Meet Frederick Moreau, a law student who spends the better part of his life pining for a married woman named Madame Marie Arnoux. Intrigued yet? We thought so.
The novel opens with Frederick on a boat, sailing up the Seine to see his mother at their home in Nogent-sur-Seine. While standing on the deck, he meets Monsieur Arnoux and his unbelievably attractive wife, Marie Arnoux. And that's our meet-cute. Once he lays eyes on her, that's it: it's the beginning of a lifetime of love, lust, and obsession.
At home, Frederick hangs out with his mother, who "cherished a lofty ambition for her son" (1.1.77) and an old school friend named Deslauriers. He doesn't tell Deslauriers about Madame Arnoux, but his friend urges him to befriend her hubby. Yeah, they both have some social climbing to do. In the meantime, Frederick should work his connection to Monsieur Roque, his mother's rich neighbor, who has connections to Monsieur Dambreuse, a Paris businessman-banker with serious connections.
Back in Paris, he happens upon the shop owned by Monsieur Arnoux (L'Art Industriel), Frederick makes it his mission to befriend the husband of his object of lust, and soon enough, their lives become intertwined. Compared to hanging all these high society party animals, law school is kind of dull. And so Frederick promptly stops attending classes and drifts idly through the city.
Frederick is stuck in a sort of social haze until, one day, a riot breaks out. He meets a man named Hussonet and, while conducting a little investigating about the riot, they befriend a man named Dussardier, who has (it seems, unlawfully) been arrested. Lo and behold, Frederick's new friend Hussonet works for Monsieur Arnoux. Convenient, right? And that's that: Frederick has found his ticket to the Arnoux circle. He begins a serious campaign of lurking about, spending time with Arnoux and some of his pals, including the painter Pellerin and Regimbart (a.k.a. the Citizen). Madame Arnoux never seems to be around. Bummer.
Frederick's buddy Deslauriers plans a move to Paris, but Frederick totally flakes on him on the day of his arrival. Why? Because he receives a more socially appealing invitation to dinner at the Arnouxes. Not cool, Frederick. The good news is that he sees Madame Arnoux and even gets a chance to talk with her. And that's when he decides: he will become a painter so he can be close to her, and Pellerin will have to teach him. Yeah, forget law school.
(We know this is getting complicated, but stay with us. Just keep your eyes on Frederick.)
One day, hearing that the Monsieur is out of town, Frederick goes over to the Arnoux house. And guess who's there? That's right: Monsieur, acting odd. In his fumbling discomfort, Frederick breaks the handle of one of Madame Arnoux's parasols. Oops. Luckily, Frederick gets invited to Madame Marie's name-day celebration and gives her a new parasol. She acts sort of funny about it, and a scene ensues when Frederick realizes the parasol in the house wasn't hers… even bigger oops. The Arnouxes get into a big marital fight, and the lady hurls a bouquet of roses out the window of the carriage as they return to Paris.
After much anxiety and hand wringing over money (mostly by Madame Moreau—Fred's mom), Frederick receives a large inheritance from his Uncle Barthélemy. Now he's set to enter high society and even woo Madame Arnoux with his big sacks of cash. Back in Paris, he discovers that the Arnouxes have moved and that Monsieur is out of the art biz and is now a pottery dealer.
Still with us?
In an effort to distract himself from his obsession with Madame Arnoux, Frederick goes on a 19th-century style-shopping spree: furniture, tailored suits, a carriage—even some servants. He knows he should be working the Dambreuse connection, but he visits Arnoux instead. [Insert dopey cartoon music here.] Arnoux takes him to an off-the-hook party, where Frederick sees the underbelly of high society and meets Arnoux's mistress, a hottie named Rosanette. His subsequent visit to the Dambreuse house seems sleepy and trivial by comparison.
Frederick has a house-warming party with all of his friends, who are preoccupied with political events and gossip—including some dirt on Monsieur Arnoux. Deslauriers hits Frederick up for money to support Hussonet's political newspaper, but Frederick brushes him off. Frederick decides it's a good idea to make Rosanette his lover, but she's not having it. Oh, and Dambreuse makes some promises about helping Frederick get a job in business. (SO MUCH IS HAPPENING.)
As Frederick gets to know the Arnouxes, he tries to divide and conquer, but doesn't have much success there. To cover his own tail, Monsieur Arnoux tells his wife that Rosanette is Frederick's lover, which, as we know, is totally not true. To further ingratiate himself with Madame Arnoux, Frederick works out a deal with Dambreuse regarding a debt owed to him by the Arnouxes. He then goes out to visit Arnoux's new factory and ends up getting a tour from the lady of the house. That's when he busts a move on her, and gets promptly rejected. Womp womp.
Frederick decides to dedicate himself more fully to pursuing Rosanette. At the end of one day at the races, he takes her to a fancy restaurant, but their romantic duo is interrupted by the loud-mouthed Marquis de Cisy. Rosanette ends up leaving with Cisy, much to Frederick's disappointment. Later on, Cisy says some nasty things, which ends with Frederick throwing a plate at him—and he's not sorry about it. Game on: the next day there's a duel. Almost. Before it can happen, they both get over it.
Frederick goes home to Nogent to see if Louise Roque (his rich neighbor's daughter) is still available for marriage. While he is gone, Deslauriers sneaks around, trying to exploit Frederick's connections. In a fit of anger, he tells Madame Arnoux that Frederick is getting married. And wouldn't you know it—she realizes that she loves him.
Still unmarried, though interested in Louise's dowry, Frederick goes out to the Arnoux factory to get some statues for Louise. His relationship to Madame Arnoux turns romantic, but not sexual. He tries to set up a rendezvous at a rented apartment, but she's a no-show. He thinks he's been stood up, but she's really home with her son, Eugène, who's on the brink of death.
In case there wasn't enough confusion already, Frederick and Rosanette become lovers. And despite of her continued affair with Arnoux, Rosanette leaves the city with Frederick, while Paris is off the hook what with the crumbling monarchy of King Philippe.
Frederick gets word that the Arnoux marriage isn't going well, so he decides to visit Madame Arnoux. They get to talking and end up smooching (finally!). Oh, but it turns out that Rosanette is standing right there with steam shooting from her ears. Frederick's pissed, too, because she followed him; he almost hits her, until she announces that she's pregnant.
And so, Frederick decides to make Madame Dambreuse his mistress. (Wait, what?!)
Some other things happen:
Frederick continues to plod through life without amusement. All he can do is travel and go to parties, so things have clearly hit rock bottom. One day, Madame Arnoux shows up (zoinks!). Though he thinks he finally has a chance, he doesn't go for it. Yep, you read that right. He doesn't do anything, and she leaves.
We're not kidding.
In the final scene, Frederick and Deslauriers are reminiscing about their youth. Their best memory, apparently, is of trying to sneak into a brothel. Classy. And no, you are not alone if you start to seriously question what's up with these two.