France (19th Century)

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

France (19th Century)

Michal Peled Ginsburg

A convenient way to describe the nineteenth-century French novel in all its variety is to map it onto the changes in literary movements, from Romanticism to realism to naturalism and fin-de-siècle Decadence (see DECADENT). This method is useful, however, only as long as one takes it with a grain of salt. Literary movements bring together writers who are often quite different from each other: the realism of Honoré de Balzac is not that of Gustave Flaubert. Authors can “belong” to more than one movement: Stendhal's pamphlet Racine et Shakespeare (1823) is rightly considered a manifesto for the Romantic movement but his novel Le Rouge et le noir (1830, Scarlet and Black), with its famous mirror analogy—“A novel is a mirror carried along a high road” (chap. 40)—is just as rightly taken as an example of realism. Finally, movements do not succeed each other like the days of the week: Romanticism does not disappear when realism arrives on the scene. And with authors who had long writing careers, we find various sorts of “anachronisms”: Victor Hugo, the leader of the Romantic movement early in the century, publishes his masterpiece Les Misérables (1862) after Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857), the realist novel par excellence. With this cautionary note in mind we can start tracing the changes the French novel undergoes through the century.

Like Romantic poetry, the Romantic novel that characterizes the first decades of the century aimed at representing inner subjectivity, especially that of male subjects afflicted with a sense of powerlessness that became known as the mal du siècle. François-René de Chateaubriand's René (1802), sounding the new note of melancholy disenchantment with “modern” reality, would become the model for the Romantic fiction of the (male) self. Étienne Pivert de Senancour's Obermann (1804), Benjamin Constant's Adolphe (1816), Stendhal's Armance (1827), and Alfred de Musset's Confession d'un enfant du siècle (1836, The Confession of a Child of the Century) all dwell on the sense of alienation, disempowerment, and futility that afflicted the sons of the Empire and grandsons of the Revolution. Though the emphasis in each is on individual subjectivity—the heroes present themselves as socially isolated, indeed outcasts—these novels make a claim to represent an entire generation, as Musset's title clearly indicates. Unable to find a place for themselves in Restoration (1814—30) society ruled by a “gerontocracy” (Musset's word), these sensitive, introspective, feminized young men cannot take decisive action, their will is paralyzed, and they feel trapped in melancholy reveries for which, nevertheless, they ask (and receive) the reader's sympathy. Indeed, this impotence is the grounds for their claim to be recognized as geniuses and is thus ultimately, as Waller has argued, a means for empowerment.

The inability to act that characterizes these melancholy, “impotent” heroes is often told through a failed love relation with a woman (who, as often, suffers its consequences). René, traveling far and wide in search of happiness, finally avows the secret source of his unhappiness in his love for a sister whose own incestuous love for him caused her to become a nun. In Constant's novel, the moody Adolphe can neither break up his relation with the older, beautiful Ellénore nor commit himself to her and she ultimately dies, a victim of his indecision. In Stendhal's Armance, Octave and Armance repeatedly fail to comprehend each other or reveal their love to each other; their marriage is based on a misunderstanding and leads to Octave's suicide and Armance's taking the veil. Musset's hero, repeatedly betrayed in his love relations, alternates between debauchery and ascetic withdrawal, short-lived happiness and consuming jealousy. With the exception of Armance, these are all first-person narratives, so that although fault and unhappiness seem shared by both male and female character, the point of view that directs the reader's response is exclusively that of the male protagonist (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE).

