Frédéric 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.