Sentimental Education

In Sentimental Education (1869), Gustave Flaubert brilliantly describes the revolution of 1848, in which Napoleon III (nephew of the first Napoleon) established himself as emperor in a coup d’état, later confirmed by popular plebiscite. Flaubert the revolution from the point of view of an unsuccessful would-be writer, who misses most of the political action because he is distracted by his pursuit of a love affair with an older, married woman. “Ah, they’re killing off a few bourgeois,” Frédéric Moreau comments nonchalantly, when he hears troops firing on some of the demonstrators.After Napoleon III re-established the Empire and defeated the hopes of the 1848 revolutionaries, a mood of disillusionment with politics dominated intellectual and artistic life in the following decades; this was the first stage of a broader crisis of liberalism.[1] This mood contributed to the alienation between artist and society that had already been implicit in early nineteenth-century romanticism. Flaubert’s contemporary, Charles Baudelaire compared the poet to an albatross, “monarch of the clouds,” who flew gracefully through the air of imagination but whose giant wings interfered with his ability to walk and made him “clumsy and full of shame” when brought down to earth by jeering sailors, Baudelaire’s figure for an uncomprehending public. Like Baudelaire, Flaubert felt compelled to resist the conservative, authoritarian culture of the Second Empire, but resisted it through literary experiment, rather than political action. Later modernist writers, especially those writing in the wake of failed liberal movements, often shared this disillusionment with politics.[2]

  1. ↑ See my introduction to The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism.
  2. ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 38.