A Sentimental Education

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A young man from the provinces, Frederic Moreau comes to Paris and dabbles in law, literature, and painting, supported by a private income and then an inheritance. His one real passion is for Madame Arnoux, who looks to him like a woman out of romantic novels. He pursues her with devotion, but when her son falls ill, she fails to appear at the decisive tryst where he had hoped to seduce her. Frederic consoles himself by going off with Rosanette, the mistress of Madame Arnoux’s husband. Thus, he both loses the reward of his romantic passion and, on the same day, misses the heroic uprising that begins the overthrow of the monarchy.

Out of sync with history, Frederic enters a period of cynical disillusionment. His illegitimate child dies in infancy. He neglects Rosanette in order to further his career by courting the wife of the wealthy capitalist Dambreuse. Dambreuse dies, and his widow proposes to Frederic. He is ready to marry her, but then it is discovered that her husband has left his money elsewhere. Frederic declines the proposal.

The novel’s one hero is Dussardier, who is shocked into joining the Revolution by the cruelty of government reprisals against the people of Paris. Dussardier is contrasted to Senecal, a dogmatic revolutionary who becomes a factory manager and then a police agent. In the coup d’etat of 1851, Senecal murders Dussardier while the latter is crying “Vive la republique!” The revolution is crushed, and...

(The entire section is 587 words.)