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Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education. In 1963 Harvard University Press published a collection of essays with the title In Search of France. The contributors to this "search" gave particular attention to the political systems of France and to the social divisions within the nation. One hundred years before this academic inquiry, the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) began to write his novel L'Education sentimentale: Histoire d'un jeune homme which he would finish on May 16, 1869 and see published on November 17 of that year. To prepare for his novel Flaubert searched with exhaustive care for evidence, documents, testimony to authenticate the novel's account of France's social classes, political institutions and practices. His central concern was to present the contradictions, hopes, failures, lies fashioning the lives of the characters in the novel during the July Monarchy, the Revolution of 1848, the failure of the Second Republic.

Flaubert had no wish to compete with the work of historians but believed that the credibility of his novel depended upon the care he took in presenting the trauma and crisis accompanying these decades. In a sense he believed that only a novelist had the appropriate imagination to depict the emotions, affection, pretensions, melodrama of these critical times. Above all Flaubert knew that his novel would succeed or fail upon how he told the story of the Revolution of 1848 and of its denouncement. A further critical test would be his ability or inability to describe and explain France's confused and contradictory search for its identity and possible futures. Flaubert perfectly responded to these demands by creating as his central character in Sentimental Education Frédéric Moreau. A maudlin provincial seeking in Paris admission to what he imagines to be high society. In a time lacking heroes Frédéric perfectly represented a generation creating its nonfuture.

Maxime Du Camp (1822-1894), novelist and journalist, in his Souvenirs Littéraires praised his friend Flaubert's achievement in L'Education Sentimental as a work designed to enhance the political and social science of "our time." Du Camp also recalled that Flaubert was in Paris when the fighting of the June days of 1848 began. And that as a good citizen Flaubert with a hunting gun of his soldier stood in place with Du Camp in the National Guard. His purpose to help put an end once and for all to revolutions and anarchy. Twenty-one years later in Sentimental Education Flaubert would describe the National Guard's conduct as atrocious, detestable. After France's defeat in the Franco-German War (1870-1871), Flaubert was to tell Du Camp that if Sentimental Education had been understood this stupidity would never have happened. Here, of course, more was at issue than France's military defeat. What mattered for Flaubert was the public and private failures afflicting France beginning in 1848.

The entire novel was intended to identify the universal moral deterioration co rrupting French society. Sentimental Education had the extraordinary purpose of warning away its readers from the values, deceits, insipid responses to the crises and direction of their nation since 1848. Flaubert's target was above all the limits and hypocrisy of his own generation. To this end he insisted that in his novel he neither flattered Democrats nor spared Conservatives.

Frédéric Moreau the antihero of Sentimental Education is eighteen when the novel opens and forty-seven when it concludes. Frédéric is singularly passive in response to life, or more accurately to the larger world around him. This passivity, quiescence admits him as an unobtrusive, indecisive, nonthreatening, naive person into what he imagined to be the proper social circles. Frédéric's demeanor appropriately in Sentimental Education represents so many men of his time who rejected and ignored and criticism of the existing social and political order. Incapable of having any independent ideas, unable or indifferent to assuming any responsibility, Frédéric manages only to give voice to conventional ideas, taste, prejudices, during his quest to be admitted into the company of upper bourgeois society. Devoid of any reflective capacity, unquestioningly accepting the appropriateness of his unearned wealth, Frédéric perfectly represents the privileged bourgeoisie of France unwilling to notice or consider the inequities sustaining their world. Or of contemplating any limits on their protected status.

Frédéric has, however, little ground upon which to build his self-confidence. Indeed, his mother was of an old and noble family, but had married a man of plebeian origin. His early death, in a duel, meant that her fortune was mortgaged, and only with difficulty did she manage to keep up appearances. This situation ironically anticipated Frédéric's own fortune when he would handle very carelessly money that he would inherit from an uncle. Yet he does attempt to succeed in Paris, but fails to pass the courses necessary to enter the legal profession.

