St.Quentin said rather vaguely : "How annoying for you!" He had screwed round his head inside the folds of his scarf, to consider Anna with abstract attentiveness. For she had this little way of travestying herself and herself-pities, till the view she took of herself, when she was with him, seemed to concert exactly with the view he took of her sex.

These are sentences from "the Death of the Heart" by Elizabeth Bowen

Before the sentences, St.Quentin and Anna are talking about Anna's sister-in-law. (Anna and St. Quentin are friends.) Anna complains about her sister-in-low, then above sentence come.

I want to know the meaning of abstract attentiveness.

  • 1
    I wouldn't over-think this one, but most likely the intended sense is as per the full OED's definition A5: Separate, distinct; set apart from; withdrawn, secluded. Effectively the same as detached awareness, a collocation that occurs many times in Google Books. Apr 24, 2019 at 13:17
  • 1
    btw - that's travestying, not traverstying. An unusual reflexive usage of the verb to travesty, meaning to parody / caricature (oneself). This isn't really a useful text for learning how modern Anglophones speak/write. Apr 24, 2019 at 13:22

3 Answers 3


This language is highly stylized, meaning that it does not necessarily reflect how people actually talk in ordinary conversation. The author makes up various phrases, and combine words which normally would not be put together. When done well, this writing style can create an uniquely interesting atmosphere for the events of the novel.

You would not usually combine "abstract" and "attentiveness" together, as they don't really fit. "Abstract" is a conceptual adjective and does not usually relate to human behavior -- meaning someone can't normally act "abstract".

The reader therefore has to guess the writer's intention. My best guess is this phrase implies a combination of "attentive" and "engaged in abstract thought". St. Quentin is evaluating Anna to create a kind of theoretical model that describes her behavior. Towards this end he's baiting her with loaded phrases like, "How annoying for you!" in order to judge her reaction.


An abstract argument or discussion is general and not based on particular examples: This debate is becoming too abstract - let's have some hard facts!

concrete adjective US /ˈkɑːn.kriːt/ UK /ˈkɒŋ.kriːt/

C1 clear and certain, or real and existing in a form that can be seen or felt: They think she killed her husband, but they have no concrete evidence.

Cambridge Dictionary for both above

Often, there is a dichotomy between the word abstract and concrete in terms of literary or intellectual history in English.

So, to "consider Anna with abstract attentiveness" means in a general was, not concretely. He was considering the idea of her rather than the woman as a real, live person.

However, it is a quasi-oxymoron as neither abstract or concrete are really literary qualifiers of attentiveness.

oxymoron noun ox·​y·​mo·​ron ˌäk-si-ˈmȯr-ˌän -sē- pluraloxymorons or less commonly oxymora ˌäk-si-ˈmȯr-ə -sē- : a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (such as cruel kindness) Merriam Webster_oxymoron


It appears that the author is using abstract here according to sense 3b of Merriam-Webster’s definition:

Impersonal, detached.

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