Decently smart people can do indecently stupid things. An intelligent and attractive young man from a country town near Paris moves to the city to find wealth, fame, and love. But it never seems to occur to him that he might have to do or be something of merit in order to deserve any of these things.
Frederic Moreau becomes a clever manipulator of others to further his own aims, and demonstrates what a life is like with no inner core or reliable sense of what’s right. He’s fickle, undependable, and greedy. He falls in love with a married woman more than once and finds himself living parallel secret lives with his various lady friends, all in his efforts to advance his own interests in fortune and status. Revolutionary events begin to swirl around him and it’s never certain who can be trusted. Ambition drives everyone else in his circles as much as it does him. Lust and despair alternate in his life, causing giddiness one minute, and grim hopelessness the next. When he does come into money, he wastes it on showy extravagances to impress those around him as he seeks to heal an inner need that can never be satisfied in such a way.
At the end of the story, he sits with his one remaining friend, the companion of his youth who had become a lawyer in order to prevail in politics, and they reflect on their lives.
<<They'd both been failures, the one who'd dreamed of Love and the one who'd dreamed of Power. How had it come about?
"Perhaps it was lack of perseverance?" said Frederic.
"For you maybe. For me, it was the other way round, I was too rigid, I didn't take into account a hundred and one smaller things that are more crucial than all the rest. I was too logical and you were too sentimental."
Then they blamed it on their bad luck, the circumstances, the times in which they'd been born.>> (462)
Frederic never came to realize the inner man he had neglected to his own great detriment. He never understood the role of character or true commitment in life or love. And in that blind spot, he prefigures many in our own time.