Gustave Flaubert was a nineteenth-century French novelist, whose works include the famous ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Salammbo’.
‘Sentimental Education'(1869), when published, was something of a shock that left most of its readers receiving it in a cold, hostile way. It is a Naturalist novel belonging to the genre Bildungsroman or apprentice-novel(coming of age novel), a boho work in the nineteenth century France.
By the same name, Flaubert had written another novel(1845) when he was twenty- three, before this one. That too was an apprentice- novel. The 1845 novel depicts the relative nature of success and failure in the contrasting areas of Art and Life on the same line as Goethe in his ‘Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship’. But, the conclusion of Flaubert was the polar opposite of Goethe who glorifies the bourgeois life to Art.
In Flaubert’s antithetical representation of Art and Life in the first ‘Sentimental Education’, the protagonist who embraces Art succeeds, while the other one fails. But this has something to do with the France of 1840s where Art was epitomized and the bourgeois way of life( Tatigkeit) deplored. In his second Sentimental Education, a certain haziness of conclusion is felt, though the perspective of readers from a particular period of time is significant. A reader of today could feel his aesthetic and perfectionist style, as compared to the common readers of the 1860’s France. Still, contemporary Naturalist novelists of Flaubert’s time, like Emile Zola had recognized it as ‘ a most audacious and difficult composition’. During his time, such an attempt at Realism was literally unheard of.
What makes the narration distinct is its uninterrupted flow just as the daily life in France of that time. And such a realistic approach to fiction was unprecedented at that time. According to Flaubert himself,’ It is too real and what’s lacking is falseness of perspective’.
Set in the backdrop of the 1848 Revolution, the story revolves around Frederic and his unconsummated love. This makes the novel, in the genre of historical fiction as well. At one time, while writing it, he had even mused of how the background could swamp the foreground of the novel in the case of a historical fiction.
Frederic’s chaste and virtuous love for Madame Arnoux has its echo from Flaubert’s fruitless love for Elisa, a woman considerably older than himself. His passion for Elisa leaves its thinly veiled marks in most of his initial semi-autobiographical works. For Frederic, Madame Arnoux is an ideal like Art, an angelic soul, a beatific presence, not to be defiled. Such a romantic passion had indeed been out of the box in the bourgeois society of France. The ideal of Madame Arnoux is contrasted with the reality of Rosanette, a harlot.
Flaubert was a perfectionist in every sense of the word. He used to revisit and edit his writings many times until it peaked the artistic perfection of ‘ prose with the rhythm of poetry’. He was not as prolific in churning out works as his contemporaries, due to this. Marcel Proust had mentioned the poetry of Flaubert’s prose in his 1920 essay. The scrupulous portrayal of life won him as many critics as admirers. His romantic cum realist writing style has greatly influenced many 20th-century writers like Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Deslaurier is the other main protagonist in the novel, who sacrifices his life for power as Frederic did for love. Both turn out to be unsuccessful in their respective endeavors, yet possessing the world wisdom to laugh off their follies in a bantering way, in the end. It is difficult for those without a firm grip on the history of French Revolution, art and literature of the nineteenth century to grasp the arts vocabulary in the novel( a profusion of luminary names in the arts and philosophy fields flash by, whom I am not at all familiar with, so that was cumbersome). Sentimental Education is a literary masterstroke, not easy to read, but, familiarizing us with Flaubert’s style on each re-read.