This section contains 1,387 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)
Point of View
One might argue that Sentimental Education operates from two perspectives, one social and the other political. While the book is written in the third-person and covers the events of Frederic's life without much commentary, there is an underlying message. The author illustrates the emptiness in Frederic's life, points out his embarrassing behavior, his poor character and his consistently poor life choices. He clearly disapproves of the behaviors of the French upper class. They are rarely loyal in marriage, think only of social, financial and political gain and generally live bad lives. Their relationships with one another are unstable; they seldom care long for one another, and are even indifferent when their loved ones die - in some cases, at least.
However, in the background, France is in the process of undergoing a revolution against the monarchy. The story begins with revolutionary, democratic and socialist ideas floating around the young intellectual scene in Paris. Over time, these ideas produce random protests without much of a message. As time progresses, interests groups in favor of revolution ally and plan until eventually they launch a revolt and take over the government and abolish the French monarchy; they replace the monarchy with a republic. However, once the republic is formed, the interest groups in the alliance turn on one another, some take power and crack down on the individual liberties of the people and most people are worse off than they were before the revolution. The author, Flaubert, appears to have a harsh judgment not only of the French elite but of the revolution as well. In fact, in many ways the two stories track one another - they begin with dreams, rise with hope, but the seeds of destruction are found within a false hope and unfocused plan, such that when victory comes, decision makers do not know how to proceed. This ultimately ends in conflict and disappointment. Apparently, this is how the author sees both the life and times of Frederic and his community and the French political uprisings of his day.
The setting of the book is mid-19th century France, and specifically the cities of Paris and Nogent. This period in French history has suffered from seven decades of political upheaval. In 1789 the French revolution brought down the king and queen of France. The monarchs are beheaded and Robespierre's reign of terror begins. In 1794, he is overthrown. In 1799 Napoleon took over and became Consul and in 1804 he became Emperor. From 1804 to 1812 he attempted to conquer Europe but lost crucial battles in 1812 and 1815. Louis XVIII replaced Napoleon and Charles X overthrew Louis XVIII. Charles's reign resembled the reign of the old French Monarchs; he was replaced in 1830 which elected a kind, Louis Philippe. He reigned fairly peacefully through much of the beginning of Sentimental Education. The French people believe that they can simply overthrow a government when it fails to suit their interests, but they appear not to have learned that revolutions can backfire. So in 1848, they decide to overthrow Phillipe; Napoleon's nephew then becomes the first president of the Republic but became Emperor through a vote in 1852. Paris during this time is full of revolutionary ideas, which in actual fact were by this time actually traditional. This is the historical setting of Sentimental Education and its location.
More specifically, the the main characters are located both in Nogent and in Paris. Frederic grew up in Nogent and moves to Paris to attend law school. He often retreats to Nogent when things go badly for him. He returned to Nogent when he could not find love, and when he was out of money. Nogent is where his mother lives and Louise, one of his love interests. Most of the book takes place in Paris, particularly in the houses and communities of the French upper class. Thus, the settings are mansions, dinner parties, upper class outings and so on. Also, many of the scandalous events in the book occur in bedrooms, discreet apartment buildings and mansions when one or the other spouse of the mansion is not home.
Language and Meaning
The language of the book is descriptive, melancholy and subtly opinionated. The reader is shown a glimpse of Paris and its social climate in the mid-19th century, along with some pictures of the French countryside. As in most depictions of France, Paris is shown as lively, beautiful and full of ideas. It is also shown to have its own form of decadence, self-absorption and unrealistic expectations, also features of how France is often depicted in literature.
The story is narrated somewhat in line with the emotion state of its main character, Frederic Moreau. We begin with melancholy scenes, evenings, long walks alone in the rain, balmy and gray weather conditions that generally reflect Frederic's mood. When Frederic becomes rich and enters the French social scene, the tone is livelier and full of excitement and intrigue. In fact, Sentimental Education was originally seen by the French reading public as glorifying adultery because of these parts of the book. Frederic is full of hope and the world seems to open to him. He feels as if he can accomplish anything. However, as the book progresses and Frederic overreaches, things appear dark. The revolution produces bloodshed and little positive change, Frederic becomes desperate and even more indecisive than before. The reader will be particularly struck by Frederic's indifference to the death of his son, which appears to be illustrated with depictions of the slow decay of his son's corpse as Pellerin is painting the child's portrait. Towards the end of the book, time passes quickly, intermittently sprinkled with important events. These stretches of time seem boring and sad, as the author passes over them quickly and without much description.
In the end, the author appears to be making the same judgment about Frederic, the Parisian upper class and the revolution of 1848: all are pretentious, self-absorbed and have a character such that they will never be happy.
Sentimental Education is divided into three parts, each containing six to seven chapters. The parts and chapters are not named but they mark an order and shape of the book's plot. The first part of the book introduces the main characters and the plot - Frederic's rise to prominence and his romantic interest in Marie. Things prove difficult for him initially, as he is often depressed but he wins a small inheritance and is able to begin his climb up the ladder into high society. Towards the end of the book, there is a small subplot where Frederic loses much of his inheritance but receives another much larger inheritance from his uncle. This ends part one. Part two opens in triumph. It is the long build towards the climax of the book. It focuses on Frederic's entry into the French social class, his attempts to build his wealth, his reputation and acquire a mistress. We see him become distracted from his romantic interest in Marie. Through much of part two, he pursues her but he also becomes interested in Rosanette. The climax of part two comes when he asks Marie to be with him, and she rejects him. Frederic throws himself into a relationship with Rosanette out of spite. At this same time, the events of the revolution are coming to a head. However, it is not until part three that the book reaches its climax. Part three opens with the revolution one but the tone of the book is not one of triumph. Instead, there is risk and responsibility that comes along with success. The French revolutionaries and Frederic must both now make concrete decisions about how to handle their successes but both become distracted. To focus on Frederic, we see that he develops multiple romantic interests - with Louise, Madame Dambreuse, Rosanette and Marie. He cannot decide who he wants; although towards the end he picks Marie. Yet the climax of the entire book comes years after the book's main events, when Marie visits Frederic at home. They declare their love for one another, but when Marie exposes her now white hair to Frederic, he rejects even her. This event is followed with the book's denouement, where Frederic seems to acquiesce to his unhappiness and spends his time with affairs, idleness and reminiscing about the past.
This section contains 1,387 words
(approx. 4 pages at 400 words per page)