Frédéric enjoys Romantic novels and dreams about finding his true love. Early in the novel he falls in love with the older, married Madame Arnoux. He comes from a stable middle-class background and entertains various career ambitions, including law, painting, writing, public speaking, and politics. He is indecisive and noncommittal, frequently planning to improve his life but rarely following through on his plans. He bases many of his decisions on what will get him closer to Madame Arnoux. He also aspires to join Paris's high society and often spends money on expensive clothes and furnishings.
Madame Arnoux is kind, patient, and intelligent. She is devoted to her children. She sings, plays the piano, and enjoys music and entertaining. Her relationship with her husband Arnoux is often troubled, and she finds refuge in Frédéric's company. She returns Frédéric's love but won't leave her husband for him. Towards the end of the novel, Madame Arnoux leaves Paris with her family when her husband gets into legal trouble. She remembers Frédéric as her true love and reunites with him after many years.
Arnoux is gregarious and friendly. He's a cunning swindler, although his victims sometimes pursue legal action. He starts many failed businesses throughout the novel, including an art shop, a pottery factory, and a store that sells religious iconography. He fights for the National Guard during the revolution of 1848. After a devastating lawsuit, he and his family leave Paris.
Sometimes referred to as "the lawyer," Deslauriers is ambitious and pragmatic. He believes he can follow scientific, measurable laws to success. He enjoys power and control in professional and personal relationships. Deslauriers and Frédéric have a jealous, competitive friendship with moments of genuine affection. Deslauriers initially embraces radical socialism and fights in the 1848 revolution. However, he quickly becomes disappointed with the poorly managed provisional government. He eventually marries Louise Roque and works a succession of jobs.