drowningmermaid's Reviews > Sentimental Education

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
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Jul 11, 2010

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Read from July 11 to October 13, 2010

On the publication of this novel, Flaubert expressed concern that no one would care about Frederic, that the insipidity of the character would render the book uninteresting to most people. This is, alas, an accurate self-criticism, and Henry James felt the same way. Frederic is simply too dull, too vacuous a character to support spending 500 pages with him, no matter how well-written the pages are.

An ambitious novel, it is probably the closest thing that anyone has ever come to creating what Flaubert dreamed of creating-- a novel unified not by subject matter or plot, but by style alone. The book is a combination of semi-autobiography while paralleling the main character's various failed loves with the politics of the day. And his friends embody the various philosophies prevalent at the time.

So when our omniscient narrator disparages Frederic, Flaubert is disparaging himself to a certain extent. As with "Madame Bovary," Flaubert raises questions about the nature of love-- and shows the power of love to destroy. When one hides behind love to avoid maturing, to avoid being involved in the other concerns of the world, one becomes less human than even someone who never pursues love at all.

At the beginning, Frederic's lack of sympathy at his uncle's death-- delighting in the news of his passing, as it meant he inherited a fortune-- is amusing. By the end, when he is weeping over Madame Arnoux rather than the death of his own son, he is monstrous. He becomes despicable simply by his failure to be changed by the circumstances that demand it.

The lack of suspense and the long study of politics (which I admit I know next to nothing about) made this book something of a chore for me.

However, the prose in this pessimistic work is superb as only Flaubert can render it, and searingly insightful as to the human condition. In addition, the whole concept of unredemptive love, of love as a form of 'projected narcissism,' of love as a shell to contain one's ulterior motives, an obsessive delusion masquerading as a 'spark of the divine'-- is a theme that is vastly underrepresented in literature.

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