The actions of every character in Sentimental Education are motivated by a search for love, a search that seems as futile as it is necessary for survival and happiness. Frédéric’s pursuit of Madame Arnoux is the main search that drives the novel. Over a thirty-year period, Frédéric dreams of, yearns for, and schemes to win the attentions of Madame Arnoux, propelled mainly by his first image of her as a much younger woman on the deck of a ship. Through financial struggle and success, through political endeavors and forays into high society, through friendships and affairs, the one constant is Madame Arnoux and her elusiveness in Frédéric’s life. Occasional connections and mutual devotions are far outnumbered by arguments, disappointments, and doubts. Ultimately, the search for love proves more lively and important than the love itself: when Madame Arnoux finally offers herself to Frédéric, he dismisses the thought out of hand.
Other characters’ searches for love may be less dramatic, but they serve as driving forces behind their actions. Rosanette, despite her many lovers and her independent spirit, yearns to have a child and be married. Madame Dambreuse, enmeshed as she is in high society and influence, accepts Frédéric as a lover because she wants him to provide her with a great passion. Deslauriers’s search meanders from women to jobs to schooling; in a way, he seeks some sort of passion. Pellerin’s search takes the form of a protracted search for fulfilling art, while Hussonnet, Dussardier, and Senecal pursue political endeavors with all the devotion they can muster. Louise Roque seems to have the purest motives in her search for love, yearning for Frédéric and settling for Deslauriers only when Frédéric proves unavailable. However, even she is unfulfilled, and her search continues: she leaves Deslauriers for a singer. In Sentimental Education, the search itself—not its outcome—is what life is truly made of.
Throughout Sentimental Education, characters, particularly Pellerin, continuously disagree and change their minds about what the purpose of art really is. Pellerin initially believes that beauty is the sole purpose of art. He rails against art that has a “hideous reality,” claiming that art is meant to provide adulation and opulence. Pellerin’s views don’t mesh with the views of other characters; for example, Senecal claims that art should lift “the moral standards of the masses” and that the idea of something matters more than its style. Although Pellerin makes frequent, grand pronouncements about what art is and should be, his views eventually change. He later decides that character and variety are more important to art than beauty. He at one point tries to commodify art by forming a stock exchange on which artists would collaborate to produce “sublime works of art.” This bizarre idea suggests that Pellerin is struggling to keep the ideals of art alive, even while art is valued less and less in society. Ultimately, he becomes a photographer, embracing the “realism” he once dismissed and including himself in his photographs. For Pellerin, art has become a vehicle for portraying reality on the most personal level. The purpose, even for the artist himself, has changed. Arnoux’s changing involvement in the art world follows the same sort of path as Pellerin’s, although we are told of his background only in brief. He is first an artist, then a seller of art; then he abandons art altogether and opens a china factory. From doer to seller to nothing at all, Arnoux changes his involvement just as Pellerin does. Once a believer in beauty and “art for art’s sake,” each man’s interest eventually turns utilitarian.
As French society lost its illusions, so too did the purpose of art begin to seem less enchanted. The changes in Pellerin’s and Arnoux’s views about and involvement with art follow the changing social and political climates of the time. As capitalism and money began to dominate society, people began to make their fortunes rather than inherit them, and old ideas about beauty and art lost their resonance among the new middle-class. Flaubert sought to condemn the new bourgeoisie, who he believed were vacuous, and his depiction of the desecration of art is one way that he comments on the declining culture of the time.
Although Frédéric aspires to become a member of Paris’s high society, the company he hopes to join prove themselves to be disloyal in their allegiances, unpredictable in their whims, and shallow in their concerns, which creates an overall sense of how inane this community is. Flaubert intended Sentimental Education to paint a satirical picture of this privileged segment of the population, a decision that led to anger and poor reviews when the book was published. Examples of the capriciousness and vacuity of society appear throughout the novel, but we see them most clearly in the social gatherings at the Dambreuses’ house. There, talk rarely leaves the realm of gossip and silliness, and even Frédéric—always willing to indulge this society because of his yearning to be part of it—is shocked and appalled. He describes the conversation as “aimless, lifeless, and inconsequential,” yet still strives to become part of it. Although these people seem banal to him, he still yearns for their approval.
