The beauty and, later, wreckage of Paris are such regular features of Sentimental Education that they sometimes even they feel like characters. Frederick spends hours on end gazing from his balcony onto the quays of the Seine, the Notre Dame bridge, the Hôtel de Ville, and the dome at the Tuileries Garden.
But keep in mind that what we see is mostly interpreted through the eyes of Frederick Moreau. This is a guy who is experiencing intense emotion at all times, so he's not exactly reliable as a reporter of fact and reality. Frederick is watching as the city changes and nearly explodes, and there he is, a detached observer.
So is Paris really even the setting? Or is it more about his emotions, which serve as the setting for his character?
We've all heard of the French Revolution. Well, those French didn't have just one. Turns out the people got fed up quite a bit. The revolution in Sentimental Education is known as the 1848 Revolution or the Third French Revolution. So let's take a look at the sitch.
We'll start off by totally simplifying—like ya do. The political upheaval in France can be seen as a conflict between people who believe in the rights of the "the people" (i.e., not just the rich, but the workers, too) and the capitalists (i.e., the rich who want to keep their money and their king). It was Republicans vs. Monarchists.
Got it? Okay, let's break it down even more.
In 1848, the working class and students banded together in revolt against King Louis Philippe and the monarchy in general. They were ticked off about inequality—and to top it off, they weren't allowed to have political gatherings and demonstrations. Criticism and opposition was spilling through the streets. When Louis couldn't take the heat, he got out of town and was replaced by a temporary but elected government.
Okay, so now the people were in charge. This new peopley government promoted socialism, which, to them, seemed more fair than capitalism and the haves/have-nots distinction. But wouldn't you know it? That idea didn't last long, and the people's government got all conservative, too.
Enter bloody insurrections. Soon the Second Republic came in, headed by Louis Napoleon (not Napoleon Bonaparte—that's Louis's uncle). Louis Napoleon was a president elected by the people, but—you guessed it—the Second Republic didn't last long either. It quickly became the Second French Empire in 1851, with Louis Napoleon (now Napoleon III) as emperor. So yeah, all that equality stuff was pretty short-lived.
Sentimental Education was published in 1869 and all the craziness of the plot ends in 1867. The point? Flaubert was talking about recent history here. But despite the specific history of it all, Flaubert really wanted the book to be about emotions—not facts. He said it himself:
I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation—or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. It's a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays—that is to say, inactive. (Source, p. 80)
So what do you think: is this the story of Frederick or the story of France?