While the novels of the mal du siècle redefined models of masculinity, Madame de Staël's Corinne ou l'Italie (1807, Corinne, or Italy) and George Sand's Lélia (1833) and Indiana (1832) depicted heroines who resist traditional definitions of gender. Staël's novel tells of the ill-fated love of Corinne, an artistic genius, and Oswald Lord Nevil, a Romantic hero afflicted with the mal du siècle. Combining two distinct genres—a love story and a travel narrative—and adhering to neither, Staël's novel transgresses both genre and gender definitions. The travel through Italy that interrupts and arrests the conventional love plot allows Staël to represent a happy love relation that does not require the heroine to sacrifice herself and her ambitions to the man she loves, while also suggesting that this is possible because in Italy they are not subject to the stifling conventions of their own societies (Waller). Though Corinne ultimately suffers for her love, she is not a victim, and the novel, rather than centering on the man's predicament, allows for Corinne's point of view and focuses on her disillusion with her lover. Sand's Lélia too is an exceptional woman whose own version of the mal du siècle serves as a critique of women's predicament, since it is the result of her inability to realize her talents. In her relation with her lover Sténio, Lélia resists confining her desires and ambitions to loving a man, and although she dies at the end, it is not because she suffers from love and abandonment.

By the time Sand starts writing, Balzacian realism is already changing the literary scene, and her first, highly successful novel, Indiana, participates in this turn. However, already in this novel realism's commitment to the description of the “world as it” is is accompanied by a utopian yearning. Indiana depicts a woman's suffering in marriage and in love: Indiana's husband, Delmar, is tyrannical; her lover, Raymon, abandons her for a society marriage, leaving her in a state of mental and physical breakdown; her old companion, Ralphe, rescues her only to propose a suicide pact. But in the epilogue to the novel we find Indiana and Ralphe living in isolation on their island and working to free black slaves. The novel is thus divided between the real and the ideal: while acknowledging the impossibility for the lovers to survive within the social world, it also represents them as working toward a better world. Though idealism became marginalized when realism acquired hegemonic status, Sand's later novels continue this utopian, idealist tradition.

The Romantic nostalgia for the past, the success of Scott's historical novels, the rise of a new kind of historiography in post-revolutionary France, and the growing popular interest in representations of history (in drama but also in panoramas, dioramas, and wax displays) all contributed to the emergence, in the early part of the century, of the historical novel. Alfred de Vigny's Cinq-Mars (1825, Cinq-Mars; or, A Conspiracy Under Louis XIII), considered the first historical novel in France, and Prosper Mérimée's Chronique du règne de Charles IX (1829, A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX) were both written with the idea of appealing to a broad, popular reading public. But it is with Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (1831, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) that the French historical novel achieves distinction. Whereas in Cinq-Mars Vigny places real historical figures—Louis XIII (1610—43), his favorite, the handsome Cinq-Mars (1620—42), Richelieu (1585—1642)— and real historical events (Cinq-Mars's conspiracy against Richelieu) at the forefront, Hugo's novel centers around fictional characters: the beautiful young gypsy, Esmeralda; Frollo, the archdeacon of the Cathedral who is madly in love with her and who ends up betraying her; the hunchback, bell-ringer Quasimodo, who tries to save her and dies with her; the handsome Captain Phoebus, whom she loves and of whose attempted murder she is accused; and Louis XI, who orders her execution. But whereas in Vigny's novel the historical character Cinq-Mars is transformed into a nineteenth-century Romantic character—an exceptional figure marked by his feelings and suffering, fighting for liberty—Hugo's fiction powerfully evokes the historical past, especially through its focus on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, an emblem of medieval culture, whose destruction by modern culture (symbolized by the printing press) Hugo predicts and laments (but which his novel to a great extent helped prevent).

The tradition of the historical novel is carried on in the 1840s and early 1850s by Hugo's fellow Romantic, Alexandre Dumas (Dumas père). Dumas's highly popular historical novels (many written in collaboration with Auguste Maquet) form three cycles, dealing with the wars of religion and the reign of Henri IV; the time of Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, the civil war of 1648—53, and the coming to power of Louis XIV; and the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary period (1787—99). Dumas's main goal is to instruct and entertain in order to bring history to life. Relying heavily on memoirs and other documents the historical novel becomes in his hands a dramatic tale of adventure and heroism enlivened by quick, witty dialogue. Though centered mostly on the exploits of fictive characters, it shows these characters in relation to real historical figures and conflicts. Thus in Les Trois Mousquetaires (1844, The Three Musketeers) the fictive tale of heroic adventures and male friendship depends on the musketeers' relation to Richelieu, in his historical role.

