Sentimental Education | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Sentimental Education | Part 2, Chapter 2 | Summary



The events in this chapter take place between spring 1846 and February 1847.

Frédéric buys a house and furnishes it with books and expensive decorations. He plans on having a mistress. Eager to join "that vague, glittering, indefinable thing called society," he visits the Dambreuses. He notices Madame Dambreuse's grace and poise with the guests. She invites him back every Wednesday.

Frédéric then visits Rosanette. Rosanette complains about her servants the way the Dambreuses' guests complained about theirs. Mademoiselle Vatnaz stops by Rosanette's with some items she has purchased for her, and the two women discuss Delmar. Mademoiselle Vatnaz makes a cryptic reference to "the Old Man of the Mountain." Rosanette privately tells Frédéric to ask Arnoux to come and see her. She confides in Frédéric she doesn't trust Mademoiselle Vatnaz.

Frédéric goes to the Arnouxs' home the next day. He lies to Madame Arnoux, knowing she admires ambition, and says he is taking a job with Monsieur Dambreuse. As Frédéric leaves, Madame Arnoux calls him "a good and loyal friend."

To show off his wealth, Frédéric invites Hussonnet, Deslauriers, Dussardier, and Cisy to a party. He tells Deslauriers he can bring Sénécal. Sénécal has left his job as a teacher since he doesn't agree with giving students merit-based prizes, and he now works for a machine manufacturer. Sénécal, who has become too radical for Deslauriers's liking, is reading revolutionary texts and hoping for a "virtuous democracy ... in which the individual would exist only to serve the State," much like ancient Sparta.

While Frédéric's other friends are impressed by his new house, Sénécal is disdainful. The friends debate about the treatment of the working classes in France. They discuss French socialist philosophers like Fourier and government issues like a proposed tax increase. Sénécal and Pellerin think France is "the laughing-stock of Europe." Deslauriers feels the government controls everything in France, and he toasts "to the total destruction of the existing order." Dussardier, a passionate advocate for justice, criticizes King Louis-Philippe's treatment of the Poles, and Hussonnet argues with him.

Cisy, bored, changes the subject. Arnoux's name comes up in a discussion. Everyone has heard Arnoux is a corrupt businessman. The group moves on to Frédéric's drawing room. As his friends critique the choices in his library, Frédéric realizes he is tired of all the people he's invited. He repays his debt to Deslauriers, and asks Dussardier if he needs any money. Dussardier politely declines.

Frédéric feels distance growing between himself and his friends. He worries the rumors about Arnoux are true—will Madame Arnoux be left in poverty? The next day he tells Madame Arnoux the rumors. She admits her husband went into debt buying a factory. Arnoux shows up and takes Frédéric to dinner at Rosanette's. Arnoux mentions that Oudry has visited Rosanette too.

In the coming days, Frédéric visits both Rosanette and Madame Arnoux frequently. Rosanette's house is always enjoyable, but she is impulsive and emotional. Madame Arnoux is calm and busy taking care of her children. Frédéric imagines the two women as "two melodies in his life," one playful and one somber. Arnoux is also spending time with both women, even giving them identical presents. Arnoux frequently plays dishonest pranks and defrauds others, but he is generous to his friends. Madame Arnoux is increasingly disturbed by Arnoux's business dealings. Frédéric thinks of ways to make Arnoux jealous. Meanwhile, Frédéric is considering a literary career. He wants to write "a history of aesthetics" and a drama based on the French Revolution.

Deslauriers asks Frédéric to get Sénécal a job, since Sénécal's "inflammatory talk" has gotten him fired, again. Frédéric realizes he can get Sénécal a job working for Arnoux. This way Frédéric can keep track of Arnoux through Sénécal.

When Sénécal and Arnoux's business arrangement doesn't work out, Frédéric decides to keep Arnoux away from his wife. He reminds Arnoux how poorly he treats his mistress Rosanette. The next time Frédéric visits Rosanette, he gives her a cashmere shawl Arnoux bought her. She flirts with Frédéric in front of Delmar and hints she knows Frédéric is in love with Madame Arnoux.

Frédéric is beginning to find Rosanette irritating. He can't tell how she feels about anything, but he's still interested in her "for the pleasure of conquest and domination." He devises a plan: He'll commission Pellerin to paint a portrait of Rosanette for Arnoux. The painting turns out well, and Frédéric tries to tell Rosanette he loves her, but she reveals she wants a richer man, like Oudry.

