Clothing and Desire

Nineteenth century novelists used physical descriptions in their narratives to impose a thematic integrity onto their characters. Flaubert, it could be argued, likewise followed the traditions of realism and moderated Frédéric’s inclinations towards romanticism with an ironic and oftentimes pessimistic tone. Many characters in A Sentimental Education, in fact, are readable by Flaubert’s physical portraits. Their intentions are made plain, their roles in the novel revealed, their symbolic significance laid out for scrutiny. But these are the minor characters, the ones for whom a simple outward detail can elucidate the purpose of the entire person in the novel. The major characters are to have no such luck. After all, Flaubert was providing in his novel a “moral history- sentimental would be more accurate- of the men of [his] generation.” And objective reason favored by realism would fall by the wayside when faced with the inconsistency and irrationality of sentiments and feelings. Throughout the novel, Flaubert provides an abundance of detail regarding exterior appearances- clothing and ornaments- in particular of Madame Arnoux. Objects can convey possession or desire, and Frédéric, not able or willing to possess Madame Arnoux and truly know her, transfixes his desire and obsession to her objects. Clothing, as it exists in the real world, is not even skin-deep, and in this case, instead of characterizing or reflecting its owner, presents an obstacle to knowing her true character. The narrative reflects Frédéric’s desire in the overemphasis on Madame Arnoux’s clothing and ornaments, undermining its sense of traditional realism. For the most part, Madame Arnoux appears in the novel in one of two different, but not entirely distinct, modes of dress. One pale colored, the other dark, her dress provides two images of her person- one, radiant, maternal, angelic; the other modest, secretive, domestic. As both are equally unattainable to Frédéric, the objects that define her (outwardly, as it may be) are the same ones that Frédéric fetishizes. From his first encounter with Madame Arnoux, the reader gets a sense of Frédéric’s point of view, his romantic idealization of the heroine robed in light colors: “She had on a wide-brimmed hat whose pink ribbons fluttered behind her in the wind. Parted in the middle, her black hair curved round the tip of her arched eyebrows and swept down very low as if lovingly framing her oval face. The voluminous folds of her pale spotted muslin dress flared out all around her. She was working on a piece of embroidery; her straight nose, her chin, her whole body, was silhouetted against the airy blue background” Similarly, during an accidental encounter later on in the novel, Flaubert again evokes the imagery of light:”She was bathed in sunlight; and her oval face, her arched eyebrows, her black lace stole clinging to her shoulders, her dove-grey shot-silk dress, the posy of violets in the corner of her poke-bonnet, everything about her seemed extraordinary and magnificent.” Frédéric beholds Madame Arnoux as an apparition, radiant and otherworldly, a symbol of perfection, beauty, and pure love. As soon as he first sees her, his poetic yearnings have found a purpose, as he later on a carriage ride home dedicates his life to her: “She looked exactly like the women in romantic novels…he surrendered to his dreams of never-ending bliss.” He calls her hair black and attributes her darker skin to some exotic lineage, “from Andalusia or possibly from the West Indies.” Frédéric’s romanticized view of Madame Arnoux contrasts sharply with Deslauriers’ description upon first sighting her: “medium height, brown hair…not bad, nothing special.” Frédéric willingly and irrationally conveys all manners of virtues upon her based upon her outward appearance. He is able to elevate her to a level of imaginary sublimity because he is unable or perhaps unwilling to subject her to more realistic or non-superficial scrutiny. Thus, Frédéric’s idea of her is inextricably bound to her exterior attributes and effects- her eyes, her hair, her clothing. These personal but mundane objects of Madame Arnoux are closely tied with Frédéric’s impression of her. Going back to his first interaction with Madame Arnoux during the boat ride to Nogent, he notices that her “long purple-striped shawl dangled over the brass handrail behind her back,” and immediately wonders about the object, “how often, on damp evenings during long sea voyages, she must have wrapped it round her, covered her feet with it, even slept in it!” Later as well, Frédéric imagines her on exotic journeys, and his fantasies are always accompanied by some mental image of her dress or ornaments:”…his mind reached back to embrace her even in centuries gone by, he would replace the figures in the picture by Her; with a hennin on her head, she’d be kneeling in prayer behind a lead-light window; in her castle in Flanders or the Castillas, she’d be sitting in starched ruff and whalebone bodice with immense puff-sleeves. Then she’d be walking down some splendid porphyry stairway, surrounded by senators, beneath a baldachin of ostrich feathers, in a brocaded gown. At other times he dreamed of her in yellow pantaloons…” Frédéric cannot separate the idea of Madame Arnoux from her physical description. The details of her exterior appearance are real enough, but her true identity remains an abstraction. Thus her possessions, both fantastical and real, do not contribute in forming a realistic portrait of Madame Arnoux; their detailed descriptions are merely manifestations of Frédéric’s obsession with her ideal. Perhaps a most telling