The Best Days of Our Life: Sentimental Education

I’ve written before about how my wife and a friend of ours from the days when we were all starting out as academics and in our first, temporary jobs after graduate school decided to read Proust together. We tackled one volume each summer for seven years, switching between his city and ours once our careers and life-paths took us in different directions.

We finished Proust and decided to stay with French literature: two years ago we read Madame Bovary. Last year we didn’t read anything; instead we went to our friend’s wedding. But we were back at it last week. Our book this year was Flaubert’s other well-known book, Sentimental Education (1869). We had a hard time with it and although our friend thinks we should try Bouvard and Pecuchet next year I think he’s going to be outvoted. I’m plumping for Stendahl but neither of the others seems much interested. We’ll probably end up with either Balzac or Zola. Vote your choice in the comments!

I don’t think I would have made it though Sentimental Education without the reading group. Certainly I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much on my own. Each of us experienced the same phenomenon: we didn’t much like reading the book, but we sure enjoyed talking about it. Nonetheless, I’ve concluded that Flaubert is a writer I admire but do not like. He’s like Joyce for me. They’re both so, I don’t know, airless. I need my books a little shaggier. That’s why I wrote a dissertation on Lawrence, I guess.

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

A Steamer and Shallow Waters in the Seine, Normandy c.1832 Joseph Mallord William Turner

Anyway, here are some observations on the novel, taken from the notes I scribbled during our conversations:

We did understand, by the way, that not liking the book was pretty much the point. It’s a book about having high expectations for life and one’s self and being disappointed in them. But the trick is that those expectations aren’t foiled because of bad luck or history or poverty or illness. Rather they’re foiled from inability—including the inability to recognize one’s lack of ability. Sentimental Education is about being mediocre. The narrator readily lets us see how mediocre the characters are, which makes the novel Olympian and rather disdainful.

The hero, if you can put it that way, is Frédéric Moreau, a young man from the provinces who flunks out of law school but is able to live in relatively grand style anyway because he inherits a lot of money from an uncle. In fact, at the beginning of the book he’s returning from a trip to visit the uncle, his mother having sent him there in hopes of currying the man’s favour. Frédéric returns from Le Havre to Nogent-sur-Seine via Paris, where he switches to a steam ship because he’s sulky about having to go home for the summer and it will take him longer to get there by boat than by any other route. So he begins taking a petty revenge against his mother. This is a fine introduction to a novel filled with mean-spirited and selfish actions.

The boat trip results in more than a small-minded psychological victory, though. Onboard Frédéric meets Jacques Arnoux, an art dealer and impresario and eventual porcelain manufacturer with whom he will be intertwined for the rest of the book. More importantly, he meets Arnoux’s wife, with whom he is immediately besotted. Much of the novel is about the relationship they never quite consummate.

But it’s not really a love story. Yes, Frédéric falls immediately for Madame Arnoux, swooning for her, to the point that he ignores her lack of interest and regularly misrepresents her words and deeds as coded expressions of her own desire for him (though eventually they do become something like lovers). But Sentimental Education is no Anna Karenina. It’s not even Madame Bovary. For one thing, Madame Arnoux isn’t the only woman in Frédéric’s life. There’s Rosanette, one of Arnoux’s mistresses, with whom Frédéric takes up; the two even have a child together. There’s Louise, the daughter of the Frédéric’s neighbour in Nogent-sur-Seine. And finally there’s Madame Dambreuse, the wife and eventual widow of a banker, who Frédéric meets through Louise’s father, who is Dambreuse’s business manager. Got all that? Sentimental Education is a book obsessed with crowds, but it doesn’t have that many characters. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, there are a number of young men Frédéric knows from his time as a student, including his schoolboy friend Deslauriers, who is a lot poorer than Frédéric. The two treat each other fairly badly, considering they’re such good friends.

