The protagonist of the novel. Frédéric is passive and lacks ambition, relying on an inheritance for financial support and on his friends and acquaintances to help him enter bourgeois society and meet women. Realistic to the point of pessimism, he indulges his friend Deslauriers in discussing their grand plans for the future but privately doubts that any of their dreams will be realized. Motivated only by the thrill of the chase, he loses interest once he gains someone or something. His driving passion is his love for Madame Arnoux; however, when she finally returns his feelings, he casts her aside. He lacks self-awareness and consequently does not mature or develop throughout the course of the novel.
The woman Frédéric pursues unsuccessfully for years. Madame Arnoux represents a domestic, maternal figure for Frédéric, satisfying his needs for safety and comfort. Although she finally returns Frédéric’s feelings, she remains virtuous; Frédéric rejects her sole attempt to become his lover. She represents his inability to desire anything that he can actually have; when he gets her, he no longer wants her.
The husband of Frédéric’s love, Madame Arnoux. Monsieur Arnoux becomes a friend of sorts to Frédéric, introducing him into his social circle and taking him into his confidence. He never seems to see Frédéric’s infatuation with Madame Arnoux, perhaps because he is too involved in his own string of love affairs. Monsieur Arnoux is an art dealer who had once aspired to be an artist. He eventually gives up his art shop to become a factory owner.
Frédéric’s best friend. Deslauriers is a loyal friend to Frédéric even when Frédéric snubs him to pursue Madame Arnoux. Through the ups and downs of the men’s friendship, Deslauriers is generally willing to forgive Frédéric’s less-than-admirable behavior. Eventually, he tries to take some of Frédéric’s seeming good fortune for his own. Deslauriers later becomes a successful clerk.
A courtesan, also called the Marshal because she teases her guests about being their Marshal, or general. Rosanette becomes a significant lover of Frédéric, eventually bearing him a son who dies in infancy. Rosanette is “kept” by various men, including Arnoux, Monsieur Oudry, Delmar, and Frédéric.
A journalist who brings Frédéric into the Arnouxes’ home. Hussonnet meets Frédéric at a demonstration, and this chance meeting leads to Frédéric’s second meeting with Madame Arnoux.
An artist who frequents Arnoux’s home and shop. Pellerin has a falling out with Arnoux over Arnoux’s dishonest business practices. A painter, Pellerin struggles throughout the novel to find a suitable definition of beauty, and he eventually gives up painting to become a photographer.
Frédéric’s widowed mother. Madame Moreau has grand ambitions for Frédéric and pushes him to get patronage from his rich uncle Barthelemy.
An acquaintance of Madame Moreau’s. Although Roque lost his reputation from living with his housekeeper, he redeems it slightly when he marries her. He is a steward for Monsieur Dambreuse and loaned a great deal of money to Madame Moreau—only to then demand repayment, which destroyed her financially. His daughter is Louise.
Roque’s daughter and Frédéric’s intended wife. Louise meets Frédéric when she is a child, and, as a grown woman, she falls in love with him. Her father’s wealth entices Frédéric, but he eventually gives her up to pursue other women. Louise ultimately marries Deslauriers.
A math teacher and friend of Deslauriers’s. Frédéric tolerates him for Deslauriers’s sake, but he does not enjoy his company. Senecal becomes deeply involved in politics, joins the police, and ultimately shoots Dussardier.
A friend of Frédéric’s from law school. Martinon is a diligent student, and he is also acquainted with high society. He is the lover of Madame Dambreuse but ultimately marries Monsieur Dambreuse’s illegitimate daughter, Cecile, because he believes he will receive a large inheritance.
Dambreuse’s illegitimate daughter. Cecile is slated to marry Cisy but ultimately marries Martinon.
A wealthy friend of Deslauriers and Frédéric’s. Cisy deeply offends Frédéric at dinner at the Dambreuses’ home by insulting Madame Arnoux, and he and Frédéric face off in a duel. Cisy ultimately collapses.
A wealthy man whom Frédéric attempts to befriend. Monsieur Dambreuse is initially uninterested in welcoming Frédéric into his home, despite his letter of introduction from Roque. Eventually, Frédéric befriends him and is welcomed into their social circle. Monsieur Dambreuse wants to help Frédéric’s career, but Frédéric is more interested in pursuing Madame Arnoux. When Monsieur Dambreuse dies, he leaves his wife nothing.
The beautiful, high-society matron whom Frédéric aspires to seduce. Madame Dambreuse seems to symbolize all that is wonderful about high society, but when Frédéric eventually becomes her intimate friend and then her lover, she reveals herself to be shallow and vapid.
A delivery man who tackles a policeman during a demonstration. Dussardier is put in jail and is visited by Frédéric and Hussonnet, who offer him cigars. He is of a lower social class than Frédéric. He eventually becomes active in the fighting in Paris and is ultimately killed by Senecal.
One of the men who frequents Arnoux’s shop. Regimbart drinks too much and does not do any work. Nonetheless, Arnoux admires him. He is sometimes referred to as “The Citizen.”
The woman who tells Madame Dambreuse that Frédéric intends to give her money to Madame Arnoux.
A spinster and courtesan. Mademoiselle Vatnaz has an array of loves and lovers, including Dussardier, Delmar the actor, and possibly Arnoux. She has a cruel streak and attempts to ruin Rosanette. The nature of her business is unclear.
Monsieur Roque’s lover. Catherine takes the place of Louise’s biological mother when she dies.
Monsieur Roque’s wife, whom he does not love. Eleonore’s daughter is Louise.
Frédéric’s wealthy uncle. Although it seems unlikely that Uncle Barthelemy will make Frédéric his heir, when he dies a few days later, he does just this, making Frédéric rich.
An actor. Delmar is the lover of Rosanette and Mademoiselle Vatnaz. He becomes a politician.
A man who keeps Rosanette. Oudry used to be Arnoux’s neighbor.