passage suggests the inseparability of the ideal of her with her clothing: “One thing which surprised him was that he didn’t feel jealous of Arnoux and her innate modesty seemed so strong, relegating her sex to some shadowy secret background, that he could never picture her undressed.” Later on, when they begin their romantic encounters, he recounts to Madame Arnoux the permanence of his earlier visions of her, revealing in effect his preoccupation with imaginary ideals:”He would tell her of his dreary school-days and his poetic dreams, filled with the radiant vision of a woman’s face which he’d recognized the moment he’d seen her. Usually they’d talk only about the years since they’d been seeing each other regularly. He would remind her of unimportant details, the colour of her dress on certain occasions…” This preoccupation with physical details is also present when Madame Arnoux, mindful and perhaps even relishing Frédéric’s obsession “gave him a pair of her gloves and, the week after, her handkerchief.” This, perhaps, is the manifestation of Frédéric’s idealized love- the possession of her personal items substitute for the possession of her. As Frédéric’s desire for Madame Arnoux is substituted for by her personal effects, these objects become humanized: “[Frédéric] loved anything connected with Madame Arnoux- her furniture, her servants, her house, her street…for him her comb, her gloves, her rings, were something utterly special, as remarkable as any work of art, possessing a personality of their own that was almost human; and all these things were wrapping themselves round his heart and fuelling his passion” His love for her is transposed to an overemphasis on her belongings. However, with the humanization of objects comes the possibility of their death, as is illustrated towards the end of the novel at the auction of Madame Arnoux’s possessions:”When Frederic came in, the petticoats, scarves, handkerchiefs and even the shifts were being passed round from hand to hand for scrutiny; ever so often, they’d be tossed over to someone else and something white would suddenly flash through the air. Next her dresses were sold, then one of her hats with a broken feather dangling down, then her furs, then three pairs of bootees; seeing all these relics of her doled out in bits and pieces, where he could still vaguely sense the shape of parts of her body, seemed to him like a sort of atrocity, as if vultures were tearing pieces off her corpse.” As these personal items become separated from its owner, they become devoid of meaning, empty. Madame Arnoux is still alive, but the grotesque act of partitioning her personal and humanized effects signifies disintegration and death and irretrievable loss. From the beginning of the novel, when he saves Madame Arnoux’s shawl from falling off the boat, Frédéric is filled with youthful romantic expectation. At that point, he becomes the hero, though we are not exactly sure why; the event is insignificant to all but him as he refuses to see any event out of the context of his own life. The narrative reflects Frédéric’s subjectivity, although it is always tempered by irony, imposing a tension between experience and reality. The subjectivity detracts from the novel’s realism in the traditional sense; the narrative descriptions and details regarding characters do not always serve to impose a thematic significance on the character, nor does it always enhance the reader’s understanding of her. Flaubert thus undermines the reader’s attempt to view physical descriptions as true reflections of character. We learn too soon that Frédéric’s expectations are irrational. There is nothing real to look forward to and he clings to ideals, illusions. Thus, through all the detailed descriptions of Madame Arnoux- her features, her clothes, her belongings- the reader learns little of her character. The possibility of discovering her true identity remains cloaked behind Frédéric’s sentimental notions. His desire to escape from mediocrity and the boredom of everyday life compels him to invent the romantic existence for himself, as reality will not humor him. Madame Arnoux becomes the image of his great love and he derives his purpose from her. On one level, as she is often dressed in dark clothes and hidden by shadow, her mystery and inapproachability allow her only to be assessed from the exterior, as Frédéric has nothing else to go by. However, on another level, Frédéric partly realizes that he would be disappointed by a complete image of her, that that would shatter his dream. Thus he (and hence the narrative) focus on the superficial details on which he imposes special significance as a substitute for truly possessing her. Madame Arnoux’s objects as they exist in the narrative serve less to delineate her character than to express Frédéric’s insistence on the romantic notion of her. Even his fantasies of her are replete with physical details of her dress, while her true character remains an abstract ideal. Her clothes and possessions become fetishes that Frédéric humanizes. Once humanized, they acquire a cult of personality that distracts both the readers and Frédéric himself from discovering the truly human traits of Madame Arnoux. Flaubert presents an ultimate irony in romanticism – Frédéric loves Madame Arnoux because she fulfills his ideal of pure love, but his reliance on ideals creates an impersonal and detached gulf between them as well as in his other romantic relationships. In the end, he is exhausted, disappointed, and alone. When Madame Arnoux comes to visit him years later, he does not sleep with her, fearful of destroying the last vestiges of her ideal.

