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Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert



Posted September 2, 2016 by

Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert – 1869

Posted by Lale on 20/7/2005, 16:16:08

sentimentaleducationI have a copy presented and annotated by Pierre-Marc de Biasi (Le livre de poche – Classiques de poche). Now this version has extensive explanations. What I don’t understand in the English version (due to the narration’s style of “chop chop, let’s move, there is no time to lose”), I understand through the notes of this Pierre-Marc de Biasi who has apparently made tremendous research.

I read 5-10 pages in English, then I read the same section in French. Just within the first 100 pages, I felt that my French was improving.

In one part, a friend asks Frédéric a favour. Frédéric agrees to it. For the life of me I couldn’t understand what this favour was. (It might just be my naïveté.) I learned what it was from the annotations in the French copy:

Finally, after much circumlocution, he explained the purpose of his visit: counting on his friend’s discretion, he had come to ask him for his help in an enterprise which, if successful, would establish him once for all in his own eyes as a man; and Frédéric did not refuse.

In French:

Enfin, avec beaucoup de périphrases, il exposa le but de sa visite; se fiant à la discrétion de son ami, il venait pour qu’il l’assistât dans une démarche, après laquelle il se regarderait définitivement comme un homme; et Frédéric ne le refusa pas.

Do you understand what the favour is? Maybe it’s because I’m a girl but in any case I did not get it. The editor of the French version gives this useful footnote (even the French thought that it needed explanation):

“Il n’ose pas se rendre seul au bordel.”

So, the friend is afraid to go to a brothel all by himself, he wants Frédéric to accompany him 😉

Reading in both languages slow down the process of course. But since the pace is so fast and the words are used so economically, I don’t mind reading everything twice.

The French copy also gives all the money amounts in today’s equivalent in euros. That is very helpful. For instance, at one point, Frédéric buys a gift for someone, it costs, in 1840s, 175 francs. Pierre-Marc de Biasi tells in his footnote that this amount is the equivalent of today’s 230 euros, which is 274 USD, quite an expensive gift for a student.

: The current Penguin edition is a 1964 translation by

: Robert Baldick. I looked at the first few pages on

: Amazon; Baldick’s translation is noticeably more formal.

This must be the one I have. I like it.


Posted by Steven on 29/7/2005, 18:53:09

It is interesting that Frederic has relationships with four different women, and each relationship is on a completely different basis:

Madame Arnoux – Romantic love. His attachment, at least in the beginning, is like the courtly love of the Middle Ages. A knight would fall in love at first sight with a lady, usually married. The less he knew about her, and the more impossible their eventual union, the better. Once Frederic comes into some money, though, he begins to think he can consummate the relationship, and it becomes more agressive and less courtly.

The Marshal – Physical lust. Later their attachment takes a different form, but initially it’s all hormonal.

Louise – Family ties. Louise loves Frederic, but what creates the relationship on his side is the attempt by his mother and M Roque to arrange a marriage. He goes along with it because he needs the money and she’s cute, but it’s not a relationship he would have gotten into on his own.

 Madame Dambreuse – Greed. Her being attractive doesn’t hurt, but what he wants is her patronage and, later when she is widowed, her money.

The irony is that, even though each relationship is on a completely different basis, each one might have come out OK had Frederic not been caught two-timing the lady in question. He tried to have it all, and wound up with nothing.


Posted by Lale on 30/7/2005, 19:14:41

Wasn’t there a decent soul in those days? Everyone is a scheming scoundrel. Even Frederic’s mother is not exempt. Other than Dussardier and Madame Arnoux, all characters have secret agendas and they don’t hesitate to lie, cheat or sell their friends to further their own causes. The amount of intrigue, the manouvers, the calculations amazed me. Wow!



Posted by Lale on 2/8/2005, 8:16:12

I don’t think I liked Frederic very much. He did show some decency towards Arnoux and more towards Dussardier. But those did not redeem him in my eyes. Even in his love for Madame Arnoux, he wasn’t “pure”. When she failed to show up for their rendez-vous, he was full of hatred. He didn’t even consider the possibility that her sick child (he was aware that the child was sick the day before) had taken a turn for the worse. At the end, when Madame Arnoux came to visit him and he saw her white hair, he was revolted, disgusted. Maybe these are all too human but combined with all his other exploits …

He misled Louise. He wasn’t sincere towards Rosanette or Madame Dambreux (and isn’t she a case herself?)

