Sentimental Education | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Sentimental Education | Part 3, Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

The events in this chapter take place between December 1851 and March 1867.

Frédéric travels the world, lonely and bored. He returns to France and has affairs with other women, but none of them come close to Madame Arnoux. He no longer has desire or ambition.

In March of 1867, Frédéric is alone in his study when he gets a surprise visitor—Madame Arnoux. They're astonished and thrilled to see each other. Madame Arnoux tells him the family now lives in the town of Brittany. Arnoux is an old, sickly man and their children have grown up.

Frédéric says he went to their house as soon as he heard they were leaving Paris, and Madame Arnoux reveals she saw him and hid out of fear. She gives him a wallet full of money Arnoux owes him. The two take a walk together and reminisce about when they knew each other in Paris. They confess their love for each other. Madame Arnoux thinks separation made their love stronger. Frédéric still regrets they never ended up together, but Madame Arnoux says she thinks of his love as "an unconscious, never-failing homage." Frédéric feels better about his past.

Inside Frédéric's house, Madame Arnoux shocks him by revealing a head of white hair. He's disappointed, but he professes his love to her anyway, describing his feelings for the woman she once was. He says he'll never marry because of her. Frédéric realizes she has come to finally have a sexual affair with him. He's filled with both lust and revulsion and worries about "degrading his ideal." He turns away, and Madame Arnoux praises him for being considerate.

Before Madame Arnoux leaves, she cuts off a lock of her white hair and gives it to Frédéric. They never see each other again.

Analysis

The final two chapters function as epilogues or codas to the novel's main drama, providing essential perspective for the previous events. The first seven sentences of this chapter have been called "one of the bleakest elegies ever written." Encompassing 16 years, these few words sum up Frédéric's world travels and his inability to escape the "melancholy" and "bitterness" coming from within. The vague, general language implies Frédéric's disillusionment is a common experience—it could happen to anyone.

Frédéric and Madame Arnoux's final meeting, while not a fairy-tale reunion, is a realistic picture of how separate lives unfold. Madame Arnoux didn't leave Paris with Frédéric; Frédéric didn't find happiness with anyone else. They long for the lives they could have had, but they'll never live those lives. They'll never know if they would have been happier together.

The dialogue is overly sentimental—almost a parody of a love scene in places, with Frédéric's overwrought confessions of love and Madame Arnoux's journeys to "Frédéric's bench," but the emotions are genuine. Frédéric is shocked and distressed when he sees how time has aged Madame Arnoux. He realizes it really is too late. He can't retrieve the past.

The scene's final situational irony is based on Flaubert's life. Once Madame Arnoux is ready to consummate their relationship, Frédéric is no longer interested. Flaubert similarly lost his attraction to his lifelong love Elisa Schlesinger once she had grown old. Frédéric's "fear of being disgusted later" doesn't portray him in a flattering light, but the clear emotion between the two suggests they did share a great love, even if it wasn't a typical love story. Frédéric and Madame Arnoux both admire "the woman she had ceased to be." He may not need to marry. He's had his perfect love already. He's always lived through his daydreams and imagination, and he's imagined a full life with her. Madame Arnoux seems not only resigned, but grateful, thinking it may be better they loved from a distance. The final sentence, "And that was all," is a gentle, deliberate closure to the narrative.

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