Frédéric Moreau and the Effect of Disaffection

Henry James wrote of A Sentimental Education, {Flaubert} takes Frédéric Moreau on the threshold of life and conducts him to the extreme of maturity without apparently suspecting for a moment either our wonder or our protest – ‘Why, why him?’ Frédéric is positively too poor for his charge; and we feel with a kind of embarrassment, certainly with a kind of compassion, that it is somehow the business of a protagonist to prevent in his designer an excessive waste of faith.He spoke harshly, but with no little authority on the subject; his own The Portrait of a Lady takes Isabel Archer from this ‘threshold’ to, if not quite the ‘extreme of maturity’, then to a point which serves the same novelistic purpose. As, at the end of Sentimental Education, the reader understands that Frédéric’s novelistic life, his potential to drive a narrative, (his limited potential, as James might see it), is over, so the reader is given to understand the same of Isabel at the end of Portrait. In considering James’ evaluation of Frédéric’s worthiness as a protagonist, one cannot deny that the basis of his criticism is valid; Frédéric is the “abject human specimen” James says he is, and there are times in the novel when we do want to ask, “Why him?”. But we must also ask whether Flaubert was not fully conscious of his hero’s pathetic nature, and whether the placement of such a character at the center of his novel was not an utterly intentional, and perhaps ultimately brilliant, stroke of authorship. This question, and the comparison of two bildungsromans with two such contrasting heroes, leads to the interesting and more fundamental question of the function of a reader’s relationship to the protagonist in the scheme and effect of the novel.Why do these two novels, so similar in their essential dealing with the unrealized promise of youth deliver such different results upon the reader’s imagination? This is answered easily enough: because the reader never feels about Frédéric the way he does about Isabel. The question, then, becomes not only how, but to what end, do Flaubert and James present their protagonists so differently. Our introduction to Frédéric is disconcertingly unceremonious; “… A long-haired man of eighteen…” stands on a boat gazing into the distance, “… and soon, as Paris was lost to view, he heaved a deep sigh…”(p.15). Flaubert has already confounded certain of the reader’s expectations. One feels that a subject should rather more commandingly burst on to the scene; instead, Frédéric’s first expression is one of ennui – he seems utterly indifferent to the novel’s burden of concentration.In James, our introduction to the main character is more conventional. Isabel seems from the first to do justice to the reader’s interest. Not only is she “unexpectedly pretty”(p.70), (already the reader’s eye is activated, riveted), but “… she was looking at everything, with an eye that denoted clear perception…”(p.70); she certainly seems worthier of a novel’s scrutiny and concentration. And at the risk of over-interpretation, one can’t help but note even upon her first entrance, that she has “… suddenly acquired a remarkable air of property…”(p.70) not only of Ralph’s friendly dog, to which the phrase directly refers, but of the novel’s, and the reader’s, attention. We know little more of Frédéric than that he is bored and restless, before he has a glimpse of Madame Arnoux, and is plunged into a subdued frenzy of desire. In his reaction to this ‘vision'(p.18), the reader senses the high drama, the unrestrained romanticism, that will be the fount of his eternal discontent. The next few pages are dotted with his melodramatic musings: “… He had never seen anything to compare with her…”(p.18); “… The longer he gazed at her, the more conscious he became of abysses opening up between the two of them…”(p.20); “… His world had suddenly grown bigger…”(p.22); “… She was the point of light on which all things converged…”(p.22). In a pattern that will become familiar, even to the point of the reader’s frustration, Frédéric’s explosive (but wholly internalized) emotions are inflamed only to subside into disappointed bitterness. “‘What’s the use?’ he said to himself.” (p.22). What is most striking, though, about this first impression of Frédéric’s internal dialogue, is that he expresses himself, even within his own mind, in platitudes. This will become the source of a major disillusionment for the reader; in the world of this novel, no-one communicates in any genuine way; characters speak to each other in dead phrases, devoid of any fire of originality and therefore largely meaningless . The reader’s hope that Frédéric, as the subject of the novel, will prove worthier of our interest than the people around him demands that he recognize, loathe, and rise above the prevalence of this banal language. “… if [Frédéric] himself can communicate with the people shown us as surrounding him this only proves him of their kind.” ; once again Flaubert confounds our expectation – Frédéric’s language is just as dead as everyone else’s.For all this though, Flaubert, in these opening pages, makes sure to deny the reader grounds enough to dismiss Frédéric as simply pathetic. “Madame Moreau harbored lofty ambitions for her son.”