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.