Two months after his visit home, Frédéric is in Paris for law school. He has convinced Monsieur Roque to introduce him to Monsieur Dambreuse, and he visits Dambreuse with Roque’s letter of introduction. Dambreuse works in industry and is very wealthy, with important political connections. Madame Dambreuse is a socialite. Dambreuse asks Frédéric a few questions and then sends him away. As he walks home, he passes a shop and sees a sign saying Jacques Arnoux—it is Monsieur Arnoux’s art shop. Frédéric hopes to spot Madame Arnoux, but she does not appear.
Depressed and aimless, Frédéric stops attending classes and scorns his friend Baptiste Martinon’s version of happiness. He wanders the streets of Paris, seeing echoes of Madame Arnoux in women’s faces. He never receives an invitation from the Dambreuses, and the friend Deslauriers suggests he contact, a math teacher named Senecal, never returns his attempted visits. He goes back to law school. He tries to write a novel, and he tries to compose music on the piano.
One night at the theater, he spots Arnoux with two women. Arnoux is wearing a black mourning band around his hat, and Frédéric wonders if Madame Arnoux is dead. He goes to Arnoux’s shop and asks a clerk if the couple are doing well; they are. Reassured, he leaves the shop, but he is still melancholy. He visits home, then he returns to Paris and gets a new apartment. He begins to lose interest in Madame Arnoux.
As Frédéric goes to class one morning, he sees chaos in the streets. He asks a young man named Hussonnet what’s going on. Hussonnet says that no one knows—it’s a riot where even the rioters don’t know what they’re rioting about. Various political events from the past few months have resulted in frequent protests.
Frédéric’s friend Martinon appears, frightened of potential secret societies among the rioters. Hussonnet says the government has made up the idea of secret societies to instill fear in the middle class. The riot begins breaking up, and a professor named Samuel Rondelot appears on his way to class. The crowd turns on him simply because he is an authority figure, and he retreats. The rowdy crowd starts heckling the police. A fight ensues, and a policeman pushes a young protestor. A large man carrying a box drops the box and tackles the offending policeman. As police lead him to jail, he announces that his name is Dussardier and that he wants his box. Frédéric and Hussonnet follow him.
In jail, they ask to see Dussardier, who doesn’t know them. They try to get him to say he is a law student as a way of indicating that they are there to help him, but it takes him a while to catch on. Dussardier takes a smashed pipe from his pocket—a pipe he’d spent years making and which was broken in the fight. Frédéric gives Dussardier some cigars, and Dussardier is overcome with gratitude.
Back on the street, Hussonnet reveals that he works at Monsieur Arnoux’s magazine, L’Art Industriel. Frédéric and Hussonnet exchange addresses and promise to meet again. Reluctant to visit Hussonnet too soon, Frédéric deliberately runs into him one evening, and they go to Frédéric’s apartment to talk. Hussonnet wants to become famous in the theater; he writes musical comedies and songs. He insults Frédéric’s books of poetry, written by poets from the Romantic school who he claims had no common sense. Angry, Frédéric gets to the point and asks Hussonnet if he can take him to Arnoux’s house. Hussonnet agrees.
Soon, they visit the Arnouxes’ house. It is full of artists, and Hussonnet engages in a passionate debate about the role of money in art. Arnoux invites him and Frédéric back. Various people come in and out of the shop below Arnoux’s home, including a man named Regimbart, and the afternoon wears on. Discussion turns to politics and gossip. Soon people begin to leave, and Frédéric walks for a while with an artist named Pellerin. They agree to see each other again.
Pellerin is a mostly unsuccessful artist who has made nothing but sketches. When Frédéric visits him, he sometimes finds Pellerin in bed, having been out at the theater late. He never mentions Madame Arnoux to Frédéric, but one day Frédéric sees a sketch that resembles her in one of Pellerin’s sketchbooks. Pellerin says Arnoux has many mistresses, but that Madame Arnoux is virtuous.
Frédéric also spends time with Regimbart, another friend of Arnoux’s, who drinks a lot, plays billiards, and does not do any work. Arnoux admires him, and Frédéric tolerates him for this reason only.