(p.23), and the reader is invited to do the same, indeed by all worldly standards, he seems to be a young man full of promise. “His success at Sens College justified her confidence in him; he had carried off first prize.”(p.23) It would be absurd to imply that worldly achievement should be by any means the sole basis on which to judge a protagonist’s merit, but the indication here of Frédéric’s potential, as he prepares to seek a life for himself, is not without importance. On the contrary, this knowledge of his supposed potential initiates our frustration as the novel progresses and we, with increasing appetite, await the end of the expository preamble, and the beginning of a story. James writes: “… [the book] reminds us… more than anything, of a huge balloon, all of silk pieces strongly sewn together and patiently blown up, but that absolutely refuses to leave the ground…” . Upon Frédéric’s arrival in Paris, there begins a series of false starts; he half-heartedly throws himself down various avenues, none of which lead him anywhere. His ?momentous call'(p.30) on M. Dambreuse comes to nothing as does his brief stint at Law School and his visit to Arnoux’ shop to “…wait for [Mme. Arnoux] to appear…”(p.33). In a passage that is, on the novel’s part, undeniably self-referential, he even begins to write a novel with himself and Mme. Arnoux as the central characters; soon “discouraged”(p.36), he abandons it. Frédéric again and again expends flurries of unfocussed energy on endeavors that come to no fruition, and as Frédéric’s feeling of ‘aimlessness'(p.36) grows, so does the reader’s. The best point of departure in examining the individual attitudes these two writers have towards their subjects is the common ground; aside from the basic correspondence of their position on the ‘threshold of life’, there are ostensible similarities between Frédéric and Isabel that highlight the differences between their creators’ objectives and methods. Both of these young characters cherish literary visions of themselves. Frédéric likens Madame Arnoux to “the women in romantic novels”(p.22) and imagines “extraordinary dangers from which he would rescue her”(p.37), in the grand manner of chivalric tales. Isabel similarly sees herself as the heroine of a narrative, “… a character in search of its plot…” . “It appeared to Isabel that the unpleasant had been even too absent from her knowledge, for she had gathered from her acquaintance with literature that it was often a source of interest and even of instruction.”(p.87). Her vague but high expectations from the life she embarks upon when she sails for England manifest as a lust for experience, her abstract notion of which is largely drawn from books. This common compulsive self-dramatization bears very differently upon the two characters’ portraits. Frédéric’s romantic vision of his own life paralyses him, whereas Isabel’s becomes almost negligible in the presence of her over-arching superiority of mind; ultimately she is presented as driven by something more vital than the day-dreams of romantic literary fantasy, whereas, Frédéric’s “poverty of consciousness” renders his paralysis terminal.The second similarity between the two characters is their egotism. Madame Moreau might harbor “lofty ambitions for her son”(p.23), but the reader soon becomes aware that Frédéric harbors for himself the loftiest ambitions of all. By virtue of a self-designated superiority, he considers himself entitled to all the great things in life: “He considered that the happiness which his nobility of soul deserved was slow in coming.”(p.16); “… it seemed to him that he deserved to be loved…”(p.36). He speaks with an unwieldy, (and highly volatile), confidence of the “treasure within him”(p.29), and, when walking the crowded boulevards, his “knowledge that he was worth more than these men”(p.75) comforts him in his dejection.Isabel is also “liable to the sin of self-esteem”(p.104): “… she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature… she treated herself to occasions of homage… Altogether, with her meagre knowledge, her inflated ideals, her confidence at once innocent and dogmatic, her temper at once exacting and indulgent, her mixture of curiosity and fastidiousness, of vivacity and indifference, her desire to look very well and to be if possible even better, her determination to see, to try, to know, her combination of the delicate, desultory, flame-like spirit and the eager and personal creature of conditions: she would be an easy victim of scientific criticism if she were not intended to awaken on the reader’s part an impulse more tender and more purely expectant.” (p.105)James, in presenting this information about his heroine so conditionally, (we are not to let any of it interfere with our ‘tenderness’ or ?expectancy’, indeed James makes this an impossibility), he establishes his role as her constant advocate; because the author is so firmly behind her, so is the reader. Flaubert, on the other hand, commits Frédéric to the page and washes his hands of him, abandoning him, to an