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Gustav Flaubert, known in the entire literate world as the author of Madame Bovary and not much beyond that, had a good deal to say about much else. Though hardly read today, his Sentimental Education, which was greeted at the time with bafflement and hostility, has been praised since by dozens of major western writers. Emile Zola was one of the few of Flaubert’s contemporaries to favorably review it,  saying it avoided the “dramatic and novelistic” and that “it never lied.” When Baudelaire called it a “tour de force;” Flaubert said he had gotten “into the secret heart of my work.”  Georges Sand, one of Flaubert’s closest friends, of course praised it. 

Franz Kafka confessed to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, that Sentimental Education “has been as dear to me as are only two or three people.”  Ford Madox Ford, the British novelist, claimed that one “had to read it fourteen times,” as he had, to fully appreciate it. Ernest Hemingway wrote William Faulkner that Flaubert was “our most respected, honored master.” Mario Vargas Llosa, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, and Marcel Proust all praised his work. Add social theorists such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Paul Sartre whose enormous psychoanalytic-dialectical study of Flaubert The Family Idiot appeared  in 1971 and you have a sense of the depth and range of the admiration in which he is held.


Although Madame Bovary was not Flaubert’s first novel it was the one that brought him fame, and notoriety. Published in 1856, court appearances for obscenity and the “corruption of public morals” quickly followed, turning Madame Bovary into a best-seller and Flaubert’s next novel anxiously awaited.  Salammbó appeared in 1862, with more lurid scenes, of sex and war.  Reverting to the earlier Walter Scott genre of historical novel, it was set in the long-ago and far-away Carthage of the Second Punic war, 241-238 BCE. It too was an enormous best seller driven by expectations and titillation, though not raising the ire Madame Bovary had because, well, after all, the characters were not French, and such behavior might be expected of others.

With Sentimental Education in 1869, Flaubert returned his focus to France and to history and society of not so long before –from 1840 through the Revolutions of 1848 to be exact.  The twenty-six year old Flaubert had been a participant-observer of those risings in Paris. The novel, however, was received with “bafflement and hostility.” Henry James, the well-known American-British author and critic said it was an enormous step down from Madame Bovary, which he had loved;  it was “like masticating ashes and sawdust.”

What was the problem?

Was it what it was about? Or, how the story was told?

Frédéric Moreau is a young man with a small amount of wealth who moves from the boredom of country life into Paris of 1840 to study Law. He is struck immediately just above the heart by the vision of Madame Arnoux, the pretty wife of a man who makes his living in the unlikely combination of Art and Industry, a man who has a surfeit of mistresses he is not loath to share.  Relatively well-off (bourgeoisie) characters meet, have disputes, carry on liaisons, pronounce opinions for two-thirds of the book.  The streets of Paris erupt in February of 1848 and again in June with civil riots, and armed suppression. The theme declared in the title, the education of the sentiments, which is to say the sexual awakening, experience, growth of wisdom in a young man.  Sex and war, a popular genre around the world. There should be plenty of material for a stirring novel of ideas and change.  Why then was it received in its time with bafflement and hostility, and why is it so little read today? 

The fun part is sharing with Flaubert his contempt for the bourgeoisie.  Throughout, in some sections more than others, is a running play of irony, some of it suitable for Noel Coward drawing-room comedy, some spilling into contempt.   A young man from the country treating those more wealthy than he to a dinner complains about everything to show his superior taste. Two rivals appear on the steps leading to the apartment of their shared desire at the same moment.  One finds the wit to defuse the situation and both go off together for a shared meal.  A husband pleads with his wife’s admirer to visit her, so that he will be free to visit the admirer’s lover. At a dinner party, a young man bares his heart:

“… you know that I love you!”

Madame Arnoux made no reply.

“You know that I love you!”

She still kept silent.

“Well, then, go be hanged!” said Frédéric to himself.

All is not boudoirs and betrayals. The Revolutions of 1848 are erupting all over Europe, Paris included.  At a posh dinner party rumors run rife of secret signals from insurgents in the city and “twenty-three thousand convicts on the side of the Socialists— no less!”


