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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 possess Madame Arnoux and truly know her, transfixes his desire and obsession to her objects. Clothing, as it exists in the real world, is not even skin-deep, and in this case, instead of characterizing or reflecting its owner, presents an obstacle to knowing her true character. The narrative reflects Frédéric’s desire in the overemphasis on Madame Arnoux’s clothing and ornaments, undermining its sense of traditional realism.
For the most part, Madame Arnoux appears in the novel in one of two different, but not entirely distinct, modes of dress. One pale colored, the other dark, her dress provides two images of her person- one, radiant, maternal, angelic; the other modest, secretive, domestic. As both are equally unattainable to Frédéric, the objects that define her (outwardly, as it may be) are the same ones that Frédéric fetishizes.
From his first encounter with Madame Arnoux, the reader gets a sense of Frédéric’s point of view, his romantic idealization of the heroine robed in light colors:
“She had on a wide-brimmed hat whose pink ribbons fluttered behind her in the wind. Parted in the middle, her black hair curved round the tip of her arched eyebrows and swept down very low as if lovingly framing her oval face. The voluminous folds of her pale spotted muslin dress flared out all around her. She was working on a piece of embroidery; her straight nose, her chin, her whole body, was silhouetted against the airy blue background”
Similarly, during an accidental encounter later on in the novel, Flaubert again evokes the imagery of light:
“She was bathed in sunlight; and her oval face, her arched eyebrows, her black lace stole clinging to her shoulders, her dove-grey shot-silk dress, the posy of violets in the corner of her poke-bonnet, everything about her seemed extraordinary and magnificent.”
Frédéric beholds Madame Arnoux as an apparition, radiant and otherworldly, a symbol of perfection, beauty, and pure love. As soon as he first sees her, his poetic yearnings have found a purpose, as he later on a carriage ride home dedicates his life to her: “She looked exactly like the women in romantic novels…he surrendered to his dreams of never-ending bliss.” He calls her hair black and attributes her darker skin to some exotic lineage, “from Andalusia or possibly from the West Indies.”
Frédéric’s romanticized view of Madame Arnoux contrasts sharply with Deslauriers’ description upon first sighting her: “medium height, brown hair…not bad, nothing special.” Frédéric willingly and irrationally conveys all manners of virtues upon her based upon her outward appearance. He is able to elevate her to a level of imaginary sublimity because he is unable or perhaps unwilling to subject her to more realistic or non-superficial scrutiny. Thus, Frédéric’s idea of her is inextricably bound to her exterior attributes and effects- her eyes, her hair, her clothing.
These personal but mundane objects of Madame Arnoux are closely tied with Frédéric’s impression of her. Going back to his first interaction with Madame Arnoux during the boat ride to Nogent, he notices that her “long purple-striped shawl dangled over the brass handrail behind her back,” and immediately wonders about the object, “how often, on damp evenings during long sea voyages, she must have wrapped it round her, covered her feet with it, even slept in it!” Later as well, Frédéric imagines her on exotic journeys, and his fantasies are always accompanied by some mental image of her dress or ornaments:
“…his mind reached back to embrace her even in centuries gone by, he would replace the figures in the picture by Her; with a hennin on her head, she’d be kneeling in prayer behind a lead-light window; in her castle in Flanders or the Castillas, she’d be sitting in starched ruff and whalebone bodice with immense puff-sleeves. Then she’d be walking down some splendid porphyry stairway, surrounded by senators, beneath a baldachin of ostrich feathers, in a brocaded gown. At other times he dreamed of her in yellow pantaloons…”
Frédéric cannot separate the idea of Madame Arnoux from her physical description. The details of her exterior appearance are real enough, but her true identity remains an abstraction. Thus her possessions, both fantastical and real, do not contribute in forming a realistic portrait of Madame Arnoux; their detailed descriptions are merely manifestations of Frédéric’s obsession with her ideal. Perhaps a most telling passage suggests the inseparability of the ideal of her with her clothing:
“One thing which surprised him was that he didn’t feel jealous of Arnoux and her innate modesty seemed so strong, relegating her sex to some shadowy secret background, that he could never picture her undressed.”
