A Sentimental Education, considered by some critics to be Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece, was without question one of the most influential French novels of the nineteenth century. The novel, for which Flaubert drew largely on autobiographical material, is the author’s rewrite of a draft by the same title that he had written two decades earlier. The work represents his effort to produce a moral history of the men of his generation.
Flaubert’s concern is with the organic growth of a personality and with the unfolding and discovery of the self. Education has, for Flaubert, the almost existential meaning of becoming through action. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist, Frederic Moreau, is little more than a potentiality, an empty page on which experience has yet to leave its mark. It is only as Frederic confronts the world and is forced to make choices and to react among other people that he develops into a complicated and tormented human being. The conflict is always between the man who was and the man who is about to be. To reflect this, the time sequence in the novel is poised between past and future, between the raw youth and the man of experience who is sadder and wiser but not necessarily better.
The question facing Frederic, particularly after he has moved to Paris, is whether he should become a man of the world, successful in love and business, and a man of action who is conventional in his behavior and opinions, or whether he should become a spectator of life, an outsider who remains aloof from the vanity of action and struggles to translate his ideal vision into artistic form. It is the same question that Flaubert himself faced: to be a man of the world, with all of his superficiality and convention, or a man of art, no longer of the real world. At the beginning, by necessity, Frederic stands on the sidelines, watching. He has not been able to enter society, knows few people, and has little money; so he watches the activities of others. This passive quality is emphasized by the repetition of verbs such as “he watched,” “he contemplated,” “he admired,” and “he dreamed.” Frederic seems to be a wallflower at a great and glorious ball. Then two events thrust him into the stream of action: love and the inheritance of a fortune from his uncle. With these, his real education begins.
Love is almost a pattern for all the lessons of life, according to the point of view expressed in this novel, and education, in the sense of...
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