On the third of the February days of 1948, blood has been spilled, the King has abdicated. Even so, for some

“Nothing could be more amusing than the aspect of Paris during the first days that followed the Revolution. Fredric gave [Rosanette] his arm, and they strolled along through the streets together. She was highly diverted by the display of rosettes in every buttonhole, by the banners hung from every window, and the bills of every colour that were posted upon the walls, and threw some money here and there into the collection-boxes for the wounded, which were placed on chairs in the middle of the pathway.

The euphoria gives way to business.  A new government is needed. A wealthy friend persuades Frédéric that he is the ideal person.

“… soon he was dazzled by a kind of dizziness. The great figures of the Convention passed before his mental vision. It seemed to him that a splendid dawn was about to rise. Rome, Vienna and Berlin were in a state of insurrection, and the Austrians had been driven out of Venice. All Europe was agitated. Now was the time to make a plunge into the movement, and perhaps to accelerate it; and then he was fascinated by the costume which it was said the deputies would wear.

Even serious, much-needed, ideas of reform and progress run the mockery of exaggeration:

There should be a jury to examine the works of women, special editors for women, a polytechnic school for women, a National Guard for women, everything for women! And, since the Government ignored their rights, they ought to overcome force by force. Ten thousand citizenesses with good guns ought to make the Hôtel de Ville quake!

The not so fun part of the reading is trying to make sense of the panorama of characters, their changing relationships, their duplicities, the needs for money, the attitudes and even the time-span of events; worse, do we care enough to make the effort?  Although Flaubert fanatically researched the evidence available, as he did for all his novels –documents, newspapers, actual testimony– the details spread before us are of subtle social observations, some of them incredibly astute, not interlinked plot points.  We get brief flashes, quick impressions. French personalities, Cavaignac and Changarnier orient readers of the day but without explanatory phrases are not much help to us.  Flaubert is a novelist, not a historian. Named characters flit in and out of the big events or, in the most telling omission, are not even there. Concern for status and standing is always in the foreground; momentous, nation-changing events are in the wings and background. 

We are left wondering:
What is the point of the novel? What is the point of view of the author? 
The problem for many, it seems, is that Flaubert was continuing the “evasive narrator” style of “free indirect speech” that got him into trouble in Madam Bovary.  As Peter Brooks puts it in his Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: the Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year, 
” [There is ] no Olympian narrator to take an overview of events, to synthesize and evoke the historical ensemble. Flaubert’s camera eye remains resolutely, restlessly, on the level of his persons and things.”
For Flaubert’s prosecutors and many of his readers it was hard to distinguish between Emma’s thoughts, and the author’s (editorial) opinion.  She says to herself, while looking in a mirror,
‘I have a lover! a lover!’ delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium.
Readers wanted to know: who exactly is the source of the last sentence –a slightly educated, misguided, provincial young woman, or a famous author, upsetting received opinion with outrageous ones of his own?
In Sentimental Education the trouble isn’t so much of love and seduction —after all it is men having such thoughts!– but the contrary; why, in a time of history-in-the-making, are there no idealists, no heroes?  The men and women of the novel are aimless and self-consumed.  They do nothing but enjoy themselves, recall their last enjoyment and look forward to the next.  Or they gnaw and worry the betrayals, slights, and insinuations always twinned with such enjoyment.  In the most important days of those decades Frédéric and his paramour stroll through the streets.

” … fascinated and exceedingly amused by the scene around him. The wounded who sank to the ground, the dead lying at his feet, did not seem like persons really wounded or really dead. The impression left on his mind was that he was looking on at a show.

And this was a novel intended to be, Flaubert had said, “a moral history of the men of my generation…” Unfortunately for his anticipating readers, that history was not of great ideals and democratic progress. The truth he told was of “unending lies,” “false politics,” “false literature,” “false credit,” and even “false courtesans.”  In novelizing these views, however, he used the flat, presentational style of the French realists, of whom he was a significant member  –life as it really is, no embellishments.  He did not attack with the delighted ferocity of later social critics such as Tom Wolfe or Gore Vidal, whose slash and verve become entertainments in themselves. 


