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Sentimental Education | Themes


Corruption of the Bourgeoisie

The bourgeoisie consists of the middle or upper-middle classes—Parisians who are wealthy but aspire to greater wealth. Most of the novel's characters represent this social class. Flaubert parodies and condemns the materialism and moral emptiness of the bourgeoisie throughout the novel. The characters achieve no lasting satisfaction from their value system and they eventually turn on one another. When Frédéric spends time with the wealthiest people in the novel—the aristocrats at Monsieur Dambreuse's parties—he notices their selfishness. The narrator notes that the guests "would have sold France or the whole human race to safeguard their fortunes." They follow whichever government is in power, hoping to keep or increase their material goods as a result. Madame Dambreuse treats her niece Cécile poorly since she believes Cécile is a threat to her inheritance.

Frédéric's middle-class friends aren't much better. Artists Hussonnet and Pellerin are often frivolous and unable to see beyond their own career aspirations. Nobleman Cisy and social climber Martinon have wealth but lack intelligence and insight. Characters are vindictive and spiteful, constantly seeking revenge. When Frédéric won't give Hussonnet money for a newspaper, Hussonnet writes an article mocking Frédéric's performance in a duel. Deslauriers instigates a lawsuit against the Arnouxs to soothe his wounded ego after Madame Arnoux rejects him.

Frédéric increasingly aspires to a higher social standing throughout the novel. As he chases wealth he finds it easier to manipulate others. From more experienced Parisians like Arnoux, Frédéric learns the underhanded tactics he needs to get ahead. He abandons his longtime friend Deslauriers, in part, because of his friend's relative poverty. He enjoys mistresses Rosanette and Madame Dambreuse as status symbols and sees them both at the same time, lying to each one.

Age and Disillusionment

Frédéric grows out of his countryside naïveté into maturity, but he doesn't learn and grow into a wiser man. Instead, he loses hope and passion. The novel associates age and maturity with a loss of ideals.

Between Parts 1 and 2 Frédéric and his friends grow a decade older. They endure trials and celebrate short-lived successes in Paris. Meanwhile, the real world undermines their idealism. Deslauriers first believes his intelligence and enthusiasm for political power will land him an important job, but when he "[knocks] at the gates of Democracy" after the 1848 revolution, his career falls apart. Dussardier, filled with revolutionary fervor in Part 1, feels hopeless about the possibility of progress at the end of Part 2. Frédéric becomes "lost among the ruins of his hopes" after his failed engagement to Madame Dambreuse.

As characters grow older, they resign themselves to the fact their dreams will never come true. Frédéric's middle age, summed up in a few short paragraphs, is full of "melancholy," "chill," and "boredom." When he reconnects with Madame Arnoux in Part 3, Chapter 6 after years apart, she reveals her white hair—a sign of aging. He realizes how much they've both changed since they first fell in love. He prefers to keep his "ideal" of their younger selves fresh in his mind.

Search for Love

Like a hero in the Romantic novels he reads, Frédéric longs for true love. He associates love with intimacy, desire, passion, and connection. The novel's plot follows Frédéric's many failed attempts to get closer to Madame Arnoux, the only woman he loves. He feels "Paris depended on her person" and makes career and life decisions based on his desire for her. In speeches to Madame Dambreuse and Madame Arnoux, Frédéric advocates for the importance of love and passion. Other characters search for love as well, but everyone, like Frédéric, ends up taking wrong turns and making poor choices.

Frédéric courts three different women in addition to Madame Arnoux. Each woman's appeal often depends on his surroundings and self-image. He loves Louise's innocence and purity since she sees him as an experienced Parisian. He feels close to Rosanette when they take a peaceful trip to the country. His attraction to Madame Dambreuse is based on his desire to rise in the aristocratic ranks. Madame Arnoux, the one woman he loves unconditionally, is the only one whose marriage makes her unavailable. Frédéric and Madame Arnoux never end up consummating their love, and the novel examines the effects of their delayed and frustrated desire.

Characters sometimes use love to distract from their own misery. In Part 2, Chapter 4 Rosanette believes she and Frédéric can "both forget [their] troubles in a mutual happiness." Other characters use love as manipulation. When Deslauriers declares his love for Madame Arnoux, it's a competitive gesture to antagonize Frédéric. When Dussardier doesn't return Mademoiselle Vatnaz's affections, she pulls him into her plot against Rosanette.

Political Revolution

The novel's climactic moment is the beginning of the revolution of 1848, which toppled the French monarchy. The new, progressive Second Republic lasted for three years. President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte seized power in late 1851, creating an empire and crushing hopes for freedom and democracy. The novel explores how the cycle of events ended with the French worse off than before. Where did the Revolution go wrong?

Parts 1 and 2 show how France's young people, eager for a regime change, get swept up in the dramatic appeal of revolt. In Part 1, Chapter 4 Frédéric and Hussonnet witness a student protest against the monarchy. Although they lack strong political opinions themselves, the two friends are encouraged by the crowd's passion. Deslauriers's poverty and his friendship with the radical socialist Sénécal influence his own involvement with the revolutionary cause.

Flaubert believes France badly mismanaged the creation of the Second Republic. Part 3, Chapter 1 shows the arguments and self-interest that dominated the Republic's early stages. Frédéric attends a crowded meeting of candidates for the new National Assembly. Candidates take advantage of the new government's opportunities to advance their personal agendas, and the meeting accomplishes next to nothing. Meanwhile, the rich guests at the Dambreuse house are terrified they'll lose their earnings and property, and they hope for a return to strong government authority. Government programs like the National Workshops fail to increase prosperity. Dussardier, Deslauriers, and Sénécal, characters who support better conditions for the working class, realize the poor aren't always wise, insightful, or selfless. By the end of Part 3 they all believe the working class doesn't behave much better than the rich. The workers, meanwhile, still struggle to find employment, and the Republic continues to break promises to the workers.

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