The novel describes the life of a young man (Frédéric Moreau) living through the revolution of 1848 and the founding of the Second French Empire, and his love for an older woman (based on the wife of the music publisher Maurice Schlesinger, who is portrayed in the book as Jacques Arnoux). Flaubert based many of the protagonist's experiences (including the romantic passion) on his own life. He wrote of the work in 1864:
- "I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation-- or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. It's a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays--that is to say, inactive."
The novel's tone is by turns ironic and pessimistic; it occasionally lampoons French society. The main character, Frédéric, often gives himself to romantic flights of fancy.