I myself might have put Sentimental Education aside part way through, not being too interested in anthropologies of manners, even if novelized.  What pulled  me forward was a long interest in the events of 1848 — among the most consequential in European history.  Citizen uprisings, and government overthrows occurred in over twenty cities and regions, from Palermo, Italy to Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Berlin. Here was a book, famous at the time, by an author still regarded as a giant, in which I might see how literature responds to, portrays, and reflects on men’s propensity for war.

Frédéric and his friends, –even some capitalists!– get involved in street demonstrations leading to the abdication of Louis Napoleon III and the creation of the Second Republic – as short lived as it was to be.  How did Flaubert portray these events, which he himself had been a part of as a twenty-six year old?  How does his treatment of war and death compare to those of his contemporary “realist” novelists – Victor Hugo in Les Misérables (1862) and Ninety-Three (about the French Revolution, 1874), Emile Zola in The Downfall/ Le Debacle (about the Franco Prussian War, 1892,) or Stendhal’s much praised Waterloo scenes in The Red and the Black (1830)?  In short, which side is he on, of progress or reaction? Why did he, in despair, say to a friend, while surveying the enormous devastation in Paris following the suppression of the Commune in 1871, with over 200,000 deaths,  that ‘all this could have been prevented ‘if they had only read my book?’

By the time he was writing Sentimental Education, the days of ’48 were almost twenty years in the past.  The Second Republic had been ended by Napoleon III in a coup three years later in early December, 1851.  Men had taken different sides at different times, or on both sides at once, depending on where their always fickle interests lay.  How did Flaubert judge this time, his time, indeed, his life? With pride, contempt, anger, sorrow, or exhaustion? 


The chapters concerning the five months, February-June, of 1848 can be divided into three rough sections, though Flaubert does not make it easy for us:  the February days, 1848, when King Louis Philippe, who had been in power since 1830, is overthrown;  the heady days of spring, when Frédéric among many others, offers himself as a candidate for the Assembly of the new Second Republic; the even more chaotic days of June, 1848 when some 10,000 die and 4,000 are deported to Algeria

As the February hour approaches one of Frédéric’s friends tells him to come to the gathering demonstration.  “The pear is ripe,” he says, referring to caricatures of King Louis Phillipe.  Frédéric, however, is completely consumed with meeting Mme Arnoux that very afternoon, the 22nd of February, for a long-fantasized rendezvous. He has rented a room and decorated it with tasteful touches. What importance has a promised demonstration when heaven awaits?   After a night of anxious, feverish waiting –familiar to any who have waited for a clandestine lover– she doesn’t come.  The storm in his heart is matched by the gathering storm in the streets.
But in Flaubert’s view these matters of regime change, citizen uprisings, armed resistance, death in the streets are secondary to the lives of those hardly disrupted by that which is outside their immediate interests.

“A conflict was going on at Porte Saint-Martin. There was something lively and warlike in the air. Frédéric kept walking on without stopping. The excitement of the great city made him gay.

The streets are alive with the fellowship of danger; the much mocked Louis Philippe is surely about to fall. Frédéric, however, still has the room at his disposal. He remembers his fondness for Rosanette, who responds gladly. 

The next morning, February 23, Rosanette and he hear “a noise like the tearing of a huge piece of silk, ” and think no more about it.  This is the “massacre of the Boulevard des Capuchines” when fifty demonstrators were killed by musket fire.
“‘Oh, they are killing off a few bourgeois,” says Frederic, to show himself unmoved.  The narrator adds, “for there are occasions when the least violent of men is so detached from others that he would see the whole human race perish without batting an eyelash.” 
The narrator and author seem to be joined here, honest and cynical at the same time.
Though the insurrection was organizing, “as if with one mind,” the effect is one of total confusion, lack of discipline, aim or plan.  
“The mob was attacking the Chateau d’Eau guardhouse to set free fifty prisoners who were not there.”
“Near the Arc de Triomphe a dead horse lay on the ground. Behind the gratings groups consisting of five or six persons were chatting.”

Frédéric observes a man arguing with his wife to let him go join in the fighting.  He turns to enlist support.

