Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

A Private Drama of Sexual Identity: Balzac's le Medecin De Campagne (1)

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

A Private Drama of Sexual Identity: Balzac's le Medecin De Campagne (1)

Article excerpt

Que de bourgeons nous portons en nous, [...] qui n'ecloront jamais que dans nos livres!

--Andre Gide

Few Balzac novels have a more obvious private drama at their centre than Le Medecin de campagne, though it would be more correct to speak of there being two such dramas in the case of this particular novel, since, in accordance with a compositional principle familiar throughout the Comedie humaine, the core story and its protagonist Doctor Benassis are replicated, albeit with the incorporation of a subtle set of definitional oppositions, in a secondary drama of paternal devotion featuring the army officer Pierre-Joseph Genestas. (2) Both stories, however, are destined to remain secret until the chance encounter between the two men and their instinctive, if gradual, realization that there exists a bond between them together provoke each protagonist to break his silence and relate the youthful experiences that have proved such a decisive influence on his subsequent life. In each case, though much separates the two men in terms of the characteristics they bring to the role, it is the unusual combination of thwarted passions and devotion to a son (or stepson) following the death of the latter's mother that colours the rest of their adult existence.

Much of the distinctiveness of the private dimension of the novel, as opposed to the two public realms it features (respectively Benassis's blueprint for the economic transformation of the commune and the Napoleonic campaigns in which Genestas has taken part) stems from the absence of the two mothers. (Both Agathe, mother of Benassis's child, and Judith, who on marrying Genestas on her deathbed entrusts her son to him, die young.) For although this is by no means a novel in which the action in the present lacks a female cast, it centres, far more strikingly, on a masculine perspective in which the female sex has become, largely speaking, an irrelevance, a residue of the conventional novelistic plot. It will be the purpose of this article not merely to isolate the important instance of male-bonding that is at the origin of the telling of the two autobiographical stories, but to show that there is in Le Medecin de campagne a more pervasive uncertainty with regard to sexual identity than is apparent from the surface narrative.

On the surface, Le Medecin de campagne is a celebration of maternity. (4) The novel is dedicated by Balzac to his mother, though, in the light of his difficult relationship with her and his conviction that he was deprived of the maternal affection lavished on her love-child, Henri, the significance of this dedication is not unproblematic. Within the story itself, the impending motherhood of Mme Vigneau is an excuse for a Balzacian exercise in the sublime, while Benassis waxes lyrical about the hypothetical maternity of his protegee, dignifying the state with italics in the process:

   Oui, la pauvre fille aimerait ses enfants a en perdre la tete, et
   tous les sentiments qui surabondent chez elle s'epancheraient dans
   celui qui les comprend tous pour la femme, dans la maternite. (479)

This too is not without its problematic dimension in that, as Benassis himself is obliged to concede, no man has been able to pass muster with her. The old foster-mother (she is 38) and her brood are the first inhabitants of the village Genestas encounters, but the theme of maternal love is ironized here not so much by the fact of a financial transaction being involved (the sum paid by the none the less enlightened commune appears inadequate to meet the costs incurred) as by the fact that la mere Martin has reluctantly to part with the children once they reach the age of six. The role of the mother within the family invites respect, but it is far from constituting an example of idealization. Notwithstanding the economic transformation the community undergoes, the majority of the women have the misfortune to survive the death of their husband. …

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