Places: A Sentimental Education

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: L’Éducation sentimentale, 1869 (English translation, 1898)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. Sentimental Education, AFrance’s leading city functions as the setting for the novel on several levels. First, it exists on the purely physical level. Gustave Flaubert–who was once, like Frédéric early in the novel, a young law student in Paris–uses realistic details and names of streets, boulevards, monuments, and other landmarks to describe Frédéric’s life in Paris, meticulously reproducing the city of the pre-Haussmann 1840’s. Readers can map out Frédéric’s walks or carriage rides through Paris to the Latin Quarter, where he studies law; the Seine River, which runs through the heart of Paris; the Champs-Élysées; the Bois de Boulogne, where Frédéric engages in a duel; and Montmartre, where Madame Arnoux lives.

These physical descriptions of Paris are filtered through Frédéric’s mind and colored by his imagination and emotional states. For example, when he walks through the streets with Madame Arnoux, the great love of his life, the chilly, foggy, wet day is for him delightful. When his mood is downcast, descriptions of the city darken. A walk through the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden with a museum of natural history, located on the Left Bank, serves as a catalyst for Frédéric’s imagination, and the actual scene disappears as he envisions Madame Arnoux and himself traveling to faraway lands. In fact, at times, everything he sees in Paris reminds him of her.

Other elements of the Parisian setting include cafés, drawing rooms, boudoirs, apartments, and gardens. As Frédéric visits these places, descriptions indicate not only what he sees but also how he feels about what he sees.

Paris is, in addition, a city of politics and revolution during the 1840’s. Flaubert carefully researched each political event and its location before integrating it into the novel. Descriptions of barricades in the streets or of the attack on the Palais Royal, in the heart of Paris, are based on contemporary sources. These events, though they are recounted in the novel, are often on the edge of Frédéric’s awareness. While Frédéric is planning a tryst with Madame Arnoux in February of 1848, a revolution is breaking out in Paris and King Louis-Philippe abdicates; however, Frédéric is too preoccupied with his personal life to take much note of it. During June, 1848, when fighting fills the streets of Paris, Frédéric is out of town and only afterward reads reports of the upheaval. Thus, the life of the city often pulses forward while Frédéric is either only a spectator to the events or even oblivious to them as they occur.

On occasion, the city itself and its elements take on a life of their own, as when the pavement of a Parisian street appears to speed Frédéric along toward Madame Arnoux, a door opens “almost by itself,” and its handle seems “as gentle and sensitive as a hand in his own.” In peace time, Frédéric hears in the sounds of the morning the “great voice of Paris awakening,” whereas in time of conflict, a friend of Frédéric’s describes Paris as “bristling with bayonets.”

Flaubert admitted that because his novel’s setting crowded its pages, he had to make room for his characters to live by relegating the setting–both places and history–to the background. Even so, Paris of the 1840’s is a major force in the novel.

*Nogent-sur-Seine

*Nogent-sur-Seine (noh-ZHAWN-syur-sehn). Small provincial bourgeois town southeast of Paris where Flaubert’s father was born and spent his early childhood. Years later, Flaubert regularly visited cousins in Nogent and in the novel re-created its small-town atmosphere, which contrasts with the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Paris. The family house in Nogent is the prototype for Frédéric’s mother’s house, to which Frédéric returns several times, only to escape back to Paris.

*Fontainebleau

*Fontainebleau (fawn-tehn-BLOH). Town southeast of Paris that is the location of one of the palaces of the kings of France and of the Forest of Franchard. Both the palace and the forest were tourist attractions, even in the nineteenth century. Frédéric and Rosanette, one of his mistresses, leave Paris just as the city is being barricaded and as fighting is breaking out in the streets. Absorbed with each other, they visit the palace and forest, awed by the grandeur of past monarchies and nature, peacefully exchanging confidences, unconcerned about the revolutionary events of the present, until Frédéric sees the name of a friend in a list of the wounded and insists on returning to Paris. Again, Frédéric’s focus on his personal life blinds him to momentous national events in Paris.

BibliographyCortland, Peter. Sentiment in Flaubert’s “Education sentimentale.” Muncie, Ind.: Ball State University, 1966. An excellent starting point. Focuses on analysis of the central character and includes an excellent discussion of the opening scene. English translations and original French provided for quotations cited from the text.Culler, Jonathan. Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty. Rev. ed., Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. A classic, still highly relevant study of Flaubert’s narrative technique and uses of irony. Structured thematically rather than chronologically. Index is very helpful in locating discussions of specific texts. Translations of French quotations located in Notes section at the end of the volume.Knight, Diana. Flaubert’s Characters: The Language of Illusion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A comparative study of Flaubert’s fictional characters. Includes a valuable summary of earlier criticism. Chapter 5 offers a provocative interpretation of Frédéric Moreau as an artist creating his life. Quotations from the novels in French.Paulson, William. “Sentimental Education”: The Complexity of Disenchantment. New York: Twayne, 1992. A comprehensive book-length study of the novel. Concise background information on literary and historical context. Clear discussion of Flaubert’s narrative technique. Excellent annotated bibliography of sources in both English and French.Porter, Laurence M. Critical Essays on Gustave Flaubert. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of essays on Flaubert’s canon. See especially “L’ Éducation sentimentale: Profanation and the Permanence of Dreams,” which examines the theme of prostitution.
Categories: Places