Coming-of-Age; Realism; Historical Novel
Sentimental Education isn't your grandma's coming-of-age story. Sure, it's concerned with its protagonist's development from age 18 to 40, but, um, does he really develop all that much? Let's take a look.
- Frederick spends a lot of time in his head and not much time actually doing anything. It's kind of hard to change when you don't take any action.
- Other than inheriting a boatload of cash, Frederick doesn't really advance much in his life, whether it's professionally or personally.
- The end of the novel isn't about Frederick finally consummating his love for Madame Arnoux or becoming a success in other aspects of his life. Instead, it shows him sitting around with his boyhood friend Deslauriers, talking about how the best moment of their lives was hanging out at a brothel as young boys. So yeah, that's more regressive than coming-of-age.
So what's your vote: does Frederick actually come-of-age over the course of the novel?
When we say realism, we don't mean realistic. Well, we do mean realistic, but there's more to it than that. First things first: go check out our definition of realism.
Sentimental Education shows some unmistakable signs of this popular 19th-century genre. To be a realist writer—which Flaubert generally was—means being concerned with the details of everyday life, often including the squalor and the filth. Example from the text? Of course:
Shots were fired through every window in the square; the bullets whizzed, the water of the fountain, which had burst, was mingled with the blood, forming little pools on the ground. People slipped in the mud over clothes, shakos, and weapons. Frederick felt something soft under his foot. It was the hand of a sergeant in a grey great-coat, lying on his face in the stream that ran along the street. (2.14.13)
Realist stories like this one usually focus on the daily actions of peoples' lives and how they're affected by cultural, political, and historical events. Check, check, and check.
Just to complicate matters, though, Frederick is a totally emotional and subjective guy, and it's kind of hard to reconcile sentimentality and realism. But still, Flaubert book manages to include reasoned criticism of the era, details of the urban surroundings, and insight into Frederick's emotional life. Not too shabby.
This one doesn't need much 'splaining. Check out our section on "Setting" to see just how much history there is in Sentimental Education.