Sentimental Education Themes

Gustave Flaubert and Mary Ruefle
This Study Guide consists of approximately 38 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Sentimental Education.
This section contains 800 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)

Wanting What One Cannot Have

At practically every point in Sentimental Education, Frederic wants only the things he cannot have. When he arrives in Paris, he wants to be a lawyer, but this bores him, so he becomes a writer. Frederic wants to use Monsieur Dambreuse as an opportunity for social climbing but does not take him up on his job offer. He is wishy-washy about investment projects, coming up on an opportunity and the backing away. When he conceives of an idea, it seems desirable to him; and when he is about to commit to completing the project he quickly moves to something else.

This is no clearer than in his love life. He pursues Marie, but when she rejects him, he goes after Rosanette. After a short time of happiness with Rosanette, he pursues Madame Dambreuse. Before this, he considered marrying Louise, but constantly puts her off until she marries Charles. He desires Madame Arnoux on and off throughout the book. But in the end, when she offers herself to him, he immediately loses interest. However, he loses interest time and again before this occurs, jumping back and forth between four relationships. When Rosanette wants to get married, Frederic stops being interested. When Madame Dambreuse wants to get married, Frederic, again, loses interested. Frederic wants to marry Louise to get her father Roque's money, but when he has the opportunity, he demurs, and when Marie finally offers herself to him, he rejects her. Each time he is on the cusp of achieving the relationship he wants, he moves onto something else.

The Desperate Search for Happiness

Sentimental Education is full of unhappiness. No one seems content. Some are dissatisfied with the political regime, others with their social standing, still others with their love lives. Senecal, Hussonnet and others focus on changing the government, but in the end, their lives are not better off. Charles tries to steal Frederic's life but ends the book no happier than he was before. Both Cisy and Frederic pursue social climbing, but neither of them appears to be happy. And Rosanette pursues man after man, wanting a family, but has to adopt a child. Jacques won't marry her, Frederic won't marry her, and presumably, no one else would either. Marie stays loyal to Jacques, hoping that he will return the favor and when he dies, she pursues Frederic, but he rejects her. Madame Dambreuse marries well, but does not receive her husband's fortune when he dies and cannot get Frederic to marry him. Jacques pursues women, but loves his wife, and chooses neither. And he makes bad investments which ultimately force him to leave Paris. No one in Sentimental Education is happy and everyone is desperately searching for it.

One of the major themes of the book, then, is the desperate search for happiness. Everyone in Sentimental Education is pursuing happiness in their own way, but practically everyone is pursuing a path that they could not reasonably expect would satisfy them. They pursue lives that are risky and their relationships are rarely stable. Few focus on family life and being content with what they have. Frederic is the worst of all, sometimes achieving what he wants but quickly casting it aside for something else.

Political Revolution, Hope and Disappointment

A major underlying theme of Sentimental Education is political revolution and placing hope in dramatic social change. The French revolution of 1848 began the Second Republic, and adopted for itself the motto of "Liberty, Fraternity and Equality." The revolution was bred by dissatisfaction with the monarchy, an increasing awareness of nationwide poverty which was attributed to the rise of industrial capitalism. Many wanted to implement socialist reforms and most wanted a fully democratic government. However, the revolution did not have a clear focus and in the end the interest groups that allied to bring about the overthrow of the monarchy turned on one another. Much like the first French Revolution, the radical hopes of the reformers were dashed by reality.

The political theme of Sentimental Education appears secondary to the main story line for the vast majority of the book. However, over time a parallelism appears between Frederic's life and the rise and fall of the revolution. Both begin in a state of dissatisfaction but good fortune leads them both to become confident of their ability to achieve great things. However, neither is sure of what they really want; they overreach and have no one stable plan to bring their hopes to fruition. As a result, their lives collapse and both end as depressed and unhappy as before. In some ways, one might understand Sentimental Education as a commentary on the second French revolution, arguing that its self-absorption, lack of focus and coherent ideology, utopianism and tendency to overreach led to little social improvement.

This section contains 800 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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