I didn’t like Deslaurier at all. He was always scheming something or another. His went after all four of Frederic’s women. His pass at Madame Arnoux was totally inappropriate and indecent. His marriage to Louise ??? Words fail me. And why did Frederic keep forgiving him and taking him back? Because they were alike. I wasn’t surprised to see them together at the end, two failures reminiscing about their childhood. The book started with them together and ended with them together, in between they backstabbed and cheated one another over and over again.

 The events of 1848 were hard to follow. I read everything twice and read all the footnotes of both books (French and English). I still couldn’t follow what was happening eactly and who was on whose side.

I think the book is brilliant. The style is different. There is a political background, a turmoil, and there is the Parisians going on about their love and money intrigues. I noticed all the themes I had already seen in Balzac’s Père Goriot, Stendhal’s Red & Black and Flaubert’s own Madame Bovary. The phenomenon of “femmes entretenues” fascinates me, so I started to re-read La Dame aux Camelias. I just have to stay with Paris and its society of 19th century a little longer, I can’t switch to a completely different topic so soon after reading Sentimental Education.

According to the introductions of the English and French versions I have, the book was criticized heavily at the time of its publishing. The intellectuals felt that they were misrepresented (Senecal becoming a traitor at the end and in fact killing Dussardier).



Posted by Lale on 3/8/2005, 10:06:23

What do you think of Frederic’s actions? Of Deslaurier’s? Of Arnoux?

What did you think of Frederic’s naivete? In many cases it is obvious to the reader that so-and-so is acting with such-and-such in mind, but Frederic remains clueless. He doesn’t understand that Arnoux is cheating on his wife, he doesn’t understand the meaning of his lies to her, he doesn’t even get the “rose” episode in which the bouquet of roses were wrapped up with a note from Mlle Vatnaz. he doesn’t get that Martinon is lover of Mme Dambreuse, he doesn’t get that Deslaurier is trying to marry Louise, he doesn’t get a lot of things. However, when it comes to his own love or his own benefits, he is just as scheming as the others. Wasn’t this a conflict?

 The other thing that shocked me was that the two men who fought (or almost fought) a duel can still come together at a dinner table a few months later.



Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 3/8/2005, 11:02:00

sentimentalWell, I liked this book a lot, I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Curiously enough, I enjoyed it very much although certainly none of the characters was really likable to me. Just as Lale says, almost everybody in the book is a scheming scoundrel. Possibly the characters I liked the most were Madame Arnoux and Louise, but not that much. Frederic makes mistake after mistake, and he ends up accordingly. He should have married Louise and found a job or a business to put his money in. It is somewhat frustrating that at many turns of his life happiness is at hand, yet he makes a bad choice and ruins his emotional fortunes.

I also didn’t like Deslauriers, an “arribiste”, a social climber of the worst sort. I agree with Lale in that his pass at Mme. Arnoux was just pathetic and low-budget. Dussardier is a good man, but not a very profound character. And so on. Arnoux, as a literary character, is wonderfully developed, but I wouldn’t want him as my son in law. I hope we can have an extended conversation about this rich book.

Overall, the novel is a vast panoply of personal and social lives, an extremely well-crafted portrait of Parisian life at the time, and I could say, of life in general. I certainly hope I don’t end up with a friend looking back at lost opportunities and lamenting my fate!!!


Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 3/8/2005, 11:08:57

Here is my review at Amazon:

Generally considered by the critic as a work slightly below “Madame Bovary”, this book is probably better. If the former is the criticism of life in the countryside, the latter is the unmerciful criticism of life in Paris between 1840 and 1850 something. Frederic Moreau, a young man of affluent situation, has finished his studies in Sens and moves to Paris to look after fortune, and, above all, after love. During a trip to his native Nogent-sur-Seine, Frederic makes the acquaintance of a certain Jacques Arnoux, editor and art merchant. Instantly, he falls madly in love with the man’s wife, Marie Arnoux. This passion will literally consume his whole life. Frederic goes back to Paris and sets upon conquering Mme. Arnoux and become her lover. To that end, he befriends M. Arnoux and his circle. He even becomes yet another lover of Arnoux’s mistress, Rosanette, a disolute and ignorant but charming young woman whom he meets in an all-night party with Arnoux and other colorful characters.

