The Sentimental Education was first published in the Paris of 1869, thirteen years after the triumphant appearance there of Madame Bovary; and the later novel has remained ever since in the long long shadow of the earlier one, waiting for full recognition. The reasons for this preference may seem cogent, at least to the average reader of novels. Thoroughly original in its conception and its language, Madame Bovary still rests on the ancient formula of sin and retribution and so moves steadily toward a decisive end: the suicide of Emma and the ruin of her family. Emma’s adventures dominate the action; one’s attention is the more acute for being fixed on a single line of development.
True, Emma is a wretched woman, and her character and culture are relentlessly dissected by the author. Yet she has the advantage for any reader of being violently real in her physical presence. Her lush irritated sensuality works on one’s own sensuality, even to the moment when, agonizing on her death-bed, she “stretches out her neck” and “glues her lips” to the crucifix offered her by the priest. Emma dying is the same person as Emma living, the literal embodiment of unlimited desire. One might say that she has turned into the very stuff of her daydreams: the stuff of sex and body, of the money, jewels, marriages, draperies, and yards of dress goods she has coveted. And Emma’s ghastly “materialization,” so to speak, has a pathos about it. The impoverished moeurs de province, the phrase Flaubert uses for the book’s subtitle, defeat her efforts to escape them. Confined to her dismal province, she feels permanently excluded from Paris, where all the good things—sex, money, jewels, and the rest—presumably abound.
In The Sentimental Education bountiful Paris is itself the scene of most of the drama. The characters with “life stories” are numerous and rather better endowed than Emma is with culture and experience. Nevertheless they come to ends which for the most part are not decisive ends at all; they just fade away into nothingness. The Paris of The Sentimental Education is “sick” in much the same secondary sense as that word has today. And during Flaubert’s lifetime it was one thing to represent the provinces as “sick,” quite another to represent as “sick” a great city, the capital of a great nation’s culture as well as its government. On its first publication The Sentimental Education was condemned by all but a few of Flaubert’s contemporaries as ailing itself: it was called politically perverse, morally squalid, and an aesthetic failure. Until recently the book has been stuck with that reputation, so far as the large public was concerned, while Madame Bovary has continued to flourish.
Nothing in recent literary history is better known than the contagious fame won by Madame Bovary. Emma’s appeal to readers was equalled by the appeal of the novel itself—its subject as well as the sophistications of its …
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