Sentimental Education | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Sentimental Education | Part 3, Chapter 4 | Summary



The events in this chapter take place between January and late fall of 1851.

Deslauriers approaches Monsieur Dambreuse about working for the coal company. Deslauriers has done research about how to make coal mergers sound appealing to both conservatives and democrats. Monsieur Dambreuse makes him a vague, appealing offer. Deslauriers then surprises Frédéric by getting the Dambreuses to endorse Frédéric's candidacy for the conservative party. Frédéric explains his situation to Louise and asks Deslauriers to make an excuse to Roque.

Frédéric feels he's "a man of decision." He is content and satisfied with his life, and he enjoys spending time with Madame Dambreuse, who got involved with him because she was bored. Frédéric indulges her desire for "grand passion." One evening, Frédéric scolds Madame Dambreuse for wearing a low-cut evening dress. She might give away their affair, he says, and she looks unattractive. It's then that Frédéric realizes he's not really in love with Madame Dambreuse. He has to think of Rosanette or Madame Arnoux to feel any excitement. But since he has a "stepping-stone" into society, he thinks he might as well use it.

One day in January, Frédéric sees Sénécal, who is now working as the secretary for Deslauriers. Sénécal has a letter from Deslauriers reminding Frédéric of his responsibilities as a political candidate. Sénécal reveals he's happy to see France "moving towards Communism" with increased governmental control. Frédéric recalls he made similar remarks to Deslauriers himself. "Long live tyranny, provided the tyrant does good!" Sénécal concludes. As he's leaving, he mentions that Deslauriers is waiting to hear from Monsieur Dambreuse.

Monsieur Dambreuse, however, is suffering from a serious illness. He begins to recuperate, then gets worse. Frédéric plans to go to Nogent for his political candidacy but has to keep postponing his trip. On February 12, Monsieur Dambreuse is close to death, and Frédéric and Madame Dambreuse are in the room when he dies.

Frédéric approaches Madame Dambreuse with sympathy, but she's relieved to be rid of her husband. Frédéric points out he and Madame Dambreuse were "free enough" when Monsieur Dambreuse was alive.

Madame Dambreuse, indignant, says she went through "agonies" for her husband. She says Monsieur Dambreuse brought Cécile, his illegitimate child, into the house. Madame Dambreuse then tells Frédéric, to his surprise, she has inherited her husband's fortune, and she criticizes Cécile and Monsieur Dambreuse so much it shocks Frédéric. Then Madame Dambreuse tells him he's the only person she knows who's "good at heart" and asks him to marry her. Frédéric, still stunned, says yes.

Frédéric watches over Monsieur Dambreuse's dead body and thinks about the great and "turbulent" life he lived. Monsieur Dambreuse flattered the rich and worshipped authority. He left behind a vast fortune, which Frédéric realizes is about to be his own. Looking at the dead man, Frédéric briefly feels judged and remorseful, B=but then he recalls that Monsieur Dambreuse was an "old crook."

Frédéric makes arrangements for the funeral, sparing no expense. At the funeral, the guests muse, "It's the fate of us all." Most of the guests aren't religious, so they have to be led through the religious service. They are absorbed in political conversation on the walk to the cemetery but fall silent once they reach the graves. The funeral speakers all claim Monsieur Dambreuse died as a victim of Socialism. "The spectacle of anarchy" upset him so much it led to his death.

The next day, Frédéric finds Madame Dambreuse in distress. Monsieur Dambreuse's lawyer claims the entire fortune was left to Cécile. Madame Dambreuse can't find the will granting her the money, and she is sure Monsieur Dambreuse burned the document. Frédéric is disappointed, and although the two will still have plenty of money, he can no longer have the "splendid life" he longed for. When he declares he'll still marry her, and Madame Dambreuse says she knew he wouldn't fail her. Frédéric is annoyed she took his gesture for granted—he thought he was doing her a favor.

Madame Dambreuse gives Frédéric advice on his political career, and he sets off for Nogent. He visits Rosanette at a maternity home on the way. She's had a son, and she gives Frédéric an emotional greeting. Frédéric sees how much Rosanette needs him, and he's overcome with love for her. Just as he is about to leave for Nogent, he receives news from Deslauriers: There are two candidates in the race. Now Frédéric has no chance. He's also lost the many votes he would have gotten from Monsieur Dambreuse's sympathizers. Frédéric also learns Deslauriers has offered his legal services to Madame Dambreuse and wonders why Deslauriers was in Nogent.