“Citizen, I ask you, is it fair? I have always done my duty, in 1830, ’32, ’34, and ’39! I have to fight!

The streets are in an uproar.

“Men were haranguing the crowd with frenzied eloquence on street corners.  Others were ringing church bells for all they were worth.  Lead was melted, cartridges were rolled.  The trees on the boulevards, the public urinals, the benches, the railings, the gas lamps were all pulled out or turned upside down.  By morning Paris was covered in barricades. “

On the other side, things are no better:

”…the King, undecided (as what to do)  was shilly-shallying, now giving total command to Bugeaud, and at the same time preventing him from exercising it….” 
Physical scenes are described with neutrality; no indicators of surprise, shock or celebration at the destruction.
” …. huge flames escaped with a harsh noise. The first story of the Palais-Royal was occupied by National Guards. Shots were fired through every window in the square; the bullets whizzed, the water of the fountain, which had burst, was mingled with the blood, forming little pools on the ground. People slipped in the mud over clothes, shakos, and weapons.”
Even when a moment which might call for an emotional response occurs Flaubert simply goes on.
‘Frédéric felt something soft under his foot.  It was the hand of a sergeant in a great gray great-coat lying on his face in a stream that ran along the street.”
Frédéric does not pause to examine, exclaim, sympathize or rejoice. Images of play follow where easily could be images of injury and loss.
“The firing became quicker.  The wine-shops were open ; people went into them from time to time to smoke a pipe and drink a glass of beer, and then came back again to fight.  A lost dog began to howl.  This made the people laugh.”
With the abdication of Louis Phillipe a provisional Assembly is established.  All over Paris, debating clubs field candidates and hear from those overcome with patriotic emotion. Everyone is free to opine as they wish, no program in place. One grandiloquent idea follows another. Although the issue of Monarchy or Republic is the most debated, ideas of Socialism are in the air.   One speaker proclaims “… the founder of Socialism was –the Master of us all, Jesus Christ!”  Others have different models in mind, especially from the great Revolution of sixty years before.
“…every person at that period took some model for imitation, one copied Saint-Just, another Danton, another Marat; as for [Sénécal], he tried to be like Blanqui, who imitated Robespierre.”
Flaubert’s dim view of his generation continues to show. As Frédéric tries to present his candidacy to “The Intellectuals Club,” a Spaniard is introduced ahead of him and winds into a long speech in a language no one understands. The idea of becoming a member of the Assembly, and so adding to his social status quickly loses force.  Frédéric withdraws.
“What fatal idea was this candidature! But what asses! what idiots! He drew comparisons between himself and these men, and soothed his wounded pride with the thought of their stupidity. Then he felt the need of seeing Rosanette. After such an exhibition of ugly traits, and so much magniloquence, her dainty person would be a source of relaxation.
By June, the Revolutionary Assembly is having problems of its own. France had been in fiscal and political turmoil for years. The taxes levied to pay for National Workshops, and their promised work for all, were being resisted. The Workshops were not functioning (in actual Paris, not only the novel.).  Overnight the workshops are dissolved and membership in the armed forces or in agricultural labor battalions are offered as a substitute. 
” [The young Parisians] were aggrieved by the thought of having to live at a distance from the capital, as if it were a kind of exile. They saw themselves dying of fevers in desolate parts of the country. To many of them, moreover, who had been accustomed to work of a refined description, agriculture seemed a degradation; it was, in short, a mockery, a decisive breach of all the promises which had been made to them. If they offered any resistance, force would be employed against them. They had no doubt of it, and made preparations to anticipate it.
Sword-sticks were passed out 
“About nine o’clock the riotous assemblies which had formed at the Bastille and at the Châtelet ebbed back towards the boulevard. From the Porte Saint-Denis to the Porte Saint-Martin nothing could be seen save an enormous swarm of people, a single mass of a dark blue shade, nearly black. The men of whom one caught a glimpse all had glowing eyes, pale complexions, faces emaciated with hunger
This is a second rising, much more serious then that of February. However,  Flaubert doesn’t even give us a careless walk through the ruins; he leaves off entirely.  We are not to witness the three bloody days   Instead Frédéric and Rosanette go off to Fontainbleu for rest and reconciliation.  In the most idyllic prose of the novel the two enjoy themselves while, unbeknownst to them, or us, the readers, Paris is being consumed.
“The midday sun, falling directly on wide tracts of greenery, made splashes of light over them, hung gleaming drops of silver from the ends of the branches, streaked the grass with long lines of emeralds, and flung gold spots on the beds of dead leaves.”
After several days of honeymoon-like enjoyments, he sees a friend’s name a newspaper in the lists of the wounded.  Against Rosanette’s protestations he returns, with her, to Paris.
“On the wrecked barricades had been piled up omnibuses, gas-pipes, and cart-wheels. In certain places there were little dark pools, which must have been blood. The houses were riddled with projectiles, and their framework could be seen under the plaster that was peeled off. Window-blinds, each attached only by a single nail, hung like rags. The staircases having fallen in, doors opened on vacancy. The interiors of rooms could be perceived with their papers in strips …
Confusion is still the theme.  His friend, recovering from a wound defending, as he thought, the new Republic, now wonders:
“Perhaps he ought to have gone over to the other side and joined the working people; for it must be said they had been promised a whole lot of things which had not been delivered.”
In scathing irony Flaubert comments on the scene of 900 men in a fetid prison near the Seine. 