While the influence of Romanticism lingered long into the century, the 1830s marked the rise of realism. One should note that realism was not original to the nineteenth century; Antoine-François Prévost's Manon Lescaut (1731), with its emphasis on the circulation of money and bodies, was already a realist novel (while also participating in the novel of sentiment typical of the eighteenth century). What changed with Stendhal and especially Balzac was not so much the attention to material conditions as a new insistence on the formative role of social forces.

Le Rouge et le noir can be seen as a turning point from Romanticism to realism. Straddled between the old PICARESQUE tradition and the emerging tradition of the BILDUNGSROMAN the novel tells the adventures of Julien Sorel, who starts life as the unloved son of a carpenter and, by the novel's end, acquires a title and is about to marry the aristocratic Mathilde de la Môle before he spoils his success by shooting at his former lover, Mme. de Renâl, and is condemned to death. The novel participates in the Romantic nostalgia for an idealized past with its attendant sense of paralyzing belatedness: with the fall of the Empire, the only route to success left for the young Julien is the Church, ruled by old men. The “red” past is characterized by passion, naturalness, spontaneity, and immediacy, whereas its opposite, the “black” present, is characterized by vanity, mediation, imitation, and lack of authenticity. The main characters, alienated from vacuous Restoration society and longing for a glorious past, demonstrate their difference by imitating models from the past: Julien models himself on Napoleon and Mathilde imitates the lover of her medieval ancestor. But the novel demystifies the characters' sense of difference. Julien and Mathilde not only cannot belong to the past they idealize, but they also show themselves, by the very act of imitating this past, as belonging to the present they despise, since the present is characterized precisely by loss of spontaneity and its replacement by mediation and imitation. Thus the novel “realistically” demystifies “Romantic” illusions.

But the demystification of Romantic beliefs goes deeper. Julien is repeatedly described as exceptional by virtue of his ability to do the unexpected; but he is also presented as a simple memory machine. Capable of memorizing anything from the New Testament to the classified advertisements in the newspaper, he can appear as a pious student of theology, an excellent humanist, or a passionate lover. His unpredictability, then, is not a sign of authenticity (his being “red”) but rather of his ability to be everything or anything. Julien's reciting from memory is not a sign of “black” hypocrisy. Though his rise in the world owes much to his memorizing texts (often described as either meaningless to him or contradicting his convictions) and reproducing them in front of others, Julien does not determine this operation or its effects but is rather determined by it. Memorizing any text he encounters almost automatically and not knowing whether reciting it on a specific occasion would be useful or not, Julien is not in control of his destiny. Thus both “red” passion and “black” hypocrisy are shown to be predicated on a false idea of an autonomous self, defined by volition and agency. The exemplary male subject Stendhal represents is the antipodes of the Romantic one: it is an empty subject who lends itself to the circulation of discourses whose incalculable effects make him appear unpredictable, mysterious, unconventional, and superior.

A younger contemporary of Stendhal, Balzac in 1834, conceived the idea of connecting the various novels he had previously published, as well as future ones, into one whole—La Comédie humaine (The Human Comedy), which would ultimately consist of about ninety novels and stories. The main device for creating this whole—the reappearance of characters—was introduced in Le Père Goriot (1835, Father Goriot). In the preface to the first edition of the Comédie humaine (1842—48), Balzac defines his goal as producing a novelistic equivalent of the civil registry. His Comédie humaine would cover all aspects of Bourbon Restoration society.

