Frédéric buys painting supplies and asks Pellerin to teach him to paint. He takes Pellerin to his room, where discussion about politics and art ensues among Deslauriers, Senecal, and Pellerin. When Frédéric and Deslauriers are alone, they plan their future and, in the days that follow, enjoy a comfortable domestic routine. Frédéric, who is supporting them financially, cannot pay all his bills, in part because he buys so much art at Arnoux’s shop.
Frédéric attempts to visit Madame Arnoux alone, but he is unsuccessful. Meanwhile, he grows closer to Arnoux and continues to attend dinner at his home. Deslauriers, tired of being left alone while Frédéric dines with the Arnouxes, begins having friends over, including Hussonnet, who brings Dussardier. They all talk about women.
Deslauriers tries to get Frédéric to invite him to Arnoux’s house, but Frédéric is embarrassed by Deslauriers’s scruffy appearance and avoids the issue.
Frédéric does poorly on his law school exams, but his spirits rise when he learns that Arnoux will be out of town. Frédéric vows to visit Madame Arnoux, and he spends all his money on new clothes. He tosses a coin three times to help him decide whether he should visit her, and each toss fates that he should. However, when he rings the bell at the residence, Arnoux answers—Madame Arnoux is out of town. Frédéric and Arnoux have an awkward conversation, and Frédéric accidentally breaks the ivory handle of a parasol lying near him. Frédéric assumes it is Madame Arnoux’s and apologizes. For three months after this, he wallows in boredom and misery.
Frédéric continues to ingratiate himself with Arnoux, and Arnoux frequently takes him to dinner. One night, Frédéric returns the favor by taking him and Regimbart out. Regimbart complains about everything. Arnoux reveals that Madame Arnoux has returned home.
Frédéric visits her the next day, but the encounter is dull and awkward. Nevertheless, she allows him to join her when she runs an errand, and they walk arm in arm. Before he can tell her he loves her, she dismisses him. Still energized by the encounter, Frédéric extols Madame Arnoux’s virtues and connects her to everything in Paris. However, he thinks that it is unlikely that she will become his mistress.
Deslauriers tries to get Frédéric’s mind on something else, so he takes him to a dance hall called the Alhambra. There, Deslauriers, Hussonnet, Dussardier, and another friend named Cisy all dance with women. Frédéric, however, spots Arnoux with a woman named Mademoiselle Vatnaz. He sits with them and ignores his friends. On the way home with Deslauriers, Deslauriers claims he can go home with the first woman he sees—and he succeeds, leaving Frédéric to wander the streets in despair and loneliness.
One day, Frédéric receives two dinner invitations: one from Monsieur Dambreuse and one from Arnoux for Madame Arnoux’s name day. They are for the same day. Deslauriers convinces him to accept the one from Dambreuse. Frédéric still wants to get Madame Arnoux a gift for her name day, so he buys a parasol to replace the one he broke. He receives a letter canceling the dinner at the Dambreuses, so he attends the celebration for Madame Arnoux.
At the party, he gives Madame Arnoux the parasol and apologizes for breaking the other one, but she doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Arnoux quickly shuts him up. Later, Frédéric gets to talk to Madame Arnoux more intimately. Before he leaves, Arnoux presents Madame Arnoux with a bouquet of roses he picked and wrapped with a paper he pulled quickly from his pocket. Madame Arnoux reacts strangely to the flowers and tries to leave them behind when everyone leaves in the carriage, but Frédéric retrieves them. As they travel toward Paris, she throws them out the door. Only Frédéric sees her do it, and he sees her crying a little while later.
Frédéric determines to win Madame Arnoux. Even Deslauriers is stunned at his vehemence. He tries to visit Madame Arnoux, but she isn’t home. He goes to see a pantomime and runs into the Dambreuses, who chat with him.
Frédéric goes to visit his mother. She reveals that his inheritance is smaller than he had expected because she owed so much money to Monsieur Roque, who has now married his housekeeper.
Frédéric laments his future now that he will not have a large inheritance. He is sure the Arnouxes will not want to speak to him anymore. He briefly comforts himself by claiming that poverty will enhance his creativity and actually attract Madame Arnoux. But when he tells his mother he is returning to Paris, she convinces him instead to take an office job, at which he fails miserably. Frédéric vows that the Arnouxes should forget him and that he’ll never go back to Paris.
