. So should any official signature. Shows that you are overwhelmingly busy.

GREEK – Anything you don’t understand. ‘It’s all Greek to me.’

A perfect book to dip into for a few minutes and find yourself chortling, then laughing out loud.

Related links

Flaubert’s books

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence (1913)

Sons and Lovers was published in May 1913, making this its centenary year. It has become an antique. Experts can poke and prod it and speculate about its value. I wonder if anyone reads it for pleasure, as I just have. It is a wonderful, wonderful book. The pleasure comes in various forms and at different levels:

Subject matter There is not much plot. It is a coming-of-age novel, describing the childhood and young manhood of Paul Morel, the sensitive youngest of five children of Walter Morel, a rough coal miner in the Bestwood area north of Nottingham (a barely disguised description of the real townlet of Eastwood) and his more educated wife, Gertrude Morel. The first half of the book is everybody’s favourite, a wonderful evocation of childhood and adolescence in an innocent rural setting albeit in the shadow of the arguing parents; the second half is a little more familiar,describing how young man Paul’s unusual closeness to his mother hampers his (very naive) love affairs with two local women, his childhood sweetheart Miriam and an older married woman, Clara.

What makes it wonderful is the blunt poetic style which conveys the impassioned, heightened, intense perceptions of the author.

Attitude I think the key to Lawrence’s attitude and writing is he is fearless. In all sorts of ways he thought the English of his day were afraid – daunted by convention, good manners, politeness etc in life and in artistic forms (music, painting, literature). Shyness and embarrassment are the English watchwords to this day. But despite his frailty and illness Lawrence decided at an early age not to be afraid – to write what he felt and what he saw regardless of conventions, regardless of ‘good style’, of ‘solid construction’.

Abruptness and unpolishedness And so his short stories and this novel are made of vivid scenes describing people’s feelings and emotions with striking intensity; scenes which just start, with no polished introductions and just as abruptly end. From one point of view the text could almost be seen as a sequence of prose poems, moments of heightened intensity and perception:

When they got back to the house, Mr. Leivers and Edgar, the eldest son, were in the kitchen. Edgar was about eighteen. Then Geoffrey and Maurice, big lads of twelve and thirteen, were in from school. Mr. Leivers was a good-looking man in the prime of life, with a golden-brown moustache, and blue eyes screwed up against the weather. The boys were condescending, but Paul scarcely observed it. They went round for eggs, scrambling into all sorts of places. As they were feeding the fowls Miriam came out. The boys took no notice of her. One hen, with her yellow chickens, was in a coop. Maurice took his hand full of corn and let the hen peck from it.
“Durst you do it?” he asked of Paul.
“Let’s see,” said Paul.
He had a small hand, warm, and rather capable-looking. Miriam watched. He held the corn to the hen. The bird eyed it with her hard, bright eye, and suddenly made a peck into his hand. He started, and laughed. “Rap, rap, rap!” went the bird’s beak in his palm. He laughed again, and the other boys joined. (Chapter 6)

It’s a distinctive combination of plain vocabulary deployed in abrupt, stabbing sentences to convey a wonderful sense of heightened awareness of even the most banal, domestic moments.

Simple vocabulary DH achieves his affects, often very poetic in impact, with very simple vocabulary. He doesn’t have, for example, James Joyce’s phenomenal feel for language or deploy Henry James tortuous long sentences or Conrad’s verbose and opalescent lexicon. The impact doesn’t derive from the careful choice of sensual or stylised or onomatopoeic words. It derives from the driving forcefulness of the sensibility behind the words.

One evening in midsummer Miriam called at the house, warm from climbing. Paul was alone in the kitchen; his mother could be heard moving about upstairs.
“Come and look at the sweet-peas,” he said to the girl.
They went into the garden. The sky behind the townlet and the church was orange-red; the flower-garden was flooded with a strange warm light that lifted every leaf into significance. Paul passed along a fine row of sweet-peas, gathering a blossom here and there, all cream and pale blue. Miriam followed, breathing the fragrance. To her, flowers appealed with such strength she felt she must make them part of herself. When she bent and breathed a flower, it was as if she and the flower were loving each other. Paul hated her for it. There seemed a sort of exposure about the action, something too intimate. (Chapter 7)

It is a banal action – come and look at the flowers – but the nature description is breathtakingly confident – “The sky behind the townlet and the church was orange-red; the flower-garden was flooded with a strange warm light that lifted every leaf into significance.” – and it leads immediately, with no polite bridging passage or preparation, into statements of tremendous emotional intensity.