Anyway, I was saying it’s not really a love story. Flaubert defined it as the only kind of love story suitable for his generation: “It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays—that is to say, inactive.”

This idea of passivity or inactivity—remember, the big event in Frédéric’s life is his inheriting a small fortune from his uncle—affects more than just romance. Sentimental Education is famously also a novel about politics, even about revolution. The last part of the book is set against the Revolution of 1848, when the Orleans monarchy was overthrown in favour of the short-lived Second Republic. Many of the book’s characters are active in these turbulent political events, though Frédéric mostly avoids them (he literally leaves town during the most dramatic and violent weeks). And with the exception of one character, a shopkeeper called Dussardier who Frédéric and his circle befriend on a lark, and who is a committed Republican, so committed that he dies for the cause, no one partakes of these events out of a sense of duty or obligation or passion. According to the introduction to the new Oxford World’s Classics edition, translated by Helen Constantine, Flaubert did not know Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) in which he famously said that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and once as farce, but Sentimental Education could have been written with that dictum in mind.

The reason the 1848 revolution was a pale imitation of 1789, at least on the evidence in this novel, is that it was self-interested. Self-interest matters a lot in this novel; if it’s about anything, it’s about how people use each other. Characters regularly claim to care for things—movements, causes, other people—but prove not to. This isn’t just a function of their fickleness or moral laxity: it’s a function of the world they live in. No one feels secure enough in their place in society that they don’t feel the need to use others to get ahead. Even Madame Arnoux, who in general is gentle and definitely put upon by her rakish/obnoxious husband, isn’t above using Frédéric’s infatuation with her to help her family out financially. (Again, Dussardier, the shopkeeper, is the only exception, but he’s such a minor character and he meets such a sad end that we can’t make an example of him.)

Flaubert could have made much of this cutthroat world in which everyone is out to get everyone else, or, in which a lot of cynical people are out to get each other and whatever innocents are around—but then he’d have been Henry James, and Flaubert is after something more dispiriting than the actually quite lurid and melodramatic James. (Madame Dambreuse is the most Jamesian character—there’s a great moment when she and Frédéric attend an auction of the Arnoux’s personal effects—they’ve fallen into financial ruin—and when she sees how distressed Frédéric is by the sale of so many objects he had become so familiar with, having attached them to his love for Madame Arnoux, not least a small jewellery box, she insists on outbidding everyone for it and giving it to him, just to show him who’s boss.)

The dispiriting part isn’t just that everyone uses everyone else. It’s also that they’re not always that good at it. Frédéric in particular is a hard character to get a handle on, because he’s so narcissistic, always preening in mirrors and admiring his outfits, always ready to do whatever it takes to keep up his image, yet at the same time he’s regularly taken advantage of. He’s not very clever, but he’s also not naïve. His self-reflections, when they occur, never lead anywhere. They don’t make him act any differently. We’re in the odd position of neither liking him much nor of feeling bad for him when he’s been fleeced. Who could like a guy who, walking through a crowded street, thinks things like:

He felt sick at the sight of their vulgar faces, the idiotic remarks, the foolish satisfaction on their sweaty foreheads! However, the knowledge that he was worth more than these people lessened the fatigue he felt contemplating them.

Here as elsewhere, Flaubert uses free indirect discourse—the description of a character’s thoughts in apparently omniscient voice—to devastating effect. The more we know Frédéric the less we like him. The mingling of narratorial and character’s voice is often so subtle it takes us a while to figure out who is being judged. Early on in the novel, when Frédéric is still poor and convinced he’ll stay that way, he convinces himself that poverty could work to his advantage:

A soul like Madame Arnoux’s would surely be moved by that sight [of the poverty that would no doubt bring out his genius] and she would take pity on him. So this catastrophe was a stroke of luck after all. Like the earthquakes in which treasures are uncovered, it had revealed to him the secret riches of his character.