What follows is precisely the sentimental education of Frederic, a series of triumphs and defeats, of lost opportunities, as well as a comprehensive panoramic view of the Paris of those years, especially the Revolution of 1848 and its turbulent consequences, in which every character gets involved, except for Frederic himself. At one poiint, in a moment of failure and depression, Frederic goes back to Nogent, where he languishes and becomes the object of adoration of his little neighbour, Louise Roque. After believing he is economically ruined, he gets notice that an uncle has died and left him as sole heir, which makes him very rich. Stimulated by the good news, he returns to Paris and introduces himself in the grand world, thanks in part to his friendship with M. and Mme. Dambreuse. Meanwhile, after a disillusion with Marie Arnoux, he becomes the (almost) full-time lover of Rosanette.

In the background we witness the political mayhem which seem to affect everybody except him. And in his own life’s background, the passion for Marie becomes the leitmotif of his life. Encounters and, above all, disappointments, mark that always embrionary and frustrating relationship. Finally, life is what it has to be, according to the decisions of every character.

“Sentimental Education” is practically a perfect work. The economy of words and resources is never at odds with the poetic quality of the prose. But it is by no means a romantic book. Much on the contrary, it is a manifest against Romanticism, a fight against it. Flaubert never gets lost in verbosity; he always gets to the point and in the first one hundred pages he diposes of five years. In the last ones, something like fifteen years. It is the story of one -or better, many- disillusions. It is cruel, cold and passionate at the same time. Character development, and the abundance of them, is astonishing. Like in every great master of writing, even very minor characters have a personality of their own. The most disconcerting one is Frederic himself, a kind of permanent and passive witness of his world and the world around him. Little things of everyday life, clothes, and especially a certain small silver jewelry-box, embody a symbolic but absolute relevance. Flaubert portraits the corruption, frivolity, treason, adultery, fakeness and greed of nobles, bourgeois and proletary alike. Nobody gets spared, not even the reader, in this book whose ending is terrible and yet not, but certainly moving. The reader, at least this one, comes out of it with a wrinkled heart, and with more wisdom about the ways of the world. Absolutely recommended.


Posted by Pierre on 3/8/2005, 16:01:58

I’m sorry to say that, but with I’m a bit surprised by your general enthousiasm for this novel which, alas, lowered the big opinion I had previously of Flaubert. Of course I had the great chance to be able to read it in French, to understand every nuance of style.

My first Flaubert had been “Salaambo”, at the age of sixteen, thanks to a big illness wich forced me to bed. Then came “Mme Bovary”, whose ultra-stylish composition much impressed me. But with “Sentimental Education”, I don’t know why, the magic didn’t work and I never really felt concerned by what I was reading.

Yes, in every sentence you feel the happy long-thought choice of every word, but I found many descriptions dry, like a huge panorama never to stop passing in front of you. The action was sometimes too much dense, with too much things happening in the same time, and the characters were sometimes presented in a rather not-enough-subtle way, like cardboard figures only made to impersonate classical social classes genres (the artist, the writer, the anarchist, etc). Sometimes, in his purpose of depicting every detail of parisian life in the 1840s, Flaubert sounds like Zola (not a compliment from my part), journalistic and down-to-earth. Frédéric is the romantic character, along with his old friends ; he is the incarnation of all the romantic hopes Flaubert had in his own youth ; but all the dialogues sounded too much 19th-century to my ears. I think it’s what Flaubert wanted, and so most probably it wasn’t a book fitting my current tastes. In one word, I was much disappointed.


Posted by Steven on 3/8/2005, 18:07:35

: What do you think of Frederic’s actions? Of

: Deslaurier’s? Of Arnoux?

My first thought about Deslaurier was that his role was the “sensible sidekick.” At first he does seem to be Frederic’s conscience. But later he turns out to be just a crude imitation of Frederic. I was really pleased to see Flaubert avoid the stereotype role in this case.

Arnoux was another unique and well-formed character. He’s as hopeless and irresponsible with money and women as Frederic, but he has the saving grace that he’s willing to put in a day’s work instead of just sitting around waiting for his relatives to die.

: What did you think of Frederic’s naivete? …when

: it comes to his own love or his own benefits, he is

: just as scheming as the others. Wasn’t this a

: conflict?

I think this is totally realistic, and I wonder how much it reflected Flaubert’s own youth. Frederic comes from the country with these abstract and romantic ideas about how he’s going to make it big in Paris. He’s ambitious, agressive, and daring, but he isn’t clever. His eagerness leads him to take things, and people, at their face value, especially when he’s seeing what he wants to see. He’s wicked enough to practice deceit, but not astute enough to recognize it in others.

