The Sentimental Education (L’Education sentimentale) by Gustave Flaubert is a bleak and depressing book. It is also a confusing and difficult book in some ways. I have just read it for the third or fourth time. Supposedly, Ford Maddox Ford said that one cannot consider oneself educated until one has read it fourteen times…I’ve a ways to go.
The plot is simple: A young man, Frederic Moreau, comes to Paris from the country, ostensibly to study law. On a river boat, he meets a married woman, Madame Arnoux, and falls in love with, develops a monumental crush on, becomes infatuated with her. How you describe his feelings has a lot to do with how you make sense of the book. The rest of the story unwinds over the years as he periodically falls in and out of love with her, always from a distance, for she is a respectable woman, and is not interested in an adulterous affair. Frederic satisfies his amorous longings elsewhere. Meanwhile, the upheaval of the Revolution of 1848 comes and goes. Frederic runs through all his uncle’s money that he inherited and ends up moving back to the country. C’est tout!
The subtitle of the novel is “The story of a young man.” Frederic is a sort of anti-hero, i.e., as the main character of the novel, he is not very inspiring. He is good looking, has a sense of humour, is generous, intelligent, and reasonably well educated. He is also weak, without direction, a bit spoiled, given to useless romantic day dreaming, incapable of forming an honest relationship with a woman, and rather superficial. In the course of the book, he accomplishes absolutely nothing with his life. It is clear that were it not for his inheritance, which gives him material comfort and social status, he would be nothing at all.
Stange to have such an unappealing character as a protaganist, but that is Flaubert’s way. When asked how he knew about women like his “heroine” Emma Bovary, he replied, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” He identifies with his characters, he sympathizes with them, but he does not spare them or flatter them.
At times, reading this book, I felt that Frederic was a sort of male Emma. That is, if Emma Bovary had had the freedom that being male and having money brought in that society, instead of being a provincial petty bourgeois woman trapped in a dull marriage and dying of boredom, only able to dream about the things that Frederic does, she would have been like him. In many ways, they share a profound superficiality. Frederic ends by becoming a provincial non-entity. Emma stuffs her mouth with arsenic and dies a horrible death. Women have it pretty bad in a lot of nineteenth century novels. [The image here shows Isabelle Huppert playing Emma in a recent film version of Madame Bovary.]
Throughout the novel, women are treated pretty much as whores or bank accounts. If they have money, men try to marry them. If they are good looking, they try to get them in bed. Some make their living that way, at various levels of classiness, like Rosanette, Frederic’s mistress, who has a large stable of lovers at one time or another, and whom Frederic “shares” with Arnoux, the husband of his true love. This irritates Frederic, but of course, he does nothing about it. Frederic’s lack of honesty with himself and lady friends about his feelings is absolutely typical of all the men in the book, and perhaps of most men of that time. Women are interchangeable. His love for Madame Arnoux often seems childish, almost like an incestuous mother-fixation, he idealizes her so much. At other times, his erotic longings take on a darker cast:
Another thirst had come to him the thirst for women, for licentious pleasure, for all that Parisian life permitted him to enjoy…Already the dream had taken hold of him. It seemed to him that he was yoked beside Arnoux to the pole of a hackney-coach, and that the Marechale sat astride him, and disembowelled him with her gold spurs.
The confusing aspect of the novel is the way it presents the everyday reality through which Frederic moves. The progression of time is not clear – we rarely know what year it is or when things happened. We are dropped into dinner parties and meetings at which we are given snatches of conversation, references to ideas and controversies in the air, often without quite knowing who is saying what. The characters say things in conversation that don’t get answered – remarks are left hanging in the air. Many exchanges have ambiguous meanings for us, and for the characters?
Of course, the tumultuous events of the revolution come in for a good deal of scrutiny by Flaubert. In one of the more cinematic sequences, Frederic makes his way through some contested streets, men die next to him, he steps on a hand, two people are arguing on the sidewalk, it all seems like a show. Later, in bed with his mistress, he hears the sounds of carts and marching in the streets below. He is sobbing – “I’ve wanted you for so long!” Of course, it’s a lie. He has just dashed all his hopes of ever becoming intimate with Madame Arnoux. His dissembling is something of a metaphor for the political chaos and disillusion to come.
