The Art of Travel

Duc des Esseintes Character Analysis

The protagonist of J.K. Huysmans’ famous novel À Rebours, the Duc des Esseintes is a wealthy, decadent French nobleman who loves imagining voyages to foreign lands. After becoming enamored with Dutch painting, he travels to Holland, but becomes disappointed when he realizes that the images he saw in art were merely mixed with other elements of the landscape. Later, after reading a Dickens novel, he decides to travel to London. While still in Paris, he buys a guidebook, visits an English bar and then a tavern, and heads to the train station, where he quickly decides that he would rather not deal with the discomfort of traveling and heads back home. He never leaves his estate again, but he continues to daydream about traveling abroad and surrounds himself with travel memorabilia like ship schedules. Des Esseintes’ disappointment reflects the gap between people’s expectations of travel and its reality, as well as the seeming purity of foreign cultures in art and the imagination.

Duc des Esseintes Quotes in The Art of Travel

The The Art of Travel quotes below are all either spoken by Duc des Esseintes or refer to Duc des Esseintes. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Familiar and the Foreign Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Vintage edition of The Art of Travel published in 2002.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Des Esseintes conclude, in Huysmans’s words, that “the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.” Actual experience where what we have come to see is always diluted in what we could see anywhere, where we are drawn away from the present by an anxious future and where our appreciation of aesthetic elements lies at the mercy of perplexing physical and psychological demands.

Related Characters: Alain de Botton (speaker), J. K. Huysmans (speaker), Duc des Esseintes
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:
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Duc des Esseintes Character Timeline in The Art of Travel

The timeline below shows where the character Duc des Esseintes appears in The Art of Travel. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: On Anticipation
The Familiar and the Foreign Theme Icon
Expectations vs. Reality Theme Icon
Art, Travel, and the Search for Happiness Theme Icon
...addresses in his novel À Rebours, de Botton says. Huysmans’s protagonist, the “effete and misanthropic” Duc des Esseintes , lives alone on his estate, reading books constantly because he hates most of the... (full context)
Expectations vs. Reality Theme Icon
Art, Travel, and the Search for Happiness Theme Icon
But, as he prepares to board the train towards London, des Esseintes thinks of “how wearing it would be actually to make the journey” and laments, “what... (full context)
Expectations vs. Reality Theme Icon
The Receptive Self Theme Icon
Whereas a traveler like des Esseintes might find the reality of travel disappointing, de Botton finds it “truer and more rewarding... (full context)
Expectations vs. Reality Theme Icon
Art, Travel, and the Search for Happiness Theme Icon
De Botton recalls that the Duc des Esseintes always wanted to visit one other place: Holland. After viewing Dutch paintings of “patriarchal simplicity... (full context)
Expectations vs. Reality Theme Icon
After his trips to Holland and the Paris train station, Huysman’s protagonist the Duc des Esseintes never tries to travel again. Instead, he surrounds himself with images, objects, and documents that... (full context)