: The other thing that shocked me was that the two men

: who fought (or almost fought) a duel can still come

: together at a dinner table a few months later.

It’s a guy thing.

But, seriously, the whole purpose of the duel was to clean the slate. No matter what the outcome, both parties were honor bound to let it be the end of that particular dispute. It would have been just as shameful to hold a grudge after the duel as it would have been to let the insult pass that started it.



Posted by Steven on 3/8/2005, 17:49:22

 I agree with Lale’s assessment of the characters. They were meant to be realistic, not appealing, though, as Pierre says, some of the minor characters come across just as representatives of a type.

What places this novel above many others is Flaubert’s sense of place and time. Even if you don’t like the company, you can still enjoy the scenery.

I enjoyed the novel, but I wouldn’t rank it as one of my favourites and not as high as Madame Bovary.



Posted by Guillermo Maynez

sentimental_education_coverIn the back cover of my copy (an edition in Spanish) it says that this was Kafka’s favorite novel. That surprised me, because SE’s subjects are very removed to what Kafka wrote about. Or maybe not. In any case, one of the things I liked about the book is the whole portrait of a life. Characters evolve, at least the most important ones. Flaubert has a very keen eye for revealing the hypocrisy, the mediocrity and the fakeness that one also encounters in “social” life. I definitely did like the novel and Flaubert is consolidating as one of my favorite authors. So far, besides Mme. Bovary, I have read “Three tales”, of which “A simple heart” is a masterpiece, and on my shelves sits “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”. I would also like to read “Salammbó” and “Bouvard and Pecuchet”, an unifinished work.

By the way, what did you guys think of Mme. Arnoux?

And I concur with Lale: I wouldn’t want to have that kind of friends. Although I am not jealous, I would never leave my wife alone, with everybody trying to get her in the sack. It was strange to me how Arnoux would go out at night and leave Frederic in his house, with his wife.


Posted by Steven on 4/8/2005, 16:54:23

 : By the way, what did you guys think of Mme. Arnoux?

I found her character a little harder to believe than the rest. A beautiful woman who dresses herself to the height of elegance doesn’t just sit around every night while her husband goes out on the town. Her conduct was too perfect.

: It was strange to me how Arnoux

: would go out at night and leave Frederic in his house,

: with his wife.

I agree, but it seems to have been acceptable at the time for a married woman of the upper classes to receive male callers, even in her dressing room, with no chaperone other than the servants. I’ve always found this puzzling considering to what lengths they appear to have gone to keep an unmarried woman from ever being alone with a man.

In Arnoux’s case, he was as naive in trusting Frederic as she was in trusting her husband. Frederic’s one talent may have been to inspire trust in people, because he never actually DID anything to earn it.


Posted by Paul L on 5/8/2005, 8:16:12

: : By the way, what did you guys think of Mme. Arnoux?


: I found her character a little harder to believe than

: the rest. A beautiful woman who dresses herself to the

: height of elegance doesn’t just sit around every night

: while her husband goes out on the town. Her conduct

: was too perfect.

I wonder if she isnt supposed to represent a “type”- the idealized society women as seen from the imagination of an up and coming young male- just as frederic’s love for her is somewhat of an idealized type (as much as possible in Paris in 1840? I dont know). Remember she was “found” by Arnoux – she was more of an alien being to the Paris scene.

: It was strange to me how Arnoux

: would go out at night and leave Frederic in his house,

: with his wife.

Don’t forget, he was using this time to keep his assignations (I love that word lol). So it was convenient for him. Also, towards the end, Flaubert does mention that one time Arnoux made as if he was going out and then snuck back and listened at the door.. and heard nothing but idle chatter between the two- and therefore was appeased. Another example of how Frederic’s doing *nothing* gained him trust (this time from Arnoux).

To me, Frederic continued to be nothing but a child. There is no sense of growth or even of lament like Proust’s Marcel (which at times was just as hard to like).


Posted by Paul L on 5/8/2005, 8:07:15

 I, too, was revolted by Frederic’s character- not only in terms of his relationships (which have already been well documented) but also in terms of the political and social backdrop of the novel. Each and every conversation and behavior Frederic performed in his life (as far as the novel shows) is to further his warped sense of love. Even the great events of the 1840s in Paris are in a way sublimated to Frederic’s agenda- in the sense that participation by Frederic has nothing to do with the political events per se, but instead seen as yet another means to his end. At the end I asked myself, whatever did he do in his life that even had the ability to be seen as a noble action? even approach a worthwhile action?(Perhaps only one of his first, where he and Deslauriers show human sympathy towards Dussardier- it seems to me, as far as I remember, the only act that approached selflessness on either part.)


