Frédéric travels back to Paris, feeling satisfied with his life. When he arrives, he goes immediately to find Madame Arnoux, but Arnoux’s shop is closed up. He tries to find the couple at home, but he is told they no longer live there. Frédéric inquires at several shops as well as the police station, but to no avail.
He decides to find Regimbart, certain he’ll know where the Arnouxes live now. He visits all the cafes where he knows Regimbart is a regular, but everyone evades his questions and it seems Frédéric has always just missed him. He eventually finds him, and Regimbart reveals the Arnouxes’ new address.
Frédéric finally finds the Arnouxes. But when he sees Madame Arnoux, he is surprised by how little he feels. Arnoux explains that he is no longer an art dealer—he is now a pottery dealer. Once Frédéric leaves, he vows not to think of Madame Arnoux anymore.
Frédéric seeks out Deslauriers, who has failed his exams and is now struggling to get by. Deslauriers is excited about Frédéric’s newfound fortune, but Frédéric feels reluctant to share it so readily. Deslauriers reveals that Hussonnet now owns Arnoux’s old art magazine and is planning to turn it into a political journal. As they spend more time together, Frédéric warms to Deslauriers once again.
Frédéric buys new clothes and plans to visit the Dambreuses. Instead, he calls on Arnoux. Madame Arnoux is ill, but Arnoux invites him to a party at the home of Mademoiselle Rose-Annette Bron, called Rosanette. Frédéric is surprised by the number of people there, and he feels uneasy at the merriment, knowing that Madame Arnoux is at home. But he tries to pull himself together. He runs into Hussonnet and Pellerin, who point out various notable people at the party. Rosanette is engaged in conversation with an actor named Delmar. She also talks to an old man named Monsieur Oudry. Eventually, Mademoiselle Vatnaz appears, and she talks to Arnoux. They disappear together briefly, and Frédéric sees Rosanette crying. One woman, whom Flaubert refers to as “The Sphinx,” coughs up blood, and Frédéric is overcome with sadness.
The guests begin breaking china over their heads, and Arnoux remarks cryptically that he expects payment, which suggests that he had been Rosanette’s lover but isn’t anymore. Champagne is served; birds from the aviary escape and fly around the room. When morning comes, guests start to leave. Arnoux and Frédéric leave together. Frédéric feels the desire for a more luxurious life.
Frédéric buys a home. He considers asking Deslauriers to live with him but decides he needs to live alone so that he can be ready to have a mistress. He overspends but does not worry. He writes to Madame Dambreuse requesting permission to visit, which she grants.
Frédéric is overcome by the luxuriousness of the Dambreuses’ home. However, the talk among the people who are gathered there is trivial and annoying. Frédéric is impressed by Madame Dambreuse’s appearance and behavior, and she invites him to return every Wednesday.
Frédéric visits Rosanette, who tells him she will be dining out that evening. Her hairdresser arrives, and she tells him she is staying at home. The conversation among her and her servants bothers Frédéric; it reminds him of the idle talk at the Dambreuses’ home. Mademoiselle Vatnaz arrives, and Frédéric loans her some change. Rosanette tells Mlle. Vatnaz that she will be going to Alphonsine’s tonight. Frédéric is confused by her changes in story. She asks him to tell Arnoux to visit her. Frédéric believes Rosanette will become his mistress one day, then he immediately thinks of Madame Arnoux.
When he next visits Madame Arnoux, she is sewing. She asks him questions about his background and career plans and holds out her hand to him before he leaves. Frédéric feels like this is a promise of some kind.
Frédéric wants to have a housewarming party, and he invites Hussonnet, Pellerin, Deslauriers, Senecal, Cisy, and Dussardier. Senecal has lost his teaching job because of his political views, and he no longer lives with Deslauriers. The men discuss politics; Senecal is referred to as the Socialist. Pellerin hints at a scandal Arnoux is embroiled in, involving a lawsuit about some land. They insult various aspects of Frédéric’s home, asking him why he has chosen to decorate as he did and why he doesn’t have certain books. Frédéric gives Deslauriers some money to repay a debt, and Deslauriers asks for more to help support Hussonnet’s newspaper, which Frédéric refuses.
When the men leave Frédéric’s, they decide that Frédéric had been a perfect host, but they idly criticize the lunch and the décor. Frédéric, alone now, feels distant from his friends. He wonders if Arnoux is actually in trouble and if Madame Arnoux is okay. He visits her and tries to find out what’s going on; Arnoux is indeed in some financial trouble from borrowing against his land. Frédéric promises Madame Arnoux to help if he can, reassuring her that her problems are temporary.
Arnoux enters the room and announces he is going to visit Oudry. Frédéric figures out that Oudry keeps Rosanette. Arnoux begins inviting Frédéric to Rosanette’s house regularly. Frédéric likes Rosanette’s energy and excitement, which is much different from the calmness surrounding Madame Arnoux.
