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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The journey home: Thoughts on first chapter of Sentimental Education

Started re-reading Flaubert's great (greatest?) novel Sentimental Education, possibly the 3rd time?, though had not looked at it for many years - and I'm hoping to post on each chapter or group of chapters as I read this novel once again - a young man's novel in many ways - story of a coming of age, of the years just after college and the young man trying to find his place in the world, live up to family expectations, and fulfill his own desires, sexual, social, and artistic. SE begins like many novels with a young man taking a journey, but the twist and surprise is he's not setting off on adventure, not setting out to see the world, but he's heading home. He boards a little river steamship on the Seine, and it takes a few paragraphs before we recognize that he's leaving Paris and heading upstream, going home for the summer. He's just graduated from college, where he excelled, and is planning to study for the bar - but this trip home is to meet family obligations. His mother lives well, she's from an historic French family, but she's been widowed since childbirth - the young man never knew his father, which become significant - and tries to live frugally, which of course puts greater pressure on the young man to succeed: family expects him to serve in high government office some day. He has just visited a wealthy relative whom his mother hopes will support him in some way, but the young man is mum and indifferent on this score; we sense his reluctance to buy into any of the family expectations. Most important, on the boat ride up the Seine he meets a 40-something Parisian businessman who owns and art studio and publishing house, and he's immediately taken with the "father figure," who seems to represent an alternate career path. Equally important, he spies a beautiful woman alone on the boat - later learns she is the man's wife and other of a young girl - and he is entirely smitten: as if he's seen a vision, Flaubert notes. The beauty is obvious, but what else draws him immediately to this woman? She is "exotic," he thinks maybe biracial (Creole), and also she is "taken," unavailable - do we see an Oedipal theme here? Or a young man pursuing the unobtainable, perhaps to strike a new course in life or perhaps to prevent himself from achieving a goal that would disrupt family expectations? The entire voyage up the Seine is a classic example of naturalistic description of landscape and scene; students could learn much from studying F's use of detail and sensory images - and simple sentence structure. The idea of a journey novel beginning w/ a journey toward rather than away from home. Unusual, though the Odyssey may be a similar example, In contemporary culture, his journey is something like journey home after college in The Graduate.

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