“… equality manifested itself triumphantly as an equality of brute beasts, a common level of bloody crimes; for the fanaticism of the rich balanced out the frenzy of the needy, the aristocracy was as furious as the rabble, and the cotton nightcap was just as hideous than the red bonnet.”

Finally, after sliding us swiftly forward to December 4, 1851, Flaubert has Frédéric come upon another scene of barricades near the Opéra.   Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, an elected member of the Assembly in 1848, has declared a coup.  Riots and repression are again dominating the streets of Paris.  One of the old group of friends, Dussadier, true to his Republican roots, shouts Vive la Républic!  He is run through by a policeman’s sword.  It is wielded by Sénécal, another of the same group, described in the opening pages as a hard-headed Republican, “a future Saint-Just.”  After three years of Republican rule his need for order has brought him to the side of tyranny.
Irony has turned to bitter cynicism.

Why hostility greeted the novel can be seen.  Published not quite twenty years after the events themselves, twenty-year old participants were not yet forty. Those who had fought, whether to bring about the Second Republic, or to defend the monarchy– found themselves treated as minor actors in a novel about dalliances and self-concern.  The betrayals in the novel were not of political and communal ideals but of fatuous “let’s not talk politics” parvenus.

In the closing lines of the book, Frédéric and Deslauriers, who we have followed through these tumultuous years,  reminisce about “the greatest day of our lives!”  It is a youthful visit to a bordello — two years before anything in the book happened!

As Edmund Wilson writes, even if in admiration, 

“There are no heroes, no villains, to arouse us, no clowns to amuse us, no scenes to wring our hearts. Yet the effect is deeply moving. It is the tragedy of nobody in particular, but of the poor human race itself reduced to such ineptitude such cowardice and such commonness, such weak irresolution– arriving, with so many fine notions in its head, so many noble words on its lips, at a failure which is all the more miserable because those who have failed are hardly conscious of having done so.” 

The issue to my mind, however, seems to be readers’ disappointment with the storytelling itself.  Since stories have been told we have expected them to engage us; the surest way to do that is to show us at our best, our most courageous, our most admirable.  On the whole, we are not engaged by life’s banalities, even if we recognize them as our own.  We want to see these mimetic representation of our lives, to be in a shape and arrangement more concentrated than life itself, more exciting and dangerous, more meaningful.  We want to imagine brave deeds, overcoming odds and rising to heights; we want daring on the barricades, not a finger cut while cooking and helplessness in putting on our own band-aid. Flaubert refuses to give us heroes. 

As he understood the problem of its poor reception,  he told Georges Sand it might have been the lack of traditional novelistic construction.  “But Art isn’t nature,” he justified himself.   As Peter Brooks has it, he had “de-dramatized the novel.”  And we readers want our drama. 