Frédéric begins living a "double life." He spends half his time with Madame Dambreuse, the other half with Rosanette and the baby. He pities his illegitimate son and imagines the boy's life will be a failure. He makes up elaborate lies for both his mistresses, who love him more the more they're deceived.

One day, Madame Dambreuse reveals she knows about Frédéric's passion for Madame Arnoux. She begins keeping a closer watch on Frédéric, and he notices her selfishness and strange "contemptible little actions." She's grieving the loss of her inheritance, though everyone thinks she's grieving her husband.

The political conversation at Madame Dambreuse's house turns to "the pressing need for decentralization" of the French government. The conservatives express hatred for everyone. They despise independence and long for authority and remind Frédéric of the way Sénécal talks. The guests at Rosanette's talk the same way. The homes of courtesans like Rosanette provide "neutral territory" for different political reactionaries. Hussonnet promises to write reports of Rosanette's parties in the newspaper. Frédéric is disturbed when many of Rosanette's former lovers show up. To establish his authority, he moves with Rosanette to a nicer house.

Soon, Frédéric discovers Rosanette is thinking about marrying him. He's furious and begins to hate everything about her. In June Rosanette receives a notice telling her to pay back a debt to Mademoiselle Vatnaz, otherwise the process-server will seize Rosanette's belongings. Rosanette can't find anyone to help her. The process-server arrives the next day and tries to make a deal with Rosanette. When Frédéric arrives to protest, the process-server tells him he can put in a claim for the furniture.

Rosanette remembers that Arnoux gave her shares in a lighting company, but when she tries to sell them, the clerk says Arnoux's promise is void. Rosanette realizes she has been cheated and insists Frédéric find Arnoux. Frédéric, who would rather not approach Arnoux directly, goes to Regimbart to see if he has news about Arnoux. Regimbart says Arnoux has become "a dealer in rosaries," that he became religious after an illness and now sells church objects. Frédéric goes to see Arnoux at his new establishment. He notices how much Arnoux has aged and sees Madame Arnoux in the back of the shop. He goes home and tells Rosanette he couldn't find Arnoux. Rosanette is furious and says she'll handle Arnoux herself. Three days later, a bill collector comes to Rosanette's house to seize her belongings. Frédéric's claim was overruled in court. Mademoiselle Vatnaz hates Rosanette and mentions her on the bill by name.

Mademoiselle Vatnaz has been bitter for some time. She's worked several jobs, including arranging the wages of working girls. Dussardier formerly helped her with her account books, but when Dussardier realized Mademoiselle Vatnaz was stealing, he covered up her theft. Later, Mademoiselle Vatnaz, impressed by Dussardier's kindness, asked to marry him. Dussardier turned her down. Mademoiselle Vatnaz pleaded with him, saying she'd get money in a lawsuit from Rosanette.

Dussardier, out of loyalty to Frédéric, begs Mademoiselle Vatnaz to drop the lawsuit, but she refuses. He goes to see Frédéric and apologizes for his involvement with Mademoiselle Vatnaz and offers Frédéric his entire savings to pay Rosanette's debt. Dussardier says he's miserable, the Republic has failed, and now liberties are being destroyed all over Europe. Censorship is back, and the conservatives are returning to power. Despairing, Dussardier adds, "The workers are no better than the middle classes." He sees no solution and is even contemplating suicide.

Frédéric takes Dussardier's money. Rosanette decides to fight Arnoux in court until Deslauriers talks her out of it. Then Deslauriers realizes Rosanette can sue Arnoux over her shares in the china-clay company, since Arnoux is guilty of "fraudulent bankruptcy."

Deslauriers is spending more time with the Roques in Nogent. He tells Louise that Frédéric has both a child and a mistress. Both Louise and Madame Moreau are devastated. Madame Moreau, however, feels better when she learns Frédéric is marrying Madame Dambreuse.

In the middle of autumn, Rosanette wins her case against Arnoux, but she doesn't care—her son has a mysterious illness. By the next morning, the baby is dead. Frédéric feels a sense that "some worse misfortune" will follow the baby's death. Rosanette wants to have the child's body embalmed, but Frédéric convinces her a portrait will be a better idea and commissions Pellerin to paint one. As Pellerin is working, he tells Frédéric that Arnoux is going to jail. A man is suing Arnoux for a large sum, and Arnoux, Pellerin adds, is planning to sail abroad with his family. Frédéric immediately leaves without telling Rosanette where he's going.


At the beginning of this chapter, Frédéric seems to be doing well. He's making his own decisions, and he and Deslauriers are working together again. With Dambreuse's help, they've come up with a capitalist scheme appealing to both sides of politics. All Frédéric is missing is love. He loves what Madame Dambreuse can give him, but he doesn't love her.

