Steve Sachs Duke


Friday, June 18, 2004


Sentimental Education: I've recently begun reading fiction again. Apart from the odd novel or two over a vacation, it's something I haven't done seriously in years, and I thought that Trinity Term, with exams looming over my head, was the perfect time to start. On the recommendation of a friend, I began with Flaubert's Sentimental Education. As I read the first chapter, I began to laugh out loud, as it reminded me so vividly of my own middle school crushes and adolescent thoughts. It was humbling to find some of the same emotions I had felt in earlier life, which I had naively assumed to be of my own invention, described so accurately in someone else's hundred-year-old novel:

But Frederic soon made his way back to the awning where Madame Arnoux had also returned. She was reading a slim volume in a grey binding. From time to time the corners of her mouth would twitch and her face light up with pleasure. Frederic felt jealous of this man who'd thought up these things which seemed to be interesting her....

On the right was a broad plain, on the left grazing land rising gently up towards a hill with vineyards and walnut trees and a mill set amidst greenery; little paths zigzagged up the pale rock to the skyline. How wonderful to walk up there together side by side with his arm round her waist while her skirt swept over the yellow leaves, listening to the sound of her voice, basking in the radiance of her eyes! The boat might stop, they'd only have to go ashore; yet stopping the sun would have been easier.

The passage above is from another translation, since I've already lent my copy away, and it doesn't do justice to the dry, flat, objective, merciless tone Flaubert adopts toward all of his characters. Scenes are sculpted with a scalpel's precision, and all the base elements of the human character are openly put on display. (When Frederic shares some of his poetry with a friend, Flaubert notes that the poems were "admired," but "he did not ask for more.") There are no entirely honorable people in this novel, no one from whom the reader can take inspiration--except, perhaps, for Madame Arnoux herself, which makes me wonder whether Flaubert did not bear an even deeper love for her than did Frederic.

Over the course of the novel, though--and especially in its heartwrenchingly placid final chapter--I noticed echoes of another set of thoughts I had considered my own. The novel explores a powerful conflict between its characters' youthful ideals and the contingencies of human life. Flaubert's characters are overwhelmed by events; not merely the tumults of 1848, the great tides that sweep through all France, but the twists and turns of individual experience. Frederic never controls his fate; he is merely subject to it. Offers, rejections, inheritances, duels, proposals of marriage, pregnancies--all are things that happen to him, and his life is determined by their all-important timing. I've written before on the awfulness of contingency, but Flaubert provides a clear example of its effect on a person's character. Deprived of agency, Frederic weakens. Trapped in a web of conflicting loyalties, he becomes unable to live up to his ideals, or even to convince anyone that he still holds them; and eventually--dishonest to his lovers, indifferent to his child--they are corrupted beyond recognition. The same occurs on a larger scale with the failure of Deslauriers' political dreams, and he ends as cynical and as disillusioned as, perhaps, all of France under Napoleon III.

In fact, by the end of the novel, it is not even clear whether Frederic has indeed been educated. Unlike the many authors who would be tempted to praise youthful idealism, regardless of its effects, Flaubert offers no palliative; the friends' reminiscences of the days of their youth are all the more painful and hollow given what has passed. Once in a long while, we encounter old men whose lives serve as a warning to us, examples we should fear to emulate. Flaubert's novel derives its great power by telling the story of an education every reader would surely wish to avoid.




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