Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Too Mad to Marry: Byron, Rousseau, Othello, and Stendhal's Octave De Malivert

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Too Mad to Marry: Byron, Rousseau, Othello, and Stendhal's Octave De Malivert

Article excerpt

Implicit in Stendhal's novel of apprenticeship, Armance (1827), is the Romantic notion that soulful, defiant suffering comprises a more noble vocation than pedestrian, conformist contentment, an idea Stendhal endorsed shortly before Armance was published in Rome, Naples et Florence (1826):1 "La marechale de Rochefort disait au celebre Duclos: 'Pour vous, je ne suis pas en peine de votre paradis: du pain, du fromage et la premiere venue, et vous voila heureux.' Le lecteur voudrait-il d'un tel bonheur? N'aime-t-il pas mieux le malheur passionne et deraisonnable de Rousseau ou de lord Byron?" (Voyages 495). Hunger and poverty are some of the cruelest of torments, as Stendhal recognized in his second novel, Le Rouge et le noir (1830), when he had his rebellious plebeian protagonist, Julien Sorel, define the deprivation he seeks to escape: "pas reille francs de rente, c'est-a-dire pas de pain, exactement parlant, pas de pain" (OC 2: 166). Yet the behavior of Armance's equally rebellious but decidedly aristocratic young hero, the melancholy, misanthropic Octave de Malivert, seems designed to illustrate the quixotic rule that knights of the sorrowful countenance never need worry about paying for their sustenance;2 he can act as if he subsisted on exquisite draughts of despondency precisely because he takes the more solid forms of nourishment for granted. If privilege offers abundant opportunities for dejection, however, it doesn't justify the state. As Bertrand Russell drily remarks in an essay on Byron, "the aristocratic rebel, since he has enough to eat, must have other causes of discontent" (747).

In the case of the Vicomte Octave de Malivert, his causes of discontent are thoroughly disguised: though in theory he is afflicted by sexual impotence, as Stendhal's private correspondence discloses, in fact there is no adequate evidence of that affliction throughout Armance. It would appear that Stendhal, embarrassed by his choice of subject, initially expressed and ultimately concealed Octave's unfortunate condition by casting him in the mold of such stock Byronic Fatal Men as Childe Harold, Lara, and Conrad, all of whom broodingly nurse secret woes too terrible to reveal, are intensely misanthropic, and exhibit a lofty aversion to love--but none of whom were supposed by early nineteenth-century readers to be anything less than dangerously virile.

This paradoxical literary strategy posed an intractable problem that Stendhal never fully resolved, (3) and it led him to modify his conception of his hero and novel in significant ways. As Octave's characterization evolved in a direction that in large measure contradicted the original premise of his impotence, he developed into an increasingly Byronic hero who, as various studies have shown, not only has obvious, superficial affinities with the protagonists of Byron's Romantic verse tales but also exhibits far more numerous, more profound affinities with Byron the tuan.4 The purpose of the present paper is to enlarge our understanding of the latter affinities--and occasionally, where relevant, the former--particularly insofar as they serve to define the nature of Octave's relations with the woman he tragically loves, marries, and loses, Armance de Zohiloff.

In beginning this inquiry, it will be useful to turn once again to that page of Rome, Naples et Florence in which the epicureanism of Duclos is rejected in favor of passionate, unreasonable unhappiness. For if that passage aptly evokes the Romantic spirit in which Octave was conceived, the footnote Stendhal tacked on to it provides several clues to the manner of his conception: "Lord Byron, le Rousseau des Anglais, etait tour a tour dandy, fou et grand poete. Voir sa visite au pere Paul d'Ivree, franciscain d'Athenes. La Grece en 1825, par H. Lauvergne" (Voyages 495 note). We will find it necessary before long to examine the portion of Hubert Lauvergne's Souvenirs de la Grece pendant la campagne de 1825 (1826) that Stendhal cites here, but we need first to consider his observation that "Lord Byron, le Rousseau des Anglais, etait tour a tour dandy, fou et grand poete,' a comment which brings to mind some aspects of the Byron-Octave parallel identified by Michel Crouzet. …

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