Sentimental Education | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Sentimental Education | Part 3, Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

The events in this chapter take place in the winter of 1867.

Frédéric and Deslauriers are chatting together by a fireplace. They catch up on their lives. Madame Dambreuse married an Englishman. Louise left Deslauriers for a singer. Deslauriers has since held several jobs and now works as a solicitor. Frédéric lives modestly on his remaining fortune.

They update one another on their friends. Martinon is a senator. Hussonnet controls the theaters and the press. Cisy is religious and the father of eight children. Pellerin is now a photographer. Sénécal has disappeared. Madame Arnoux, Frédéric guesses, is in Rome with her son. Arnoux recently died. Rosanette married Oudry and adopted a son. Regimbart is still alive and still going to cafés. Frédéric remembers Regimbart's friend Compain and his references to the "calf's head," which Deslauriers tells him is an old English tradition.

Frédéric mentions Deslauriers has lost his "political fervor." They reflect on their lives. Frédéric never realized his dream of love. Deslauriers never got the power he craved. Why not? Frédéric wonders if they "didn't steer a straight course." Deslauriers says he was "too logical" and Frédéric was "too sentimental." They agree they had bad luck and didn't expect to end up here.

The friends recall their youthful ambitions, and they share memories of the schoolyard. One memory from 1837 comes back to them clearly. As teenagers, they went to visit a brothel run by a woman rumored to be Turkish. They arrived anxiously with fresh flowers, but Frédéric was too nervous to go inside after seeing the women. He ran out, and Deslauriers followed him. The incident caused a scandal in Nogent. Frédéric and Deslauriers agree, saying, "That was the best time we ever had."

Analysis

Another one of Frédéric's relationships survived the decades of turbulence—his friendship with Deslauriers. Flaubert doesn't leave the reader with the sweet, melancholy mood of Frédéric and Madame Arnoux's reunion. He adds another twist to Frédéric's reflections on his past.

Most people the readers met end up where they were headed from the beginning. Pellerin is still seeking new forms of art. Deslauriers looks for the next big career move, but his outsized passion and "excessive zeal" make it hard to hold a job. Martinon has risen through the ranks by making all the right moves. Hussonnet achieved the fame he wanted. Rosanette got the family she wanted. Cisy is still sheltered by wealth. Regimbart is frequenting the same cafés with the same complaints. Some succeed at their goals and some don't, but no one experiences significant character growth. They remain the way they always were.

Frédéric, likewise, doesn't learn and grow into a wiser man. Instead, he loses hope and passion. He and Deslauriers never figure out why they failed to achieve their goals. They can only guess, but they'll never know for sure, just as Frédéric will never know the life he and Madame Arnoux would have had together. For the two friends, though, hindsight doesn't provide clarity. They eventually blame luck and circumstances, suggesting they haven't gained much wisdom or insight. Then their memory takes them further back than the novel traveled. They launch into childhood memories, like a Bildungsroman working backward. They recall a more conventional coming-of-age tale—an embarrassing visit to a brothel as young boys.

Like the joke of the calf's head—a minor detail in the book but a memory that nonetheless survives the years—the brothel story seems unimportant. But Frédéric and Deslauriers experience their lives in the small moments, not the large transitions. It seems surprising that this intimate but ordinary incident is their best memory. What about love, loss, betrayal, revolution? The reader has seen the two friends endure so much more together over a decade. But, when they try to measure their lives in goals or accomplishments, they come up disappointed.

The final memory makes the reader question what events are most important in the measure of a life. What truly provides a "sentimental education"? What will memory reveal to be the best times in someone's life? And how do those times affect who they turn out to be?

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