The flagrant infidelities and convoluted affairs add to the argument that this society is foolish and comical. The romantic liaisons change quickly and become almost impossible to follow. Rosanette is kept by Oudry, then Arnoux; Frédéric somehow competes with Delmar, but we’re never entirely sure what Delmar’s role is. Madame Dambreuse competes with Cecile, her husband’s illegitimate daughter, for Martinon, then takes Frédéric as her lover. Arnoux, Mademoiselle Vatnaz, and others in their crowd have stories just as involved. All the bed hopping, cheating, stealing, and lying create an unflattering portrait of a society that believes itself to be superior to the masses and of the highest decorum, decency, and class.
As Frédéric actively searches for wealth and pursues Madame Arnoux, he credits fate and luck for his successes and failures, while failing to acknowledge his own active role in what happens to him. When he flips a coin to decide whether to visit Madame Arnoux, he attributes the outcome to fate rather than to simple probability. Upon facing poverty after learning that his inheritance has been stolen by Roque, he decides that luck has created an opportunity for him to work on his talents. When Senecal asks Frédéric to help him get a job with Arnoux, which Frédéric thinks will facilitate his pursuit of Madame Arnoux, Frédéric decides that fate has intervened. When his stocks make money, he again credits luck. Frédéric believes that there are very active outside forces at work in his life, and this helps him deal with failure when it does indeed occur.
When Madame Arnoux and Frédéric first spend time together, fate serves as a convenient scapegoat for Frédéric, allowing him to keep her at a distance. Although they both claim devotion to each other, they take no action to consummate their relationship and instead spend time complaining about fate. Meanwhile, it seems that everyone in their social circle is sleeping with everyone else; propriety and scandal are hardly deterrents. Something besides fate is stopping them from making their relationship fully, completely real—but it’s easier to blame the influence of fate than to take personal responsibility for decisions and actions.
Departures and separations regularly punctuate the action in Sentimental Education. The novel begins with a goodbye, as Frédéric sails away from his beloved Paris, watching it disappear behind him. Indeed, Frédéric seems always to be separating from a place or a person, whether it be Paris; his family home in Nogent-sur-Seine; his unrequited love, Madame Arnoux; or his friend Deslauriers. Many chapters end with departures or separations. Some of these are physical separations, such as when he leaves Paris, when he leaves his mother to visit his friend Deslauriers, or, most dramatically, when Madame Arnoux leaves Frédéric for the last time, after offering herself to him. Other chapter-ending departures and separations are emotional, such as when he believes his love for Madame Arnoux is fading.
The pervasiveness of departures and separations in Sentimental Education serve to underscore some of Flaubert’s intentions for the novel. First, Flaubert set out to skewer the capriciousness of high society, in which loyalties and alliances were weak and fickle. Lovers left each other frequently, taking up with others in a heartbeat; reputations waxed and waned according to society’s whims. Frédéric and other characters seem incapable of staying in one place or adhering strongly to one line of thinking or one object of affection, traits that highlight exactly the kind of fecklessness Flaubert set out to condemn. Furthermore, France in the late 1840s was itself departing from the oppressive regime of King Philippe as liberals sought to overthrow it. The revolution of 1848 ushered in the brief Second French Republic. The political unrest of the time shifted alliances and shook up the accepted structure of society. The personal departures and separations throughout the novel echo the larger departures of society at the time from old ways of thinking, when romantic notions of art and culture were being overtaken by industry and capitalism.
Frédéric spends the majority of his life admiring and wooing various women, and the abundance of ribbons in Sentimental Education emphasizes his fixation on females. Whenever Frédéric gets close to a woman, ribbons appear in some form, representing his loose ties to them. On the first page of the novel, the riverbanks look like ribbons as Frédéric’s boat sails past them; shortly after this observation, he will see Madame Arnoux for the first time, and she is wearing ribbons on her hat. Before he and Rosanette go out, she must arrange the ribbons on her hat. When he first succeeds in wooing Madame Dambreuse, the clouds in the sky are described as ribbons. And ribbons bring Fredric’s final, painful encounter with Madame Arnoux to a close, as she lifts her hat by its ribbons before she leaves. There are far too many images of ribbons to list. Like an echo of Frédéric’s first, life-changing sighting of Madame Arnoux, ribbons appear frequently on other women, and in other ways, as Frédéric commences his ultimately futile pursuit of Madame Arnoux and undergoes all the trials that accompany it.