Though some of Balzac's novels are better characterized as fantastic, allegorical, or philosophical—e.g., La Peau de chagrin (1831, The Wild Ass's Skin) and Louis Lambert (1832)—and though many critics (e.g., Roland Barthes) have shown that even his realist texts point to a crisis of realist representation, Balzac retains his status as the quintessential realist novelist. His fondness for long detailed descriptions is often seen as his trademark, but his handling of plot and character provides us with the key to his realism. Balzac's plots are possible only at the particular time and place in which they occur; his characters are the product of their social milieu, and their past lives are often shown to have been shaped by historical events. If they are “types,” what they typify is not a universal human condition: Goriot, the “Christ of paternity,” is not the eternal father; rather, he is a product and expression of the crisis of paternity in post-revolutionary, post-Napoleonic France. Since both history and social milieu are the products of human actions, however, Balzac's characters are not passively determined by forces outside human control. In Balzac's world—a world where mobility is possible, desirable, indeed necessary—the extent to which characters can profit from sociohistorical circumstances depends on their ability to adapt to these circumstances. As Vautrin puts it in Père Goriot, “There are no principles, there are only events”; those who stick to principles limit their “mobility” and cannot use events to their own advantage. Rastignac, the young hero of Père Goriot, who comes to Paris to make his fortune, gradually learns the laws of Parisian society; by the novel's end, having shed his last tear of innocence, he is ready to do battle with Parisian society, not by opposing it, but by accepting its laws. In Illusions perdues (1837—43, Lost Illusions), the beautiful poet Lucien de Rubempré also comes to Paris seeking his fortune; but though he successfully adopts the cynical advice he is given by his fellow journalists, he cannot avoid the lure of stability symbolized by an aristocratic name and is ultimately crushed by his rivals and enemies.

Though we normally think of melodrama as the opposite of realism (since it both exaggerates and simplifies common reality or everyday life), Balzac's realist novels partake of melodrama. What gives his plots this flavor are the rapid reversals of fortune, from splendor to misery (or vice versa): both the end of Le Père Goriot, where the changes of so many of the novel's characters all happen in one day, and the fatal week in Illusions perdues, where a concatenation of events brings about Lucien's catastrophic fall, exemplify Balzac's melodramatic plotting. Melodrama here is not the result of a stark opposition between good and evil but rather of a coincidental intersection of several independent causal chains. What these plots show is Balzac's understanding that in the modern society he describes, individual destinies are no longer determined by direct “personal” conflict but rather are overdetermined by a multiplicity of highly mediated, hence “impersonal,” conflicts (Moretti).

The 1830s saw the birth of the roman feuilleton—serial publication of novels in newspapers (see SERIALIZATION). The first was Balzac's La Vieille Fille (The Old Maid), published in 12 installments in 1837. The roman feuilleton increased the circulation of newspapers, in some cases dramatically; this in turn caused authors' compensation to increase considerably. Thus the creation of a mass literature and the professionalization of AUTHORSHIP went hand in hand. Though novelists like Balzac, Flaubert, and Sand published serially, the quintessential feuilletonist was Dumas. The most popular roman feuilleton was Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris (1842—43, The Mysteries of Paris), the bestseller of the century; Dumas's Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (1844—45, The Count of Monte-Cristo) was written in direct response to Sue's unprecedented success.

In the second half of the century, Balzac's melodramatic realism was replaced by Flaubert's representation of the ordinary. Probably no other novel has granted more objective reality to the world of banality and mediocrity than Madame Bovary (1857), whose heroine, full of Romantic yearnings for passion and happiness, cannot find fulfillment in either marriage or adultery. Emma Bovary's world—her town Yonville, her husband Charles, her lovers, Léon and Rodolphe— is mediocre, narrow, and dull. But no other novel perhaps has as clearly argued that the “poetic” or “Romantic” aspirations of the self caught in this prosaic reality are fundamentally part of that world. Not only are Emma's desires mediated by a whole array of social discourses (chief among them, novels), but they are also predicated on a mistaken belief (that of a society of commodities) in the quasi-magical capacity of objects to transform the world. If Emma's striving to realize her dreams is thwarted, the reason is not only the narrowness and meanness of opportunity offered by the provinces; it is also because, with all her dreaming, she cannot even imagine a truly other world and mistakes difference in setting and props for otherness. For Emma there is no temporal or spatial “elsewhere” which is substantially different from her own world (see TIME, SPACE). For Flaubert himself the only alternative to the hated prosaic world is the oasis of art. But the aesthetic that Flaubert develops as an alternative to the “real” is not an aesthetic of poetry—of the inspired, elected bard—but of prose, of value gained through labor.

