Title page from the first edition of L'Education sentimentale
|Original title||L'Education sentimentale|
Sentimental Education (French: L'Éducation sentimentale, 1869) is a novel by Gustave Flaubert. Considered one of the most influential novels of the 19th century, it was praised by contemporaries such as George Sand and Émile Zola, but criticised by Henry James. The story focuses on the romantic life of a young man at the time of the French Revolution of 1848.
The novel describes the life of a young man (Frédéric Moreau) living through the revolution of 1848 and the founding of the Second French Empire, and his love for an older woman (based on the wife of the music publisher Maurice Schlesinger, who is portrayed in the book as Jacques Arnoux). Flaubert based many of the protagonist's experiences (including the romantic passion) on his own life. He wrote of the work in 1864:
The novel's tone is by turns ironic and pessimistic; it occasionally lampoons French society. The main character, Frédéric, often gives himself over to romantic flights of fancy.
Frédéric Moreau renews his acquaintance with a childhood friend, Deslauriers, who advises him to meet with Dambreuse, a rich Parisian banker. Frédéric leaves for Paris, armed with a letter of recommendation from his neighbour M. Roque, who works for Dambreuse. Despite this, his introduction to Dambreuse is not very successful. In Paris, Frédéric stumbles across a shop belonging to M. Arnoux, whose wife he developed a fascination for when he met her briefly at the start of the novel. However, he does not act on his discovery, and lives idly in Paris for some months. A little more than a year after the start of the story, Frédéric is at a student protest and meets Hussonet, who works at M. Arnoux's shop. Frédéric becomes part of a group of friends who meet at the shop. Eventually, he is invited to dinner with M. and Mme Arnoux. At the same time, his old friend Deslauriers comes to Paris. Frédéric becomes obsessed with Mme. Arnoux. Deslauriers tries to distract him by taking him to a cabaret, where they encounter M. Arnoux and his mistress Mlle Vatnaz. Later, Frédéric is persuaded to return home to his mother, who is having financial difficulties. At home, he meets Louise, the daughter of his neighbour M. Roque. His financial worries are eased by the chance death of an uncle, and he leaves again for Paris.
Returning to Paris, Frédéric finds that M. and Mme Arnoux no longer live at their previous address. He searches the city, eventually meeting Regimbart, one of his group of friends. He learns that Arnoux has financial problems and is now a pottery merchant. Arnoux introduces Frédéric to another of his mistresses, Rosanette. Frédéric likes Rosanette, and has Pellerin paint him a portrait of her. Mme Arnoux learns of her husband's infidelity. Frédéric has promised money to Deslauriers, but has to lend it to Arnoux instead, who is unable to repay him. Deslauriers and Frédéric fall out. In an attempt to resolve the financial situation, Frédéric returns to Dambreuse, who this time offers him a position. However, Frédéric fails to keep his appointment, instead visiting Mme Arnoux at the pottery factory. She is unresponsive to his advances, and on his return to Paris he instead pursues Rosanette. His difficulties mount and eventually he meets again with Deslauriers, who advises him to return home. At home, Frédéric falls in love with and becomes engaged to Louise, his neighbour's daughter. Deslauriers conveys this news to Mme Arnoux, who is upset. Frédéric says he has business to complete in Paris. While there, he meets Mme Arnoux, and they admit their love for one another. They arrange to meet in private, but Mme Arnoux's son falls seriously ill. Upset and unaware of the reason for Mme Arnoux's absence, Frédéric sleeps with Rosanette instead.
In the midst of the revolution, Frédéric's political writings win him the renewed respect of his friends and of M. Dambreuse. Frédéric, living with Rosanette, becomes jealous of her continued friendship with M. Arnoux, and persuades her to leave with him for the countryside. On his return, Frédéric dines at the Dambreuse's house with Louise and her father, who have come to Paris to find him. Louise learns of Frédéric's relationship with Rosanette. Frédéric meets with Mme Arnoux, who explains why she missed their arranged meeting. During this encounter, Rosanette appears and reveals she is pregnant. Frédéric decides to seduce Mme Dambreuse in order to gain social standing. He is successful, and soon afterwards M. Dambreuse dies. Rosanette's newborn child becomes severely ill and lives only a short time. Meanwhile, M. Arnoux has finally been overtaken by his financial difficulties and is preparing to flee the country. Unable to face the loss of Mme Arnoux, Frédéric asks for money from Mme Dambreuse, but is too late to stop M. and Mme Arnoux from leaving. Mme Dambreuse meanwhile discovers his motive for borrowing the money. Frédéric returns to his childhood home, hoping to find Louise there, but discovers that she has given up on him and married Deslauriers instead. Frédéric returns to Paris. Many years later, he briefly meets Mme Arnoux again, swearing his eternal love for her. After another interlude, he encounters Deslauriers and the novel ends the way it began, with the pair swapping stories of the past.
The characters of Sentimental Education are marked by capriciousness and self-interest. Frédéric, the main character, is originally infatuated with Madame Arnoux, but throughout the novel falls in and out of love with her. Furthermore, he is unable to decide on a profession and instead lives on his uncle's inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr. Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frédéric is with love. Without their materialism and "instinctive worship of power", almost the entire cast would be completely rootless. Such was Flaubert's judgment of his times, and the continuing applicability of that cynicism goes a long way in explaining the novel's enduring appeal.
Henry James, an early and passionate admirer of Flaubert, considered the book a large step down from its famous predecessor. "Here the form and method are the same as in Madame Bovary; the studied skill, the science, the accumulation of material, are even more striking; but the book is in a single word a dead one. Madame Bovary was spontaneous and sincere; but to read its successor is, to the finer sense, like masticating ashes and sawdust. L'Education Sentimentale is elaborately and massively dreary. That a novel should have a certain charm seems to us the most rudimentary of principles, and there is no more charm in this laborious monument to a treacherous ideal than there is interest in a heap of gravel."
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, however, found it interesting, and made a map of the novel's social spaces, linking social organization to literary space.György Lukács in his Theory of the Novel found L'Education Sentimentale quintessentially modern in its handling of time as passing in the world and as perceived by the characters.
More recently, American literary critic James Wood dedicated two chapters of his book How Fiction Works to Flaubert's significance. The first chapter, "Flaubert and the Modern Narrative", begins as follows, "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert established, for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remarked of good prose that it favors the telling and a brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the authors fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austin or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert." 
Early in the novel, Frédéric compares himself to several popular romantic protagonists of late 18th-century and early 19th-century literature: Young Werther (1774) by Goethe, René (1802) by Chateaubriand, Lara (1824) by Byron, Lélia (1833/1839) by George Sand and Frank of "La Coupe et les Lèvres" (1832) by Alfred de Musset. His friend Deslauriers also asks Frédéric to "remember" Rastignac from Balzac's Comédie humaine and Frédéric asks Mlle. Louise Roque if she still has her copy of Don Quixote.