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Sentimental Education

Gustave Flaubert

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. Compare and contrast Frédéric’s relationship with Arnoux with his relationship with Deslauriers.

Frédéric’s relationships with Arnoux and with Deslauriers are similar in that in each case one man strives relentlessly to imitate the other, which ultimately leads to betrayal. Frédéric, from the first time he meets Arnoux, admires him greatly. Frédéric’s father died before he was born, and Arnoux immediately steps in as a father figure, giving Frédéric advice in a fatherly tone. Knowing virtually nothing about Arnoux, Frédéric regards him with “a certain respect.” This respect eventually deepens into a blatant imitation. First, Frédéric pursues Madame Arnoux, who is Arnoux’s wife; when he discovers that Rosanette is Arnoux’s mistress, he pursues her as well. Frédéric’s juggling of Rosanette and Madame Dambreuse mirrors Arnoux’s juggling of Rosanette and Madame Arnoux, and both men undertake their dalliances with a kind of glee. Frédéric even admits that he feels attracted to him because of their similarities. Arnoux proves to be a strongly influential force in young Frédéric’s development.

Frédéric’s relationship with Deslauriers is the reverse of his relationship with Arnoux: whereas Frédéric followed and copied Arnoux, he is the one followed and copied by Deslauriers. Deslauriers tries to win the same women Frédéric has won—Madame Arnoux and Rosanette—but has little success. However, he succeeds in marrying Louise, stealing her just at the moment when Frédéric was reconsidering his decision not to marry her. Deslauriers even considers taking a job for Monsieur Dambreuse that Frédéric had been tapped for, but in this his conscience stops him. Deslauriers, whom Frédéric consistently treats abominably, emulates him out of a kind of spite or revenge. When they are young, the two men envision a grand life for themselves, and Deslauriers resents the fact that life has been kinder to Frédéric than to him. Although the men stay friends, true friendship is possible only when the women and other social rivals have faded from their lives.

2. How is Frédéric’s love for Madame Arnoux connected or similar to his love for Paris?

Frédéric adores both Paris and Madame Arnoux, but his love of both the city and the woman are capricious, depending on his state of mind and his perception of his social standing. For much of the novel, the state of his affairs with Madame Arnoux dictates how he feels about Paris. When he has a positive interaction with her or a pleasant sighting, Paris is wonderful, beautiful, and satisfying. When she ignores him or when he feels discouraged in his pursuit of her, Paris is bleak, depressing, and ugly. The ups and downs in Frédéric’s perspective of the city are almost comical, so closely related they are to his feelings for Madame Arnoux.

Frédéric proves himself to be a fickle lover of Madame Arnoux and Paris, but both the woman and the city are themselves fickle lovers of Frédéric. Madame Arnoux, though she offers him fleeting moments of happiness and returned affection, mostly offers him angst, disappointment, and struggle. Directly or indirectly, she disrupts every relationship he has with other women, and he makes many bad business decisions out of a desire to pursue her. For better or for worse, Frédéric has given her everything and gotten little in return. Paris itself has been less than kind in its treatment of Frédéric. Frédéric, new fortune in hand, comes to Paris with boundless dreams and an array of ambitions; but his money never does much for him, he never succeeds at a particular career, and any political ambitions he has are thwarted. Alone and forced to live on little money at the end of the novel, he counts as the best time of his life a time that had nothing to do with Paris—or with Madame Arnoux.

3. Sentimental Education is full of historical references, in-jokes of French society, relationships that are not always perfectly clear, and characters who often disappear after one mention in the text. What role do these elements play in the novel?

From the beginning of Sentimental Education, Flaubert casually includes historical references that mean a great deal to his characters but mean little offhand to present-day readers. For example, Madame Moreau prefers not to hear criticism of the government, and Frédéric is asked what he thinks of Madame Lafarge. Although readers in Flaubert’s time certainly understood the meanings and implications of these and other references, Flaubert included them as a way of rooting his story firmly into its place and time: France, in the mid-1800s, on the cusp of the revolution of 1848. Without checking the endnotes or consulting Google, we get a strong sense of the backdrop to Frédéric and his search for love, a society rife with political unrest and fervor. Understanding every reference adds a rich historical layer to the novel, but simply noting the references themselves helps us to engage with the novel as a book of its time.

The many convoluted relationships, quickly disappearing characters, and inside jokes of French society, like the historical references, paint a vivid picture of the social milieu in which Frédéric operates. Frédéric is an outsider, a new arrival on the Paris social scene, with few connections to the bourgeois society he yearns to join. Flaubert intends to portray this society as full of intrigue, secrets, and love affairs that only the insiders fully understand. Frédéric often wonders who is with whom or what a comment actually means, just as we do; this occasional cloudiness helps us feel as though we, too, are interlopers in a society in which we don’t yet really belong. The society crowd in Sentimental Education, from Frédéric’s perspective, often appears ridiculous, petty, and shallow, and his outsider’s view allows Flaubert to satirize this society without having to state his opinions outright. (It should be said that this novel was a failure in its day, outraging members of society, who resented the fact that Flaubert painted them in such an unflattering light.) At many points in Sentimental Education we feel thrust into a political and social environment that seems almost impenetrable to us—which is exactly how Frédéric feels as he attempts to climb the social ladder and make a place for himself in the city.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Describe the parallels between the political events surrounding France’s Second Empire and Part Three of Sentimental Education.

2. Choose one character and trace his or her search for love throughout the novel. Who or what does he or she desire? How does he or she go about pursuing this desire?

3. Compare and contrast Rosanette and Madame Arnoux. Why do you think Frédéric is drawn to both women?

4. Explain the relationship between Frédéric and Deslauriers and how it differs from Frédéric’s relationships with women (apart from the sexual element).

5. In what ways are Frédéric and Arnoux alike? Different? How does Arnoux’s fall connect to Frédéric’s fate?

6. Many chapters in Sentimental Education end with one character being separated from another. Explain the role of these goodbyes in the novel.

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