Flaubert's protagonist is Frédéric Moreau, and Flaubert treats him most unsentimentally. An alternative title might be Education of a Cad. We get an early view of him strolling the deck of a ship, feeling melancholy:
He found that the happiness that he deserved by virtue of his sensitive soul was slow in coming.
The sense of being entitled to happiness never leaves Frédéric, and it does nothing to stop him treating others shabbily when they fail to provide it. He becomes enraptured of Madame Arnoux, who is, alas, married and faithful to her husband. When she does not reciprocate his passion, he turns to the neighbourhood courtesan, Rosanette. Many arm-chair psychologists have diagnosed Flaubert's Madame Bovary as bi-polar. Likewise, his description of Rosanette would fit any text-book description of manic depression:
Incapable of resisting a desire, she became infatuated about some trinket which she happened to see, and could not sleep till she had gone and bought it, then bartered it for another, sold costly dresses for little or nothing, lost her jewellery, squandered money, and would have sold her chemise for a loge-box at the theatre. Often she asked Frédéric to explain to her some word she came across when reading a book, but did not pay any attention to his answer, for she jumped quickly to another idea, while heaping questions on top of each other. After spasms of gaiety came childish outbursts of rage, or else she sat on the ground dreaming before the fire with her head down and her hands clasping her knees, more inert than a torpid snake.
While supporting and cavorting with Rosanette, oblivious to her needs and frailties, Frédéric still pines for and courts his "true" love, Madame Arnoux, ever unattainable.
He called her "Marie", adoring this name, which, as he said, was expressly made to be uttered with a sigh of ecstasy, and which seemed to contain clouds of incense and bouquets of roses...
Meanwhile, the mobs are growing unhappy with the King, and the revolution begins. Frédéric's loyalties to his male companions are as fickle and shifting as those with women. Others, filled with passion for the cause of the new republic, go off to fight, yet Frédéric manages to avoid all scenes of conflict. His total inaction does not, however, stop him proclaiming his lofty opinions. He and his journalist companion, Hussonnet, come upon a raucous and uncouth mob:
"Come away out of this," said Hussonnet; "I am disgusted with the people..."
"I don't care what you think!" said Frédéric; "I consider the people sublime."
Once the king is toppled, the work of republic-building must begin, and Frédéric, "a man prone to every foible," decides to run for election. The audience at his first speech exposes his utter lack of credentials, and he is unceremoniously ejected. Does he consider that he might own at least a part of the failure? Not exactly.
He reproached himself for his devotedness, without reflecting that, after all, the accusations brought against him were just. What fatal idea was this candidature! But what asses! What idiots! He drew comparisons between himself and these men, and soothed his wounded pride with the thought of their stupidity.
Then he felt the need of seeing Rosanette. After such an exhibition of ugliness, and so much maliciousness, her sweetness would be a relief.
So much for the sublimity of the people. And so it goes -- when life gives Frédéric lemons, he runs to Rosanette for solace and amusement; when it entices him with happiness, he dumps her again, hypocritically reviling her for her promiscuity when she seeks the patronage of other men during his disappearances. Madame Arnoux comes onto the stage now and then, and Frédéric always falls at her feet, blathering about his one true love of her, then running off to another woman out of spite when he feels rebuffed. He courts two other women of rank and wealth, making lackluster efforts to talk himself into love with them; both times he breaks his promises to marry.
At the end of the novel, told as a fleeting anecdote, Frédéric and his on-again-off-again friend, Deslauriers, go into a brothel together. Thinking that the laughing prostitutes are making fun of him, Frédéric bolts from the place. Years later, the two men reminisce about the experience:
"That was the best we ever got!" said Frédéric.
"Yes, perhaps so, indeed! It was the best time we ever had," said Deslauriers.
And that is the end of Sentimental Education.
Flaubert considered this a more mature novel than Madame Bovary. The political plot-line does give the story more depth, yes, but Frédéric never took hold of me as Emma Bovary did. She and her husband, Charles, were multi-faceted characters who inspired a wide range of emotions. Frédéric, by contrast, elicited from me a lot of head-shaking and eye-rolling, never any fondness or sympathy. I will never feel any sorrow that he likely went to the grave believing an unconsummated flight from a brothel the highlight of his love life.
That said, however, Flaubert does present an unsentimental view of the second revolution through his characters' eyes, just as Dickens had done in the past (albeit more gently) in A Tale of Two Cities. Even though critics rank this novel behind Madame Bovary, it's still well worth reading.