Politicizing Gender: Narrative Strategies in the aftermath of the French Revolution

Politicizing Gender: Narrative Strategies in the aftermath of the French Revolution

Politicizing Gender: Narrative Strategies in the aftermath of the French Revolution

Politicizing Gender: Narrative Strategies in the aftermath of the French Revolution

Excerpt

AN ANOMALOUS AND SEEMINGLY insignificant detail appears near the beginning of Honoré de Balzac Le Père Goriot where the reader learns that the sign on the Vauquer boardinghouse specifies "Pension bourgeoise des deux sexes et autres." So anomalous is this "sign"--this telling written notice and semiotic detail--that instead of its literal translation ("Lodgings for both sexes and others") baffled translators have chosen either to omit it ("Family Boardinghouse for Ladies and Gentlemen") or mistranslate it altogether ("Lodgings for both sexes; meals)." Although anomalous, these "others" are not unimportant, especially in the light of the problematic sexual practices of the evil genius Vautrin in Le Père Goriot and Balzac's numerous deviant characters in other works. Through them, Balzac furthers his conservative argument that postrevolutionary society no longer displays pure categories but has deteriorated into impure admixtures of gender, class, and politics. Balzac's conception of the pervasively contaminated nature of French society was also often expressed at the time as a reversal of genders and social groups. Thus early in the revolutionary period the eighteenth-century poet André Chénier accused Jean-Paul Marat's assassin Charlotte Corday of "an inversion of the sexes" that he then related to "that generalized inversion that the revolution has turned out to be."

Balzac's novel is quite representative of the works considered in this book and many other nineteenth-century novels in dwelling obsessively on a story that stems from fathers' relinquishing patriarchal authority, in this case Goriot's divesting himself of his fortune. The novels begin symbolically with the fall from power of the king. What follows are descriptions of degraded sexual relationships within small social units such as the family or the board-

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