Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Abyss of Freedom: Legitimacy, Unity, and Irony in Constant's Adolphe

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

The Abyss of Freedom: Legitimacy, Unity, and Irony in Constant's Adolphe

Article excerpt

Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, written in 1806 and published twelve years later, has often been read as a fictionalized confession, or at the least as an earnest story about the tragic vicissitudes of love, its every pronouncement a pearl of wisdom fully worthy of our pious contemplation. (2) Yet closer scrutiny reveals the novella to be, if anything, a critique of confession, an undermining from within of its central premises. Just like Rousseau, Adolphe writes in order to convince himself and others of his integrity, sincerity, and fundamental nobility, in the face, presumably, of competing accounts; just like Rousseau, Adolphe does so in part by offering the image of a man born good, with society to blame for his subsequent corruption; and just like Rousseau, Adolphe ultimately fails in his endeavor, betraying irreparable fissures in his disposition, gaping lacunae in his self-understanding, striking lapses in his forthrightness. (3) But unlike Rousseau, Adolphe is a fictional character, and the difference is crucial. For it means that those contradictions which, in the Confessions, can only be cases of unintentional error on the part of their author may well, in Adolphe, be a deliberate strategy on the part of a canny literary craftsman. And it turns out, indeed, that Constant's ambition is neither to propound a theory of love--the narrative voice is far too unreliable--nor to disburden himself of guilty recollections but, quite the contrary, to interrogate the very feasibility of the confessional project, to ask whether such a project makes any sense when souls are irremediably divided. It is, accordingly, to question the value of post-Revolutionary liberty, that abyss of freedom whose main outcome, as Constant sees it, is nothing but relentless, comprehensive, paralyzing doubt, as much in the domains of religion and politics as in that of love.


L'amour a la Werther ... est un but nouveau dans la vie auquel tout se rapporte, et qui change la face de tout.

--Stendhal, De l'amour (257)

Adolphe's story is a simple one; indeed, Constant claims in one of his prefaces to have written it as a kind of gageure, an attempt to "donner une sorte d'interet a un roman dont les personnages se reduiraient a deux, et dont la situation serait toujours la meme" (30). The narrator-protagonist witnesses a friend falling in love and, deciding to emulate him, lights on an older woman named Ellenore, the Polish mistress of the Comte de P--. A love affair of sorts begins, and Ellenore sacrifices what is left of her reputation to Adolphe, bur she has by now become a burden to him, and he spends the rest of the novel oscillating between a desire to abandon her and a fear of causing her pain. In the end, worn down by Adolphe's weakness and her own frustrated passion, Ellenore dies, leaving a letter in which she explains the situation more clearly than he himself can possibly see it.

Or so, at least, it appears. Is Ellenore really on the mark when she tells Adolphe, in no uncertain terms, "vous ... n'aimez pas" (117)? It has become something of a critical commonplace that she is. (4) After all, argues Grahame Jones, if anyone who has loved is incapable of describing the experience, as Adolphe claims at the start of chapter IV ("charme de l'amour, qui vous eprouva ne saurait vous decrire!"), then he himself, who offers just such a description, can clearly not have been in love. All the more so as the way in which he portrays that ideal state ("ce detachement de tous les soins vulgaires") is belied, in the very next paragraph, by the reality of his situation ("les interets de la vie commune ne se laissent pas plier arbitrairement a tous nos desirs"). The "charme de l'amour" passage--which is in any case something of an afterthought, only appearing in the printed versions of the text--surely represents no more than a duplicitous attempt on Adolphe's part to convince the reader (and/or himself) that he has ever had feelings for Ellenore. …

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