Flaubert uses metaphor so sparingly that when we get one we are apt to hold onto it gratefully. At last, a poetic moment! But when we think about what’s being said here we see something more disheartening than high-flown, beautiful rhetoric. Who thinks of an earthquake as something that reveals buried treasure? Who ignores its destructiveness? Maybe someone who doesn’t in fact have any secret riches or rich interior life.

Flaubert loves bathos: any time he verges on the lyrical, he’s sure to follow it with a prosaic detail. A long description of arriving in Paris at dusk works itself up to an unusually delicate effusiveness—“the entire greeny stretch of the Seine tore itself into silvery shards of silk against the pillars of the bridge”—only to be immediately followed by: “He went to have dinner for forty-three sous in a restaurant in the Rue de la Harpe.” Or consider this momentary idyll amidst the bustle of the city:

Leaning on the plush windowsill, [Frédéric and Deslauriers] smoked cheroots. The sun was shining, the air was mild, swarms of birds flew down into the garden; statues of bronze and marble washed by the rain glistened. Aproned maids sat chatting on chairs. And you could hear children laughing, along with the continuous murmur of the fountain.

Nice, right? I love Paris in the springtime. But how does Frédéric respond?

Under the influence of the wine circulating in his veins, half asleep, bemused and with the light full in his face, he felt nothing but an immense sense of well-being, a dull voluptuousness, like a plant saturated in warmth and wet.

He responds stupidly, complacently, dully, like a plant. Notwithstanding some lyric pages in the countryside near Fontainbleu late in the novel, this isn’t a book that loves the country. Flaubert was not a writer who knew the name of every flower or tree. In this world-view, it’s not a good thing to be like a plant saturated in warmth and wet. (That’s about as much sex as Frédéric gets, by the way.)

After all, plants don’t do much. One of the most fascinating things about Sentimental Education for me was watching Flaubert try to escape from his own trap. Hardly anything happens in this novel. It’s not dramatic. In fact, it’s against the very idea that life is dramatic, structured like a story with obstacles to be overcome and climaxes to be attained. It ironizes the story of the young man on the make who comes to the capital form the provinces and takes the town by storm. It ironizes Balzac, in other words. There aren’t any set pieces in this novel. A scene at the horse races could have been highly dramatic. It could have shown Frédéric as a hero, or advanced one of his affairs. It could have been the horse race from Anna Karenina. But it’s not.

The second race was not very entertaining, nor the third, apart from a man being carried off on a stretcher [good joke there: all of J. G. Ballard in a nutshell]. The fourth, in which eight horses battle it out for the Prix de la Ville, was more engaging.

A paragraph about this race follows. It’s interesting enough, I guess. But then this:

A dispute held up the last race. The crowd, bored, broke up. Groups of men were chatting below the stands. The talk was rather loose. Some society ladies left, shocked by the proximity of the kept women.

And that’s it. Except traffic. What follows is a pretty lengthy description of how long it took everyone to get home, since all the carriages were leaving at once. Always, always, Flaubert ironizes and debunks. But what is he left with? What kind of a novel repudiates all the things that make up novels? That’s the corner Flaubert paints himself into, the aridity I complained about at the beginning.

Very rarely does Flaubert indulge in pathos. One such moment comes near the end of the book. Frédéric and Rosanette’s child falls seriously ill. Frédéric, who hasn’t had much to do with it, tries to downplay the illness; Rosanette is frightened. The child falls unresponsive; Rosanette calls Frédéric to her side. But it’s too late:

The child was dead. She took him up, shook him, hugged him, calling him the sweetest names, covered him in kisses and sobs, walked round and round, distraught, tore out her hair, uttered little cries; and collapsed on the couch where she remained open-mouthed [in Madame Bovary the motif of open mouths signals imbecility and vacuity], with floods of tears issuing from her staring eyes. Then she was overcome with lethargy and all became calm in the apartment. The furniture was turned upside down. Two or three napkins lay around. Six o’clock struck. The night light went out.

