The first line, and paragraph, of Sentimental Education announces a date, time, and the names of a dock and a ship, with “clouds of smoke pouring from its funnel,” a detail that fills me with dismay, but I will have to hold that thought.
The next paragraph, also a single line, introduces the central artistic device of the novel, the accretion of details separated by semi-colons:
People came hurrying in, out of breath; barrels, ropes and baskets of washing lay about in everybody’s way; the sailors ignored all inquiries; people bumped into one another; the pile of baggage between the two paddle-wheels grew higher and higher…
No hint of whose point of view is represented or why these details are chosen in place of all of the other possibilities. The next line (and also paragraph) does something new:
At last the boat moved off; and the two banks, lined with warehouses, yards, and factories, slipped past like two wide ribbons being unwound.
The novel’s first metaphor! And a good one. When Flaubert wants to be, he is a master of figurative language. How frustrating that, if I understand his method of composition, he spent so much time excising metaphorical language from his fiction. He wrote ‘em then killed ‘em. Aside from ordinary uses of language, there is not a hint of metaphor for another two pages (a “curtain” of “pale poplars” on the shore).
And this from pages that have almost nothing but sensory detail, as when Flaubert writes that “it was the custom in those days to put on one’s oldest clothes for travelling,” and then describes the clothes of the passengers:
Here and there a coffee-stained calico shirt showed under a knitted waistcoat, gilt tie-pins pierced tattered cravats, and trouser-straps were fastened to list slippers. [More clothes] The deck was littered with nutshells, cigar stubs, pear skins, and the remains of sausage-meat which had been brought along wrapped in paper. [More people, more clothes] To get back to his seat, Frédéric pushed open the gate leading to the first-class section of the boat, disturbing a couple of sportsmen with their dogs.
It was like a vision:
At this point, amidst all of this random and perhaps arbitrary detail, callow Frédéric sees and instantly falls for Madame Arnoux and the novel gels. What is the book about? This:
She was wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat, with pink ribbons which fluttered behind her in the wind. Her black hair [a sentence about her hair, another about her dress]. She was busy with a piece of embroidery; and her straight nose, her chin, her whole figure was silhouetted clearly against the background of the blue sky.
Is this not just one more arbitrary list of plain details or even just nouns (“her chin”)? Everything I skipped is more of the same, except that among the details I have chosen to include, there are some that I know have particular artistic significance, that are going to be repeated at key moments all through the novel. To my knowledge the coffee-stains and pear skins are merely incidental detail, atmosphere, so I can set them aside, while the ribbons and dogs I am going to need. Remember that the ribbons first appeared in the metaphor in the third sentence. I think these are the first dogs. These motifs are going to be used by Flaubert to create a hidden pattern of correspondences behind the surface of the novel. My next post, which may not appear for a couple of days, is going to be nothing but ribbons and dogs.
My little howl of frustration in the first sentence of the post come from realizing at that moment that the smoke from the ship’s funnel is the beginning of – the smoke theme? no, how absurd – the feather theme that I completely missed. The link is one of those outstanding but rare metaphors that appears 368 pages later – “the smoke of a railway engine stretched out in a horizontal line, like a gigantic ostrich feather whose tip kept blowing away.” The ostrich feather theme is a sub-theme of the feather theme.
All of this is completely invisible except by chance the first time through the novel. Ford Madox Ford claimed, in a quotation – not even that, a paraphrase, for which I have never seen a real source, so it is likely nonsense – that one has to read Sentimental Education fourteen times to really get it. I am not even close.