Flaubert's Education sentimentale (1869, Sentimental Education) is a bildungsroman, a love story, and a historical novel; but all these subgenres are radically undermined in the novel. Frédéric Moreau leaves his home in the provinces for Paris, hoping to acquire the knowledge that will enable him to succeed in society and, become a latter-day Rastignac. But neither he nor his friend/double Deslauriers ever achieve the social success of their model and even their disillusionment at the end of the novel cannot be seen as a sign that they have learned anything. In his relation to Mme. Arnoux, Frédéric plays the role of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Werther, the Romantic lover who sustains his desire by never consummating it. Frédéric, however, cannot stick to this role, and during the novel other women—Rosanette, Mme. Dambreuse, Louise Roque—would become objects of desire. But though each of the women ends up offering herself to him, Frédéric's desire is never fulfilled since the love object he possesses is repeatedly not the one desired at that moment. During the entire novel Frédéric remains the passive spectator of the historical events around him (the revolution of Feb. 1848, the insurrection of June 1848, the coup d'état of Dec. 1851). If Frédéric's detachment shows his (and that of the middle CLASS he represents) inability or lack of desire to participate in shaping history, his friend Dussardier's staged suicide during the coup d'état is the sign of the futility of even attempting such action. History, moreover, remains largely irrelevant to the life of the characters: the day the February Revolution breaks out Mme. Arnoux, who promised to give herself to Frédéric, fails to arrive at their rendezvous, but her failure, and the collapse of Frédéric's hopes, cannot be attributed to the revolution, that is, to the forces of history. In registering all these impossibilities, L'Education sentimentale brought an end to an important chapter in the history of the French novel, where individualized characters engage in a plot that moves forward through a sequence of decisive events. The failure or futility of action writ large in L'Education sentimentale eventually turned the French novel away from action in the social world, that privileged arena of the Realists.

Hugo's Les Misérables—a novel that achieved the status of a myth—does not fit easily within the history of the French novel. The long digressions—on the sewer system, convents, slang, the battle of Waterloo—make it unique in the French tradition. While it deals with the central social question of the century, that of the poor, it keeps its distance from realism. Rather than creating ordinary, average characters, Hugo's characters—Bishop Myriel, police agent Javert—are extreme types, showing the limits of certain positions (Christian love, the law) that prove inadequate to solving the social question. These extremes, however, do not represent absolute moral opposites, as in melodrama. Javert does not incarnate evil as opposed to goodness but rather “all the evil of what is good”; nor is Javert opposed to Jean Valjean (the hunter and the hunted), since both are outcasts of society. On the other hand, in representing the outcasts of society Hugo is far from idealizing them. The life story of Jean Valjean before he meets the Bishop Myriel shows that the misery of the misérables is not only the lack of money, food, and work (though it is all these too). It is the lack of identity, of history, of interiority (thoughts, sentiments, desires), i.e., the lack of everything we deem essential in order to be, and be recognized as, human beings.

Barely individuated, the misérables are invisible to the social world that surrounds them, and they disappear without leaving a trace. They become visible (and hence characters in a novel) only when they become subject to charity or to the law, although this encounter also prevents them from ever becoming part of society. Justice, whose function is to regulate social relations, means a balance (between crime and punishment, debt and payment); while this balanced economy functions within society, it does not apply to the misérables who, remain always outside it. Not only is Valjean's punishment for the failed theft of bread out of proportion to the crime but his “payment” for his crime does not erase it. The yellow passport he has to carry marks him as an ex-convict and a dangerous man (which he was not when he entered prison). The punishment neither erases the crime nor reforms the criminal; rather, the punishment creates the criminal, whom society then continues to punish.