Though Frédéric looks up to Arnoux as a man who values the arts, Arnoux actually is a shrewd art seller who often cheats his customers. However, he thinks of himself as honest.
Arnoux actually does not live at the home where Frédéric has been spending so much time. Frédéric accompanies Regimbart and Pellerin to a bar, where the two older men complain about Arnoux. Frédéric stands up for Arnoux, but when he goes back to see him under the pretense of looking for a lost notebook, he suddenly sees Arnoux as vulgar. He leaves, convinced he won’t be back.
Deslauriers sends a letter to Frédéric announcing that he is returning to Paris. But on the day he is to arrive, Arnoux invites Frédéric to dinner, and Frédéric can think of nothing else. When Deslauriers arrives, Frédéric doesn’t tell him he’s made other plans for the evening and feels guilty. The two sit down and talk. New clothes are delivered for Frédéric, who has ordered a new outfit in anticipation of his dinner. He confesses to Deslauriers that he is going to dinner.
Frédéric arrives at the Arnouxes’ home and finally sees Madame Arnoux, who claims to remember him. The meal is lavish, and the conversation about travel and art is engrossing. Madame Arnoux leaves the table when liquor is served, and the men discuss women. Frédéric is surprised by the vulgarity. Later, in the drawing room, Madame Arnoux returns and shows the men a romantic gift Arnoux gave her—a piece of Renaissance art. Arnoux kisses her.
When Madame Arnoux eventually talks to Frédéric, he is thrilled, but he cannot look her in the face. Then she is asked by one of the guests to sing. She sings a song in Italian, which Frédéric does not understand. She offers Frédéric her hand before he leaves. He goes out into the darkened streets, certain that he is meant to be a painter and that this vocation will lead him to Madame Arnoux. When he arrives home, he finds Deslauriers sleeping in a closet. He had forgotten he was there.
As winter settles onto Paris, Frédéric’s confidence is shaken by a series of rejections that leave him lonely, defeated, and depressed, feelings that are mirrored in the way Flaubert describes the scenes. As Frédéric is rejected or ignored by the wealthy Monsieur Dambreuse and Arnoux, he loses his energy, and life becomes dull. Flaubert presents a series of small dissatisfactions that illustrate his general unhappiness: he has to deal with annoyances such as laundry and the unpleasant concierge; he doesn’t like his room; he doesn’t like overhearing the happy students next door. He spends time with his happy friend Martinon, but he is annoyed by Martinon’s happiness in his simple domestic pleasures. As Frédéric reaches a low point, Flaubert describes a haunting street scene complete with glowing gas lamps, shadows, slimy pavement, a mist, and darkness. Frédéric himself has become part of this bleak Parisian landscape.
Frédéric attempts to use art as a way of lifting him out of his depression, but his efforts fail. He tries to write a novel, but he gets discouraged at its lack of originality. He rents a piano and composes German waltzes, but this doesn’t help either. He attends the theater, but this only serves to agitate him more: this is where he spots Arnoux and suspects (incorrectly) that Madame Arnoux has died. No matter what strategies he tries, he fails to lighten his psychological load. In the absence of a passion for anything at all, even his interest in Madame Arnoux starts to disappear.
Frédéric’s chance meeting with Hussonnet sets his life on a new path and lifts him out of his bleak depression. The world of Madame Arnoux, which had seemed permanently closed to him, suddenly reopens at the news that Hussonnet has worked for Arnoux on his magazine. Seizing the moment with an energy that had been dormant, Frédéric ingratiates himself with Hussonnet and wrangles an invitation to Arnoux’s home. Until now, Frédéric has been idle, flitting from one activity to the next and discarding one unsatisfactory endeavor after another. He has lacked focus and drive. With Hussonnet, however, and in the evenings at the Arnoux residence that follow, Frédéric displays a singular drive and vision: he wants to see Madame Arnoux again, and this desire sustains him. He defends Arnoux against detractors and is rewarded—finally—with a dinner invitation that gives him his second face-to-face encounter with Madame Arnoux.