Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Furniture of Narrative in Crebillon's le Sopha and Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Furniture of Narrative in Crebillon's le Sopha and Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Article excerpt

My argument begins with a fashionable item of eighteenth-century furniture. The canape a confidents, or confidente, was a sofa with two extra seats attached at the ends (fig. 1). These were the confidents, by analogy with the "minor characters"--ladies-in-waiting, nursemaids, freres et soeurs de lait, and other companious--who were familiar figures not only in the theater and novels of this period, but also in everyday aristocratic culture. (1) This practice of assigning social functions and human attributes to furniture was widespread in the eighteenth century. In the rich contemporary typology of furnishings, there was a type of armchair, for instance, known as the bergere (or shepherdess), and another referred to as the voyeuse. The latter was designed to be straddled by a male occupant, who placed his elbows on a padded rail at the top of the back. With his torso and head thrust forward, the sitter was thus in an ideal position for attentively observing the social activity in front of him. Hence the name: voyeuse, or chair for looking. (2)

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

This essay is based on the premise that furniture, narrative, and aristocratic culture all share a common preoccupation with functions, roles, and positions (both physical and metaphorical). (3) Specifically, I propose to examine what we might refer to as the "furniture of narrative," by analogy with what philosophers, educators, and psychologists call the "furniture of the mind"--the mental structures and mechanisms, whether innate or acquired, that make cognition possible. (4) The furniture of narrative, similarly, would include the basic functional equipment of storytelling. The terminology for this equipment has changed according the vicissitudes of critical fashion, but in general, it includes character, setting, focalisation, and so on. On a more specific level, we might add the rhetorical strategies, formal conventions, and character types associated with various periods of literary history: the hero and the opening in medias res (for the epic) or the libertine and epistolary form (for the French Enlightenment novel). Like actual, physical furniture, these conventions and strategies serve to capture a person's interest, to provide him or her with a comfortable and familiar framework, and to position him or her as a subject.

I explore the possibilities and limits of this analogy by examining two eighteenth-century novels in which furniture plays a central role: Claude de Crebillon's Le Sopha (1740) and Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). The two items of furniture at the center of my analysis--the sofa in Le Sopha and the secretaire (or writing desk) in Les Liaisons dangereuses--are particularly revealing in that each functions as a metaphor for the narrative strategy of the text. This is most obvious in the case of Le Sopha, where a series of erotic vignettes is told from the point of view of an Indian Brahmin who is reincarnated as a sofa. (5) In Les Liaisons dangereuses, the secretaire performs a similar function, albeit less conspicuously, as a site for writing, storing, and relaying the letters that constitute the novel.

What is striking about both novels, as these brief synopses suggest, is the highly visible and material character of their narrative furniture. What, after all, could appear more contrived to a reader raised on the conventional realist fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than a novel told from the point of view of a sofa, or entirely through letters? The realist novel generally seeks to put the fictional world "before the reader's eyes," as if he or she were looking through the literary devices that are used to create it. (6) In Le Sopha and Les Liaisons dangereuses, by contrast, narrative devices are reified; they become material things that one encounters. (7) Bill Brown has written eloquently about the encounter with things: "You cut your finger on a sheet of paper, you trip over some toy, you get bopped on the head by a falling nut. …

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