Arnoux does his best to juggle his wife and his mistress. But Rosanette tires of his antics and complains to Frédéric that Arnoux never bought her a cashmere shawl he’d promised her. She also tells Frédéric that Arnoux had forced her to sign a bill made out to Monsieur Dambreuse.
Frédéric tries to write, but he grows depressed at his unrequited love of Madame Arnoux. He decides to get Arnoux to hire Senecal, so Senecal can operate as a kind of spy. Arnoux, who is trying to build up his new factory, hires him. Frédéric begins championing Rosanette to Arnoux, trying to get him to spend more time with her so that Frédéric can spend more time with Madame Arnoux. Arnoux finally buys Rosanette the cashmere shawl. When Frédéric visits her, he suspects she is making advances, and he decides to try to make Rosanette his mistress. She rebuffs him.
Frédéric asks Pellerin to paint a portrait of Rosanette, and they spend more time together. But still she resists him.
Hussonnet and Deslauriers visit him at home and talk about their paper. Frédéric relents and gives them some money. Deslauriers complains that Frédéric has not introduced him to society, but Frédéric knows Deslauriers is much too shabby.
Frédéric pursues a career in the Council of State, with Dambreuse’s help. Rosanette ends her relationship with Oudry and makes what Frédéric interprets as an invitation to take his place. At her next party, Frédéric wanders from group to group listening to the conversations and looking at all the women. Dambreuse hints that he may be willing to get Frédéric a job in business. Filled with confidence, he tries to visit Rosanette the next evening, but she turns him away. Mademoiselle Vatnaz sees him go and complains that Delmar is with her. She tells him secrets about Rosanette’s romantic and sexual history.
Frédéric visits the Arnouxes, who are in the middle of an argument. Madame Arnoux is accusing Arnoux of having an affair—she learned of his purchase of the shawl. Arnoux leaves, and Frédéric tries to comfort her. He feels connected to her. When Arnoux returns, he reassures him, too, that everything will be okay.
Flaubert does not always fully explain the nature of the friendships and romantic relationships surrounding Frédéric, and this vagueness emphasizes that Frédéric is still an outsider in this world of high society. When Arnoux takes him to a party at Rosanette, Frédéric finds himself in a world of confusing liaisons. He meets Rosanette, Oudry, and Delmar; he once again sees Mademoiselle Vatnaz; hints are made about Arnoux’s involvement with Rosanette; and Rosanette, for some reason, winds up in tears. Although these relationships become clearer as the novel progresses, Frédéric’s first exposure to them is convoluted, secretive, and fraught. He does his best to keep up, but he is just as confused as we are about who’s sleeping with whom, who knows what, and what his position actually is in all this. He is an outsider, but as he learns more, he gains a certain privilege from his outsider status, as people feel safe telling him their secrets.
Madame Arnoux and Rosanette, Frédéric’s two romantic obsessions, are vastly different types of women. Madame Arnoux is almost always portrayed in a warm, domestic setting. She is often sitting by a fire when Frédéric arrives, she is nearly always sewing, and she frequently has a child in her lap. Frédéric thinks her movements have a peaceful grace. This image of a comfortable, calm, matronly woman contrasts with the fiery Rosanette, who, far from engaging in family life, throws parties and acts with a wildness that stuns and excites Frédéric. The two women are almost complete opposites, but both Arnoux and Frédéric are attracted to them both. Each woman seems to fulfill a different need: Madame Arnoux satisfies the desire for safety and comfort, while Rosanette satisfies more primal, sexual desires. Arnoux, more worldly than Frédéric, surely understands the attraction of his mistress. But Frédéric seems to copy Arnoux’s affections without much or any critical thought about why each woman is remarkable or why each is appealing.
The role of art changes significantly for Arnoux, Hussonnet, Pellerin, and Frédéric. Arnoux gives up his art dealership for the pottery trade, which sets him on a different, perhaps scandalous or ruinous course. He tells Frédéric that great art is no longer fashionable and claims that his factory itself is a form of beauty. Arnoux’s art magazine, meanwhile, has been appropriated by Hussonnet to use for political purposes. Pellerin embraces his painting, but he has given up on beauty and focuses instead on variety. The idea of pure beauty is no longer a consideration. Frédéric exploits Pellerin’s artistic talents for his own agenda, employing him to paint Rosanette’s portrait so he can spend more time with her. Here, too, beauty is not the purpose of this artistic endeavor; the art is being used toward some other goal. As Frédéric becomes more involved in society and pursues various women, career paths, and connections, the role of art gets muddled and bastardized, just as his own values and beliefs fade as he tries to become more like his new acquaintances.