Mist is a pervasive element of the setting in Sentimental Education and often reflects Frédéric’s troubled emotional state. When Frédéric is depressed, Flaubert’s descriptions of Paris are gloomy, such as when he describes a dark mist and compares it to his own heavy heart. When Frédéric first touches Madame Arnoux’s arm, they walk together in a rank, swampy fog. Mist surrounds him when he believes he will not receive an inheritance, and when he returns to Paris. Mist punctuates his relationship with Rosanette, such as when he rides unhappily beside her in a carriage, and when they spend time together in Fontainebleau. In all cases, the mist underscores Frédéric’s perpetual dissatisfaction and endless searching, particularly his often hazy ideas of what he is actually searching for.
Parallel lines appear throughout Sentimental Education and represent the unrequited love Frédéric holds for Madame Arnoux. Parallel lines appear in many different contexts, but they generally mark moments when Frédéric has seen or is thinking about Madame Arnoux. On the boat, when Frédéric first spots Madame Arnoux, he notices that the riverbanks looked like two ribbons. After he first has dinner at the Arnouxes’ home, the lamps on the street are described as shining in two straight lines. On the day he is supposed to meet Madame Arnoux at an apartment he has rented out, he sees student demonstrators marching in two lines. Significantly, parallel lines appear in the climactic scene when Madame Arnoux offers herself to Frédéric: she describes her new home to him, including the “double avenue of chestnuts.” In these moments, Frédéric may have spoken to or come close to connecting physically with Madame Arnoux, but, like parallel lines, their lives never succeed in intersecting.
Parallel lines appear during Frédéric’s interactions with other women as well. At Madame Dambreuse’s home, guests sit on chairs positioned in two straight lines. When Frédéric takes Rosanette to the races, two lines of posts delineate the course. When he prepares to go out with Rosanette on another occasion, he notices that the street lamps were like a double string of pearls. Whether the parallel lines appear when Frédéric is with Madame Arnoux or with other women, the meaning of the image is clear: just as parallel lines can never meet and cross, Frédéric and Madame Arnoux are doomed to remain apart throughout their lives.
Roses appear at two significant points of the novel and in both cases represent the impossibility of love. First, roses play a role in granting Frédéric and Madame Arnoux their first real intimacy. When Frédéric visits the Arnouxes outside of Paris, Monsieur Arnoux leaves Madame Arnoux to go boating with other guests and then gives her a bouquet of roses, which she does not want. Later, sitting with Frédéric in a carriage, Madame Arnoux tosses the roses out the door, an act that only Frédéric witnesses. This is the first secret they share, but the rose incident ultimately leads nowhere—their love is and always will be impossible. Roses appear again in the form of the name of Frédéric’s lover, Rosanette. Although Rosanette is a serious partner for Frédéric, someone who wishes to build a life with him, he maintains his love for Madame Arnoux throughout this affair, which ultimately dooms it. The true love Frédéric might have felt for the son he has with Rosanette is also doomed, since the child dies in infancy. Roses, traditionally symbols of love, instead suggest heartbreak in Sentimental Education.
Madame Arnoux’s white hair, which she exposes when she comes to offer herself to Frédéric, fully reveals to Frédéric the passage of time and represents the true end of a love affair that never really began. Madame Arnoux has been part of Frédéric’s life since he was eighteen years old, remaining the one constant element in a life filled with political unrest, other lovers, social conquests, career pursuits, and travels. Twenty years after he first sees her, his love for her still exists, although at this point it has taken on a life of its own. Madame Arnoux, whom he hasn’t seen in years, is in many ways no longer a woman but a fantasy; he barely knew her when she was physically present, so his love is rooted in his idealized image of her rather than fact. When Madame Arnoux reappears and reveals her white hair, she becomes, suddenly, human.
Fully present and willing to actually consummate Frédéric’s love, the very human Madame Arnoux loses her appeal. Just like that, Frédéric’s feelings for her are reversed, and he waits impatiently for her to leave. Madame Arnoux has committed the ultimate transgression—she has aged, thus changing utterly from the image Frédéric has held in his imagination all these years. The woman he had held as an ideal specimen of femininity has fallen from grace. Far from being the one true object of Frédéric’s eternal desire, Madame Arnoux is now so devoid of sexuality that she kisses him as a mother would. The white hair signifies and reveals Madame Arnoux’s true self, and, therefore, the love affair must end.