Study Guide

Sentimental Education Women and Femininity

By Gustave Flaubert

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Women and Femininity

The lady's ample robes filled up the space within. He stole away from this little padded box with its perfume of iris, and, so to speak, its vague odour of feminine elegance. (1.3.16)

Frederick's first glimpse of Madame Dambreuse makes quite an impression. Without even meeting her, he's already attracted to her femininity. We're not sure about you, but a "vague odour of feminine elegance" doesn't sound like the most appealing thing in the world.

Frederick taxed his ingenuity to find out the social position of these women, modestly attired in gowns of sober hue with flat, turned-up collars. (1.3.55)

This is all part of Frederick's education as a socialite: he's learning to read how clothing reflects these women's social position. He, of course, goes way overboard on his purchases.

He gazed attentively at the fringes of her head-dress, the ends of which caressed her bare shoulder, and he was unable to take away his eyes; he plunged his soul into the whiteness of that feminine flesh, and yet he did not venture to raise his eyelids to glance at her higher, face to face. (1.4.246)

In his first encounter with Madame Arnoux post-boat meet-cute, Frederick is still completely blown away by how beautiful she is. He can't even look her directly in the eyes. What is she, Medusa?

[…] and women passed along with an indolent expression in their eyes and that camelia tint in their complexions which intense heat imparts to feminine flesh. (1.5.397)

Mmm, hot and sweaty women. Come on, Frederick—get it together. Notice, though, that Frederick is walking through Paris, one of the more beautiful places on earth, and still, his attention is on the ladies. This guy's obsessed.

From time to time she left her seat to receive those who had just come in; and the murmur of feminine voices, made, as it were, a cackling like that of birds. (1.9.366)

Though Frederick gets a kick out of the parties at the Dambreuse house, he often finds the idle chatter kind of annoying. Here, he associates the women's voices with the unpleasant sound of birds. We're not so sure they'd be as into him if they could hear his thoughts.

Then he allowed his thoughts to dwell even on Frederick's personal appearance. It had always exercised over him an almost feminine charm; and he soon came to admire it for a success which he realised that he was himself incapable of achieving. (2.12.8)

Deslauriers's attraction to his friend Frederick is complicated. He is not only jealous of him, but also finds him strangely attractive—in a feminine way. What about Frederick is feminine?

For the Citizen admired virtuous women, and had a great esteem for Madame Arnoux. (2.18.33)

Frederick appreciates that Regimbart sees Madame Arnoux as the epitome of feminine virtue. And good thing, too. Remember what happened when Cisy opened his mouth to say otherwise?

He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. (2.19.4)

After Frederick has given up hope for Madame Arnoux, he begins to turn to other women. But like his affairs with Madame Dambreuse and Rosanette, nothing ever quite succeeds. For all his obsession with women, he's not all that great once he's got 'em.

"At my age!—he—Frederick! Ah! no woman has ever been loved as I have been. No! Where is the use in being young? What do I care about them, indeed? I despise them—all those women who come here!" (2.19.55)

At the bitter end, Madame Arnoux comes to confess her feelings for Frederick. At this point, though, he can't corrupt his dream of her by making their affair a reality. In his eyes, she's perfect—and he'd rather keep it that way.

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