Salammbô is the most violent 19th century novel I have ever read, or read about. Other candidates for this honor are welcome.
The trees behind them were still smoking; half-burned carcasses of apes dropped from their blackened boughs from time to time into the midst of the dishes. Drunken soldiers snored open-mouthed by the side of the corpses, and those who were not asleep lowered their heads, dazzled by the light of day. The trampled soil was hidden beneath splashes of red. The elephants poised their bleeding trunks between the stakes of the pen. (end of Ch. I)
“Poised” sounds odd – the French is “balançaient.” Regardless, this is just the end of the first chapter, in which a splendid feast for the Mercenaries erupts into typically horrific violence. The scene is set, violence explodes, calm returns – Flaubert uses this pattern in many chapters. The violence and destruction accelerate, flesh is rended, tortures are inflicted, corpses are heaped.
I’m using this odd passive voice because the point of view in the most violent scenes is rarely that of an individual but of a group (sound familiar, Emily?), the citizens of Carthage or the riders of the war elephants or the left flank of the Mercenary army. The subject is often “they”: “Sometimes they [marching Carthaginian soldiers] would see what looked like the eyes of a tiger-cat gleaming in a bush by the side of the road” (Ch. IX). But the point of view flits around wildly, as is typical with Flaubert.
Walter Scott set the standard for fictional battles in Waverley (1814) – fix on a single character and follow him across the historical battlefield. The author might have to stretch a detail or two to make sure his character sees everything the author wants the reader to see. One can think of Fabrice at Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma or any number of scenes in War and Peace for more sophisticated examples. Flaubert ignores all of this. He would have been an outstanding writer of military history, except then he would not have been able to dwell on what he really cared about: blood, suffering, wounds, death. Chapter XII begins “Twelve hours afterwards all that remained of the Mercenaries was a heap of wounded, dead, and dying,” and then Flaubert really gets going. “The foot trod on” – no, let’s just move on.
The novel ends with a series of three climaxes, each more violent than the next. Carthage has to destroy itself to save itself, that’s the theme of Chapter XIII, “Moloch,” an orgy of child sacrifice, Carthage throwing its own sons into the flames:
The victims, when scarcely at the edge of the opening, disappeared like a drop of water on a red-hot plate, and white smoke rose amid the great scarlet colour.
The citizens demand that General Hamilcar sacrifice his son as well, and at this point the reader might begin to feel a hint of something resembling sympathy. Since Hamilcar’s son is Hannibal, the famous one, prosecutor of the Second Punic War, we can be certain that he is not sacrificed. Perhaps there will be a spot of relief? No. Wrong novel. Leave it at that.
Salammbô has no heroes, no center of sympathy, no one to root for, another result of the obscure setting – what reader really cares which side wins the war, the brutal and destructive Mercenaries, or the corrupt, empty, child-sacrificing Carthaginians? It’s a sadistic novel. I’ve never read Sade’s work, and I hope I never will, but that’s the tradition Flaubert is working in, although he thankfully seems to have little or no interest in sexual violence. Flaubert’s novel, like certain poems of Baudelaire, or Isidore Ducasse’s Maldoror, or the Zola of Thérèse Raquin, is anti-humanist, not just skeptical but profoundly pessimistic, verging on nihilistic.
The novel is, in all sorts of odd ways, a shadow version of Les Misérables, published the same year. Hugo’s novel, Hugo’s Paris, is also filled with corruption and cruelty, but the book is humanistic, an angry protest, an exhortation to reform. Flaubert is after something else.