The Long Goodbye - Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

For a long time French and English novels were content to borrow their titles from the names of their chief characters, and this is how readers first learned of Robinson, Moll, Pamela, Jacques, Tom, Humphry, Tristram, Émile, Evelina, Emma, Oliver, David, and many others. Starting in the late eighteenth century, titles took a descriptive or even predictive turn. There were dangerous liaisons, prides and prejudices, lost illusions, great expectations, crimes and punishments, and other moral or legal considerations. These titles didn’t tell us much, but they hinted at risk and comeuppance, seemed to profess a large wisdom readers might share with the author at the expense of the characters. The novels themselves were not half as moralizing as their titles suggested—most of them were not moralizing at all—but they did seek collusion, appealing to what we thought we knew. We knew, for example, that expectations are great but rarely met. That’s what expectations are; otherwise they would be done deals. And the meaning of the word illusion gave us pause. In French as in English it suggests error or misperception, but more strongly and immediately the word evokes hopes and dreams—aspirations whose loss we cannot welcome. We might think that the phrase great expectations, tinted with a slightly tired irony, is the perfect translation of lost illusions. We lost them, what did we expect? Perhaps we lost them because our expectations were so high.
Almost all of these great novels address the question of how and when we grow up. When we become wise, or when we are defeated. When we get married. When we stop making our favorite mistakes. The interest of the titles is that they suggest that readers have already come of age yet are longing to go back in time to watch another person go through the process. Any novel of disenchantment and maturity must conjure up the very magic and youth that will, happily or with regret, be left behind. The reader tracks the full story with sympathy and surprise but enjoys a kind of prudential advantage over the characters.
Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education possesses all of the above qualities and more: loaded title, financial expectations, a host of illusions to be lost, a knowledge of human folly that allows no appeal. Oh, and a major revolution, staged between February and June of 1848, when many people grew old before they had finished being young. Flaubert implied on many occasions that France itself came of age in the worst sense, if not in 1848, then with the arrival of the Second Empire, which the upheaval helped to precipitate, four years later. The possibilities for what a coming of age might mean are not obvious inSentimental Education, in large part because the novel offers such a perfect picture of the confusion, wrong turns, and bad directions that seem inseparable from growing up. It’s still going on till very late in the day, and only at the very end of the book do we learn what has happened; even then, it may only be what the characters think they have discovered.

The novel tells the story of Frédéric Moreau, as well as that of his friends and acquaintances. In the first chapter he meets Mme Arnoux, who becomes the love of his life, on a river steamer, and devotes the whole book to dreaming of her. She is the wife of the novel’s most charming and rascally speculator, an art dealer, among many other things. Frédéric aspires to be a writer, moves from his provincial town to Paris, drops out of law school, conducts several affairs, dabbles in politics, and witnesses the revolution. He is horrified when he sees a former radical turned policeman kill the one entirely decent person in the novel, and he leaves France for several years, his departure and reentry announced in famous one-sentence paragraphs: “He traveled the world” (literally, “He traveled”); “He returned home” (literally, “He returned”)
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