Later on, when they begin their romantic encounters, he recounts to Madame Arnoux the permanence of his earlier visions of her, revealing in effect his preoccupation with imaginary ideals:
“He would tell her of his dreary school-days and his poetic dreams, filled with the radiant vision of a woman’s face which he’d recognized the moment he’d seen her.
Usually they’d talk only about the years since they’d been seeing each other regularly. He would remind her of unimportant details, the colour of her dress on certain occasions…”
This preoccupation with physical details is also present when Madame Arnoux, mindful and perhaps even relishing Frédéric’s obsession “gave him a pair of her gloves and, the week after, her handkerchief.” This, perhaps, is the manifestation of Frédéric’s idealized love- the possession of her personal items substitute for the possession of her.
As Frédéric’s desire for Madame Arnoux is substituted for by her personal effects, these objects become humanized:
“[Frédéric] loved anything connected with Madame Arnoux- her furniture, her servants, her house, her street…for him her comb, her gloves, her rings, were something utterly special, as remarkable as any work of art, possessing a personality of their own that was almost human; and all these things were wrapping themselves round his heart and fuelling his passion”
His love for her is transposed to an overemphasis on her belongings. However, with the humanization of objects comes the possibility of their death, as is illustrated towards the end of the novel at the auction of Madame Arnoux’s possessions:
“When Frédéric came in, the petticoats, scarves, handkerchiefs and even the shifts were being passed round from hand to hand for scrutiny; ever so often, they’d be tossed over to someone else and something white would suddenly flash through the air. Next her dresses were sold, then one of her hats with a broken feather dangling down, then her furs, then three pairs of bootees; seeing all these relics of her doled out in bits and pieces, where he could still vaguely sense the shape of parts of her body, seemed to him like a sort of atrocity, as if vultures were tearing pieces off her corpse.”
As these personal items become separated from its owner, they become devoid of meaning, empty. Madame Arnoux is still alive, but the grotesque act of partitioning her personal and humanized effects signifies disintegration and death and irretrievable loss.
From the beginning of the novel, when he saves Madame Arnoux’s shawl from falling off the boat, Frédéric is filled with youthful romantic expectation. At that point, he becomes the hero, though we are not exactly sure why; the event is insignificant to all but him as he refuses to see any event out of the context of his own life. The narrative reflects Frédéric’s subjectivity, although it is always tempered by irony, imposing a tension between experience and reality. The subjectivity detracts from the novel’s realism in the traditional sense; the narrative descriptions and details regarding characters do not always serve to impose a thematic significance on the character, nor does it always enhance the reader’s understanding of her. Flaubert thus undermines the reader’s attempt to view physical descriptions as true reflections of character.
We learn too soon that Frédéric’s expectations are irrational. There is nothing real to look forward to and he clings to ideals, illusions. Thus, through all the detailed descriptions of Madame Arnoux- her features, her clothes, her belongings- the reader learns little of her character. The possibility of discovering her true identity remains cloaked behind Frédéric’s sentimental notions. His desire to escape from mediocrity and the boredom of everyday life compels him to invent the romantic existence for himself, as reality will not humor him. Madame Arnoux becomes the image of his great love and he derives his purpose from her. On one level, as she is often dressed in dark clothes and hidden by shadow, her mystery and inapproachability allow her only to be assessed from the exterior, as Frédéric has nothing else to go by. However, on another level, Frédéric partly realizes that he would be disappointed by a complete image of her, that that would shatter his dream. Thus he (and hence the narrative) focus on the superficial details on which he imposes special significance as a substitute for truly possessing her. Madame Arnoux’s objects as they exist in the narrative serve less to delineate her character than to express Frédéric’s insistence on the romantic notion of her. Even his fantasies of her are replete with physical details of her dress, while her true character remains an abstract ideal. Her clothes and possessions become fetishes that Frédéric humanizes. Once humanized, they acquire a cult of personality that distracts both the readers and Frédéric himself from discovering the truly human traits of Madame Arnoux. Flaubert presents an ultimate irony in romanticism – Frédéric loves Madame Arnoux because she fulfills his ideal of pure love, but his reliance on ideals creates an impersonal and detached gulf between them as well as in his other romantic relationships. In the end, he is exhausted, disappointed, and alone. When Madame Arnoux comes to visit him years later, he does not sleep with her, fearful of destroying the last vestiges of her ideal.
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