Sentimental Education | Study Guide

Gustave Flaubert

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Sentimental Education | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1

On September 15, 1840, 18-year-old Frédéric Moreau travels from Paris for a visit to his hometown of Nogent, France. He meets an alluring older woman, Madame Arnoux, and immediately falls in love. He hopes to get to know her husband, a charismatic Parisian art dealer named Jacques Arnoux.

Frédéric hopes to move to Paris with his best friend, Charles Deslauriers. But Deslauriers, who is less financially stable than Frédéric, has to work a temporary job in Nogent. Frédéric spends two years bored and lonely in law school. He meets several other Parisians, including writer Hussonnet, artist Pellerin, dedicated law student Martinon, pious socialist Sénécal, working-class revolutionary Dussardier, and elderly "citizen" Regimbart. He spends time at Jacques Arnoux's art shop hoping to see Madame Arnoux.

Frédéric attempts to get a job through wealthy industrialist Monsieur Dambreuse when he moves to Paris. Here, he also witnesses student protests against the monarchy. While Frédéric's friends hope for revolution, the guests at Monsieur Dambreuse's parties take the monarchy's side. Frédéric notices Monsieur Dambreuse's attractive, enigmatic wife, Madame Dambreuse.

In 1843 Frédéric has to leave Paris and return to Nogent. He has failed his second-year law exams and lost the family money he planned on. He spends two years in Nogent and grows closer to Louise, the daughter of his mother's neighbor, Roque. In late 1845 Frédéric's uncle dies and Frédéric inherits his wealth. Frédéric is ecstatic—he can return to Paris and see Madame Arnoux again.

Part 2

Frédéric returns to Paris as soon as he can in 1845. He learns Arnoux has closed down his art shop and has become a pottery manufacturer. Frédéric meets Rosanette, a charming courtesan (upper class prostitute), at one of her parties. He and Rosanette begin a sexually intimate relationship even though she's also sexually involved with Jacques Arnoux. Frédéric visits Madame Arnoux frequently and the two share emotional confidences but avoid sexual involvement.

Deslauriers, who now lives in Paris, asks Frédéric for a loan. Frédéric promises Deslauriers the money but gives the loan to Arnoux instead, causing a rift between the best friends. Frédéric defends Madame Arnoux's honor to the nobleman Cisy after Cisy hints Madame Arnoux is cheating on her husband. The two men get in a fight and plan to settle their argument with a duel. Jacques Arnoux stops the duel before it can begin. Mistakenly believing Frédéric fought to defend Arnoux's reputation, Arnoux thanks him.

When Frédéric passionately defends revolutionary causes at the Dambreuses' party, his liberal friends applaud him. On a visit to Nogent, Frédéric spends more time with the much younger Louise, who is in love with him and asks to marry him. Frédéric is kind to her but avoids making a formal proposal. He is growing closer to Madame Arnoux and often visits her at her country house. Frédéric and Madame Arnoux realize they have a lot in common. They plan to meet in Paris on February 22, 1848. Deslauriers invites Frédéric to a revolutionary protest on the same day, which Frédéric plans to skip.

Frédéric is devastated and angry when Madame Arnoux doesn't show up for their Paris meeting. He watches the day's protest become increasingly violent. Eventually he goes to see Rosanette and the two spend the day together. Meanwhile Madame Arnoux is tending to her young son Eugène, who nearly dies from an illness. When Eugène recovers, Madame Arnoux, feeling morally convicted, vows not to see Frédéric again.

Part 3

The 1848 protest leads to the fall of the French monarchy, and a celebratory mood fills Paris. As the city votes on candidates for the new government—the Second Republic—Frédéric runs for a spot on the assembly. He attends a chaotic meeting and doesn't pursue his candidacy.

Frédéric then visits the countryside with Rosanette. When he hears Dussardier has been wounded, he rushes back to Paris but finds the city guarded by checkpoints and barricades. The rebels haven't gotten what they wanted, and they've mounted a protest, which the new government is suppressing. The June riots have begun.

When Frédéric returns to the city he breaks off his relationship with Louise, and he begins an affair with Madame Dambreuse while still seeing Rosanette. He still loves Madame Arnoux, however, and begins to despise the other two women. Things get more complicated when Rosanette gives birth to Frédéric's son.

Monsieur Dambreuse dies, and Frédéric proposes to Madame Dambreuse, who is poised to inherit her late husband's fortune. When the fortune is much smaller than she expected, Frédéric agrees to marry her anyway and tries to break off his relationship with Rosanette. But when Rosanette runs into financial trouble and decides to sue Arnoux, Frédéric worries about her.

Rosanette is devastated when her infant son dies of a sudden illness. Meanwhile, Frédéric hears Arnoux is leaving Paris with his family to avoid a lawsuit. The Arnouxs need money to stay in the city. Frédéric borrows the money from Madame Dambreuse, but the Arnouxs have left town before he can find them. Madame Dambreuse later drags Frédéric to an auction and buys the furniture Madame Arnoux was forced to sell. Frédéric angrily breaks off his engagement. He then learns the new president, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, has seized power in a coup. Sénécal, now one of Louis-Napoléon's soldiers, kills Dussardier for protesting in the street.

Frédéric travels the world, returns to Paris, and resigns himself to a lonely life. Several years later, in 1867, Madame Arnoux surprises him with a visit. She has never forgotten him. They declare their lasting love for each other and reminisce about Paris. Frédéric is disappointed to see Madame Arnoux now has white hair. She finally offers to have an affair with him, but he turns her down. They say their final goodbyes.

Later that winter Frédéric and Deslauriers catch up on their lives. They wonder why they never fulfilled their youthful goals—Frédéric never found love, and Deslauriers never achieved power. They recall experiences they shared as young schoolboys, including a trip to a brothel as teenagers, which they agree was the best time of their lives.

Sentimental Education Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Madame Arnoux and Frédéric meet.

Rising Action

2 Frédéric moves to Paris for the first time.

3 Frédéric leaves Paris for two years.

4 After inheriting a fortune Frédéric returns to Paris.

5 Frédéric lends money to Arnoux instead of Deslauriers.

6 Louise and Frédéric get engaged.

7 Frédéric and Madame Arnoux promise to meet.

8 Madame Arnoux misses her meeting with Frédéric.


9 The revolution of 1848 begins.

Falling Action

10 The Second Empire begins.

11 After many years Frédéric and Madame Arnoux meet again.


12 Deslauriers and Frédéric reminisce about their lives.

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