Academic journal article French Forum

Civilizing the Sibyl: Stael's Corinne Ou l'Italie

Academic journal article French Forum

Civilizing the Sibyl: Stael's Corinne Ou l'Italie

Article excerpt

  Et ce qu'il vous plait d'appeler en moi de la magie, c'est un
  naturel sans contrainte qui laisse voir quelquefois des sentiments
  divers et des pensees opposees, sans travailler a les mettre d'accord;
  car cet accord, quand il existe, est presque toujours factice, et la
  plupart des caracteres vrais sont inconsequents.

  (Corinne writing to Oswald, Stael Corinne ou l'Italie)

Germaine de Stael's Corinne ou l'Italie portrays a utopian vision of feminine empowerment and creativity. The work embodies the possibility of drastic social change for women by depicting ambiguity at the levels of genre, nation, and gender. As Corinne remarks above, a lack of "accord" in one's thoughts and feelings does not ensue from magic, as Oswald would hold, but rather from a natural ambiguity present in all people of "consequence." This ambiguity, therefore, accounts for Corinne's freedom and yet also explains her eventual destruction by a rigid society that cannot accept her undefined status.

To explore the ambiguity that exists in this work, I will highlight how Corinne's status as both civilized and uncivilized opens up a new place for women to occupy in nineteenth-century Europe. By deconstructing the universal binarism of self/other, this study will equally deconstruct the oppositions that exist between colonizer and colonized, masculine and feminine, and fiction and non-fiction. I will discuss the relationship between Corinne and Oswald using the terms "colonization" and "ambivalence," two terms of postcolonial theory, (1) to illustrate how Mme de Stael conscientiously blurs the barriers that separate what have traditionally been considered binary oppositions and opens up an "in-between" space. (2) In the same vein, I will also show that her efforts to break down these oppositions are often irregular and sporadic, thus leading to contradictions that allow her characters to cross previously taboo boundary lines. (3)

Contrasts between England and Italy

While critics have regularly concluded that Corinne is Italy, (4) the question that I would like to introduce here is not simply one of representation (What/Who is Italy? England?), but rather, what does the portrayal of these nations show and teach us about the budding notions of nation that were directly related to the role of colonialism and colonization. For as France and other Western-European countries began their colonial expansions, their national identities came to be self-defined in opposition to the colonies that were seen as "Other" and "exotic."

The dominant presentation of nation in the work comes to the forefront in the presentation of England/Scotland and Italy. (5) Stael intentionally juxtaposes these nations so as to illustrate the two sides of the binary opposition--England is rigid and Italy is free. The mixed nationalities of the two main characters, however, complicate this polarization. Corinne is both English and Italian, and Oswald, while Scottish, is depicted as being of English character. The combination of opposing nationalities in Corinne and the quasi-dual national status attributed to Oswald promote the prominent theme of the work: such categorizations are limiting and ineffective.

Due to the political conflicts of the time between England and France, it was much safer for Stael to have her hero hail from Scotland rather than England. In so doing, she allowed him to have an "English" character without causing offense to French readers. As April Alliston points out in her article "Of Haunted Highlands: Mapping a Geography of Gender in the Margins of Europe": "Scotland is here [...] politically indistinguishable from England, and is sometimes referred to as Angleterre." (6) Therefore, the text has a "typically English" character but in the guise of a Scotsman and establishes early on a direct opposition between England/Scotland and Italy, thereby illustrating the common thinking of the time. …

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