A Sentimental Education

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...

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