I recently read Peter Brook’s book Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris: The Story of a Friendship, a Novel and a Terrible Year. The book provides a fascinating account of the composition and the literary and wider political history of Gustave Flaubert’s 1869 novel Sentimental Education. Brook’s book led me to return to Flaubert’s difficult literary classic at least 30 years after first reading it. This time, I inevitably focussed on different aspects of the work and was rewarded with a rich experience. One should of course turn to Brooks’ intriguing account only after reading Sentimental Education itself.
For me, a minor character, Dussardier, offers one of the few glimmers of hope for a somewhat brighter future.The novel focusses on a rather hapless, albeit somewhat sympathetic, protagonist, Frederic Moreau. Frederic tries and tries but fails in fulfilling his various dreams. He fails because he is too passive at critical moments and really lacks the resolute character that would be required to find genuine success and happiness. The setting is shortly before and during the revolutionary events of 1848 in and around Paris, France. The novel wraps up with a long denouement covering the next two decades.
I want to sketch out a few key themes that struck me and convinced me of the great significance the novel possesses for us today.
Much of the novel focusses on Frederic’s relationships, particularly his romantic entanglements. The great love of his life is a married woman, Madame Arnoux. His love for her is unrequited, at least in any meaningful sense. Throughout his relentless pursuit of Madame Arnoux, he has a succession of mistresses. Running parallel to the plot of Frederic’s romantic affairs are important political and social aspirations, held by many of his friends and acquaintances.
The novel is a full-bodied account of a generation, as it aims to significantly reform the France of the Second Republic in the years leading up to the 1848 revolution. Flaubert skillfully develops the theme of failure in relationships with the theme of failure of a generation to achieve its political and social goals. At the end, all seems to be for naught. Society is resistant to the well-meaning efforts of socialists and liberals to bring about a properly functioning democracy. And indeed, by novel’s end, the conservative forces of reaction and repression command the field.
At various points in the novel, Frederic’s friends attend meetings and clubs, such as the Club de I’Intelligence in Rue Saint-Jacques. Vigorous debates on the best way to advance a radical change in the declining France of the day take place. Worker’s rights, an enhanced role for women and the end of the death penalty are all proclaimed as necessary for the building of the good and just society. One persistent goal is that of universal suffrage. A country built on the goal of equality – and the removal of all previous efforts at disenfranchisement and exclusion – is at the heart of a modern democracy. While a worthy goal, Flaubert is attentive to the various ways in which divisions can materialize in society – both between left and right, and within a progressive movement of liberals, anarchists and socialists.
The novel is a full-bodied account of a generation, as it aims to significantly reform the France of the Second Republic in the years leading up to the 1848 revolution.We can focus though on Frederic’s relations with two different friends: Charles Deslauriers and Dussardier.
Deslauriers is Frederic’s law classmate, close friend and sometimes foe. Both have come to Paris to study law with a goal of making a name for themselves in a highly competitive world, whether in the fields of law, politics or art. But the training the two friends have received equips them to develop a series of well-considered positions on the right to vote and its role in forging a democratic society.
Neither of the two friends proves to have all that impressive a career in the law. However, they are afforded the opportunity to pronounce on the ways in which reformers can use the law to advance a progressive agenda. In thinking through the indispensable aspects of modern liberal democracies, it is important to bear in mind that the right to vote, as conceived in contemporary Canadian legal circles, involves far more than the bare ability of each person to cast a vote every 4 years or so. Our Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed that denying a person a meaningful right to vote detracts from their dignity and sense of self-worth. The right protects the ability of each citizen to play a meaningful role in the electoral process. It further includes the idea that all citizens should have a voice in the deliberations of government and have the opportunity to bring their concerns to their governmental representative. These potentially radical democratic ideas help the reader appreciate the efforts of the characters in Sentimental Education to achieve a wider suffrage in their society.
Despite their eloquence and their relatively privileged position in society, Frederic and Charles, in their separate ways, both largely fail to put forth a convincing vision of the inclusive nation they wish to construct. Frederic, in keeping with his irresolute character, is easily defeated and disillusioned by his attempts to gain an audience. This is marvellously captured in a scene in Part Three. At the Club de I’Intelligence, his radical friend Dussardier sponsors Frederic to give a major presentation. Frederic attempts to present again and again. A harsh and puritanical chairperson, who considers Frederic lacking in “man of the people “credentials (too much the bourgeoisie), first shuts him down. Frederic makes one last effort to give his carefully rehearsed speech but is surprised when a young Spaniard jumps up, rolls his eyes and energetically offers a speech in Spanish. Frederic’s efforts to interject lead the dictatorial chair to rule him out of order. Frederic leaves the Club in total dejection. Rather than considering how best to advance his position, he takes a meagre comfort by dining with his mistress and largely retreats from the playing field.
Running parallel to the plot of Frederic’s romantic affairs are important political and social aspirations, held by many of his friends and acquaintances.Flaubert leaves the reader with a pessimistic reflection on the immense difficulties of making progress in a world lacking in any genuine sense of fraternity and vulnerable to counter-attack. However, we cannot leave it there if we continue to have faith. For me, a minor character, Dussardier, offers one of the few glimmers of hope for a somewhat brighter future. Frederic encounters this shop assistant and deliveryman at various points. Early in the tale, Frederic and other law students see an uprising in the streets (the first stirrings of what will become a full-blown revolution). A policeman strikes a heavy blow at a young child, sending him sprawling. Dussardier defends the lad and knocks the officer to the ground. He is arrested. Dussardier is described as a “sort of Hercules, whose hair, like a bundle of hemp, spilled out from under an oilcloth cap”. Frederic and Charles assist Dussardier and encourage him to join a loose alliance of progressive figures who hope to make a difference.
I will leave other scenes of note for the reader to discover in the vivid and exacting realist style that Flaubert offers. (The new translation by Helen Constantine in the Oxford World’s Classics edition is lively and scrupulously accurate.)
As 2020 shapes up to be a time when autocrats grow stronger and the modern democratic model appears wobblier than ever, Flaubert’s overriding pessimism may become a common sentiment. Yet we need radical democrats as well. While their voices are in danger of being drowned out by noisy reactionary figures, they remain our last and brightest hope. Perhaps Dussardier’s efforts may not have been in vain after all.