Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619
“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...
(The entire section contains 619 words.)
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“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 relationship develops slowly, which gives Brodkey room to incorporate all the subtle detail that characterizes his stories. The detail in this story involves a careful analysis of the human emotions that are evoked by young love, particularly when both parties are unsure of themselves.
The relationship is platonic for some weeks, although both Elgin and Caroline want more. Both are too reserved to move toward expressing their feelings physically. Finally, however, after weeks of daily study sessions in Widener Library and of going out onto the Fenway, where Caroline tries to give Elgin elocution lessons, Elgin confesses his love to Caroline. Although Caroline does not immediately confess a reciprocal love, she does feel love for him, and they soon find their way into his bed.
The relationship initially surprises both of them. They have the feeling that such a drastic expression of love should offer something more than it has given them. Although they continue their affair, Caroline feels increasingly cheapened by it. She hates to admit to and surrender to her animal appetite, but she cannot deny that it exists. As time passes, the relationship changes; Elgin talks of marriage, but Caroline realizes how impractical that would be. She also thinks that she has lost her dignity by giving herself to Elgin and that he will not continue to love her because of that lost dignity.
During their last five weeks before the summer holiday, the two are chaste, although they see each other daily. They kiss, and touch, but they restrain their desires. On their last day together, they drink champagne. Caroline has to catch the night train to Baltimore and later go to Europe for the summer. Elgin is leaving too, presumably to return to the Midwest. They agree to see each other in the fall but only as friends. The story ends as Caroline walks back to her dormitory alone, at her own request. Walking away from Elgin, she feels a certain release, for she has shed the pressures of love and close daily association.
This story is different from any of the others in the collection. Unlike the first three, it is a third-person, author omniscient narrative. It is perhaps the most delicately presented of all the stories in First Love and Other Sorrows.