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Literature / Sentimental Education

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His intellectual ambitions had likewise lessened. Years passed; and he resigned himself to leaving his mind idle and his heart fallow.

Sentimental Education is a novel by Gustave Flaubert first published in 1869. It is considered one of the most important novels in 19th century French literature.

The story is that of Frederic Moreau, a young man whose perception of life is heavily influenced by Romantic cliches. While moving to Paris from his native Normandy, he becomes lovestruck with Marie Arnoux, an older married woman. Throughout the following years, even as he obsesses about his (platonic) relationship with her, his life founders in a routine of mediocrity.


Contains the following tropes:

  • Anti-Hero: Frederic is self-deluded, ineffectual, and generally a loser.
  • Best Years of Your Life: The finale and the novel's famous last lines is a poignant reflection of this. Gustave Moreau and Deslauriers, the two main characters look back on their years of friendship and youthful hijinks and finally remember an early misadventure where they gatecrashed a brothel, early in their youth before going to Paris:
    Gustave Moreau: I believe that was the best time of our lives!
    Deslauriers: Well perhaps. But yes, I too believe that was the best time of our lives!
  • Bittersweet Ending: The finale, Moreau and his true love parted ways. His future was that of a bourgeois mediocrity but despite their failings, he and Deslauriers still remained friends.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Frederic's infatuation with Romantic cliches makes him one.
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  • Coming of Age Story: One of the most famous in French literature. Subverted in that Frederic fails to mature psychologically as he grows older.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Frederic in the last chapters of the book.
  • Distant Finale: The last two chapters take place a couple of decades after the rest of the story; they describe the hollow existence lived by Frederic as he goes from youth to middle age, and depict one last encounter between Frederic and Marie.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: The 1848 Revolution is hinted to have one within months of taking place (as indeed it did historically). One of Frederic's most exalted revolutionary friends becomes a supporter of Napoleon III's takeover.
  • Gay Paree: Frederic comes from the province and as such belongs to a recurring type in French literature, that of the young man whose dreams and ambitions drive him to Paris. Throughout the novel, how close the characters live from the center of Paris is an indication of how socially successful they are.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Frederic shacks up with one in compensation for not being able to act on his love for Mme Arnoux.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Frederic.
  • Likes Older Women: Frederic.
  • Love at First Sight: "It was like an apparition".
  • Shown Their Work: Flaubert meticulously researched the novel, at one point he read 27 books in six weeks just to write ten pages, as well as visiting hospitals, interviewing soldiers and speaking to financiers to ensure every detail was accurate. In fact of all the many historical references throughout the novel, researchers have only been able to catch him out on two references.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very far down the cynical end, and in fact one of the most cynical works of literature of its time.
  • Write Who You Know: Flaubert largely fashioned Frederic after himself.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: Frederic Moreau's son is born apparently after a 25 month pregnancy. (Unless you're paying exceedingly close attention, you're unlikely to notice however).
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: An interesting Older Than Radio example. Frederic goes through life as though he was the character of a Romantic love story, when he is in fact in a realist story.