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Flaubert and the Sentimental Education

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 form and language—to young novelists in all the novel-producing countries. Flaubert’s new, exacting realism was adapted to the life stories latent in other provinces, remote from France, where young men and women yearned for other capitals: Moscow, Madrid, New York, even Chicago.

Implicit deep within Madame Bovary, however, is a theme which only the greatest of Flaubert’s progeny have laid hold of—insofar as it was not given by their own experience—and the theme becomes quite explicit in The Sentimental Education; though publicly neglected, the Education soon acquired an underground reputation, especially with writers. This theme was the existential one: the perception of a growing estrangement from “real experience” and the “lived life”—vague terms for elusive but powerful feelings—on the part of individuals living in whatever locale, provincial or metropolitan. This perception was at the heart of Flaubert’s idea of modernity; he and Baudelaire were the first “modernists,” not solely because of the innovations they brought to the art of writing but because each developed powerful conceptions of the nature of modernity itself.

The history of Flaubert’s influence, as the author of both novels and tales like Un Coeur simple, is formidable. It has been a history not of imitations—which don’t matter—but of transformations, unpredictable, brilliant, self-perpetuating. Among the novelists strongly affected there was Henry James, especially in The Bostonians, and later there were Proust and Joyce (not to mention the several French writers who were Flaubert’s immediate disciples). The least predictable episode in this history was the infusion of Flaubertian spirit, together with the Baudelairean-Symboliste spirit, into modernist poetry, chiefly the earlier poetry of Eliot and Pound. As Flaubert had fought for a prose that was as well written as poetry, so Pound fought for a poetry that was as well written as prose—meaning, in part, Flaubert’s prose: its precise rhythms, its acutely particularized images.

Of the two poets, Eliot was the more susceptible to the existential theme, which was localized in his “Unreal City.” Bored, restless, and afraid, the people of the Unreal City are subliminally anxious to hear the saving Word but can only hear the comforting commonplace: “Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript.” Our knowledge of Eliot has helped us to identify and understand the function of commonplaces and banalities in The Sentimental Education. Mme Arnoux remarks to Frederic: “Sometimes your words come back to me like a distant echo, like the sound of a bell carried by the wind.” Mme Arnoux talks like Eliot’s too baffled, too articulate “lady of situations” in her several guises. The Flaubertian tradition has been a two-way thoroughfare.

Where Flaubert’s influence is concerned, however, qualifications are called for. To his literary progeny Flaubert was assimilable only in part. He was a difficult father figure whose testament was full of discriminatory clauses that seemed to require contesting. His pessimism was too unyielding, his work a triumph of artifice over art, his style a medium too solid to transmit the possible varieties of feeling implicit in his subjects.

Henry James objected that Flaubert “had no faith in the power of the moral to offer a surface.” This delicately phrased judgment is convincing if one agrees with James about how “the power of the moral” asserts itself upon the “surface,” that is, in the necessarily aesthetic style and form of any good novel. For James “the moral” makes itself felt through a series of identifications between the best in the author and the best in his readers, with the characters acting as agents in the transaction: those of his characters, I mean, who at their best are capable of reaching states of consciousness about themselves and their situations, and then of acting decisively on the data of consciousness. For James, experience is the great teacher and the lesson is the primacy of mind, mind as awareness. In his own subtle fashion James was captivated by the Bildungsroman conception of literature. Flaubert was not. James’s New World idealism was alien to Flaubert’s conception of the average human potential in the age of modernity, itself a manifestation of the sovereignty of the average. The Sentimental Education is a negative Bildungsroman. With the characters, the education by experience doesn’t “take.” They learn nothing. For readers, the novel is an unlearning of indefensible sentiments and ideas.

Among Flaubert’s other putative descendants, Eliot and Proust found different exits from the Flaubertian Limbo. For Eliot, the saving Word is really there, even if it comes to us garbled and attenuated, offering partial epiphanies and precarious conversions. For Proust transcendence is the peculiar privilege of the artist, a conclusion that gives his wonderful big-bodied novel, clamorous with suffering, a very small head.

Only Joyce among “moderns” surpassed Flaubert in greatness while possessing a similar vision of human limitation; both writers were of course renegade Catholics. Joyce’s Dublin, like Flaubert’s Paris, is incurably stricken with paralysis (Victor Brombert1 astutely diagnoses the particular Parisian mal as a universal susceptibility to prostitution). Dublin epiphanies range from the frankly false to the merely promising. The immanence of myth deflates reality. Molly Bloom is more Molly than earth mother. In Dublin nothing really happens, nothing transcendent. Dubliners simply reveal, for the reader’s pitying or amused contemplation, the general lifeness of life: people are what they are, not in any past or future imagined by them, but in what they feel and do and imagine at any given moment or hour or day in their lives.

But there was at least one great difference between them. Flaubert’s doctrine of “impersonality” in art was equally an item in Joyce’s literary creed. But impersonality can be “cold” or “warm.” Joyce’s is warm in the profoundly, elusively tempered way that the impersonality of Shakespeare and Cervantes is “warm.” Flaubert’s is cold, with variations here and there. His relationship with his characters tends toward incompleteness; a void is formed which the author’s brilliant irony is seldom capable of displacing. This, to me, is the most problematical element in his work: yet it is not the whole storv of his work. What Mark Van Doren has written about Thomas Hardy, another implacable ironist, is true of Flaubert too: “He is that most moving of men, the kind that tries not to feel yet does.” Flaubert does feel, almost in spite of himself, especially when his subject is the betrayal or exploitation of the helpless: Emma Bovary’s husband; the servant woman in Un Coeur simple; and, in the Education—among several others—Dussardier, the worker who is the captive and victim of his bourgeois friends. The pity that comes easily to certain other writers is the more moving in Flaubert because to him it comes hard.

A recent English, very English, critic condemned The Sentimental Education as “an attack on human nature.” One admits the charge is true, while wondering what is so great about human nature that it should be declared immune from attack. Flaubert’s aloof, melancholic temperament caused some of the bleakness of his vision, as any writer’s negations or affirmations owe something to his temperament. Yet the bleakness is also inherent in an Old World skepticism, a pre-bourgeois désabusement, concerning human nature as manifested in society, the only form in which human nature can be known. In Flaubert the moralism of, say, Montaigne, Pascal, and La Rochefoucauld (and of non-Frenchmen like Swift) survives, with the newly bourgeoisified Paris rather than feudal Paris as the object of his censure or derision. Invoking a writer’s traditions is an easy way of making him respectable. Flaubert was the rare kind of writer, later celebrated by Eliot in a famous essay, in whom a strong sense of tradition interacts with great originality to produce the “new, really new work.”

His immediate precedents for The Sentimental Education were, it would seem, the comprehensive eighteenth-century satires, among which Candide and Gulliver’s Travels were intimately known to Flaubert. Like those earlier satires, The Sentimental Education is an attack on the whole modern spectacle of human bétise, imbecility. Indeed, the Education has always been taken too seriously or with the wrong kind of seriousness by critics who are insufficiently tough-minded or are too humorless to see that the book is essentially if often deceptively comic, anticipating the pure comedy of Bouvard et Pécuchet, his next—and last—important work. “Deceptively” because the comic effect of the Education is generally subdued to conform with the generally dreary realities of bourgeois existence. The method of the satires was comic fantasy touched here and there with realism and pathos; Flaubert’s method is realism touched with the fantastic; many episodes of The Sentimental Education are as outrageously funny as anything in Candide.

  1. 1

    The Novels of Flaubert, A Study of Themes and Techniques (Princeton, 1967), $7.50; $2.95 (paper).

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