Frederick Moreau may be our hero, but don't expect him to do anything heroic. Actually, don't even expect him to do anything you'd agree with.
We will say this, though: his obsession with Madame Arnoux—which is definitely his defining characteristic—is infectious. He is obsessed in such detail and with such undying commitment, that we readers can't help but hope he pulls the whole mess off.
When the novel opens, Frederick is eighteen years old, already a little cynical about life and not really looking forward to going home to see his mother. But when he spots Madame Arnoux on the deck of the steamer—her shoes, the hem of her dress, the fur trim on her black velvet coat, oh my!—it's like life through a window just became life through a kaleidoscope: things get real zany.
When he first reunites with his lady crush at a party at her house, he can barely contain himself:
She was leaning forward towards his ear; their heads were just touching, and Frederick would have been glad to become deaf, infirm, and ugly if, instead, he had an illustrious name and white hair—in short, if he only happened to possess something which would install him in such intimate association with her. He began once more to eat out his heart, furious at the idea of being so young a man. (1.4.245)
This guy is ready to make a deal with the devil—anything to win her love. Let's take a look at the next paragraph, just for good measure:
Every word that came out of her mouth seemed to Frederick something entirely new, an exclusive appendage of her personality. He gazed attentively at the fringes of her head-dress, the ends of which caressed her bare shoulder, and he was unable to take away his eyes; he plunged his soul into the whiteness of that feminine flesh, and yet he did not venture to raise his eyelids to glance at her higher, face to face. (1.4.246)
Did you see that? He is so in love with her, he can't even look her in the eye.
To understand Frederick's story as a whole, we have to understand that he never consummates his love for Madame Arnoux. Translation: no sex. And the big question is why? Well, aside from the fact that she's married and rejects his advances and all that. After all, it's not like he's sitting around like a monk waiting for her. While his relationship to Madame Arnoux is of the no-sex variety, Frederick sleeps with Rosanette, a small potatoes courtesan, without hesitation.
In spite of his undying devotion for Marie, this guy is all over the map with women. Our guess? He's trying to find a substitute for Ms. Arnoux. Let's just take a look at his stats:
Did we mention this was all happening at the same time? And guess what? All of his relationships fail. Not so surprised, huh? Frederick just can't commit to anyone who is not Madame Arnoux.
And by the time she offers herself to him, Madame Arnoux is not the Madame Arnoux he fell in love with. Twenty years have passed, her hair is white, and he's not really interested in her that way anymore. Which leaves us with one question: SERIOUSLY, DUDE?!
It's no secret that Sentimental Education takes place during some crazy political times. But is our protagonist a political guy? The short answer is no. in spite of the fact that all of his friends participate in extended debates about the revolution, he seems to be either too in love or just too dull to care about social action. The guy is a detached observer of the major historical events, to the point of not seeing them as real sometimes.
Flaubert depicts Frederick as the perfect example of an apathetic member of his generation. Check out, for example, Frederick's political attitude while he's at Dambreuse house for a party:
They were talking about votes, amendments, counter-amendments, M. Grandin's speech, and M. Benoist's reply. The third party had decidedly gone too far. The Left Centre ought to have had a better recollection of its origin. Serious attacks had been made on the ministry. It must be reassuring, however, to see that it had no successor. In short, the situation was completely analogous to that of 1834.
As these things bored Frederick, he drew near the ladies. (2.11.401-402)
Never mind that all of these political references probably make no sense. The point is that Frederick is more interested in the ladies than what's going on in the world. In fact, when he runs for office, he really gets in a pickle; his overly long speech clearly indicates his failure to understand the circumstances or his audience. The result? Total humiliation.
Frederick seems to be wound up in his own fantasies, and while he may not be political in his own right, he helps Flaubert inject the politics into his own story. The protagonist is a pretty good stand-in for France—feeble and unsuccessful. So what do you think? Is Frederick a weak character or does he have the right idea staying out of it all?
If you haven't noticed, Frederick can be super annoying. And not just in his habits, but in how he develops in his character. (Yeah, we know, it's not his fault. We blame Flaubert.) Our protagonist just doesn't develop in a linear way and seems too scattered to ever really accomplish anything.
At the beginning of Sentimental Education, Frederick is naïve and optimistic about his life as he sets off to study law in Paris. But sure enough, success isn't the name of the game, and it takes quite a bit of umph for him to pass his exams… finally. Throughout the novel, he resists his mother's plans for him to be successful—get a job, marry the heiress Louise, don't say anything about the government because it may be your patron someday, blah, blah blah.
This guy wants to be all sorts of things, but can't pick one and just focus. Think about it: At first Frederick wants to study law (which Martinon succeeds at), then he wants to be an artist (which Pellerin is more successful at—sort of), then he wants to be a writer (which is Hussonet's profession, as a journalist). Everyone else is doing, and Frederick is just anticipating.
Let's take a look at this one moment, in which Frederick is working on his new pursuit: painting.
The quietude of this spacious room, which nothing disturbed save the scampering of the mice, the light falling from the ceiling, or the hissing noise of the stove, made him sink into a kind of intellectual ease. Then his eyes, wandering away from the task at which he was engaged, roamed over the shell-work on the wall, around the objects of virtù on the whatnot, along the torsos on which the dust that had collected made, as it were, shreds of velvet; and, like a traveller who has lost his way in the middle of a wood, and whom every path brings back to the same spot, continually, he found underlying every idea in his mind the recollection of Madame Arnoux. (1.5.50)
It's kind of like sitting down to write your essay on the Emancipation Proclamation and deciding that sending a text about last night's burger is way more interesting. Our guy sits in sharp contrast to his friends, who are actively undertaking a political education—working toward revolution with all of the hopes and disappointments involved in that effort.
But in the end, Frederick's education isn't all that different from his friends'. Theirs is sentimental, too—just in a different way. Frederick doesn't know how to act on his love for Marie, and his friends don't know exactly what they want the revolution to accomplish. Either way, it's all about new experiences and feelings, new relationships and new challenges.Frederick Moreau's Timeline