A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert


A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert


Gustave Flaubert’s novel, “A Sentimental Education,” is a literary masterpiece that delves into the complexities of love, ambition, and the human condition. Set against the backdrop of mid-19th century France, the novel follows the life of its protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, as he navigates the tumultuous waters of youth, romance, and societal expectations. With its richly developed characters, evocative themes, and masterful writing style, “A Sentimental Education” remains a significant contribution to the world of literature.

Plot and Storyline

“A Sentimental Education” revolves around Frédéric Moreau, a young man from a middle-class family who moves to Paris to pursue his education. In the vibrant and politically charged atmosphere of the city, Frédéric becomes infatuated with Madame Arnoux, a married woman of great beauty and elegance. This infatuation serves as the central driving force behind the plot.

The novel follows Frédéric’s pursuit of Madame Arnoux over the course of several years, capturing his idealistic notions of love, his encounters with various social circles, and his aspirations for wealth and success. Along the way, Frédéric becomes entangled in a web of relationships, including friendships, romantic entanglements, and political alliances, all of which shape his character and influence his choices.


Flaubert presents a diverse cast of characters in “A Sentimental Education,” each with their own motivations, desires, and flaws. Frédéric Moreau, the protagonist, embodies the naivety and idealism of youth, constantly searching for meaning and fulfillment. Madame Arnoux, the object of his desire, represents unattainable beauty, elegance, and unfulfilled desires. Other notable characters include Deslauriers, Frédéric’s loyal friend; Rosanette, a courtesan who becomes involved with Frédéric; and Monsieur Arnoux, Madame Arnoux’s husband.

Themes and Symbols

One of the dominant themes in “A Sentimental Education” is the exploration of unfulfilled desires and the disillusionment that accompanies them. The novel critiques the romantic idealism of its time, exposing the gap between dreams and reality. Through Frédéric’s relentless pursuit of love and success, Flaubert reveals the futility of such pursuits and the inevitable disappointment that follows.

Another significant theme is the exploration of social class and its impact on individuals. Flaubert portrays the social hierarchy of 19th century France, depicting the struggles and ambitions of characters from different backgrounds. The novel also explores themes of political unrest, personal ambition, and the tension between individual desires and societal expectations.

Writing Style

Flaubert’s writing style in “A Sentimental Education” is characterized by its meticulous attention to detail and its precise, lyrical prose. He employs vivid descriptions and sensory imagery to bring the settings and characters to life. Flaubert’s use of free indirect discourse allows readers to delve into the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters, enhancing their understanding and connection with the narrative.

The author also employs various literary techniques, such as irony and symbolism, to convey deeper meanings. For instance, the recurrent symbol of Madame Arnoux’s blue eyes represents unattainable beauty and the elusive nature of desire. Flaubert’s narrative structure, with its episodic nature and flashbacks, adds complexity and depth to the story, reflecting the fragmented nature of human experience.

Setting and Atmosphere

The setting of “A Sentimental Education” plays a vital role in shaping the novel’s tone and atmosphere. The backdrop of mid-19th century France, with its political upheavals, social unrest, and shifting cultural norms, provides a rich context for the characters’ experiences. The bustling streets of Paris, the salons, and the countryside settings all contribute to the mood of the story, evoking a sense of nostalgia, longing, and melancholy.

Historical, Social, or Political Context

Flaubert wrote “A Sentimental Education” during a time of significant social and political change in France. The novel reflects the shifting values and aspirations of the era, as well as the impact of historical events such as the 1848 Revolution. Flaubert’s critique of the bourgeoisie and his exploration of the changing social dynamics highlight the tensions and contradictions of 19th century French society.

Impact and Reception

Upon its publication, “A Sentimental Education” received mixed reviews from critics and the reading public. Some praised Flaubert’s masterful storytelling and psychological depth, while others criticized its perceived lack of a clear moral stance and its depiction of morally flawed characters. Over time, however, the novel has come to be recognized as a significant work of literature.

Flaubert’s meticulous attention to detail and his exploration of themes and emotions have influenced subsequent generations of writers. “A Sentimental Education” continuesto be studied in literature courses and is considered a classic of French literature. Its impact can be seen in the works of authors such as Marcel Proust and James Joyce, who were influenced by Flaubert’s innovative narrative techniques and psychological insights.

How does the character of Frédéric Moreau evolve throughout “A Sentimental Education,” and what does his journey reveal about the themes of disillusionment and unfulfilled desires?

