“Great Expectations” and “L’Education Sentimentale”

Authors are often drawn to the story of growing up, and its not hard to see why. For one thing, this is one area where everyone may write from their own experience; and this naturally attracts lesser writers who lack imagination to enter the minds of those very unlike themselves. But many writers of quality also find themselves drawn to this theme. Some are unashamedly autobiographical e.g. Wordsworth in The Prelude, the first part of which describes how the poet had rejected various grandiose themes for the one that interested him most – himself. Others are more loosely autobiographical. But one suspects that there are reasons for the popularity of this theme beyond mere self-regard.

For one thing, the growing-up story allows the author to explore the theme of developing perceptions. It also allows the author to explore the values of the world, of the society in which the protagonists are expected to take their rightful part. It offers the author the opportunity to view the world, as it were, afresh, and contemplate the very nature of life itself.

We find all of these, and more, in two remarkable novels written within a few years of each other in the 1860s: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and L’Education Sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert. Dickens and Flaubert were, temperamentally speaking, poles apart, and the two novels, as may be expected, are very different in all sorts of ways. But beyond the differences, what is remarkable are the similarities. The titles may quite easily be exchanged: Flauberts protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, certainly has great expectations, while Dickens’ Pip undergoes a sentimental education. The plot elements are also remarkably similar. In each case, a protagonist who has little to look forward to beyond a dull, mediocre future unexpectedly receives a legacy; and in both cases, they set out to enter society, with all sorts of dreams of what the future holds for them. Both act foolishly, and even meanly; and for both of them, the dreams collapse, leaving merely disillusion. There are further similarities: both protagonists invest the best part of themselves in love for a woman – a love that is destined from the start to be unconsummated; and in both novels, long after the main action, the protagonists meet once again, in scenes of almost unbearable poignancy, the objects of their still unquenched passion. And both novels end with a clear-eyed picture of the lives that we lead, and with a great sadness that things must be so.

Although Great Expectations was written earlier, it is very unlikely that Flaubert knew about it. And even if he did, one may hardly accuse him of plagiarism: for all their similarities, the two novels and the two novelists are very different. Dickens’ imagination tended towards the Gothic: the unforgettable description of Miss Havisham in her faded wedding gown, shut away from the sunlight amidst the crumbling remnants of her aborted wedding feast, is perhaps the last great flourish of the Gothic tradition. Flaubert’s outlook tended more towards naturalism, although his insistence on the solidity of the here-and-now barely hides the profound yearnings of a Romantic spirit. Dickens was interested in the moral growth of his protagonist, of the search for values in a society that judges human worth purely in terms of wealth and of social status; Flaubert, on the other hand, focuses on the impossibility of achieving happiness, or even contentment, in a world where moral values are too elusive even to be worth searching for. Pip, eventually, redeems himself morally; in Flaubert’s world, even that is not possible.

But Great Expectations is no mere morality tale. No matter how badly Pip behaves, we suspend our moral judgment because, under the circumstances, it is hard to imagine him behaving otherwise. He longs to be a gentleman for one reason only: Estella. There is nothing to indicate that he enjoys leading the life of a gentleman. When he had been a boy, Estella had referred to him as common, and had expressed distaste for his lowly social status. If Pip is ever to win Estella, he must first become a gentleman; and if he cannot become one, he must remain profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled for the rest of his life. Of course, Pip is not to know then that Estella is incapable even of responding to him, let alone of returning his love. So, when the opportunity to become a gentleman presents itself, and when, further, it seems deliberately designed as a step towards the winning of Estella, Pip, naturally, jumps at it: he could hardly have done otherwise. But there is a terrible twist to it all – a twist I shall not reveal here in case anyone reading this is in the fortunate position of still having a first encounter with this wonderful novel to look forward to. The terrible irony at the heart of the novel is contained in this twist, and it turns all Pip’s expectations to ashes. But it is from this collapse that Pip has to raise himself once more, not in terms of wealth or of social status this time, but in terms more fundamental than that: Pip must redeem himself morally. But there can be no happy ending: the final scene of this novel is uncertain and ambiguous, and leaves Pip’s love for Estella hanging still in the air. Perhaps no other novel has depicted with such immediacy the terrible pain of unrequited love.