    Through the open door, stealthily, came the scent of madonna lilies, almost as if it were prowling abroad. Suddenly he got up and went out of doors.
The beauty of the night made him want to shout. A half-moon, dusky gold, was sinking behind the black sycamore at the end of the garden, making the sky dull purple with its glow. Nearer, a dim white fence of lilies went across the garden, and the air all round seemed to stir with scent, as if it were alive. He went across the bed of pinks, whose keen perfume came sharply across the rocking, heavy scent of the lilies, and stood alongside the white barrier of flowers. They flagged all loose, as if they were panting. The scent made him drunk. He went down to the field to watch the moon sink under. (Chapter 11)

Emotional intensity It is this fervour and earnestness which mark Lawrence out. Arguably in the first half of the book this intensity arises out of innocent and childish situations, and colours the predominantly rural settings, especially Paul’s frequent trips up to Willey Farm to see the Leivers family and slowly get closer to the youngest daughter, Miriam. Ie it is balanced with, and arises out of, natural description. Once Paul is a young man with a job in a stocking factory in Nottingham, the setting tends to be more urban and  lacks the rural context. I think it’s for this reason that most readers find the second half drier; there is more of the emotional intensity and it feels more unremitting:

    “You don’t want to love—your eternal and abnormal craving is to be loved. You aren’t positive, you’re negative. You absorb, absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you’ve got a shortage somewhere.”
She was stunned by his cruelty, and did not hear. He had not the faintest notion of what he was saying. It was as if his fretted, tortured soul, run hot by thwarted passion, jetted off these sayings like sparks from electricity. She did not grasp anything he said. She only sat crouched beneath his cruelty and his hatred of her. She never realised in a flash. Over everything she brooded and brooded. (Chapter 9)

Although he has a marvellous facility for writing wonderful natural descriptions at will, for Lawrence Nature is always embedded in human relations; or the Nature descriptions are never in their own right or a passive background; they are always intimately involved with the humans in the foreground, humans who are generally troubled. Miriam and Paul are arguing:

    “Let us sit here a minute,” said Miriam.
He sat down against his will, resting his back against the hard wall of hay. They faced the amphitheatre of round hills that glowed with sunset, tiny white farms standing out, the meadows golden, the woods dark and yet luminous, tree-tops folded over tree-tops, distinct in the distance. The evening had cleared, and the east was tender with a magenta flush under which the land lay still and rich.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she pleaded.
But he only scowled. He would rather have had it ugly just then. (Chapter 9)

Sex The second half of the book is pressed forward by young man Paul’s growing urge to have sex and sex he duly proceeds to have, first with Miriam then with Clara. In both places there is build up and then abruptly the afterglow. Presumably the scenes themselves were cut by Lawrence’s mentor and patron in the London literary world, Edward Garnett, who cut 10% of the text before it was published. Would be interesting to read the full, unexpurgated text…

Working class I read that subsequent English working class writers are in Lawrence’s debt, though this is a big subject: Did he affect genuine proletarian authors like Robert Tressell, Walter Greenwood, James Hanley and Lewis Grassic Gibbon – did he influence the kitchen sink dramatists of the 1950s and 60s – Osborne and Wesker and Delaney – did he influence the novelists of working class life –  of Stan Barstow, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe? Certainly the first half of the book is a sustained description of life in a mining family and that family obviously remains Paul’s homeland but a) it is never really a proletarian household since Gertrude Morel always has higher aspirations for her children and b) they go on to fulfil them: none of the Morel children remain in the working class ie work with their hands: the eldest son, William, goes on to make a very good living in an office in London.

Nostalgia This is a good text to teach because it is overflowing with definable and teachable “issues”: working class life, the growth of an artist, gender and feminism, the creation of personality etc etc. Beneath it all I think, for the reader in 2013, the most powerful aspect of the novel is one of nostalgia. The whole world of this book is lost forever. The cameraderie of men engaged in hard physical labour has gone; the closeness of town and country has gone; the untouched beauty of Nature has gone, ruined by cars and motorways – nobody would think of walking 12 miles from Nottingham city centre to an outlying village, and that the walk would be pleasant and scenic! – In a culture saturated by cars and screens and consumerist fantasies, the care and attention which all of Lawrence’s characters pay to the natural world, to flowers and birds, and to each others’ transient evanescent feelings and perceptions, is long long gone, as distant as ancient Rome.

And I think it’s for its wonderful depiction of a lost pre-lapsarian world that Sons and lovers remains so popular and so well-loved.

Eastwood now A DH Lawrence website by a local gives a useful sense of what the locale of Lawrence’s early years and the settings of ‘Sons and Lovers’ look like now and it looks pretty horrible, Not because of poverty or rundown but because it has been cleansed and destroyed by traffic, roads, roadsigns, kerbs and double yellow lines and street lights, all the clutter of 20th century life which Lawrence hated because it destroyed the sensuous experiences of sight and touch and smell.

Where there was a valley across which the Morel children could stare across at the Derbyshire hills by day, or over a deep bowl of darkness at night, now runs the busy A610, permanently illuminating the countryside for miles around with the dead orange glow which has destroyed so much of England; and in the other direction, off to the east runs the M1 raping the landscape. As he wrote in his 1928 essay, ‘Nottingham and the Mining Country’:

“The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile.”

Nothing in the English attitude has changed since 1928. But the condition of the condition of the landscape has got a lot lot worse. Where are the wild flowers? And what are we doing to the birds?

Full text of ‘Sons and Lovers’ on the University of Adelaide website

John Bayley review of the unexpurgated Sons and Lovers

David Herbert Lawrence about the time of Sons and Lovers

David Herbert Lawrence about the time of Sons and Lovers

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