Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 in Rouen, a village in the Normandy region of France. His father was a wealthy surgeon, and his mother came from well-established families in the area. Growing up in comfort, Flaubert was not very ambitious. Although he moved to Paris to study law in 1842, he left school a few years later in poor health and without achieving much success. Much like Frédéric in Sentimental Education, he dabbled idly in Paris and lived on his father’s money, as Frédéric did his uncle’s. Even at a young age, Flaubert felt scorn for the middle-class and its values, and this attitude would inform his writing later in his life. He eventually returned to the small village of Croisset, near Rouen, where he lived with his mother until she died, and then he lived alone for the rest of his life.
It was in Croisset that he began writing, publishing his first novel, Madame Bovary, in 1857. The novel originally appeared in serial form and met with scandal because of Flaubert’s unapologetic portrayal of adultery and because of the novel’s general immorality. In book form, however, the novel was praised. Flaubert published his second novel, Salammbo, in 1862. In all his writing, Flaubert struggled to find the perfect words and phrases, a preoccupation that resulted in stunningly evocative and affective works and would secure his place as one of France’s greatest writers.
Flaubert never married, although he had one drawn-out, nearly decade-long love affair with a poet named Louise Colet. The true love of his life was an older woman named Elise Schlesinger, whom he had met in 1836, when he was fourteen years old. Elise was married and had a child when Flaubert first saw her, but her unattainability did not dull his devotion. He befriended her and her husband, Maurice, and remained in contact with the family until 1849. Although Elise was never Flaubert’s lover, she had a profound influence on his life and was the inspiration for the character Madame Arnoux in Sentimental Education, which Flaubert published in 1869.
Indeed, Sentimental Education was in many ways a fictionalized autobiography of Flaubert, documenting both his unrequited love for a married woman as well as the social and political climate of the 1840s, when his friendship with Elise was flourishing. In 1848, students and the working class revolted against the increasingly oppressive regime of King Louis Philippe. The king fled, and a provisional government stepped in, promoting socialist ideals. This government soon gave way to the Second French Republic, led by Louis Napoleon, which lasted only until 1851. Part Three of Sentimental Education takes place during this Second Republic, with many of the novel’s events lining up with historical events of the time. Ultimately, the Second Republic toppled, and the Second French Empire, with Louis Napoleon, now Napoleon III, at the helm, began in 1851. Flaubert intended Sentimental Education to provide a scathing picture of bourgeois society during this time, a society that he criticized as being vapid and unrefined.
Flaubert is a realist writer, which means that he focuses on the gritty details of everyday life in his writing. Realism began in France in the mid-nineteenth century and rejected the tenets from the Romantic movement that came before it. Romanticism, which was popular in France in the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, promoted emotional, subjective writing that emphasized feeling over reason or realistic portrayals of characters. Realist literature often focuses on middle-class life—such as the bourgeois society in which Frédéric moves in Sentimental Education—and is most concerned with portraying actions and their consequences with little or no subjectivity. Social factors and cultural environments are often very powerful forces in realist literature, as are elements of rationalism and scientific reasoning. Flaubert was one of the earliest practitioners of realism, and in Sentimental Education, his satirical, biting observations of the French bourgeois reveal his genius at the form. Other realist writers include Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, and Guy de Maupassant.
Flaubert died in 1880, at the age of fifty-eight, after enduring nearly ten years of poor health and loneliness. His other works include The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), Three Tales (1877) (which includes the well-known tale “A Simple Heart”), and Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881, posthumously).