On a boat departing Paris in 1840, a young man, Frédéric Moreau, stares moodily at Paris, still visible behind him. He is going home to Nogent-sur-Seine to stay with his mother before beginning his law studies. On deck, he observes a man holding forth with a young woman. Frédéric and the man soon engage in conversation. The man introduces himself as Jacques Arnoux, the owner of an art magazine. A servant tells Monsieur Arnoux he is needed by Mademoiselle, and he goes belowdecks.
Frédéric observes the passengers. He sees a beautiful woman in the first-class section and is captivated. Everything about her entices him—from her body to her basket of embroidery. Frédéric sees that her shawl is about to fall into the water. He grabs it for her, and she thanks him. Then Arnoux appears with a small girl. The beautiful woman is Arnoux’s wife.
Frédéric stays close to the Arnouxes. Arnoux invites him to go belowdecks, to the saloon. There, Frédéric sits near Madame Arnoux and observes her closely. Eventually, Frédéric and the Arnouxes get off the boat, and Frédéric says goodbye. As he makes his way home, he remembers that Monsieur Arnoux had called his wife “Marie.” He vows to become a friend of the family and see Madame Arnoux again.
At home, Frédéric’s mother and some friends greet him warmly. Madame Moreau welcomes her son and is certain that great things await him. As Frédéric eats a meal, he wonders what Madame Arnoux is doing. He eventually leaves the house to visit a friend named Charles Deslauriers.
Deslauriers’s father was angry and abusive when Deslauriers was a child, but he sent him to school in Sens, where he met Frédéric. Deslauriers was passionate about philosophy, while Frédéric was interested in drawing and writing. They planned to work together in Paris and lead decadent lives with women. They separated for a while, while Charles studied law in Paris and Madame Moreau sent Frédéric to Le Havre to visit a rich uncle.
This is the first time they have seen each other in two years. Deslauriers tells Frédéric he will not be staying in Paris, which disappoints Frédéric. Frédéric tells Charles about Madame Arnoux, and Charles encourages him to pursue a friendship with Monsieur Arnoux.
Frédéric and Charles run into Monsieur Roque, a friend of Madame Moreau and steward to a man named Monsieur Dambreuse. Roque is not well respected because he lives with his housekeeper. They continue on. Deslauriers advises Frédéric to take advantage of Monsieur Roque’s connection to Monsieur Dambreuse and become his wife’s lover. He also advises Frédéric to do well in school, and that he’ll see him again soon. The men say goodbye.
The first few paragraphs of Sentimental Education provide relevant information about the seafaring setting in which the novel opens, but, more important, they function as a zooming camera lens that starts wide and then focuses in on the protagonist, Frédéric Moreau. The sweeping first sentence of the novel, with its grand pronouncement of the date and time and the striking image of a boat ready to set sail, immediately narrows to more specific images of people on board the boat. We see their baggage and hear the ship’s clanging bell. Flaubert then narrows further, to an anonymous young man standing on the deck, watching Paris slip away. Only after Flaubert describes the sights he is seeing—Notre Dame, the Ile Saint-Louis, the Cite—does he provide us with a name. This zooming-in of the opening paragraphs mimics the structure of the novel as a whole. Sentimental Education is a sweeping historical novel, and it is fitting that we see the big picture before we see one specific human being. Throughout the novel, this one individual will live against a larger, wider background of politics and social change.
The first two chapters contain several goodbyes. The novel actually opens with a goodbye, as Frédéric leaves Paris to return home. He sadly says goodbye to Monsieur Arnoux after meeting him and his wife onboard the ship. Before they actually part, Frédéric dreads the separation—almost as soon as he meets Marie, he feels a void open between them, since they will soon have to part. Once he returns home, he makes a temporary departure from his mother to visit Charles, and we learn of their own sad separation when Charles left school to move to Paris. Reunited briefly, they part again at the end of chapter 2. The frequency of separation in these early chapters, and the varying degrees of distress Frédéric feels every time, suggests that more goodbyes are in store for Frédéric.
In chapters 1 and 2, Frédéric has encounters with two men—Monsieur Arnoux and Deslauriers—that reveal Frédéric’s tendency to be easily impressed and influenced by other men. When he first talks to Monsieur Arnoux, he is immediately struck by Arnoux’s wealth, confidence, and masculinity. Arnoux discusses such things as tobacco and women, mistresses and celebrities, and he offers fatherly advice. Arnoux’s higher social station intimidates Frédéric, but he still follows Arnoux belowdecks, even though he has no money to spend. Arnoux seems to all but ignore him, but still Frédéric vows to befriend him somehow. Frédéric is just as struck by his friend Deslauriers, who, though seemingly just as much of a dreamer as Frédéric, impresses Frédéric with his confidence and gall. Frédéric trusts Deslauriers so much that he feels shaken after they meet and talk. Frédéric’s father died before he was born, and the intensity of Frédéric’s reaction to and trust in other men suggests that he is in some ways searching for a father figure.