We’re in a different world entirely with L’Education Sentimentale. Strictly speaking, it isn’t really a novel about growing up, as its protagonist Frédéric Moreau, is already a young man when we first meet him. But, as the title suggests, he is still to be educated about the realities of life. In the first scene of the novel, he sees for the first time and falls in love with Madame Arnoux, a married woman older than himself. And, through all else that happens, this love, unrequited though it is, stays with him. Indeed, he views it at times with a sort of religious awe, afraid even to push it towards its much desired consummation for fear that this, too, might collapse in disillusion like everything else.

But, apart from his feelings for Madame Arnoux, there is little else to recommend Frédéric to the reader, or to encourage empathy, or even sympathy. Indeed, Flaubert seems to do everything he can to alienate the reader from Frédéric. Frédéric welcomes his legacy because he is too indolent to wish to carve out his own path in life. And once he has the money, he gives himself up to mere hedonism, with little sense of aspiration. He is, further, weak-willed, untrustworthy, selfish, and lacking any sense of purpose or dynamism. He is, in short, lacking virtually any quality we usually consider heroic. The one factor in his favour is his love for Madame Arnoux, that one element of honour and altruism in his character.

There is no sudden revelation here, no dramatic event. (At least, the drama does not occur in the foreground: in the background, we are presented with various political upheavals culminating in the revolution of 1848, and its subsequent collapse. But, with a technique that is as brilliant as it is unobtrusive, Flaubert never allows the background to eat up the foreground.) Above all else, Flaubert presents life as drift: the characters merely drift from year to succeeding year, and this passage of time does not make them wiser: merely older. And even this change creeps upon them imperceptibly. And whatever hope for happiness they may have harboured in their youth comes to nothing, because happiness is not possible. It is a vision of utter futility that would be quite unbearable were it not for the exquisite beauty of the writing, a beauty that survives even translation. But the novel does not leave us with a sense of despair. Rather, it ends on a note of what some may consider gratuitous cynicism. In the very last scene, Frédéric, now in his middle age, is with an old school friend, and they reminisce about the time when, as young teenagers, they had ventured into a local brothel, only to take fright at the last moment and run away. And that, they agree, was the happiest time of all.

What did Flaubert mean by ending this novel on such a cynical note? One would be hard pressed to think of any ending further removed from the heart-aching uncertainty we find at the end of Great Expectations. By my reading, Flaubert seems to be saying that we are at our happiest when we are still to cross the threshold, before we have gone in to taste the pleasures; for, once tasted, we realize only how far from our expectations these pleasures really are. The only true happiness lies in the future, or in the past. It is a deeply pessimistic outlook on life, and it seems to me the pessimism of a yearning Romantic spirit who has realized that there is nothing really to yearn for: the apparent cynicism is really an expression of a deep sorrow.

It is hard to imagine a time when Great Expectations will not be a deeply loved novel. It is equally hard to envisage a time when L’Education Sentimentale will hold a similar place in readers’ affections, although its extraordinary literary qualities will guarantee it at least a small band of devotees. But it may confidently be said, I think, that these two supremely great novels, written only a few years from each other, so similar and yet so different, will continue to be regarded as two of the greatest peaks of the novelist’s art. And those who write semi-autobiographical novels about growing up simply because they find it hard to move beyond contemplation of their own navels would be well advised to read these two novels, if only to learn what masters of the art can make of such themes.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Di on October 31, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    I just want to say that I’ve just finished reading “Sentimental Education”. Sad, but such a beautiful and profound work. Love it.


    • It’s a wonderful novel, isn’t it? And tremendously sad, I think. I don’t really buy this stuff about Flaubert being detached; yes, he was pessimistic about humanity in general, and didn’t have a very high opinion of human capability; but he was also sad that it should be so.


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