There is something else that matters, deeply.  Flaubert hated the class he was writing about –the Parisian bourgeois– with a passion.  All during the writing of Sentimental Education, he communicated his distaste in letters.

To one he wrote,

“To paint the modern French bourgeois gives me a strange stink in the nose”

To another,

“What distresses me is the conviction I have that I am doing something useless, that is something which is contrary to the purpose of Art, which is a vague exaltation.”

Raymond Giraud has written, 

“[the novel] is his judgement of his time, his condemnation of the entire bourgeois civilization of the late July Monarchy and early Empire …  Frederic Moreaus’ s life ends in failure …. he submits to and participates in his own corruption …  becoming a “bourgeois” in Flaubert’s own special unfavorable sense of the word. The study of this degradation made Flaubert’s gorge rise; but it was necessary he thought if he were going to write the moral –or sentimental– history of his generation.”

The question remains, however, if the novel was greeted with bafflement and hatred because readers could see his contempt for them, or because they could not see anything of themselves in a book they had looked forward to and what’s more, paid good money for?


Regardless of the reception at the time, something of his obsessive focus on “the real” took hold in writers who followed. As the years of the Franco-Prussian war gave way the Spanish American war, and the Greco-Turkish war and to World War I, the style of novelized reporting with which he had had so much to do became the norm.  One modern commentator has written:

“Flaubert’s descriptions of revolutionary urban violence in Sentimental Education might be said to have influenced war-writing and the way novelists write about war. “Frédéric felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a grey overcoat who was lying face down in the gutter.” When Roque fires into a crowd of prisoners and shoots someone, Flaubert marshals that cold discipline we think of as a twentieth-century invention: “There was a tremendous howl, then nothing. Something white remained on the edge of the grating.” His prose, like a good doctor, does not get emotionally involved; it refuses to follow the anarchy of its subject-matter—and thus, in one respect, denies its own subject-matter, acts as if the subject is not there. 

James Wood 


Flaubert’s treatment of  war then, at least in this novel, is that seen over the shoulders of the Paris bourgeois.  Personal concerns block out communal acts; transactions — sexual or commercial– are more vital than gunfire through the barricaded streets. With the exception of several strong condemnatory paragraphs about prisoners held in a dank prisons by the Seine, Flaubert’s descriptions of the fighting in the streets is as of objects, unadorned with anger or sympathy. As if, disputes over governance or distribution of wealth were fungi on the carapace of social life.


My question as to if and how literature affects people’s views of, support for, or resistance to, wars, finds a partial answer in this. If many would argue there is little or no connection between war, stories of war and our participation in war, Flaubert, in the negative, disagreed.  Standing in the city-wide ruins in Paris of 1871, after the suppression of the Commune  and three years after the publication of Sentimental Education, he wished to his friend Maxime Du Camp,   that if people had read and understood his novel, this would not have happened.  He believed that novels had the power to influence human behavior. 

“When Flaubert claims the force of his novel as predictive of events that unfolded shortly after its publication, he summons us to think about how the novel as genre can shape our understanding of events.”  … it is “among other things a meditation on the role of human agency in the making of history… a reflection of the capacity of human action to inflect event.”   Peter Brooks 

The contrary might be adduced by our own, modern, reaction to the novel: null.

Yet Flaubert’s innovation of non-adjectival descriptions of flames, dead bodies and looted buildings has taken hold in much contemporary war writing.  Seldom do we  anymore see war and those who fight them, held up with the pure, innocent, admiration of Sir Walter Scott, or the Book of Joshua or John Wayne movies. The novels of WWI describe the daily life of soldiers, as often of boredom and routine details as of fighting in the trenches.  Those descriptions, far from the celebratory as were their predecessors, are conscious of, if not condemnatory, of the human waste.  WWII novels, often using the tension of battle as their propulsive mechanism, are rich in psychological and sociological observations, of all aspects of human behavior, from cowardice to dumb-luck to self-doubt turning into heroic actions, attentive to the reality that if there is exuberant excitement in battle, there is also wide and deep fear and failure.