It is a clever technique to set the characters of a story into a historical situation that can impact on them when required to stir some action and reflect their characteristics. Tolstoy does it brilliantly in War and Peace and there are scenes in Gustave Flaubert’s book that remind you of how it is easy to get caught up in the crowd.
Central to A Sentimental Education is Frederic, an ambitious country lad who wants to succeed, who from the very outset falls in love with a married woman and his chase for her shapes his destiny. Flaubert also introduces a best friend from school who is slightly more successful in his studies and career but in his chase for fame and fortune opts for politics and in the end the two friends compare their failure in both approaches.
Frederic is studying in Paris when he comes across Madame Arnoux who he falls in love with and in order to come into her orbit starts to hand around with her husband who runs an art gallery and magazine. As Frederic extends into the artistic circle around Arnoux he tries to increase his links with Madame Arnoux but he is set back firstly by his own financial problems and then by hers as her husband’s business ventures fail and they eventually have to leave Paris to escape their debts. Meanwhile the revolutionists are threatening to overthrow the monarchy and as he jostles for power Frederic gets involved with Arnoux’s mistress, taking her as his own, and then sets out to seduce a bankers wife because of the feeling of success such a conquest would give him. But in the end he only really loves Madame Arnoux and although they meet again and discuss their love it never amounts to anything and she leaves to age in Brittany. Meanwhile Frederic’s friends have had mixed fortunes with some doing well out of the revolution and others, including his best friend, failing to make the most of the changing conditions.
Is it well written?
The revolution, rise of friends and the chase to become successful are all seen through the eyes of Frederic the provincial and although you never quite feel an over whelming sympathy for him you do want him to find love. The fact that he never manages to secure it is perhaps because he was too sentimental but also a result of position in French society and the disadvantages of a provincial upbringing. The story develops and the ending is never certain and this deserves to be read by anyone who enjoyed Madame Bovary. The character he is also looking for something that they fail to find but it is a more rounded study not just of the search for love but also of the difficulty breaking out of a class strata into another position in French society.
Should it be read?
It is not as well known as Madame Bovary and presumably that is partly because it is not as much of a scandal for men to bed hop but this is as powerful. In the end it is not just Madame Arnoux that is beyond Frederic but the riches of the elite. The class debate runs through the book with the revolutionary background and so on that level it belongs to that strain of literature that uses political unrest as a background. But it also is worth reading as a study of personal growth and the risks of independence and the personal costs of making the wrong decisions. We have all grown up with regrets and as a result we can all identify with Frederic.
A provincial law student is smitten after seeing Madame Arnoux and spends the rest of his youth chasing a dream of her only to be left with nothing but maybes and dreams
Version read – Oxford University Press World’s Classics paperback