This quote comes from Chapter 5 of the novel and concerns Leonard Bast as he is in the Schlegel household trying to reclaim his umbrella. As a member of the working class who is trying to desperately improve himself, he is trying to keep abreast with the conversation of the...
This quote comes from Chapter 5 of the novel and concerns Leonard Bast as he is in the Schlegel household trying to reclaim his umbrella. As a member of the working class who is trying to desperately improve himself, he is trying to keep abreast with the conversation of the Schlegel sisters, but he finds that their words "flutter away from [him] like birds." As he tries to focus on what they say, he finds he can only think about his umbrella, and this to him becomes a symbol of what distracts him in his "pursuit of beauty." Of course, the reality is that his poverty dictates that his umbrella, and other physical objects, become tremendously important to him. He cannot afford to not worry about such items. This means he can only ever "pursue" beauty rather than gain and understand it, and therefore the words of somebody like Margaret Schlegel will always be impossible for him to understand and grasp.
This quote therefore highlights one of the central themes of the novel which is that of class conflict. Leonard Bast cannot hope to be able to enter into conversation with the Schlegels as an equal, and therefore his time with them stokes his longing to pursue beauty but also highlights how his class entraps him:
Her speeches fluttered away from the young man like birds. If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world. Oh, to acquire culture! Oh, to pronounce foreign names correctly! Oh, to be well informed, discoursing at ease on every subject that a lady started! But it would take one years. With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been reading steadily from childhood?
Leonard cannot possibly hope to become "cultured" no matter how hard he works at it, and anyway, his poverty means he is always doomed to think about "umbrellas" and other such trivial objects, which the Schlegels, thanks to their wealth, can remain unburdened by.