Comparing Flaubert's A Sentimental Education and Henry Jamesâ€™ The Portrait of a Lady Henry James wrote of A Sentimental Education, "[Flaubert] takes FrÃ©dÃ©ric 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?' FrÃ©dÃ©ric 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 Å’threshold' to, if not quite the Å’extreme of maturity', then to a point which serves the same novelistic purpose. As, at the end of Sentimental Education, the reader understands that FrÃ©dÃ©ric'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 FrÃ©dÃ©ric's worthiness as a protagonist, one cannot deny that the basis of his criticism is valid; FrÃ©dÃ©ric is the "abject human specimen" James says he is, and there are times in the novel when we do want to ask, "Why him?". But we must also ask whether Flaubert was not fully conscious of his hero's pathetic nature, and whether the placement of such a character at the center of his novel was not an utterly intentional, and perhaps ultimately brilliant, stroke of authorship. This question, and the comparison of two bildungsromans with two such contrasting heroes, leads to the interesting and more fundamental question of the function of a r... ... his life trying to obtain a future to align with the loftiest of his dreams; now that he is no longer at the Å’threshold' looking forward, he has no where to cast his dreaming, idealizing eyes but back, and not just into his past, but even beyond the narrative bounds of the novel. Thus excluded from the last scene, we are in a sense abandoned to FrÃ©dÃ©ric's fate, looking back with longing to a time that never existed. There is a way in which Sentimental Education, so utterly devoid of transcendence or redemptive spirit, chillingly effects the reader in a much deeper way, resonates in a much darker place than The Portrait of a Lady. Finally, we see that Isabel has learned what the novel had to teach her; FrÃ©dÃ©ric has not, and the brutal Å’sentimental education' is ours. Works Cited James, Henry. A Portrait of a Lady. 1908. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.
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