Repentant and reformed by his encounter with the Bishop, Valjean, as M. Madeleine, models himself on Myriel yet can never stop being a misérable, i.e., can never become part of society. The episode with Champmathieu, who is erroneously taken for Valjean and condemned, dramatizes his predicament: if he remains silent and lets Champmathieu die in his stead, he commits a despicable act and is indeed a misérable (scoundrel); if he reveals his identity and saves Champmathieu he becomes again Jean Valjean, a misérable. Valjean saves Champmathieu, as he has saved Fauchelevant, crushed under the cart, and later saves Marius and Javert. But every moral act entails for him both risking his life and re-becoming a misérable. The heroic excess of Valjean should be read, then, not so much as an admirable character trait but as the result and expression of his being outside society, a misérable. By the novel's end Valjean is dead, his grave nameless; his heroic sacrifices have not produced a better world. Hugo does not offer a solution to the social problem. And yet the novel by its very existence implies a hope for a better world (Rosa).

The last third of the nineteenth century is dominated by NATURALISM, a movement more homogenous and limited in time than either Romanticism or realism, and fin-de-siècle “decadence” (see DECADENT).

Naturalism is associated primarily with Émile Zola's twenty-novel sequence Les Rougon-Macquart (1871—93), which intended to do for the society of the Second Empire (1852—70) what Balzac's Comédie humaine had done for that of the Restoration. But whereas Balzac's work moves laterally, giving a view of an entire society at a certain historical moment, Zola traces the fortunes of one family (with two branches, one legitimate, the other illegitimate), from one generation to the next. And while Balzac's characters are shown to be formed by social milieu and history, Zola shows the workings of heredity, i.e., of the laws of nature over which human beings have little or no control. In following the work of these laws in fictional characters, the novel according to Zola can become “experimental,” that is, analogous to science.

By tracing the fortunes of the various members of the Rougon-Macquart family, Zola describes different areas and phenomena of French society during the Second Empire: property speculation in Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann's (1809—91) Paris (1871, La Curée; The Kill), working-class poverty and alcoholism (1877, L'Assommoir; The Dram Shop), prostitution (1880, Nana), life in a bourgeois apartment building (1883, Pot-Bouille; Pot Luck), a coalminers' strike in northern France (1885, Germinal), and the art world (1885, L'Oeuvre; The Masterpiece). Though Zola is not the first novelist to represent working-class and marginal characters (Sue and Hugo had already done that), the manner of their representation changes his novels.

Pushing the anti-idealizing urge already present in realism to a new limit, and relying on theories of heredity which claimed that negative traits become stronger and lead to degeneration when transmitted, Zola represents human beings as ruled by pathological, uncontrollable drives. This particular mode of representation conforms to Zola's “naturalist” program, but it also betrays his great ambivalence toward the belief in progress which marked his period. Thus, for example, Au Bonheur des dames (1883, The Ladies' Paradise), a novel describing the invention of the department store and the triumph of consumer culture, shows progress to be a ruthless, destructive, and unstoppable force. And La Bête humaine (1890, The Human Beast) shows that the technological progress (symbolized by the railroads) that defined “modernity” in the nineteenth century brings with it a resurgence, rather than an overcoming, of what is most animal-like in humans.

The Decadent novel shares with Zola's naturalism an ambivalence about the modern world. But the main inspiration for the Decadent movement is Charles Baudelaire. His penchant for the perverse, his commitment to artifice, his opposition to nature, his praise of makeup and masks—that inspire Joris-Karl Huysmans's À rebours (1884, Against Nature), the paradigmatic “decadent” novel, and distinguish its hero Des Esseintes from the heroes of Romantic fiction. Though both the Romantic and the Decadent experience boredom and fatigue, the former seeks solace in nature, whereas the latter searches for artificial stimulations (including art) to relieve his ennui and overcome his satiety.

In À rebours, Huysmans, following Flaubert, pushes the novel further toward its limits. The novel tells of the last member of a noble family who, disgusted with the materialist, utilitarian society of his time, takes refuge in solitude, and seeks a way to relieve “the monotonous boredom of nature by means of artifice” (letter to Stéphane Mallarmé). The novel has one character, no dialogue, and no action to speak of. Clearly, for Huysmans at least, the novel as the nineteenth century knew it had reached its end.

SEE ALSO: Romance.


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