Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Sentimental Education,” one of the stories in First Love and Other Sorrows, was first published in The New Yorker. It is a tentative step in the direction of “Innocence,” which was published sixteen years later. Set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the story features the nineteen-year-old Elgin Smith, who is an undergraduate at Harvard University. The only other character to appear directly in the story is Caroline Hedges, a freshman at Radcliffe College.
The action takes place within a college year, during which time both Elgin and Caroline are forced to reassess their values. Their relationship grows, but the direction of their growth is not always toward each other. When the school year ends, they go their separate ways, although they do not break from each other decisively. They agree to meet again in the fall, but as friends rather than as lovers.
Elgin first sees Caroline on the steps of Widener Library and is instantly smitten. She does not know of his existence until two weeks later. Elgin drops his course in the Victorian novel and enrolls in a class on metaphysical poets because he knows that Caroline is also taking that course. He borrows a pencil from her during several class meetings and finally impresses her by his classroom contributions, though she is disturbed by his nasal, midwestern twang. When he invites her to have coffee with him, she declines but decides to say yes to his next invitation....
(The entire section is 619 words.)
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