Review: Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert

I sometimes like to read one of the French classics, so effective are they at reminding me of travels through that beautiful country, with all the pleasures of warmer weather than England, and the cultural and historical interest encountered on the way.

I don’t think there’s much point in writing my usual style of review of a book as well-known as Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert.  The web is awash with articles and opinions on the classics, often by people with far more knowledge of them than I have, so I will confine myself to describing my experience in reading it and what it meant to me.

The book tells the story of Frederic Moreau, a law student sailing up the Seine to his home in Normandy, where he meets Madame  Arnoux, forming an infatuation which lasts a lifetime.  He befriends her husband and their paths cross over many years, throught finaincial and political upheaval, and countless other relationships and frienships.  Frederic’s love for Madame Arnous in a constant throughout his life, doomed to be unfulfilled, but acting as a reference point through which he views all other relationships.

The book is an example of literary realism.  As the Wikipedia article says, “realist authors opted for depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation”.  This is exactly what Flaubert does, providing his readers with day to day descriptions of Frederic’s life, his money problems, lists of what he buys in the shops and how he furnishes his rooms.  We read little details such as, “the wine bottles were warming on the stove”, and during Frederic’s visit to a pottery we read, “in another room the pots were being decorated with fillets, grooves and projecting lines”.   While some might find this level of description tedious, I found them very interesting in giving an insight into everyday life.

Gutave Flaubert is a master of scene description, and draws the reader into his stories as if into an impressionist painting.  The richness of his images remains well after the reader has finished the book – I shall mention just three of many:

the initial boat ride up the Seine,

. . . people stood about, chatting, or they squatted on their luggage; some slept in corners; some were busy eating.  The deck was littered with nutshells, cigar stubs, pear skins, and bits of charcuterie which had originally been wrapped in paper.  Three cabinet-makers in overalls stood in front of he bar; a harpist dressed in rags was resting with his elbow on his instrument . . .

the exotic and debauched fancy-dress ball which Frederic attends with Monsieur Arnoux,at which

. . . an old buck, dressed as a Doge of Venice in a long cassock of purple silk was dancing with Madame Rosanetter, who was wearing a green jacket, knitted breeches and soft boots with gold spurs.  The couple opposite consisted of an Albanian loaded with scimitars and a blue-eyed Swiss girl as whihe as milk and as plump as a quail, in shirtsleeves and a red bodice.  In order to show off here her hair, which came down to her knees, a tall blonde from the Opéra ballet had come as a savage; she had nothing on top of her brown tights but a leather loincloth, some glass bracelets  and a tinsel tiara adorned with a huge spray of peacocks’ feathers . . .

Frederic’s coach-ride from Nogent to Paris in which Flaubert describes the way Paris is shooting up among fields and derelict land,

. . . this part of Paris had changed beyond all recognition.  It looked like a town in ruins.  On the unpaved paths edging the road there stood small branchless trees protected by battens bristling with nails.  Chemical factories alternated with timber-merchants’ yards.  Tall gateways like those of farmers revealed between their half-open doors sordid yards full of refuse with pools of dirty water in the middle.  Long dull-red taverns displayed crossed billiard cues in a wreath of painted flowers between their first floor windows, here and there flimsy hovels had been left half-finished. . .

Flaubert is a master of these vivid descriptions and they provide rich interludes between the various episodes of the story.

Monet: On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

But the book is primarily about Frederic and his “sentimental education”.  The sad thing is that if this is education, then Frederic learns very little.  We see no real character development at all, other than the moderating effect of the advancing years.   He seems to be distracted over and over again by people and events which work against him.  He forms friendships but then finds himself called upon to make loans to these friends to get them out of money trouble.  In his relationships with women, he seems to vie unnecessarily with other men for the attentions of women who we just know will turn out to be trouble.  He lets down his childhood neighbour who has blossomed into a beautiful heiress, and with whom he could perhaps have been truly happy.  And all the time, the illusory image of Madam Arnoux spoils his appreciation of the people he is with, although her unavailability is the one constant in his life.  Poor Frederic is doomed to failure, and this reader at least wondered whether the habit of Frederic and his friends of taking strings of mistresses rather than finding a true long-term partnership wasn’t at the root of his problems.

In the end, Frederic doesn’t find what he is looking for.  He grows up in years, but not in “emotional intelligence”, and in a last passionate meeting with Madame Arnoux he finds himself taken aback by her now white hair and finds he experiences a “dread of committing incest, and the fear of being “disgusted later”.   Frederic is not the most appealing character in classical fiction but the story of his life has been a fine roller-coaster ride of a novel, full of interest and for me at least, driving me on through page after page without any sense of boredom or desire to reach the end.  This of course shows the skill of Gustave Flaubert – he makes no attempt to romanticise his characters but in true modern style we encounter them with all their foibles and failings.

To finish with a couple of commendations of Sentimental Education from other writers: Emile Zola was so impressed with this book that he committed whole pages to memory.  Flaubert was Franz Kafka’s greatest literary influence and Sentimental Education was one of his favourite books.  Amateur Reader read somewhere that Ford Madox Ford claimed to have read this novel 14 times.

Title:   Sentimental Education
Author:   Gustave Flaubert
Translator:  Geoffrey Wall
Publication:   Penguin Books Ltd (5 February 2004), Paperback, 512 pages
ISBN: 978-0140447972 / 0140447970

A map of Sentimental Education produced by Peter Biggins

Wikipedia articles on Sentimental Education and Gustave Flaubert

8 thoughts on “Review: Sentimental Education – Gustave Flaubert

  1. Given I consider Madame Bovary the finest novel I’ve read this is definitely one I want to take a look at myself.

    I’ve heard it said that 19th Century readers were often very fond of lengthy and detailed descriptive passages, in a way not so true today. Often it was the only way of seeing the scenes described, given there was neither TV nor cinema (nor indeed cheap travel).

    Anyway, a lovely review and one that chimes nicely with the unrequited love themes of Swann’s Way which I just finished.


    • I agree with you re Madame Bovary – and what an impact it had when it was published!

      Yes, 19th century readers definitely had more time tor reading, but I am fortunate to have recently retired from work so I am in the leisured classes for whom a long book is no problem. I have a feeling that Sentimental Education will be in the top three books I read in 2010 (I must remember to make an assessment at the end of the year).

      I am glad to hear you finished Swanns Way – it has some wonderful passages in it but I think the account of difficult bedtimes is a highlight! I must plough through another volume later in the year.


  2. Excellent review, which did what a good review does – ie set me pondering about as much as recalling the book – thank you. One of Flaubert’s principal preoccupations is our astonishing capacity for fooling ourselves in general, and the damage done by a lifelong obsession or idée fixe in particular. He shows them leading to lack of love + lack of true belonging or rootedness in society, although the resultant empty life he depicts potters onwards regardless, ever self-obsessed and blinded by hopeless desire to what it really needs. I approached ‘l’Education Sentimentale’ from an adolescent perspective meaning (almost inevitably) I found it tiresome (and preferred Stendhal); now I suspect I’d appreciate Flaubert much, much more.


    • Minnie – Thank you for your insightful comments – you have summarised the overall concept of the book very well – “he depicts potters onwards regardless, ever self-obsessed and blinded by hopeless desire”. So many books since have shown the workings out of the same delusions, but Flaubert was unique in portraying this type of character before other novelists.


  3. I’d be quite interested in your top books of the year Tom, I chose six last year (which is as good a number as any other really). I’d love to hear your top three, five, ten or whatever.


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