Frédéric, the protagonist of Sentimental Education, lives his life according to a particular pattern: he desires many things and many people but loses interest as soon as he wins them. He pursues various ambitions, both artistic and political, only to drop them as soon as he runs into trouble or his attention fixes elsewhere. He often yearns for Deslauriers as a friend, only to dismiss him without a second thought. He relentlessly pursues Rosanette and Madame Dambreuse, then falls out of love or lust as soon as the women become reliable fixtures in his life. This pattern explains why he can sustain his ardor for Madame Arnoux for such an extended period of time. Although there are moments when he does come close to winning her, he never fully succeeds, and the chase therefore is never over. Only when she finally becomes available as his lover does his interest wane. Frédéric’s frustrating pattern and lack of self-reflection make him a maddening antihero, and his indecision, passivity, dishonesty, and blind desire to be considered part of high society make him rather unsympathetic as a protagonist.
Although the title of the novel suggests that the book will describe a young man’s education in the world, Frédéric proves unwilling to learn from his bad judgments and mistakes. Again and again, he falls into the same traps: giving money to the wrong people, trusting the wrong women, erroneously believing he can get away with whatever indiscretion he chooses and escape the consequences. He pursues women for the wrong reasons and never understands why he can’t find happiness. He persists in believing that Madame Arnoux is the only thing that can make him happy. Frédéric has his chance to truly achieve an education: when he loses interest in Madame Arnoux at the end of the novel, he has the opportunity to review his choices and make changes in his life. However, he and Deslauriers simply chalk their failures up to fate and chance. Frédéric never considers the possibility that his misplaced passion for Madame Arnoux is responsible for his ultimate lack of fulfillment. Frédéric never gains the ability to engage in honest self-reflection, which is a benchmark of true maturity and a key to achieving happiness.
Placid, virtuous, and all but mute, Madame Arnoux is less a woman than an object onto which Frédéric projects his desires. From the moment Frédéric sees her on the ship he is taking to Nogent, Madame Arnoux occupies his imagination as a specimen of superb beauty and female perfection. Often portrayed as sitting by a fire, sewing, and tending to her children, Madame Arnoux is a pure, ideal mother figure. This idealized image is so intense in Frédéric’s mind that he rarely speaks of lust when he speaks of his desire for her. He says at one point that he can’t think of her naked. Although she is virtuous, she does eventually reciprocate Frédéric’s feelings, even though they do no more than share a kiss. Frédéric engages liberally in sordid sexual affairs, particularly with the well-known Rosanette, yet none of these women satisfy him as he believes Madame Arnoux would. She is the sole object of his affection, his impossible dream.
Madame Arnoux’s role in Frédéric’s life is ultimately one of a mother rather than a mistress. He can never possess her sexually, but she is a constant force in his life, both in reality and in imagination. She is the one thing that stays the same for him through tumultuous love affairs, social humiliations, thwarted ambitions, and the general political unrest in Paris. On some level, Frédéric must realize this, since he never takes an aggressive step to conquer her physically. Madame Arnoux, however, makes her gravest error when she finally offers herself to him. Misunderstanding her role in his life, she tries to cross the line from mother figure and constant companion to lover, which marks the end of their relationship.
Deslauriers, ostensibly Frédéric’s best and oldest friend, is deeply admiring of Frédéric as well as bitterly jealous. He and Frédéric take turns disappointing each other. At times, Deslauriers seems to play a spouselike role in Frédéric’s life. When they were young, they excitedly planned out their future, imagining themselves traveling, working, and living together. Deslauriers is the first to taint the dream, when he forgoes Paris to take a job in Troyes. At this point in their friendship, Deslauriers is so influential in Frédéric’s life that Frédéric wonders how he can possibly stay in Paris without him and feels shaken by the amount of confidence he has in his friend. Deslauriers has put his own interests first, and this seems like a significant betrayal.
When Frédéric begins flirting with high society and pursuing various women, it is Deslauriers who finds himself overlooked and left behind. When he returns to Paris, Frédéric brushes him off; Deslauriers, with his shabby appearance, embarrasses Frédéric, who has come into money and now spends lavishly on his clothes and accoutrements. Deslauriers envies him, and this envy quickly turns ugly. He tries to steal Madame Arnoux from Frédéric (to the extent that she can be stolen); he attempts to win over Rosanette, and may eventually succeed; and he considers offering himself for a job for which Frédéric has been tapped. These are actual betrayals on both friends’ parts. Only when Deslauriers eventually achieves his own success and Frédéric has been chastened for his extravagance can the two rebuild a genuine friendship.