Flaubert operates on the stupidity of revolutionary politics and reaction with a sharp scalpel:
At a gathering of well-to-do citizens:
Most of the men present had served at least four governments; and they would have sold France or the human race in order to preserve their own incomes, to save themselves from any discomfort or embarrassment, or even through sheer baseness, through worship of force. They all insisted that political crimes were inexcusable. It would be less harmful to pardon those which were provoked by want.
The omnipresent cliche, doing service for thought:
And they did not fail to put forward the eternal illustration of the father of a family stealing the eternal loaf of bread from the eternal baker.
The utopian naivete of the workers:
“Still, you ought to take care of yourself.”
“Pooh! I am substantial! What does this matter? The Republic is proclaimed! We’ll be happy henceforth! Some journalists, who were talking near me just now, said they were going to liberate Poland and Italy! No more kings! You understand? The entire land free ! the entire land free ! “
This idealistic young man, befriended by Frederic, is shot down in the end, while protesting on the steps of a monument. Frederic’s jaw drops when he sees that the soldier who killed him is Senecal, the one-time fiery and puritanical socialist revolutionary. He’s gone over to the forces of reaction – power is his ultimate good.
In several set-pieces, Flaubert depicts the chaotic looting that took place in Paris when the insurgents gained control:
A vulgar curiosity made them rummage all the dressing-rooms, all the recesses. Liberated convicts thrust their arms into the beds of princesses, and rolled themselves on the top of them, to console themselves for not being able to embrace their owners. Others, with sinister faces, wandered about silently, looking for something to steal, but too great a multitude was there. . . The heat became more and more suffocating; and the two friends, afraid of being stifled, seized the opportunity of escaping. . .In the antechamber, standing on a heap of garments, appeared a girl of the town [common whore] as a statue of Liberty, motionless, her grey eyes wide open a fearful sight.
The forces of order fare no better in the text – they treat the beaten insurgents with terrible brutality:
There were nine hundred men in the place, huddled together in the midst of filth, with no attempt at order, their faces blackened with powder and clotted blood, shivering with ague and breaking out into cries of rage ; those who were brought there to die were not separated from the rest. . . The lamp, suspended from the arched roof, looked like a stain of blood, and little green and yellow flames fluttered about, caused by the emanations from the vault. Through fear of epidemics, a commission was appointed. When he had advanced a few steps, the President recoiled, frightened by the stench from the excrements and from the corpses.
As soon as the prisoners drew near a vent-hole, the National Guards who were on sentry, in order to prevent them from shaking the bars of the grating, prodded them indiscriminately with their bayonets.
As a rule they showed no pity … for the fascination of self-interest equaled the madness of want, aristocracy had the same fits of fury as low debauchery, and the cotton cap did not show itself less hideous than the red cap.
And everywhere, there is the shadow of received wisdom – people “thundering against”this and that, using phrases that would be echoed later in his Dictionary of Received Ideas, a compendium of cliches and common stupidity:
Then Property attained in the public regard the level of Religion, and was confounded with God. The attacks made on it appeared to them a sacrilege; almost a species of cannibalism.
“It’s a law written on the face of Nature! Children cling to their toys. All peoples, all animals have the same instinct. The lion even, if he were able to speak, would declare himself a proprietor! I myself, messieurs, began with a capital of fifteen thousand francs. Would you be surprised to hear that for thirty years I used to get up at four o’clock every morning? I’ve had as much pain as five hundred devils in making my fortune ! And people want to tell me I’m not the master, that my money is not my money ; in short, that property is theft ! “
And it ends in a fizzle. Frederic and Deslauriers, both failures, having watched their dreams and their illusions crash, but still friends, recall an incident from their school years when they visited the town brothel. Frederic was so timid and embarrassed that he got spooked and ran, and since he had the money, Deslauriers had to follow. “Those were the best times!” Is this a final, ironic rapier thrust into the belly of their self-delusion and triviality? Is it a nostalgic surrender to the age of innocence? Or is it an ambiguous recognition and acceptance of both, and more?
Here is a link to the full text of the novel, albeit, in a rather stuffy translation from the 1920’s.