I find those napkins heartbreaking, a forlorn symbol of the aftermath of sudden, terrible emotion. But my reading partners thought this made me a chump (they’re more Flaubertian than I am, I guess), noting, perhaps rightly, that the emotion (all Rosanette’s) peters out rather quickly—that phrase “all became calm” suggests the event might not in fact matter so much. It doesn’t to Frédéric, who thinks only of himself: “It seemed to him that this death was but a beginning, and that an even greater misfortune was about to befall him.” (It doesn’t). Even Rosanette is hard to sympathize with: she wants them to embalm the child, a wish both grandiose and ignorant. As the narrator says with typical acerbity, “There were many reasons against it, the most cogent of which was that it was not feasible in the case of such a young child.” What I’m saying is, if you want pathos in your literature, as I’ve come to realize I do, then Flaubert is not your guy.


I’ll end the way the novel does. Years pass. Frédéric gets older, but not wiser. France gets another monarch. Frédéric reconciles with Deslauriers: the latter had tried to revenge himself on his richer friend because of the lousy way Frédéric had always treated him—he marries Louise, who Frédéric had been on the point of deciding was the girl he should have loved, but (no surprise) the joke cuts more than one way: Louise quickly leaves Deslaurier for another man, so that even speaking of the falling out between the two as a breach that has to be reconciled is actually putting events too strongly. Anyway, the two friends, or whatever the hell they are, they’re not even really frenemies, meet up again and reminisce about an adventure from their school days. One Sunday in the summer of 1837 they slipped off to the local brothel. On the way they picked enormous bouquets of flowers from Madame Moreau’s garden, in the hopes of impressing the prostitutes. But when they arrive at the house things don’t go according to plan:

Frédéric presented his [bouquet], like a lover to his betrothed. But the heat, the fear of the unknown, a kind of remorse, and even the pleasure of seeing at a glance so many women at his disposal, affected him so powerfully that he went deathly pale and stood still, tongue-tied. They all laughed, delighted at his embarrassment. Thinking they were making fun of him, he fled. And as it was Frédéric who had the money, Deslauriers was obliged to follow him.

The last line is typical Flaubert, an extra little sting of bathetic deflation. It also summarizes Frédéric and Deslauriers’s relationship, in which money always gets in the way. (It’s like every other relationship in the book.) The scene is also emblematic of Frédéric’s inability to act: here he is, on the threshold of his desire, and he can’t pull the trigger. Worst of all, perhaps, we see how his narcissism and self-regard cause him to misread the situation. He thinks he’s being laughed at when in fact they’re laughing with him, or they would be if he let them.

Sentimental Education is about the hash we make of our lives when we’re so absorbed in ourselves that we miss the opportunity for community or fellow feeling with others. Think how differently things would have gone if he’d laughed along with them. But Flaubert isn’t writing a morality tale. Things can’t be other than the way they are. That’s what makes the whole enterprise so dispiriting. Telling the story to each other, Deslaurier and Frédéric conclude: “Those were the best days of our lives!” And you know what, they probably were. Isn’t that depressing. Almost as depressing as the complacency that besets so many of us—Flaubert would say, all of us—when we look back on our lives and think that regardless of all the vicissitudes life has thrown our way things have worked out for the best.

Any story we tell of our own lives—the very idea that our lives have a story—is bound to be narcissistic. Flaubert brilliantly arraigns the navel gazing of the Bildungsroman. But maybe a little narcissism isn’t so bad. Better than an irony that scorches everything in its path, anyway.


16 thoughts on “The Best Days of Our Life: Sentimental Education

      • I think Salammbô is the most violent 19th century novel I have come across. The relevance here, though, is that it strips away any familiar context – I guess there may be people into pre-Roman Carthaginian history, but not many – ethics, sympathetic characters, unsympathetic characters, etc., etc. and allows a careful inspection of pure Flaubert. His brushwork, harmonic counterpoint, chiaroscuro, and orchestral color. It really helped me see his move toward abstraction, which in the case of the novel is always a metaphor, and thus a great source of frustration for poor Flaubert.

