This chapter tells the story of Emma’s upbringing. Even as a young girl, she reads romantic stories like Paul et Virginie, which describe idealized tragic love. At thirteen she enters a convent, which she enjoys for its beautiful, unearthly atmosphere. She loves most religious writings because they are full of “romantic melancholia,” which she finds emotionally satisfying. The convent’s maid brings the girls romantic novels, which give Emma a passionate desire to resemble their heroines in every way: she craves their beautiful clothes and castles, their admirable lovers, and their tragic dispositions. Even in her music lessons, Emma seeks out the satisfactions of emotional turmoil.
Emma’s childhood is peaceful and somewhat uneventful, so instead of accumulating the experience available to her, she absorbs the experiences described in fanciful, clichéd novels – experiences that don’t really have an equivalent in life. She trains herself to respond most strongly – with the greatest sense of reality – to experiences that are unreal. In craving these experiences, and the abstract, vague identity that goes along with them, she essentially tries to become unreal – a 19th century cartoon character.
When Emma’s mother dies, Emma mourns her by crying and making a keepsake from her hair. Emma enjoys exhibiting sorrow, and thinks it flattering. She makes a lifestyle of it. But soon that lifestyle begins to bore her, and she admits to herself that she is no longer sad. The convent, too, begins to bore her, because she feels oppressed by its austere and intellectual aspects. She returns to the farm, which she dislikes even more than the convent. So when Charles comes into her life, she assumes that it is true love coming to save her – that she will finally experience the passion described in books.
Emma has learned the appropriate ways to express grief: she has made the connection from event to expression, but not the connection from event to emotion, or from emotion to expression. She is missing the central step. At first she enjoys the appearance of sorrow, but because it does not have any reason besides itself, it loses meaning, and Emma becomes bored. She goes through the same experience with religious devotion.