A Sentimental Education is the story of Frederic Moreau –a young man from the provinces who arrives in Paris, with great ambitions and romantic ideals, and goes on to witness the revolution of 1848, with its corresponding political change and social upheaval.
For general readers: A Sentimental Education is obsessed with conveying feeling – of a time, a society and an individual – more than delivering plot. Characters disappear and reappear and focus shifts with the developing emotional and mental life of the protagonist the only constant.
Moreau is a deeply flawed character – cowardly, selfish and entirely preoccupied with his all-eclipsing emotional life. Yet somehow he manages to engage reader sympathy. We feel for him as he pines hopelessly over another man’s wife – the beautiful, long-suffering Madame Arnoux – and sympathise as he deals with the coquettish courtesan Rosanette (‘The Marshal’). Moreau’s fickleness and his self-obsessed nature are not unique character traits. Almost everyone who features in the novel is the same (with a partial exception perhaps of Frederic’s mother and Madame Arnoux) and it is the capricious course of human action in all things, whether politics or love, which directs action.
At times the novel feels like an assault on the senses – violence on the streets, decadent parties, a surplus of flesh and feeling. But, for a novel obsessed with desire, sex itself is often lacking, and, where it features, dissatisfying. The novel ends with Frederic and his friend Deslauriers discussing a teenage visit to a brothel when the very sight of the women available to them made them turn and flee. They agree that this was their ‘best time’, confirming the belief throughout the novel that feelings themselves are more meaningful than experiences and desire sated is desire lost.
For students: Published nearly a decade after his most famous novel – Madame Bovary (1857) – A Sentimental Education is a good text for comparison, dealing as it does again with the emotional life of a central character (this time a man) and similar sexual ‘immorality’.
For students of English literature, the novel is an interesting read for understanding the hostility towards the moral liberality of French realism. Henry James’s admiration for Flaubert is also understandable and telling. Flaubert’s characters’ realities are Jamesian in their subjective nature and there is the same obsession with the randomness of human interactions, though perhaps, in this instance at least, put under a less tragic and more satirical lens.