        I have not read The Temptation of St. Anthony, though, which sounds even purer, like it is just a long series of images. I should change my vote to St. Anthony.

        Or you could follow the race horses. A number of later writers outdo the racetrack scene. Zola has a triumphant, hilarious version in Nana; Eça de Queiroz has a dazzler in The Maias. The latter novel is in part an elaborate commentary on Sentimental Education. It is also a better novel, I think, in the more usual novelistic ways.

        As Flaubertian as I am, I think you are right about the emotional importance death of that baby (and similarly, the illness of the other child in the novel – what a scene). It is not that the collapse of emotion means the event is not important, but that the characters, even the poor mother, delude themselves about their own capacity for maintaining that kind of intensity of emotion, whether it comes form grief or romantic passion or whatever. Not that Frederic has much capacity for grief to begin with.

      • This is so interesting! Thank you. It absolutely helps me make sense of what Flaubert is up to, especially this idea of the turn to abstraction and how that’s always going to be foiled by the structure (stricture?) of narrative. I hadn’t thought about this before, but your comments make me think about how different Flaubert is from many of the modernists, who could also be said to be making that move to abstraction. Think about Woolf, say. Maybe it’s Flaubert’s insistence on holding on to the semblance of an omniscient narrator that makes the difference?
        I was quite prepared to never read Flaubert again, but that description of Salammbô has me reconsidering.
        Horses! Yes, thought of Nana, though it’s been so long since I’ve read it. Surely Zola was picking up from that sentence of Flaubert’s about the kept women at the races, no? The Maias–recently bought that as everyone loves it and it really does look amazing. Gotta read that damn Alas first though…
        I wish I’d written about the other illness scene–I was really riveted and moved there and it wasn’t fair of me to exclude it. But the post was already far too long. I want to start writing multiple shorter posts like you do. Much better approach.
        “The characters, even the poor mother, delude themselves about their own capacity for maintaining that kind of intensity of emotion, whether it comes form grief or romantic passion or whatever”: that is so well put. Does the delusion make the pathos greater or lesser, do you think?
        Frédéric has no capacity for grief at all.

  1. I’m so relieved to read this! Earlier this summer I quit Sentimental Education about a third of the way through. I didn’t quite hurl it across the room Dorothy Parker-style, but it languished on my nightstand so long and was so not-fun to resume each night that I finally just didn’t. So when I saw the title of your new post, I immediately felt guilty and opened it with this gloomy sense of, “Oh, great, Dorian is going to describe what a great book this is and I’ll feel like a wuss for not finishing it.” I was much cheered to see that you disliked it (also selfishly, I’m glad you plodded on so I could benefit from your summary–you even plucked out great descriptions like the one of the Seine, which alas was not enough to carry the novel for me). Plus, Mel has always told me that despite the slog of the book, the ending makes the whole thing worthwhile. So now I know. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Hope. I wish I’d known you were reading it: you could have done the group with us. One of the fun parts is egging each other on to finish the books in marathon reading sessions. We always say we’ll read it before the visit but we never do.
      Does Mel really like the book? He needs to meet Tom, or at least read his amazing blog. (It’s one of the ones I talked about at the Murphy talk last year.)