Frédéric Moreau begins the novel as an idealistic and naive young man, driven by romantic notions of love and success. His infatuation with Madame Arnoux serves as the catalyst for his journey, leading him to pursue his desires relentlessly. However, as the story progresses, Frédéric’s idealism clashes with the realities of life, and he becomes increasingly disillusioned.

Frédéric’s evolution is marked by a series of disappointments and setbacks. He experiences unrequited love, encounters the emptiness of social climbing, and witnesses the futility of political aspirations. These experiences gradually erode his youthful optimism and expose the gap between his dreams and reality. Frédéric’s journey serves as a cautionary tale, showcasing the dangers of pursuing unattainable ideals and the consequences of clinging to sentimental fantasies.

Ultimately, Frédéric’s evolution highlights the novel’s themes of disillusionment and unfulfilled desires. Through his experiences, Flaubert critiques the romantic idealism of his time, revealing the inherent flaws and limitations of human aspirations. Frédéric’s journey serves as a reflection of the universal struggle to reconcile dreams with reality, and his disillusionment serves as a cautionary reminder of the complexities and disappointments that can accompany the pursuit of sentimental ideals.

How does Gustave Flaubert use symbolism in “A Sentimental Education” to enhance the novel’s themes and deepen the readers’ understanding of the characters?

Flaubert employs symbolism throughout the novel to convey deeper meanings and enhance the readers’ understanding of the characters and their experiences. One prominent symbol in the novel is Madame Arnoux’s blue eyes. These eyes represent unattainable beauty and desire, serving as a metaphor for Frédéric’s idealistic pursuit of love and the elusive nature of his desires. The recurring mention of Madame Arnoux’s eyes throughout the story acts as a constant reminder of Frédéric’s longing and the unattainability of his dreams.

Another symbol in the novel is the image of the boat. The boat represents the characters’ journeys through life, often navigating treacherous waters and facing unpredictable currents. It symbolizes the uncertainty and unpredictability of human existence, as well as the characters’ inability to control or fully understand their own destinies.

Flaubert also uses objects and settings as symbolic representations. For example, the Château de Vaubyessard, a grand estate where Frédéric attends a ball, symbolizes the allure of wealth, power, and social status. It represents Frédéric’s aspirations and his desire to be accepted into the upper echelons of society. However, the disillusionment he experiences at the ball ultimately reveals the emptiness and superficiality of this world.

By employing symbolism, Flaubert adds layers of meaning to the narrative, deepening the readers’ understanding of the characters’ inner struggles and the broader themes of the novel. These symbols serve as visual and metaphorical cues, inviting readers to explore the complexities of human desires, the illusions of love, and the inherent contradictions of the human condition.

How does the historical and social context of mid-19th century France influence the narrative and themes of “A Sentimental Education”?

The historical and social context of mid-19th century France plays a significant role in shaping the narrative and themes of “A Sentimental Education.” The novel is set against the backdrop of a period marked by political unrest, social upheaval, and shifting cultural norms, all of which provide a rich context for the characters’ experiences and choices.

The 1848 Revolution, which overthrew the July Monarchy, serves as a historical touchstone throughout the novel. Flaubert incorporates the political events of the time to highlight the socio-political climate and the aspirations of the characters. The revolution and its aftermath create an atmosphere of uncertainty and change, reflecting the broader societal shifts taking place in France during that period.

The social hierarchy and class divisions of 19th century France are also central to the narrative. Flaubert explores the struggles and ambitions of characters from different social backgrounds, highlighting the tensions and contradictions inherent in a society where social status and wealth play significant roles. Frédéric’s aspirations for upward mobility and his desire to be accepted into the higher echelons of society reflect the social aspirations and challenges faced by many during that time.

Moreover, the novel critiques the bourgeoisie, the rising middle class, and their pursuit of material wealth and social status. Flaubert exposes the hollowness and superficiality of this world, questioning the values and aspirations of his contemporaries.

By incorporating the historical and social context of mid-19th century France, Flaubert provides a nuanced exploration of the complexities of the time and its impact on the characters’ lives. The historical and social backdrop adds depth and realism to the narrative, allowing readers to understand thecharacters’ motivations, struggles, and the broader societal forces that shape their experiences.

In conclusion, “A Sentimental Education” is a captivating novel that explores the complexities of human desires, the illusions of love, and the disillusionment that comes with the pursuit of unattainable ideals. Through its richly developed characters, evocative themes, and masterful writing style, Gustave Flaubert’s novel continues to resonate with readers, inviting them to reflect on the universal experiences of love, ambition, and the human condition.


Sentimental Education – Wikipedia

Sentimental Education: Study Guide | SparkNotes

A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert | Goodreads