Decadent Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Decadent Novel

Deborah Jenson

“Part of the problem of defining decadence has to do with the fact that a fully developed movement or school never actually existed,” notes Asti Hustvedt (13). The non-coalescence of decadence as a fin-de-siècle movement is not an accident but an exemplification of its underlying ethos. As Paul Bourget described it in 1883, decadence is the condition of a society when too many individuals resist the work of collective life; the cells of the social organism refuse to subordinate themselves to the whole. The resulting anarchic decline is manifested—and encoded positively—at all levels of the decadent enterprise. It is symbolized by the lone cell or atom working against nature, against the evolutionary success and reproduction of the whole of which it is a part. A decadent style, Bourget notes, is one in which “the unity of the book decomposes to make way for the independence of the page, the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence decomposes to make way for the independence of the word” (25). Yet although the solipsistic and transgressive dimensions of decadence countered the formation of a collective movement, leading to the classification of many examples of the decadent novel, such as Émile Zola's La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret (1875, The Sin of Father Mouret), within the contiguous naturalist or symbolist movements, one novel has had lasting status as a paradoxical “bible” of decadence: Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours (1884, Against Nature).

The protagonist of À Rebours, the esthete Des Esseintes, argues that “Nature has had her day” (20), and that the field of human genius is artifice. This decadent novel, rife with intertexts (see INTERTEXTUALITY) from the poet Charles Baudelaire (who served as a posthumous theoretician of decadence), established dominant decadent motifs featured across diverse media and genres. Salomé, for example, representing both a fear of woman as nature's mystical vector of self-reproduction, as well as a cult of the perverse at the potent crossroads of innocence and of archaic or orientalized style. She reigns not only in Against Nature but in the work of visual artists Aubrey Beardsley (1872—98) and Gustave Moreau (1826—98), writers Gustave Flaubert (1877, “Hérodias”) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1864, “Hérodiade”), and in Oscar Wilde's 1893 play Salomé. Scopophilia, exhibitionism, fetishism, and other disorders emerging in neuropsychiatric and PSYCHOANALYTIC discourses by Alfred Binet (1857—1911), Jean-Martin Charcot (1825—93), Richard Krafft-Ebing (1840—1902), and Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) contribute to the rearranging of structures of the narrative “gaze” and of affective investments in the decadent novel, as is particularly evident in Monsieur Vénus (1884, Mr. Venus) and La Jongleuse (1900, The Juggler) by the woman novelist Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery Vallette). Infatuation with artificial animation and new technologies of mimetic reproduction such as the phonograph yields an automated love object in Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's L'Ève future (1886, Tomorrow's Eve).

The decadent novel was fundamentally the fruit of a decadent aesthetic that flourished in the visual cultures of several Western European nations. It was also connected with fin-de-siècle philosophy at several axes; Arthur Schopenhauer's (1788—1860) earlier paradigm of pessimism, in which willful desire engenders suffering, was influential, as was Max Nordau's (1849—1923) book on degeneration (1895); Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900) believed that “Decadence belongs to all epochs of mankind; refuse and decaying matter are found everywhere” (184—85). Internationally, aside from Wilde's 1890 decadent novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, many possible examples of the decadent novel—such as Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891), or M. P. Shiel's Shapes in the Fire (1896),—demonstrate points of convergence with decadence, rather than globally decadent aesthetics. Ultimately, a considerable field of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novelistic production puts into play what Charles Bernheimer describes as the conjunction of “medical diagnostics, sexuality, oedipal trauma, the disintegration of the subject and the limits of the human to suggest many unsuspected avatars of the death drive” (6).

SEE ALSO: Censorship, Modernism, Philosophical Novel, Realism, Sexuality.


1. Bernheimer, C. (2002), Decadent Subjects.

2. Bourget, P. (1883), Essais de psychologie contemporaine.

3. Hustvedt, A., ed. (1998), Decadent.

4. Huysmans, J.-K. (1998), Against Nature.

5. Nietzsche, F. (1967), Will to Power.