had expected to feel paroxysms of joy; but passions wilt when they
are transplanted, and, finding Madame Arnoux in a setting which
was unfamiliar to him, he had the impression that she had somehow
lost something, suffered a vague degradation, in short, that she
had changed. The calm of his heart astounded him.
The quotation appears when Frédéric
returns to Paris after receiving his uncle Barthelemy’s entire fortune
and finds the Arnouxes living in a new home. Madame Arnoux has been
living in Frédéric’s imagination for many months, and until he received
his fortune, he had declared himself over her and contemplated staying
in Nogent. His fortune, which renews his dreams and ambitions, also
renews his ardor for Madame Arnoux, and he expects to be overwhelmed
with love and relief to see her again. His reaction is much different
than he had expected. In her new surroundings, she seems like a
different person, and Frédéric leaves disappointed and disparaging
of her. Angry at her for how she has changed and angry at himself
for having spent so much time thinking about her, he believes he
has been foolish and dismisses her as bourgeois. Of course, this
is not the final word in Frédéric’s feelings for her, but it takes
him a while to get past this initial shock.
Frédéric’s reaction foreshadows his ultimate dismissal
of Madame Arnoux at the end of the novel. Frédéric is so infatuated with
her that she becomes inhuman—his relentless admiration has turned
her into a perfect specimen of womanhood in his mind. The image
he has of her never gains texture: she is always the beautiful young
woman he first spotted on the boat as he sailed from Paris to Nogent.
As humans do, she ages, but Frédéric dismisses this out of hand.
Only at the end of the novel, when he sees her white hair, does he
accept that she has become someone different from the woman who
has occupied his mind. Just as her new surroundings make her seem
different and therefore unacceptable to him, her “new” hair—that
is, her new humanness—leads Frédéric to ultimately reject her.