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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
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).
Ace your assignments with our guide to Sentimental Education!