A common myth in nineteenth century France was the belief that ambitious young people from the provinces gave Paris energy. Frédéric would never be able to represent his talent. For his part, Flaubert had no confidence in the ability of the naive to master the secrets of survival in Paris. He proposes in Sentimental Education that both provincial and cosmopolitan France divide the nation, expose its weakness and defects.

Yet Frédéric's "sentimental education" is furthered in Paris. There his acquaintances and friends, of varying pretense and ignorance, represent a good part of the generation destined to witness the Revolution of 1848. And to experience the shock of the brutal slaughter of June 1848. Their preparation for such a disaster is best illustrated by the conduct of Frédéric's friend Sénécal. Before 1848 Sénécal endlessly advocated that Art should entirely give itself to uplifting the moral ideals and conduct of the masses.

While Frédéric's other friends will call for the end of privilege, monopoly, hierarchy, Frédéric listens uncomprehendingly to it all. Yet in the eyes of his shallow associates he has the reputation of one concerned with the social question. He will also listen, without comment, to conversation condemning the immorality of servants and the thefts it is taken for granted that they commit. During a walk with his closest friend Charles Deslauries, Freacute;déric is absolutely silent when Deslauries calls for the "Destruction of Privilege, Monopoly, Hierarchy, Authority, the State." The people of means Flaubert portrays through Frédéric's contacts are incapable of hope, decency. They are limited to spastic reactions to every proposal they interpret as a threat to their prerogatives. The members of this class are identified in Sentimental Educationse "who would have sold France, or the whole human race to safeguard their fortune." Flaubert caught up in the very tension he has created in his novel berates Frédéric for failing to realize "what vast reserves of indifference high society posses."

Flaubert's decisive judgement on the Revolution of 1848 is given when he recreates in his novel the violence of the June Days of 1848. He selects this brutal episode to have Sénécal, who earlier proposed so many ideas for reform, now as a member of the national Guard, to praise tyranny and the necessity for a dictatorship. But the perfect interpretation of these years of deceit and betrayal is graphically illustrated by an experience Frédéric asks a workman why there is to be no fighting, no resistance. the worker replies "...we are not fools, the rich must save themselves." While Sénécal supporting the coup shoots to kill one of his old comrades from the days when they all talked of freer futures for France.

Flaubert concludes Sentimental Education by informing his readers that as years went by the best memory Frédéric kept was of the time during his adolescence when he and a friend were refused admission to a brothel. There were for Frédéric no memories of the hopes and expectations of 1848, no recollections of a search for fraternity.

Writing in December 1869 to George Sand (1804-1876) about the negative reviews of his book Flaubert reported to her that some critics considered Sentimental Education the work of an idiot. Of an author indifferent to the "ideal." In this same winter, General Jean Gilbert Victor Fialin de Persigny (1808-1892) also asked Flaubert why he lacked a sense of the ideal. In considerable anger, Flaubert wrote to his friend Maxime Du Camp that the ideal was not at issue, but the truth that the years since 1848 were ones of "unending lies," "false politics," "false literature," "false credit," and even "false courtesans." This was a time, he insisted, of which it was impossible to write a "jolie histoire."

Edward T. Gargan


Gustave Flaubert Education sentimentale: Histoire d'un jeune homme . (Garnier, Paris, 1984).

Gustave Flaubert Sentimental Education . trans by Robert Baldick. (Penguin Books, 1964).

Gustave Flaubert Correspondance . (vols. 1-7), (Louis Conrad, Libraire-Editeur, 1926).

Gustave Flaubert The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857. Selected Edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller, 2 vols., (Harvard University Press, 1980-1982).

Gustave Flaubert Carnets de travail; établie par Pierre-Marc de Baisi (Editions Balland, 19 88).

Gustave Flaubert - George Sand. Correspondance Ed.par Alphonse Jacobs Flammarion, Paris 1981

Maxime Du Camp, Souvenirs Letteraires . 2 vols.,(Libraire Hachette, 1883, 1885).

Herbert Lottman, Flaubert, A Biography . Little Brown and Company, 1989 .

Henri Troyat, Flaubert trans. Joan Pinkham. Viking, 1992.

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