The actions of every character in Sentimental Education are motivated by a search for love, a search that seems as futile as it is necessary for survival and happiness. Frédéric’s pursuit of Madame Arnoux is the main search that drives the novel. Over a thirty-year period, Frédéric dreams of, yearns for, and schemes to win the attentions of Madame Arnoux, propelled mainly by his first image of her as a much younger woman on the deck of a ship. Through financial struggle and success, through political endeavors and forays into high society, through friendships and affairs, the one constant is Madame Arnoux and her elusiveness in Frédéric’s life. Occasional connections and mutual devotions are far outnumbered by arguments, disappointments, and doubts. Ultimately, the search for love proves more lively and important than the love itself: when Madame Arnoux finally offers herself to Frédéric, he dismisses the thought out of hand.
Other characters’ searches for love may be less dramatic, but they serve as driving forces behind their actions. Rosanette, despite her many lovers and her independent spirit, yearns to have a child and be married. Madame Dambreuse, enmeshed as she is in high society and influence, accepts Frédéric as a lover because she wants him to provide her with a great passion. Deslauriers’s search meanders from women to jobs to schooling; in a way, he seeks some sort of passion. Pellerin’s search takes the form of a protracted search for fulfilling art, while Hussonnet, Dussardier, and Senecal pursue political endeavors with all the devotion they can muster. Louise Roque seems to have the purest motives in her search for love, yearning for Frédéric and settling for Deslauriers only when Frédéric proves unavailable. However, even she is unfulfilled, and her search continues: she leaves Deslauriers for a singer. In Sentimental Education, the search itself—not its outcome—is what life is truly made of.
Throughout Sentimental Education, characters, particularly Pellerin, continuously disagree and change their minds about what the purpose of art really is. Pellerin initially believes that beauty is the sole purpose of art. He rails against art that has a “hideous reality,” claiming that art is meant to provide adulation and opulence. Pellerin’s views don’t mesh with the views of other characters; for example, Senecal claims that art should lift “the moral standards of the masses” and that the idea of something matters more than its style. Although Pellerin makes frequent, grand pronouncements about what art is and should be, his views eventually change. He later decides that character and variety are more important to art than beauty. He at one point tries to commodify art by forming a stock exchange on which artists would collaborate to produce “sublime works of art.” This bizarre idea suggests that Pellerin is struggling to keep the ideals of art alive, even while art is valued less and less in society. Ultimately, he becomes a photographer, embracing the “realism” he once dismissed and including himself in his photographs. For Pellerin, art has become a vehicle for portraying reality on the most personal level. The purpose, even for the artist himself, has changed. Arnoux’s changing involvement in the art world follows the same sort of path as Pellerin’s, although we are told of his background only in brief. He is first an artist, then a seller of art; then he abandons art altogether and opens a china factory. From doer to seller to nothing at all, Arnoux changes his involvement just as Pellerin does. Once a believer in beauty and “art for art’s sake,” each man’s interest eventually turns utilitarian.
As French society lost its illusions, so too did the purpose of art begin to seem less enchanted. The changes in Pellerin’s and Arnoux’s views about and involvement with art follow the changing social and political climates of the time. As capitalism and money began to dominate society, people began to make their fortunes rather than inherit them, and old ideas about beauty and art lost their resonance among the new middle-class. Flaubert sought to condemn the new bourgeoisie, who he believed were vacuous, and his depiction of the desecration of art is one way that he comments on the declining culture of the time.
Although Frédéric aspires to become a member of Paris’s high society, the company he hopes to join prove themselves to be disloyal in their allegiances, unpredictable in their whims, and shallow in their concerns, which creates an overall sense of how inane this community is. Flaubert intended Sentimental Education to paint a satirical picture of this privileged segment of the population, a decision that led to anger and poor reviews when the book was published. Examples of the capriciousness and vacuity of society appear throughout the novel, but we see them most clearly in the social gatherings at the Dambreuses’ house. There, talk rarely leaves the realm of gossip and silliness, and even Frédéric—always willing to indulge this society because of his yearning to be part of it—is shocked and appalled. He describes the conversation as “aimless, lifeless, and inconsequential,” yet still strives to become part of it. Although these people seem banal to him, he still yearns for their approval.
The flagrant infidelities and convoluted affairs add to the argument that this society is foolish and comical. The romantic liaisons change quickly and become almost impossible to follow. Rosanette is kept by Oudry, then Arnoux; Frédéric somehow competes with Delmar, but we’re never entirely sure what Delmar’s role is. Madame Dambreuse competes with Cecile, her husband’s illegitimate daughter, for Martinon, then takes Frédéric as her lover. Arnoux, Mademoiselle Vatnaz, and others in their crowd have stories just as involved. All the bed hopping, cheating, stealing, and lying create an unflattering portrait of a society that believes itself to be superior to the masses and of the highest decorum, decency, and class.