Sentimental Education Summary

  • Last updated on June 18, 2023

Author: Gustave Flaubert
Title: Sentimental Education
Publish Date: 1869
Genre: Novel
Page length: Approximately 400 pages


Gustave Flaubert's novel, Sentimental Education, published in 1869, is an insightful exploration of the effects of love, ambition, and the societal expectations on the lives of its characters. Set in mid-19th century France, the novel chronicles the coming-of-age journey of Frédéric Moreau, a young law student who aspires to attain both worldly success and passionate love.

The narrative is divided into three sections and spans over the course of several years. In the first section, Frédéric, who comes from a lower middle-class background, becomes infatuated with Madame Arnoux, a beautiful married woman he encounters during a boat trip. Despite their undeniable connection, their relationship remains unconsummated. Frédéric's obsession with Madame Arnoux serves as a driving force throughout the novel, and he continuously seeks to possess her in his pursuit of a fulfilling life. Their brief encounters shape Frédéric's expectations and perceptions of love.

Frédéric befriends Deslauriers, a childhood friend, and the two become entangled in a tumultuous friendship. Deslauriers, with socialist leanings and a desire for revolution, remains somewhat of a foil to Frédéric's bourgeoisie ambitions. The two friends experience numerous setbacks and aspirations together, showcasing the tension between social mobility and idealistic pursuits.

In the second section, Frédéric inherits a modest fortune from his deceased grandfather, providing him the means to rise in social status and indulge in a lavish lifestyle. Although he initially moves to Paris to pursue a career in law, his aspirations quickly drift towards more superficial ambitions such as seducing women and participating in high society. This section exposes Frédéric's flawed character, as he becomes entangled in a series of love affairs, most notably with Rosanette and Madame Dambreuse.

Frédéric's relationship with Rosanette, a courtesan, is plagued by his inability to commit fully to her. His wavering between genuine affection and societal expectations leaves Rosanette devastated. Meanwhile, his interaction with Madame Dambreuse, a wealthy widow, provides him with an opportunity to climb the social ladder and marry into prosperity. However, Frédéric is unable to control his desires, and his indecisiveness further alienates him from love and happiness.

The final section of the novel illustrates the consequences of Frédéric's choices. His romantic affairs take a toll on his friendships and his relationship with Madame Arnoux, who confesses that she truly loved him but regrets not acting on her emotions. Additionally, Frédéric is plagued by financial difficulties and eventually loses the wealth he had inherited. As the political landscape changes during the 1848 revolution, his dreams of social advancement and fulfillment remain unfulfilled.

Throughout Sentimental Education, Flaubert depicts the characters' struggles to navigate the complexities of love, social ambition, and the class-ridden society of 19th century France. Frédéric's journey serves as a cautionary tale, demonstrating the consequences of misplaced passions and the dangers of societal pressures. Flaubert's prose beautifully encapsulates the societal norms and intricate emotions of his characters, allowing readers to reflect upon their own desires and the ever-changing nature of human relationships.

In conclusion, Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert delves into the intertwined lives of its characters against the backdrop of 19th century French society. Through its intricate plot and vividly drawn characters, the novel explores themes of love, ambition, and the societal constraints that shape individuals' choices. While it does not offer a neatly resolved ending, Sentimental Education serves as a timeless examination of the human condition, forcing readers to confront the consequences of their actions and the eternal pursuit of fulfillment.

Categories: Books