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 Arnouxfor 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.