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.