When Frédéric arrives home, Hussonnet and Deslauriers are waiting for him. They need money for Hussonnet's magazine, L'Art. Frédéric says he has no money, but Deslauriers accuses him of living a lavish lifestyle and keeping a mistress. He also thinks Frédéric has been a bad friend—Frédéric hasn't even introduced Deslauriers to the Dambreuses yet. Frédéric looks at Deslauriers's shabby clothes and gives "a contemptuous smile." Reluctantly, Frédéric gives his friends the money.

Madame Moreau sends Frédéric a letter asking if he's entered a profession yet. Frédéric feels guilty for abandoning his professional ambitions. He finally sees Monsieur Dambreuse, who offers him a job as a Counsel of State official. Three days later, on his way to a party the Dambreuses are throwing, Frédéric receives a note from Rosanette saying she's dumped Oudry.

Frédéric is intimidated by the wealthy, distinguished crowd at the Dambreuses' party. He greets Martinon, who is now working for the Public Prosecutor's office. The guests complain about the lower classes' attempts to organize labor and the lack of respect for the monarchy. The guests all declare that "a republic [is] impossible in France." Frédéric finds himself attracted to Madame Dambreuse but notices her spending time with Martinon.

Monsieur Dambreuse tells Frédéric he'll have to take an examination before he can get the job. Privately, he tells Frédéric to go into business instead of seeking public office. As Frédéric is leaving, Madame Dambreuse tells him to come again. Frédéric is pleased by how well he was received at the party.

Frédéric goes to Rosanette's the next day, but she gestures out the window for him to go away. Mademoiselle Vatnaz tells Frédéric she's just seen Delmar enter Rosanette's house. She adds that Rosanette is stupid and stingy and has slept with plenty of men. Arnoux has taken her back, Mademoiselle Vatnaz adds, but Rosanette always hurts him.

Mademoiselle Vatnaz leads Frédéric to Arnoux's house. She plans to bring Arnoux to catch Rosanette in the act. Frédéric declines and goes up to the Arnouxs' alone. He can hear that the couple is in the middle of a fight. Madame Arnoux comes out and apologizes. The Arnouxs are fighting over a cashmere shawl Arnoux bought. Madame Arnoux found the receipt. Frédéric knows Arnoux bought the shawl for Rosanette, but he doesn't say anything. Arnoux storms out, advising Frédéric never to get married. Madame Arnoux sobs and tells Frédéric that she gives Arnoux plenty of freedom and he didn't need to lie.

Frédéric attempts to defend Arnoux, but all he can think about is how much he loves Madame Arnoux. When Arnoux returns, Frédéric tells him Rosanette has dumped Oudry. Arnoux plans to see Rosanette immediately and apologize. Frédéric points out that he should really stay with his wife, and Arnoux agrees, calling Frédéric "a good fellow."


Frédéric is constantly trying to reinvent himself. He has frequent spurts of inspiration where he pictures the person he wants to be. He begins his "countless plans for work" by spending money to create an image of success. Like a hero in a more typical Bildungsroman, Frédéric is on a journey. He's an outsider trying to gain entrance to an exclusive group. Flaubert describes "society" as a vague, but entrancing concept. The word "glittering" implies riches and promise. A good spot in the social hierarchy means everything in Paris. Frédéric chases the people who have the "it" factor—charm, wealth, or a good reputation.

The Dambreuses seem to be Frédéric's ticket to acceptance. Madame Dambreuse performs the duties of a skilled conversationalist, and Frédéric notices how she uses this skill to her advantage. As an outsider, he can still observe the artificial nature of the conversation, but he's learning what the insiders do.

Rosanette's power comes from being a status symbol. Several men in the novel fight for the status of being her primary lover. Frédéric, hoping to see something more vital and real in her personality, is disappointed when she treats her servants with as much disregard as the Dambreuses did. Rosanette lies constantly, and her friendship and rivalry with Mademoiselle Vatnaz contain more pent-up aggression than Frédéric's own rivalry with Deslauriers. Frédéric is seeing the nastiness under the surface of "society."

Madame Arnoux, by contrast, appears pure and almost otherworldly. Her home is peaceful. A sunbeam "suffused her amber skin with liquid gold." Her eyes look at Frédéric with "infinite kindness." For a moment, Frédéric has moved to what he thinks is nobler behavior, but the book lets the reader know Frédéric won't seek out opportunities to be kind. Charity doesn't come naturally to him; instead, he spends more time with the people he's getting to know in Paris. Almost all of them are using other people somehow. Deslauriers, who likes to be the more powerful party in a friendship, keeps Sénécal around because he hopes to control him.