unsettling degree, to the reader’s discrimination. This sense that Frédéric is without his creator’s total endorsement is an odd one for the reader, initiating an ever widening disparity between his own feeling of entitlement and the reader’s sense of his worth, and compounding the mounting uneasiness we might be feeling at his (and the novel’s) apparent lack of direction. It is exactly this uneasiness that James cited as the great failure of Flaubert’s novel. And yet, I would suggest that it is precisely this uneasiness that makes for the novel’s unexpected genius. In a way that was unconventional, (even radical), yet undeniably and powerfully effective, Flaubert, by engendering in us this kind of searching restlessness, initiates the reader into Frédéric’s experience. We embark upon Sentimental Education in much the same way that Frédéric embarks upon his life; our expectations at the ‘threshold’ of the novel are confounded in the same way that Frédéric’s expectations of the world are disappointed. Moreover, we read this novel in the same way that Frédéric moves through life, with a kind of furious but effete over-anticipation, with the resultant disillusionment at so much wasted attention. Frédéric becomes for the reader what Madame Arnoux is for Frédéric – an elusive agent of fulfillment, the figure upon whom we pin all hope for justification and meaning, and who disappoints at every turn. The afore-mentioned lack of support or mediation with which Flaubert treats his protagonist is thus not only justified, but can be seen as necessary; while the reader might feel anxious at the hands of Frédéric, it is imperative that the writer separate himself from his feckless hero in order to maintain his authority – if we felt uneasy in the hands of Flaubert himself, the book would be a failure. Since neither Sentimental Education, nor Portrait can be said to be a failure, it remains to examine how these mutually antithetical protagonists serve the objectives of their respective creators: Flaubert “want[ed] to write the moral history, or rather the sentimental history, of the men of my generation” ; James’ conception on the other hand began with “… the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particularly engaging young woman, to which all of the usual elements of a ‘subject’… were to be super-added…” James condemns Flaubert’s excessive ‘faith’ in an undeserving subject, but the reader would argue that his faith was not in his subject at all, but rather in his subject’s function within the novel, his ability to capture the disaffection of an era. James’ faith on the other hand is all in his heroine, and the novel becomes in a sense a means of exhibition. The result of James’ unwavering, (and therefore ultimately persuasive), faith in his heroine, manifesting itself throughout the novel in the richness and fine hyper-responsiveness of her mind, is that the end of Portrait, while disturbing and even heart-rending, has a redemptive note. In his essay on James’ 1908 revision of Portrait, Anthony J. Mazzella writes, “… the basis of [Isabel’s] anxiety is a fear that the freedom constituted by the clear conduct of her consciousness may be annihilated by sexual possession…” ; in having her once again, (and, we sense, for the last time), refuse Caspar Goodwood and return to her punitive life in Rome, James ensures not only the prevalence of this ‘consciousness’, but its ultimate liberation. The end of Flaubert’s novel, on the other hand, illicits a palpable feeling of pervading emptiness. The reader understands that Frédéric has been and will remain always but a poor witness to his own life; we cannot help but discern a hollowness, a kind of bottomless despair in his last words to Deslauriers, when he looks back on an arbitrary moment from their past and declares it “the happiest time [they] ever had”(p.419). It is a stunning move on Flaubert’s part that the episode in question, the moment Frédéric, in his disillusioned middle years, remembers as the happiest of his life, is one that is not included in the novel; after having spent four-hundred pages with him, we are able enough to project on to the extra-textual episode the tortured humiliation the young Frédéric must have felt as he fled the brothel in a moment of virginal panic, a moment he now proclaims an elegiac longing for. We also know him well enough to understand that he has wasted years of his life trying to obtain a future to align with the loftiest of his dreams; now that he is no longer at the ‘threshold’ looking forward, he has no where to cast his dreaming, idealizing eyes but back, and not just into his past, but even beyond the narrative bounds of the novel. Thus excluded from the last scene, we are in a sense abandoned to Frédéric’s fate, looking back with longing to a time that never existed. There is a way in which Sentimental Education, so utterly devoid of transcendence or redemptive spirit, chillingly effects the reader in a much deeper way, resonates in a much darker place than The Portrait of a Lady. Finally, we see that Isabel has learned what the novel had to teach her; Frédéric has not, and the brutal ‘sentimental education’ is ours.