A Sentimental Education

Frédéric Moreau and the Effect of Disaffection

March 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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