      • Ah, I remember your talking about that blog–will have to check it out. I don’t think Mel much liked SE except for the ending! And if I had stayed the course, I wouldn’t be almost through with Americanuh, a book I’m enjoying a lot right now. So, much better to (a) read your blog post and (b) reread Madame B. next time I crave Flaubert…

  2. I haven’t read SE in 20 years, but it still sits there in my own sentimental education like a dividing line: a novel about people who don’t realize or even recognize life, who drift along on illusions and tell themselves that they’ve lived when they’ve done nothing of the sort. Someone had to write it; it’s like a flag on the moon – a landmark planted to say: here’s to distinguish between what came before and what you’ll have to deal with from now on. Reading about SE here, and in Amateur Reader’s posts earlier this year, though, I wonder if I’d appreciate the novel nearly as much now as I did back then, and whether its several hundred pages get across essentially what Flaubert did in his Dictionary of Received Ideas: a damning of acceptance and complancency and bourgeois expectations. I like that title so much, though: descriptive and liminal at the same time, an “education” into the danger of mere sentiment, of settling for mediocrity, of convincing oneself that one’s travels, louche adventures, experiences, somehow add up to actual living. You can just imagine what Flaubert, were he alive today, would do to the notion of a “bucket list.” I’m terribly tempted to give SE a re-read now, thanks to your post.

    And yes, read The Maias – almost as much a commentary and improvement on SE as it is a stand-alone work in itself, and with a warmth and style of humor Flaubert doesn’t possess.

    • Ooh now I am so tempted to take The Maias on my vacation next week–except that I want to read La Regenta with Tom and others… decisions, decisions. Speaking of Tom, I’d somehow missed those amazing SE posts of his, so thanks for that.
      I certainly would be curious to hear what you have to say about SE now. But sometimes I think we oughtn’t return to books that meant a lot to us, so we can keep the feeling they held for us.
      Really like what you say about SE here, though I wonder if the characters are even convincing themselves that their experiences add up to real living. That would imply that they somehow (even if unconsciously) know they’re doing something wrong, living the wrong kind of life. But I don’t think they do.

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  4. I liked the book more than you did (it seems I could scarcely have liked it less), but I certainly appreciate your arguments here. I think partly I may just place more value on the qualities you object to: cynicism, bathos, a novel that repudiates the very principles of the novel- I say “yes, please!” But also, it may depend on how we define “mediocrity”; either as someone who shouldn’t be a hero of a book, or as a kind (albeit an unappealing kind) of Everyman. I think what I appreciate about this book comes from the way it nails human weaknesses in a relevant way; despite the differences in the manners of the times, I often felt something fundamentally human about characters’ behaviour. For example, Frederic’s obsession with a single goal coupled with vacillation and weakness on virtually every other point seems a sadly human characteristic that meets with predictable consequences. I guess what I’m saying is that I can tolerate the cynicism because it seems largely accurate (even if somewhat exaggerated in degree).

    On the other hand, your observations about Frédéric are right on; we don’t like him much, and we don’t feel badly for his many failures; it’s hard to determine how we are supposed to feel about him and that felt quite exhausting at times. And it is even more bitter that he seems to learn nothing. The ending may suggest to us (if not to Frédéric) that he was happier before he adopted all his various poses, and that the Bildung of the narrative has all been in the wrong direction. The point seems to be that happiness lies in the potential opportunity even if that potential is invariably ruined by trying to realize it (and maybe he learns this in his final meeting with Madame Arnoux? To stop trying to realize the ideal?)

    Most fundamentally, though, I continued to be interested in Frédéric without actually liking him, whereas it sounds like you didn’t, and I’m not sure I can fully explain why that is (though the above might go some way towards doing so?)

    • Yes, this is helpful and thoughtful. I especially appreciate what you say about taking happiness to lie in potentiality, though the inevitable failure of potentiality as it turns into actuality feels both super French and frustratingly tragic.
      For someone who spent as long reading modernist literature as I ostensibly have, I’m not much good at it (Flaubert, Joyce, Baudelaire–not much of a fan of any of them!)

      • Well, as a Romanticist who doesn’t get on particularly well with much of the canonical Romantic poetry, I can certainly relate. Although it also says something about the inadequacy of our literary categories that the same label of “modernist” is supposed to cover all of those writers as well as someone like Lawrence (or that “Romantic” is applied equally to Wordsworth and Byron).

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