Although the publication of the St. Anthony belongs to the end of Flaubert's life, its creation, the influences under which it was composed, belong to the beginning of his career; and though the work that we have is considerably reduced in bulk from that to which Ducamp and Bouilhet listened in silence for two-and-thirty hours, its merits and defects are obviously the same.
"The Temptation of St. Anthony" is a succession of dissolving views, a pageantry of rich fantasies, in which all the fables that have haunted the human brain take shape, and are marshalled before the mystified saint.
The scene opens at sunset; the holy man is watching the departure of the great planet from a platform on the side of a mountain in the Thebaid. In one direction he sees the fertile level valley of the Nile, and the mighty river shining like a lake on the horizon; in the other the desert stretches its monotonous billows of yellowish grey to the feet of the Libyan mountains, whose outlines are slightly softened by violet mists; in the intervening space floats a fine dust of gold melting in the vibrations of light.
St. Anthony expresses disgust with life; reviews the past, and regrets the past content. Night comes; a wedge-shaped flight of swift-winged birds passes overhead; he wishes he could follow them. In the vague whiteness of the night appear pointed noses, upright ears, gleaming eyes; there is a sound of moving gravel. St. Anthony advances; it is a troop of jackals, they skurry off, all except one; the saint would like to stroke him, but the animal makes off; again the bitterness of solitude. The stars appear, and on the platform falls the shadow of a great cross; the saint withdraws into his hut and reads the Scriptures; he begins to wonder by what power Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil, and Solomon those of the Queen of Sheba.
The former clearly, because he was God, the latter because he was a magician; what a sublime science is magic! As the saint allows his imagination to dwell on it, the shadow of the cross changes its forms; the arms become two horns; St. Anthony horrified, calls to heaven for help, and the shadow resumes its original shape. The saint rises; again his past triumphs recur to him; he thinks he sees a procession winding its way to the mountain, possibly a wealthy female penitent coming to ask for counsel; he hopes it may be so, calls out and gives directions as to the path; echoes answer him, and he distinguishes other voices, as if the air were speaking, which offer him the love of women, wealth, military glory, popularity, rest, satisfied vengeance.
Then things change; the palm-tree at the edge of his platform becomes the gigantic bust of a woman leaning over the abyss; phantoms float past him, showing against the night like scarlet paintings on ebony; terrified, fatigued, exhausted, the saint falls upon his mat.