Monday, September 28, 2015

Flaubert's dogs and ribbons - The dog’s barking went on

Ribbons and dogs in Sentimental Education.  Flaubert drops them into his novel frequently.  I have mentioned several examples of both.  A river bank is like “two wide ribbons,” the protagonist Frédéric disturbs a “couple of sportsmen with their dogs” before, in the next sentence, first seeing and falling instantly in love with Madame Arnoux.  The pink ribbons of her hat are the second detail in her description (the first is the hat).  Then her hair, her dress, her sewing (the character’s motif), and finally her face.  Four pages later, while Frédéric is walking home, I find the next dog, and perhaps also the next ribbon.

A broad, deep-red band of colour lit up the western sky.  Huge corn-ricks, standing in the midst of the stubble, cast gigantic shadows.  A dog started barking on a distant farm.  He shivered, seized with a nameless anxiety.  (Pt. 1, Ch. 1)

It is entirely natural to mention ribbons when describing the attire of French women at this time, just as it is natural to plop in a dog or two now and then.  But as much as Flaubert is known for his sensory descriptions, what he mostly does is omit the scenery.  He just picks out a few things, the things he is going to use and reuse.

The ribbons, real and metaphorical, connect Frédéric’s women.  This time, the courtesan Rosanette:

At last they would come back by the Arc de Triomphe and the great avenue, drinking in the air, with the stars above them, and all the gas-lamps down to the end of the vista lined up like a double string of luminous pearls.

Frédéric always had to wait for her when they were going out; she spent ages arranging the two ribbons on her bonnet round her chin; and she would smile at herself in her wardrobe mirror.  (Pt. 3, Ch.3)

The water metaphor is repeated with Rosanette, too.  “The sun shone on the cascade, and the greenish stones of the little wall over which the water was flowing seemed to be covered by a never-ending ribbon of silver gauze” (Pt. 2, Ch. 5).  There is at least one more of these (“the dusty paths looking like greyish ribbons,” 3,4).  I have not sorted out the colors, but it looks like there is a scheme.

The third (or fourth) of his women is Madame Debreuse, a wealthy married woman.  From the moment of seduction:

Madame Debreuse closed her eyes and he was astonished at the ease of his victory.  The tall trees in the garden, which had been rustling gently, stood still.  Motionless clouds streaked the sky with long red ribbons, and the whole universe seemed to have come to a standstill.  Then a vague memory occurred to him of other evenings like this, with similar silence.  Where could it have been?...  (3,3, ellipses in original)

Once I looked for it, I was not surprised to find a dog earlier in this scene, although an imaginary one.  Rosanette has an actual pair of dogs, which are pulled into the plot at one point.  Madame Arnoux is associated with the dog in the distance.  The barking dog mentioned above, and Frédéric’s nameless anxiety, are on, roughly, page 7 of the novel.  It is 270 pages later, and the point of view moves to Madame Arnoux:

… she had dreamt that she had been standing for a long time on the pavement in the Rue Tronchet.  She was waiting there for something indefinite yet important, and without knowing why, she was afraid of being seen.  But a horrible little dog which had taken a dislike to her was worrying at the hem of her dress.  It kept coming back to her and barked louder and louder.  Madame Arnoux awoke.  The dog’s barking went on.  She strained her ears.  The noise was coming from her son’s bedroom.  (2,6)

The scene is one of the moral pivots of the novel, a turning point for Mme Arnoux and in consequence Frédéric, foreshadowed in the first few pages of the book in a passage that might make a reader shiver once he knows what Flaubert is doing.

Next I will try to make Sentimental Education look a bit less like a word association puzzle.


  1. If you want to enjoy a Flaubert excursion, try Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot. Great literary fun.

  2. That is a good idea. I have been meaning to read that book for 25 years. I have even read the first chapter, which was printed on its own in Granta for some reason.

    1. Enjoy! The allusions and narrative are quite fascinating.

  3. How fascinating. I had noticed neither the dogs nor the ribbons. I'll need to read this novel again.

    Generally, I fond I am drawn to works in which powerful emotions and passions are strongly projected. (That's a comment on me, not anything else.) And I have never quite worked out why this novel fascinates me so, despite being the very opposite of everything I tend to value most. As I say, I'll need to read this again.

  4. And look out for the smoke and feathers, especially those ostrich feathers. And there is also a color scheme, I am 80% sure of that. 60% sure. I don't know.

    I have not mentioned your post on Flaubert's novel because it is all characters and ethics, which I am pretty much ignoring. Maybe I will find a place for it today. Your post is certainly proof that the novel can be read the way you read it.