Sénécal's character is a warning against extremism. He is inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 when the common people overthrew the monarchy. But Sénécal's concept of the ideal state has military overtones, referencing the military city-state of Sparta. Flaubert, through his narrator, makes his ideas about socialist writers clear. He believes their ideas destroy individual expression and "reduce mankind to the level of the barrack room." Sénécal is a comically exaggerated figure, loathing entertainment and only eating crusty bread.

Frédéric has gone to the other extreme, however. He projects the image of opulence with a velvet jacket and a Turkish cigarette. His housewarming party becomes a comedy of manners where he and most of his friends are presented as satirical types. Cisy, for example, is newly devoted to "being original, having tone." He thinks he's more unique and memorable than he really is. During the party, Cisy attempts to talk about philosophers he doesn't understand, like Malthus and Voltaire.

Sénécal has more pressing issues on his mind. He references events that disturbed Flaubert's socialist contemporaries. Laissez-faire, the economic policy of minimal government interference, lets the wealthy earn as much as they want. Sénécal threatens the "advice of the infamous Malthus," referring to Thomas Malthus, a British economist who claimed population increases so quickly that available resources, like food, can't keep up. The poor will starve, Sénécal thinks, and then they'll get angry.

Frédéric, who has been spending time with the wealthy people Sénécal hates, has a dramatic, literal vision of revolutionaries smashing Madame Dambreuse's china. This image satirizes the upper class's fears the socialists will attack their personal wealth.

The other guests all have their own pet theories. Pretentious writer Hussonnet admires Fourier, a Utopian socialist popular for his imaginative theories of the social order harmonizing with the universe. Deslauriers, who despises religious interference in government, lashes out against Christian social theorist Saint-Simon. Pellerin, who can't get a painting in an art museum, hates what the government has done to the Parisian museum the Louvre. The compassionate Dussardier sympathizes with Barbès, an imprisoned radical leader. Hussonnet makes nonsensical jokes about a serpent and St. Bartholomew's day, mixing fact and superstition.

The debaters' opinions influence one another. Their arguments are partially genuine and partially a performance—each debater wants to match the mood in the room. Frédéric realizes his friends have become carried away by their own opinions. When he is indignant that they haven't expressed enough gratitude, he appears both selfish and lonely. He's not concerned with politics, and his worst nightmare is "Madame Arnoux ruined." Although Frédéric doesn't wish this future for her, he relishes the chance to be the hero who saves her from her wicked husband. Arnoux's corruption is an open secret—no one but Frédéric is surprised. But Frédéric sees Arnoux's bad business dealings as a way for him to establish an alliance with Madame Arnoux.

Madam Arnoux and Rosanette represent two lives Frédéric could choose for himself. His life could be stable and calm, or frivolous and exciting. He knows which one he wants—life with his true love. But, Rosanette's lifestyle is tempting and more available and requires less commitment. When Frédéric notices Arnoux buying the two women similar presents, he gets caught up in the game of inflaming each woman's jealousy. He mocks Rosanette but notices she's performing, too, and he finds it impossible to see her true self.

Frédéric still relies on fate and luck to make decisions for him. He doesn't tell Madame Arnoux how he feels, but he thinks of any opportunity to talk to her as a "good omen" or an "ally" from Fate. His older relationship with Deslauriers is in danger, however. Deslauriers's real resentment emerges. Although he's using Frédéric to advance his own career, Deslauriers is genuinely hurt by the dissolution of their old union. He notices Frédéric won't follow through on promises when his loyalties are tested. Additionally, when Frédéric looks at Deslauriers, it's with new eyes. He sees a poor person who isn't worth his time.

The conversation at the Dambreuses' house mirrors the earlier conversation at Frédéric's party. These guests, however, fear revolution. They believe personal wealth is essential for a good economy. As with Frédéric's friends, they can't agree on a solution to the problem, and they use popular culture as a means to discuss the political environment, just as Frédéric's friends did. In some respects, this party resembles the Bohemian party at Rosanette's in the previous chapter. Women are on display as art. The guests cover up misery, and Madame Dambreuse remarks, "Not that there's much pleasure in all this."

Frédéric still can't figure out how to socially navigate Paris. He is constantly on the edge of his "huge fortune" but never gets it. He believes the last voice in his ear with no convictions of his own. Once he hears Mademoiselle Vatnaz, he begins to take her side against Rosanette.

Frédéric's relationship with Arnoux is another consistent problem. Once he has the ammunition to expose Arnoux's lies, he can't do it. He needs Arnoux's friendship and Madame Arnoux's happiness, so he's roped into complicity in Arnoux's cheating. This is more drama than Frédéric bargained for. He still hopes Madame Arnoux will end up with him "out of revenge or a longing for affection." But, like his elusive fortune, his true love is always just out of reach.

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