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...
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