Sentimental Education | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Sentimental Education | Symbols


Money and Wealth

Money and wealth symbolize power, authority, and corruption. Money enables people to live self-determined lives, achieve professional goals, and climb the social ladder. It can also corrode one's morals. Money is the ultimate gatekeeper in 1840s Paris, and people will do anything to hold onto it.

The importance of money demonstrates how the 19th century changed deeply rooted economic systems. Feudalism—a system in which landowners held all the power—gave way to capitalism, which rewarded any business owner who made a profit. New possibilities of success encourage characters to seek money by any means necessary. Arnoux lies, embezzles, and avoids repaying debts. Monsieur Dambreuse invests in the burgeoning coal industry. Younger men like Frédéric, Deslauriers, and Martinon attempt to meet and impress the rich and well-established.

Characters who have money desperately want to keep it, while characters who have no money call for revolution. Deslauriers argues for the abolition of "collateral inheritance," or wealth inherited from deceased family members. Frédéric, by contrast, relies on his uncle's inheritance and later counts on Madame Dambreuse's inheritance. Frédéric was born into a wealthier family than Deslauriers, and this gives Frédéric a clear advantage. However, this distinction breeds resentment in their friendship.

Art and Paintings

Art and paintings are emblems of the generation's constant search for meaning.

Pellerin the painter begins the book by searching for meaning in the romance of the past. He argues art should transcend reality, giving the viewer "an impersonal sense of exaltation." He's a fan of the "grand manner," or rich, stylized portraits that imitate ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance. Similarly, Frédéric looks for purpose in Romantic novels with gallant heroes. He admires the wealth and opulence of Paris and imagines the transcendent life of an artist. His everyday existence seems dull by comparison, and he finds meaning in an unattainable love. Art can capture the intangible and sometimes the impossible. When Rosanette and Frédéric decide to immortalize their dead child in a portrait, it becomes an attempt to preserve hope.

Many characters also find meaning in money, and art becomes a commodity for sale. Arnoux's shop, L'Art Industriel, aims to sell "the sublime at a reasonable price." Arnoux's later business schemes involve the sale of pottery and religious objects as he continues to exploit the public's desire for beauty and craftsmanship. Pellerin also wants to sell his work to the highest bidder. When he's trapped in a cycle of self-doubt over a painting, he hopes to earn money as an encouragement and "a rebuff for the critics." Money gives his work meaning.


Paris symbolizes hopes and dreams just out of reach. For young country dwellers Frédéric and Deslauriers, Paris represents professional and romantic success. The city becomes the headquarters for a revolution symbolizing a generation's hopes for peace and happiness.

Paris also represents a cosmopolitan, exciting life. Frédéric imagines the city itself exuding a "wonderful air of love and intelligence," but the characters who live the Parisian life often find something missing. They escape to country houses or indulge themselves at parties. When Frédéric returns to Paris in Part 2, Chapter 6 after a visit to his hometown, the city looks grim and disappointing.

In Part 3 Paris represents revolt and broken promises. The revolution begins with citywide optimism, but this optimism degenerates into strife and conflict, and Paris is littered with barricades. The city, like Frédéric, comes of age after a series of devastating defeats.

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