The fledgling Republic, however, isn't doing well. The revolution only made people long for authority. General Changarnier, the general whose dismissal troubles Dambreuse, was fired after criticizing President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. After Changarnier's dismissal, no one stood in Louis-Napoléon's way. The stage was set for the president to declare himself an emperor.

Sénécal's political about-face foreshadows France's coming authoritarian rule. He was the strongest liberal of anyone in the book, and now he, too, is disenchanted with the masses. However, he uses the same language he used as a liberal, referencing the "common good" and the "rights of the minority." He admires Robespierre, a French politician associated with the 1793 Reign of Terror. He uses a phrase associated with Italian writer Machiavelli, who believed a good prince was a tyrant: "the end justifies the means." Flaubert believed Socialism could easily lead to tyranny or despotism, and Sénécal's character shows how easy the transition can be. Frédéric discovers his own susceptibility to the ideas of others. When he praised authority to Deslauriers, he was repeating the points he heard aristocrats make at the Dambreuses' dinner parties.

Monsieur Dambreuse's death gives Frédéric a new perspective on authority. Monsieur Dambreuse served authority all his life, through multiple governments, and he still met the same end everyone meets. Frédéric's moral vacillating at Monsieur Dambreuse's grave is a moment of tragic comedy. Frédéric feels judged, but he remembers the old man wasn't much nobler himself.

Madame Dambreuse finally reveals why she hates Cécile—she represented a threat to her inheritance. Frédéric knows his aristocratic fiancée loves wealth above all else. He also knows what he's getting into but is still enthusiastic. "The great voice of Paris awakening" represents Frédéric's new hope and enthusiasm. He handles funeral arrangements with confidence.

Monsieur Dambreuse's death closes the door on the era he represents, the era in which monarchy, aristocracy, and inherited wealth protected people. His lavish funeral contrasts with the blasé attitude of the guests—the new Parisian bourgeoisie. They take political advantage of the timing of his death, blaming it on "the spectacle of anarchy."

Frédéric's good fortune is just as impermanent. Madame Dambreuse's remaining fortune will still make him relatively rich, but not as rich as he thought he'd be. His sense of entitlement becomes apparent when he thinks he'll be doing Madame Dambreuse a favor by marrying her anyway. Rosanette's happiness at the birth of her son further complicates his future. He realizes Rosanette truly wants marriage and a family, but when faced with the choice of being a moderately wealthy society man or a father, Frédéric can't decide. When he sees his son's life as a failure already in the making, he pronounces judgment on his own life.

Frédéric is learning his search for love may be futile. He finds women's hearts difficult and urgent to open, and they never have what he's looking for. Once he gets close to a woman, he finds her minor habits annoying. Faults he may have forgiven earlier become glaringly obvious. He hates Madame Dambreuse's selfishness, and he despises Rosanette for refusing to stay in her role of uncomplicated mistress. In the lies he invents to amuse himself and in his ability to pit women against one another, Frédéric is turning into Arnoux.

As Madame Dambreuse prepares Frédéric's reentry into politics, he is bewildered by the stunning changes in the political landscape. By 1851 the revolutionary momentum had been completely reversed. No one can agree on what to do next, but most people discourage "any kind of independence, any display of individuality." They praise "country life" and "illiterates," imagining less-educated people are easier to control.

Major characters feel causes and effects unraveling their personal lives too. Arnoux has turned to religion, a topic often associated with death and moral retribution. Mademoiselle Vatnaz, who has failed to achieve her revolutionary goals and who has been rejected in love, takes revenge on Rosanette. Dussardier is revolted by her vindictiveness, but he's even more dismayed by the reactionary crackdown across Europe.

Dussardier, the most idealistic person in the novel, has lost his innocence. Like Deslauriers, he has seen how the working class is just as full of infighting and pettiness as the bourgeoisie. The republicans are sabotaging themselves by advancing unqualified candidates, and Dussardier's hope for a solution, a perfect government, may have been a myth.

This loss of innocence is a prelude to the baby's death. The future the child represents is snuffed out, like "dead matter on which vegetation had started to grow." Rosanette too has lost her hopes. Frédéric correctly intuits there's worse to come. Many plotlines are starting to come together—the destruction of Arnoux, the china-clay company, Deslauriers's trips to Nogent, and Frédéric's continued love for Madame Arnoux. Pellerin's sudden announcement about Arnoux's ruin sets up the drama of the final chapter. What can Frédéric do?

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