Stendhal's Mina De Vanghel and the Question of Feminism (1)

By Garnier, Lucy | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Spring-Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Stendhal's Mina De Vanghel and the Question of Feminism (1)

Garnier, Lucy, Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The question of feminism is not one which has dominated the world of Stendhal studies despite the rise of feminist literary criticism in the latter half of the twentieth century. Of those most notably associated with feminism in France, only Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva approached Stendhal and his works in any great depth, whilst others such as Clara Malraux merely touched upon it. In terms of literary criticism, Richard Bolster, Ellen Constans and Maddelena Bertela remain the sole critics to have devoted an entire work to the question, whilst a relatively small number of critics have brought feminist theory to bear on Stendhal's work (2)--a critical reluctance stemming perhaps from the all too evident contradictions in Henri Beyle's attitude towards the opposite sex. Classifying a man like Stendhal is evidently a difficult task, when, on the one hand, he vigorously defends the necessity for women to be educated with the claim that if he were a "maitre d'etablir des usages, [il] donnerai[t] aux jeunes filles, autant que possible, exactement la meme education qu'aux jeunes garcons"(De l'amour 221), whilst concurrently concluding that "il n'est aucun de nous qui ne preferat, pour passer la vie avec elle, une servante a une femme savante" (De l'amour 207). The ensuing question then becomes whether to classify Henri Beyle as a feminist or an anti-feminist, and, furthermore, whether it is truly valid to attempt such categorisations retrospectively. Whereas Simone de Beauvoir unhesitatingly qualified Stendhal's writing as "feminist", judging according to modern-day standards the work of a man writing years before the word feminist even existed could be considered a questionable enterprise, as both Ellen Constans and Lisa Algazi have pointed out in their work. And if this enterprise is pursued nonetheless, which definition of feminism should be adopted? According to which criteria should he be judged, if indeed it is possible or justifiable to make such a judgement? The "feminism" of his contemporaries or our own? Feminism as the militants understand it, or feminism according to the academic critical world? But again, which militants, which academics? Feminism has become a hollow term covering a myriad of meanings, no longer sufficing alone to refer to any of them. Rather than pledging allegiance to one conception or other of what it means to be a feminist (and thus shifting the debate from the sphere of literary criticism to that of feminism itself), I prefer to take an accepted definition without political or theoretical connotations--that of the OED--and examine rather than judge Stendhal's writing in the light of that concept of feminism, for I would argue that an examination of Stendhal's attitude towards the opposite sex can yield many fruitful observations concerning his work. For this purpose I shall focus upon one of Stendhal's short stories, Mina de Vanghel, asking the following question: Cana reading of this text justify claiming that in Stendhal's writing one finds the expression of the "Advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of equality of the sexes)"(OED)?

The first point to be made is that, without any doubt, Mina de Vanghel takes centre stage in this short story. Stendhal has no fear in choosing a young woman as his protagonist. Simone de Beauvoir, writing about Lamiel, states:

   Il a tente une entreprise plus rare et qu'aucun romancier, je
   crois, ne s'est jamais propose: il s'est projete dans un
   personnage de femme. Il ne se penche pas sur Lamiel comme Marivaux
   sur Marianne ou Richardson sur Clarisse Harlow: il en epouse la
   destinee comme il avait epouse celle de Julien (Beauvoir 376).

This interpretation of Stendhars creation of Lamiel could easily extend to his young German heroine. Mina is the true Stendhalian soul, the individual for whom love counts above all and who is prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of the one she loves.

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