Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version

September 1999


Published in Moving Forward, Holding Fast: The Dynamics of Nineteenth-Century French Culture, edited by Barbara T. Cooper and Mary Donaldson-Evans. (Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi, 1997), pp. 81–90. Copyright © 1997 Editions Rodopi B.V. Used by permission.


L’Education sentimentale may be construed as an historical novel at least insofar as it addresses questions of social change and enduring value as they are related to those of history and individual memory. As in Balzac and later in Proust, what is true for the individual applies to society. There is an especially Flaubertian understanding of movement in society and movement across time that remains tied more to demands of diegetic coherence than to laws of historical necessity, however. Singulative narration as it appears in the novel is a kind of smoke screen hiding a more pervasive iteration whereby the recounting of events and perception of events spring from an identical understanding of time. Yet, there is more to it than purely narratological concerns. Neither historical nor psychological (as that term might be understood, as in Proust, to describe a dynamism), time for Flaubert is an affective by-product of events filtered through conscious memory. To be sure, time as an external agent of change does exist; Mme Arnoux’s hair will turn grey, after all. What matters more than this, though, is the sense of time generated by the accumulation of events. To better understand this relationship, we will focus on Flaubert’s representation of social dynamism that has as its backdrop and point of comparison the social dynamism portrayed in La Comédie humaine and particularly the works of the early to mid-1830s. Flaubert, of course, is explicit in this, and it has often been pointed out that, with Le Père Goriot especially, Balzac provides one of the principal intertexts for L’Education sentimentale. Notwithstanding the excellent critical studies already devoted to the topic of Flaubert and, Balzac, the backdrop remains an instructive one, not only for the purposes of dramatic irony, characterization and narrative voice, but because Balzac’s understanding of value in modern society as tied to social expression does not hold in narrative time, at least not as understood by Flaubert. We will first have a look at Flaubert’s early use of Balzac in a context of parody, and then sketch out how parody develops into the deeper thematic concern of repetition as cliche and its translation into an idiom of time, memory and affect.