Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Forged in Crisis: Queer Beginnings of Modern Masculinity in a Canonical French Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Forged in Crisis: Queer Beginnings of Modern Masculinity in a Canonical French Novel

Article excerpt

Si les curs chosissaient leurs favoris parmi les plus beaux jeunots, tous ceux-ci ne vent pas destines a rester femmes. Ils s'eveillent a la virilite et les hommes leur font une place a cote d'eux.

--Jean Genet Miracle de la rose

Although Benjamin Constant's Adolphe is a classic of the canon, it has long been locked away like a jewel within the disciplinary donjons of French and Comparative Literature departments. Begun in 1806, published ten years later, the novel has most often served pedagogically to exemplify literary-historical concepts such as early romanticism and the mal du siecle. Its protagonist enjoys a place of prominence among the cohort of sensitive and brooding young heroes who flourished early in the century and has even been used to personify the wounded romantic type.(1)

The first of my intentions in writing the following is to recommend Adolphe to a new constituency that has coalesced around queer theory. The second main goal of these comments is to exemplify the difference it can make in literary criticism to read openly from a queer or queered subject position--a practice that is oddly lacking in French studies.(2) For, if we know how to let it, Adolphe can tell us much about the presence of proto-queer history in straight, canonical literature. We have heretofore been disallowed or disinclined to see, inscribed within the novel's famously elegant prose, the anguish of modern masculinity being born in crisis, a crisis provoked in part by an implicit reckoning with the danger, and the allure, of something queer. Adolphe is particularly valuable in this regard because it was written at a time when a male author could still narrate gender dissonance non-defensively, without immediately raising the issue of "homosexuality."(3) Homoerotic possibility can thus loom in the novel like an implicit lining, torturing its smooth textual surfaces, even as the plot unflinchingly displays the terrible cost of straight gendering.

As a gay reader I have always "known" this about Adolphe. It is an awareness, however, for which it has been impossible to find an explanation or an expression. Even as I acknowledge that the epistemological protocols for such knowledge remain vexed and subject to legitimate challenge, my goal will be achieved if these frightened and fragile gestures of queer self-recognition can be taken seriously, even if that means being taken seriously enough to be refuted in scholarly discourse.

At its most succinct, Adolphe deals with the ravages that are caused by the cultural assumption that men must thrive on unsentimental separateness and that women naturally turn to the opposite practices of sentimental connectedness and dependence. Nothing exactly new here. But there are at least two aspects of the question that are relatively more new for the time--and that begin to mark this novel as queer. First is the novel's outsider perspective on these familiar gender imperatives. Adolphe is poorly sutured to emerging, post-Revolutionary norms so dominated by the image of Napoleon. We could even say that gender dissonance is Adolphe's principal trait. And second, almost a century before Freud, Constant provides a precocious demonstration of how gender configuration can be forged by a son's psychological relationship with his father. That is, Adolphe is not the man he is because he inherits his father's blood, or his father's name, or his father's property. Rather, his identity was formed through a psychological relationship with his father as a man.

Constant condenses all these lessons in two short and didactic prefaces added respectively to the second and third editions of the novel. These concise essays require, and reward, the most careful scrutiny. Here in short is the analysis from the first preface, entitled "Essay on the Character and Moral Outcome of the Work": Men who go about seducing women, it is axiomatically presumed, most often do so out of calculation rather than sentiment. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.