(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A Sentimental Education, Flaubert’s third novel, furthered the author’s reputation for realism through its depiction of the recent past, specifically the events of 1848. The novel also had another realistic twist in its autobiographical underpinnings: The basis for Frédéric’s infatuation with Madame Arnoux is Flaubert’s idealization of Madame Maurice Schlésinger (Elisa Foucault), whom he had met while on vacation at Trouville, when he was only fourteen. Madame Schlésinger, the wife of a music editor and then twenty-six years old, became for Flaubert the model of an ideal but distant woman.

A Sentimental Education follows its hero Frédéric Moreau over a period of many years, from his youth and its romantic aspirations through a series of lessons in life in which Frédéric is exposed to the decidedly unromantic side of a number of lifestyles. Political idealism, brotherhood, high society, finance, and the art world are all demystified as Frédéric learns more about each segment of society. Gradually, his ideals are eroded, leaving him only with disillusionment. When he gets together with his old childhood friend, Deslauriers, at the end of the novel, they relive their schoolboy days, including one incident in particular when they went to a brothel. In the closing words of the novel, the two men decide that these were the best times they had ever had. The nostalgia for their lost youth and innocence is poignant, yet at the same time the reader is left wondering. If a botched visit to a brothel is the highlight of their youth and the best that they remember, this fact alone speaks volumes about the many disappointments their lives contain.

A constant theme weaving together Frédéric’s lessons in life is his love for Madame Arnoux. He meets her for the first time by chance when she is a fellow traveler on the ferry he is taking home to Nogent, and it is love at first sight for him. He is only...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

A Sentimental Education Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1840, the boat down the Seine to Nogent has among its passengers Frederic Moreau, who is returning home after finishing his course at the Collège de Sens and who has the prospect of a long vacation before beginning his law studies in Paris. Seeing on the boat an older man whose conversation is eagerly followed by a group of admirers, Frederic draws closer to hear what is being said. In a most worldly fashion, Monsieur Arnoux is holding forth on the subject of women. He notices Frederic in the circle, and after he finishes speaking, he introduces himself to the young man and the two promenade for some time on deck. Arnoux invites Frederic to call on him when he arrives in Paris.

Frederic then goes up to the first-class deck to sit and reflect on his homecoming. There he sees an attractive woman knitting; Frederic thinks she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. She is a little older than he and has a demure manner; she never once looks directly at him, though they are alone on the deck. Frederic moves several times to see her from different angles. Finally she drops her ball of yarn, and Frederic retrieves it; her murmur of thanks is pleasant to hear. A few minutes later, a little girl approaches, and he knows the child is the woman’s daughter. Then Arnoux appears on deck and Frederic learns that the woman is his wife. When the boat docks, he watches them drive away.

Madame Moreau, a widow, is glad to see her son; she has placed all her hopes in his future career in diplomacy. As soon as he decently can leave his mother, Frederic goes out to meet his friend Deslauriers, a young man who is also planning a legal career. The two friends discuss at great length their plans for their life in Paris in the fall.

When the time comes for Frederic to leave for Paris, a neighbor of the Moreaus, Monsieur Roque, gives him a letter for Monsieur Dambreuse, a rich Paris banker. Madame Moreau advises her son to call on Dambreuse as soon as he can, for the banker will be able to be of great help to a young lawyer. Bidding good-bye to his relatives and to his neighbor Louise Roque, a girl who has become his special friend during the summer, Frederic leaves for Paris and his studies at the university.

Deslauriers and Frederic take an apartment together and begin to attend lectures in law. Frederic finds it very difficult to keep his mind on his studies, however, for he thinks most of the time of Madame Arnoux. He finally receives an invitation to the Arnoux store, a large establishment dealing in paintings and other works of art. He is patient enough to establish an intimate relationship with Arnoux, hoping that eventually he will meet Arnoux’s wife.

One night, Arnoux invites Frederic to a masquerade ball, and there Arnoux introduces him to Rosanette, an attractive woman whom her friends call la Maréchale. Frederic is sure that Rosanette is Arnoux’s mistress. He is glad to learn about the liaison, thinking that it improves his chances of becoming friendly with Madame Arnoux.

When Frederic is finally invited to dine at the Arnoux home, he is happy to learn that Madame Arnoux remembers him perfectly. She is a friendly woman, but as time goes on Frederic sees little chance of his ever becoming more intimate with her. Even when he is regularly included in gatherings at the Arnoux country house, he makes no progress. He finally has to conclude that his friends are right: Madame Arnoux is a good woman.

So great is his preoccupation with the pursuit of Madame Arnoux that Frederic...

(The entire section is 1451 words.)