A Sentimental Education

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...

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