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On a boat departing Paris in 1840,
a young man, Frédéric Moreau, stares moodily at Paris, still visible
behind him. He is going home to Nogent-sur-Seine to stay with his
mother before beginning his law studies. On deck, he observes a
man holding forth with a young woman. Frédéric and the man soon
engage in conversation. The man introduces himself as Jacques Arnoux,
the owner of an art magazine. A servant tells Monsieur Arnoux he
is needed by Mademoiselle, and he goes belowdecks.
Frédéric observes the passengers. He sees a beautiful
woman in the first-class section and is captivated. Everything about
her entices him—from her body to her basket of embroidery. Frédéric
sees that her shawl is about to fall into the water. He grabs it
for her, and she thanks him. Then Arnoux appears with a small girl.
The beautiful woman is Arnoux’s wife.
Frédéric stays close to the Arnouxes. Arnoux invites him
to go belowdecks, to the saloon. There, Frédéric sits near Madame Arnoux
and observes her closely. Eventually, Frédéric and the Arnouxes
get off the boat, and Frédéric says goodbye. As he makes his way
home, he remembers that Monsieur Arnoux had called his wife “Marie.”
He vows to become a friend of the family and see Madame Arnoux again.
At home, Frédéric’s mother and some friends greet him
warmly. Madame Moreau welcomes her son and is certain that great
things await him. As Frédéric eats a meal, he wonders what Madame Arnoux
is doing. He eventually leaves the house to visit a friend named
Deslauriers’s father was angry and abusive when Deslauriers
was a child, but he sent him to school in Sens, where he met Frédéric. Deslauriers
was passionate about philosophy, while Frédéric was interested in
drawing and writing. They planned to work together in Paris and
lead decadent lives with women. They separated for a while, while
Charles studied law in Paris and Madame Moreau sent Frédéric to
Le Havre to visit a rich uncle.
This is the first time they have seen each other in two
years. Deslauriers tells Frédéric he will not be staying in Paris,
which disappoints Frédéric. Frédéric tells Charles about Madame
Arnoux, and Charles encourages him to pursue a friendship with Monsieur Arnoux.
Frédéric and Charles run into Monsieur Roque, a friend
of Madame Moreau and steward to a man named Monsieur Dambreuse.
Roque is not well respected because he lives with his housekeeper.
They continue on. Deslauriers advises Frédéric to take advantage
of Monsieur Roque’s connection to Monsieur Dambreuse and become
his wife’s lover. He also advises Frédéric to do well in school,
and that he’ll see him again soon. The men say goodbye.
The first few paragraphs of Sentimental Education provide
relevant information about the seafaring setting in which the novel
opens, but, more important, they function as a zooming camera lens
that starts wide and then focuses in on the protagonist, Frédéric
Moreau. The sweeping first sentence of the novel, with its grand
pronouncement of the date and time and the striking image of a boat
ready to set sail, immediately narrows to more specific images of
people on board the boat. We see their baggage and hear the ship’s
clanging bell. Flaubert then narrows further, to an anonymous young
man standing on the deck, watching Paris slip away. Only after Flaubert describes
the sights he is seeing—Notre Dame, the Ile Saint-Louis, the Cite—does
he provide us with a name. This zooming-in of the opening paragraphs
mimics the structure of the novel as a whole. Sentimental
Education is a sweeping historical novel, and it is fitting that
we see the big picture before we see one specific human being. Throughout
the novel, this one individual will live against a larger, wider
background of politics and social change.
The first two chapters contain several goodbyes. The novel
actually opens with a goodbye, as Frédéric leaves Paris to return
home. He sadly says goodbye to Monsieur Arnoux after meeting him
and his wife onboard the ship. Before they actually part, Frédéric
dreads the separation—almost as soon as he meets Marie, he feels
a void open between them, since they will soon have to part. Once
he returns home, he makes a temporary departure from his mother
to visit Charles, and we learn of their own sad separation when Charles
left school to move to Paris. Reunited briefly, they part again
at the end of chapter 2. The frequency of
separation in these early chapters, and the varying degrees of distress
Frédéric feels every time, suggests that more goodbyes are in store
In chapters 1 and 2,
Frédéric has encounters with two men—Monsieur Arnoux and Deslauriers—that
reveal Frédéric’s tendency to be easily impressed and influenced
by other men. When he first talks to Monsieur Arnoux, he is immediately
struck by Arnoux’s wealth, confidence, and masculinity. Arnoux discusses
such things as tobacco and women, mistresses and celebrities, and
he offers fatherly advice. Arnoux’s higher social station intimidates
Frédéric, but he still follows Arnoux belowdecks, even though he
has no money to spend. Arnoux seems to all but ignore him, but still Frédéric
vows to befriend him somehow. Frédéric is just as struck by his
friend Deslauriers, who, though seemingly just as much of a dreamer
as Frédéric, impresses Frédéric with his confidence and gall. Frédéric
trusts Deslauriers so much that he feels shaken after they meet
and talk. Frédéric’s father died before he was born, and the intensity
of Frédéric’s reaction to and trust in other men suggests that he
is in some ways searching for a father figure.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Sentimental Education!