Posted by Steven on 8/8/2005, 7:15:32

I ran across the following interesting quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“…people who sacrifice every other consideration to love are as hopelessly unheroic on the stage as lunatics or dipsomaniacs. Hector is the world’s hero; not Paris or Antony.”

Could it be that we dislike Frederic, not because he is selfish and deceitful, but because he is hopelessly lovesick?

Consider the characters in Vanity Fair, published a few years before A Sentimental Education. Becky Sharp is every bit as selfish and treacherous as Frederic, but, unlike Frederic, she doesn’t let love get in the way of her ambition. Despite being a “bad” person, she is an appealing character. Amelia Sedley and William Dobbin, by contrast, are both noble, generous, and loving individuals. But each sacrifices everything for love — Ameilia pining away for George and Dobbin for Amelia. Instead of being heroic, they are pathetic and unlikeable.

So would we have found Frederic a more likeable character had he given up on Mme Arnoux and married Mme Dambreuse for her money? If he had used that money to make something of himself and engage himself with the great issues of the time then, yes, I think we would.


Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 8/8/2005, 12:10:07

That’s a possibility. His love for Mme. Arnoux is at times hard to believe. To me, it seems like an obsession almost pathological. Years pass without them meeting and still he loves her like mad. To some people that may seem soooo lovely and nice, but in real life it’s strange. He should have found a nice girl of good position and actually DO something with his life and money. Louise sounded like a good candidate, but when she married Deslauriers, she ran away with an actor. Not many good women in this book.


Posted by Steven on 10/8/2005, 22:03:22

sentimentalllWe’ve talked about how unlikeable most of the characters – the male ones, at least – are in Sentimental Education. Even though they come from a wide range of circumstances, they are all (except for de Cisy) part of the Middle Class. The sense of intellectuals at the time was that the Middle Class betrayed the Revolution of 1848. One of Flaubert’s goals appears to be to depict the pervasive greed and duplicity that led to the failure of the revolution.

Senecal epitomizes the about-face that took place. Having sided with the working class and peasants, the Middle Class accomplished the downfall of the monarchy and a certain amount of social reform. But then, seeing the potential for further unrest as a threat to its security and prosperity, the Middle Class took arms against and supressed the workers. Demanding “law and order,” conservatives took charge, undid most of the reforms, and returned France to an autocratic form of government. Motivated by greed and fear, the Middle Class acquiesced.

Those who expect altruistic behaviour from an entire class of people are, in my opinion, bound to be disappointed. But that doesn’t seem to stop Flaubert from taking Frederic and his compatriots to task for failing to live up to the expectations with which the revolution began.


Posted by Lale on 11/8/2005, 9:17:37

: The sense of intellectuals at the

: time was that the Middle Class betrayed the Revolution

: of 1848. One of Flaubert’s goals appears to be to

: depict the pervasive greed and duplicity that led to

: the failure of the revolution.

Apparently Flaubert got a beating for his depiction of the intellectuals in the years that followed 1848. In my copy’s introduction, it is written that he had a fallout with a feminist friend over the unfavourable portrayal of Mlle Vatnaz, the only character in the book with some feminist visions.



Posted by Steven on 23/8/2005, 8:55:43

: Apparently Flaubert got a beating for his depiction of

: the intellectuals in the years that followed 1848.

I’ve found the Revolution of 1848 referred to both as a Middle Class Revolution and as the Revolution of the Intellectuals.

The primary motivation for the revolution was the growing middle class’s desire for political power and an end to the corruption and inefficiency of the old regime that was bad for business. This was on top of the lower classes perpetual cry for jobs, famine relief, and other basic needs.

The prominent intellectuals were for a complete social restructuring on the scale of the 1789 French Revolution, but the middle class saw to it that the revolution went only so far as to give them what they wanted, then they split with the lower classes and actually reversed the course of reform in the name of “law and order.”

To the extent that Flaubert depicts the intellectuals as the betrayers, then he probably is due for some criticism. It was the bankers, merchants and professionals – men like Dambreuse, Arnoux and Deslauriers – who were responsible for the about face. From what I can tell, his depiction of Senecal, at least as a representative of a class, is unfair.

One source I read made the interesting observation that 1748 saw the birth in France of the conservative middle class that is a major force in politics in the West to this day.

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