Frédéric dreams idly about possibilities for his future, but he is aimless. Deslauriers writes that his friend Senecal is now living with him.
Madame Moreau’s neighbor, Monsieur Roque, tries to befriend Frédéric. Roque has married Madame Eleonore and had a child with her, but he actually loves a woman named Catherine. The whole group lives together in some sort of ambiguous arrangement. The child, Louise, likes Frédéric, and he often spends time with her.
Frédéric’s wealthy uncle Barthelemy arrives for a visit. It seems very unlikely that the uncle will make Frédéric his heir. Madame Moreau is devastated, and Frédéric gives in even more to small-town life. However, one day he receives a letter announcing that Uncle Barthelemy has died and made Frédéric his heir. Frédéric is now rich, and he immediately thinks of Madame Arnoux. He plans to return to Paris and become a minister (a person involved in politics).
Before he leaves, he learns that Madame Eleonore has died, but Louise does not seem too upset. She is, however, upset at having to say goodbye to Frédéric.
Although Frédéric and Deslauriers are good friends, they have very different views of the world: Frédéric, for all his romantic angst, is a pessimist and a realist, whereas Deslauriers is an optimist and, in some ways, more romantic than Frédéric. The two spend a great deal of time discussing their dreams and futures, but Frédéric often finds the talk frustrating since he doubts they’ll ever achieve all they hope to. Deslauriers, however, refuses to write off their possibilities so quickly: “Who knows?” he asks, acknowledging the fact that no one can predict the future. When Frédéric is ignored in his attempts to befriend the Dambreuses, Deslauriers simply tells him to try again. Although Frédéric has many exhilarating moments when he envisions a future with Madame Arnoux, he more often declares that it’s pointless to pursue her. However, Deslauriers takes a more optimistic view and tells Frédéric that wanting something badly enough is the way to go about getting it. This ambitious and autonomous view suggests that Deslauriers believes that we are in control of our own destiny.
Fate and luck appear at key moments as Frédéric pursues Madame Arnoux and loses and then regains his fortune, but they are not always kind. Before he actually tries to visit her, he flips a coin so fate can decide what he should do, and he decides that fate has determined he should go; when he arrives at the house, she isn’t even home. On a night when he wants to see Madame Arnoux but is committed at the Dambreuses, luck is with him and the Dambreuses’ dinner is canceled. The thought of actually forming a relationship with Madame Arnoux is so fantastical and farfetched, in fact, that Frédéric knows that he would need to overcome fate. He is not confident that he himself can control his actions or shape his future. His powerlessness becomes even more evident when he learns that his mother has lost his inheritance. In what seems like a stroke of bad luck, he is suddenly poor. However, he becomes instantly rich again when his uncle dies and makes him his heir. Frédéric does indeed seem subject to the whims of fate, but all too often he uses the idea of destiny to relieve himself of responsibility for his own life.
Fate plays a role in nudging Frédéric and Madame Arnoux closer together, at least temporarily, when Arnoux wraps roses for his wife in a paper he pulls randomly from his pocket. We can assume that the paper he pulls is likely a love letter or another sort of incriminating document, perhaps from Mademoiselle Vatnaz. This chance occurrence exposes Arnoux’s probable affair and leads to an intimate moment between Frédéric and Madame Arnoux in the carriage, when she throws the roses out the door. In this case, fate operates on someone else—Arnoux—and Frédéric reaps the benefits. Shortly after this fortunate twist of fate, however, Frédéric learns that his inheritance will be much less than he expected—the whims of chance are not faithful.
As Frédéric becomes more overwrought and obsessed with Madame Arnoux, the city of Paris seems to change character depending on his mood and the state of his pursuit of her. When he is bored and discouraged, Paris seems as empty and ugly as he feels: the Seine is “blackened here and there with smudges from the drains”; he sees “a clump of old trees”; the Latin Quarter’s college is “forlorn”; and, in a crowd, he can’t stand the “vulgarity of their faces, the stupidity of their talk.” When things are going smoothly—such as after the shared moment in the carriage, when Frédéric and Madame Arnoux share the secret of the discarded roses—Frédéric believes that Paris had never been so beautiful. Paris is always there, faithful and ever-present; but Frédéric proves to be a fickle lover, changing his feelings as quickly and violently as he changes his mind about his chances of finding love with Madame Arnoux.