Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Lost Heroine of Zola's Octave Mouret Novels

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

The Lost Heroine of Zola's Octave Mouret Novels

Article excerpt

Critics rarely read Pot-Bouille at all.

--Marcus, Apartment Stories 169


In Naomi Schor's already classic account of George Sand and the roman idealiste, she describes the limits of mimesis such that realist and naturalist writing, for all of their claires to social critique, nevertheless find it very difficult, in philosophical terms, to impose the "ought" of how things should be onto the "is" of how things are. In other words, mimesis is held within the referential logic of the copy, however energetically irony works against what are literally terms of reference. What I suggest is that in the first decades of the Third Republic, it is the interweaving of generic issues of mimesis and issues of gender ideology that prevent canonical male writers such as Zola and Maupassant from venturing too far into a post-heterosexual world of heterosocial modernity, where men and women might interact in the "social," indeed public, domain of work. Vital to this transition from the location of large numbers of women within the French family to their exploration of the public sphere (of which we start to see avant-garde glimpses at the end of the nineteenth century with the emergence of the first few women doctors, lawyers, and so forth, as well as the many schoolmistresses) has of course been the role of women's education, developed within mass society in its homosocial and heterosocial permutations ever since the first decades of the Third Republic. (1)

This language of the homo and the hetero, and of the social and the sexual, allows us to speak back to another landmark book, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men. English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, first published in 1985. On the opening pages of the original introduction to her book, Sedgwick writes:

"Homosocial desire" is a kind of oxymoron. "Homosocial" is a word occasionally used in history and the social sciences, where it describes social bonds between persons of the same sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed by analogy with the "homosexual," and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from "homosexual." To draw the "homosocial" back into the orbit of "desire" is to hypothesize the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual--a continuum whose visibility, for men, in our society, is radically disrupted. [...] My hypothesis of the unbrokenness of this continuum is not a genetic one--I do not mean to discuss genital homosexual desire as "at the root of" other forms of male homosociality--but rather a strategy for making generalizations about, and marking historical differences in, the structure of men's relations with other men. (1-2)

In the preface written for a subsequent reissuing of this now classic account, Sedgwick makes clear the sexual politics, not least for gay identities, of deconstructing the representational history of what she labels "the available mirror of the atomized, procreative, so-called heterosexual nuclear family of origin" (ix). On the one hand, she demonstrates the collusion between heterosexual norms and homosocial bonds (not least the homosocial bonds between men that subtend the practices of patriarchy). (2) As she argues, patriarchal homosociality must repress the structural continuum that connects it to homosexual counterculture. In the matrix of permutations made possible by the homo/hetero and social/sexual distinctions, there should be four basic terms: the homosexual and the homosocial (on Sedgwick's repressed continuum), the heterosexual (naturally, or rather, normatively), and the heterosocial. To transpose Sedgwick's definitions, while remaining conscious of all the pitfalls in reflecting homo and hetero back onto each other as unproblematically inverted images, we might say that "heterosocial" is a word that describes social bonds between persons of the opposite sex; it is a neologism, obviously formed by analogy with "heterosexual" and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from "heterosexual. …

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