Frederic Moreau is a law student returning home to Normandy from Paris when he first notices Mme Arnoux, a slender, dark woman several years older than himself. It is the beginning of an infatuation that will last a lifetime. He befriends her husband, an influential businessman, and their paths cross and re-cross over the years. Through financial upheaval, political turmoil and countless affairs, Mme Arnoux remains the constant, unattainable love of Moreau's life. Flaubert described his sweeping story of a young man's passions, ambitions and amours as 'the moral history of the men of my generation'. Based on his own youthful passion for an older woman, Sentimental Educationblends love story, historical authenticity and satire to create one of the greatest French novels of the nineteenth century.
In 1840 Frédéric Moreau, the protagonist of Sentimental Education, was eighteen years old. The novel opens as a paddlewheel steamboat is about to depart from Paris, continuing its voyage up the Seine from Le Havre where Frédéric had gone to visit his uncle. Frédéric 's family home is in Nogent-sur-Seine, where he is now headed. As fate would have it, he encounters on board a married couple, Monsieur and Madame Arnaux, who will play a significant role in his eventual Parisian sojourn — and not for the better as it turns out.
Well born and with bright prospects ahead of him, he is sent off to Paris to attend law school. He has become obsessed with Madame Arnaux while at the same time cultivating a friendship with the husband. Frédéric 's obsession eventually interferes with his ability to concentrate on his studies, and it soon becomes apparent that his ambitions exceed his abilities. Adultery was something that men seemed to take for granted and married women in general had as ever a very dim view of it. Frédéric 's assumption that it was okay for him to be an interloper into another man's marriage was a commonplace.
The entire novel concerns itself with Frédéric 's mediocre self, his mediocre friends, and his intrigues with various women over a ten-year period and on whom he squanders three-quarters of his fortune. When he is presented with a real opportunity to advance himself, he passes up an appointment with an influential aristocrat because he finds it more important to follow Madame Arnaux into the countryside.
All of Frédéric 's various intrigues take place against a backdrop of the political, social and cultural realities of the time. We see the Revolution of 1848 from the point of view of young men who actually participated.
Flaubert's descriptions — whether they concern street fights or dinner parties, masked balls or political harangues — are vivid and quite compelling, and it is the background that actually drives the novel. Frédéric is hopeless, and one wishes that he will stop sleepwalking through his own life and make some sort of breakthrough, but it never happens. Many of his friends who also showed some promise as young men, suffer a similar lack of success, but for different reasons. As one of his friends said to him when looking back on their lives in retrospect, "I had too much logic, and you too much sentiment." This pretty much sums it up.
Sentimental Education is a fascinating artifact of its time, and an excellent example of Flaubert's Realism and his deeply ironic view of society, but in some ways it represents no advancement at all beyond Madame Bovary. It is merely another chronicle of an adulterous life, but with less drastic consequences.
The core of the novel hinges around the growth of a young man, Frederic Moreau, who wants to move up in the world of society. Born in the small town of Nogent, with limited means, sees as his way to prosper by engaging or marrying a woman of means. At the same time, he feels that he must get a mistress- preferably of means too, naturally. He goes through several liasons and his passion for them ebbs and flows depending on how much they seem to have. His indecision leads him to missing on the best opportunity he had when he decides to marry a neighbor girl of his when they were young children, only to find out that she is marrying one of his friends.
Typical of most 18th or 19th century European novels, the characters see either an inheritance or marriage the ways to become rich. It's hardly ever hard work or dedication, but rather an unexpected turn of luck when one of their uncles dies and leaves them a rich inheritance. It's a perverse way of looking at the world. I see today's equivalent in the hope many people put on winning the lottery. Also, business people are most often depicted as not honorable people- they gain at the expense of others or society.
Back to the novel. I found it generally very engaging and a fast read. Although it's long (the B&N version is about 480 pages of small script) I couldn't put it down and had to figure out ways to get back to reading it.
The novel talks about the life of a young man, Frederic, during the French Revolution and the founding of the French Empire in 1848. It is said that Frederic is in fact Flaubert himself telling about some real events in his life and of course about his platonic love for an older woman, in the book, called Mme Arnoux.
We are able to follow, with a somehow ironic and pessimistic tone, a different set of characters who live the important changes of the era, from the Republican idealist Sénecal to the well off banker Mr. Dambruese, passing several courtesans and artists on the way. The book combines highly advanced politics with almost philosophical wanderings such as existence and death , passion and love, morality and justice...
Each character represents an icon, Mme Arnoux, unattainable perfection; Rosannette, troubled and used courtesan; Deslauries, ambitious and envious middle class lawyer; all of them combine into a well constructed scenery which engulfs you into the story, even if you don't want to.
The book left me wondering if a man is to be judged by the result of his actions or by his good intentions. The answer might not be as easy as it seems after you've read Frederic's story.
A book that shouldn't be missed by those who appreciate a smart and eloquent reading. I think this work outperforms Flaubert's "Madame Bovary".
Letter to Paul Romaine, 1932
Selected Letters, pg. 366
And that is my main problem with Sentimental Education - that it tries to cover too much and as a result everyone and everything receives naught but a shallow treatment. The era is fantastically interesting but Flaubert only drops various passing references to real events. Certain fictional events within the book take place that are quite scathing towards people of that era and it's a shame that these happenings are so inadequately developed. The same is true of the characters. Many flit in and out with little consequence. Even our leads spend so much time rushing from one event to another that we're denied a deep impression of them.
It makes for a somewhat frustrating book. The book is far more readable than Madame Bovary (and far more likeable too, in my opinion) but it lacks that earlier work's strict focus. Perhaps if it were the length of War and Peace it could really have worked? As it is it's an entertaining read but one that's too slight to leave a strong impression.
As Flaubert himself has said, in somewhat different words, ''don't read Sentimental Education in order to learn something. Read, for the sake of the reading experience.'' Free from emotional attachment and moralistic dictations, Flaubert's Sentimental Education is an experience everyone should get a taste of.
I understand that this book wasn't nearly as popular in Flaubert's time as Madame Bovary, and I see why. Emma Bovary may have come to a sad end, but nobody can say she didn't try. If nothing else, she had spirit. Frederic, the protagonist of this book - well, there's a line in an old song by Kirsty MacColl and the Pogues, "I could have been someone," the singer says, and Kirsty replies, "Well, so could anyone." It's what you'd like to tell Frederic. There were a thousand roads he could've taken at any point. If he'd only bothered to venture down any one of them, he could've been someone. The story of a life wasted does not make for an entertaining read.