A Sentimental Education

by Gustave Flaubert

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 795

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 eighteen years old at the time, but this idealized love quickly becomes the dominant passion of his life. Frédéric befriends the expansive and genial Monsieur Arnoux, Marie’s husband, and becomes more deeply involved in his fortunes than he (Frédéric) would otherwise prefer, all in an attempt to retain his proximity to Arnoux’s wife. Frédéric loans money and becomes implicated in Arnoux’s affairs with mistresses, all to retain some contact with the family. Each time he resolves to take action, a twist of events thwarts him at the last minute (or are these merely pretexts to disguise his own ambivalence?), and Flaubert’s talents are fully deployed in creating dramatic irony that constantly defers resolution of the plot.

The most significant example of this irony comes when Frédéric finally has a chance to consummate his relationship with Madame Arnoux. They arrange a rendezvous, for which Frédéric even arrives early, but his anticipation gradually turns to disappointment as he waits and waits. Finally, after five hours, he leaves. This disappointment precipitates Frédéric’s next action, for he goes to see Arnoux’s mistress Rosanette in order to get his revenge. Thus, by the time he learns the real reason for Madame Arnoux’s failure to appear (her child had fallen ill), he had already judged the situation and engaged himself in another course of action (with Rosanette).

While preserving his ideal love, unconsummated, for Madame Arnoux, Frédéric enters a number of liaisons with other women that highlight in various ways the primary relationship. The relationship with Rosanette, for example, serves to contrast carnal love with the ideal and spiritual qualities with which Frédéric endows his love for Madame Arnoux. Similarly, his relationship with Louise underscores the role of inaccessibility in the development of the plot. Louise is ultimately uninteresting to Frédéric because she is accessible, and this paradox (wanting only what one cannot have) provides the key to understanding the failure of Frédéric’s relationship with Madame Arnoux: The moment that he thinks that she has finally become accessible to him is the moment that he starts looking elsewhere.

Frédéric Moreau is a male counterpart to Emma Bovary (indeed, the poet Charles Baudelaire once remarked that Emma Bovary had a man’s soul in a woman’s body), both characters trying to break out of the human condition of frustrated desire. Superficially, both characters can be read as weak and misguided individuals who suffer from the illusion that the grass is always greener somewhere else. Yet Flaubert treats this theme with indulgence for his characters’ weakness and suggests that their dissatisfactions also possess a metaphysical dimension.

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