Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Un Enlevement Peut En Cacher Un Autre: Kidnapping the Past in la Duchesse De Langeais

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Un Enlevement Peut En Cacher Un Autre: Kidnapping the Past in la Duchesse De Langeais

Article excerpt

Honore de Balzac's 1834 novella La Duchesse de Langeais is a story in which journeys abound. Paradoxically, the most significant of these symbolically-charged voyages are involuntary, at least on the part of the main traveler, for they take the form of a kidnapping. The primary objective of kidnapping is as much psychological as physical, in that it seeks to bring its victim from a public into a private space, and thus into direct confrontation with the intimate thoughts of the kidnapper. The public sphere, particularly at the time of the Restoration when the story is set, is represented by Balzac as entirely dominated by conflicting systems, from the political and ideological to the libidinal and psychological. Underlying the motive for kidnapping is the assumption that if someone is violently removed from this hypocritical milieu, and completely disoriented with respect to his or her public identity, the true value associated with a hidden and self-enclosed private system will be revealed; that is, the private self will be laid bare to the desiring eye of the kidnapper. However, as the notion of desire suggests, the captor's position is far from neutral, for kidnapping in Balzac is also conceived as the forum for the self-revelation of the kidnapper, and this secondary objective is somewhat at odds with the primary one. Where the victim is being profoundly and even ontologically challenged, the degree to which the perpetrator is also forced to abandon firmly-held ideas remains unclear. Balzac's earlier novella Sarrasine (1830) stands as a case in point that kidnappers, too, should beware of what revelations their abductions may unleash, concerning their own self-identity as much as that of their victim. (1) In La Duchesse de Langeais, the question of the kidnapper's position is complicated still further by Balzac's preoccupation with the issue of how even the most emancipated of his contemporaries remained fundamentally bound up in historical events within living memory. In challenging the victim's constructed identity, kidnapping implies at once a re-examination of the social and personal evolution of that identity, and a radical break with this past. Yet even a kidnapper has a past that is being reworked in the violence of the abduction. A character like Armand de Montriveau in La Duchesse de Langeais, for all that he is exemplarily detached from family and from the state, still runs the risk of seizing upon kidnapping as an opportunity to remain fixated on a repressed past, rather than using it as an opportunity to evolve into a newly-forged modernity.

Among all the other journeys that are undertaken or described in La Duchesse de Langeais--military exploits, scientific expeditions, flights of fancy or narrative flash-backs--, kidnapping stands as a strategic combination of physical and psychological transportation. A violent and transformative gesture, kidnapping wrenches its victim loose from all the material and conceptual anchoring points of his or her identity, whether personal or political, in the past or in an imagined future. The key plot-twist in the novella consists of an elaborate abduction of the Duchess by her lover, Armand de Montriveau, and this pivotal act is also echoed several times within the text in significant ways. The Duchess herself embodies all the qualities of latent heroism and manifest pettiness that characterize the milieu from which she will be extracted, that is, the Restoration aristocracy of the faubourg Saint-Germain. (2) In reference to her, Balzac explicitly justifies his long-held realist belief in incarnating social types. If, he proposes, one can say of Richelieu that he is the face of an entire chapter in France's history, and declare that "cette identite de physionomie entre un homme et son cortege historique est dans la nature des choses" then the same must clearly be true within the "drame national" of public mores that is played out across the social strata on a daily basis. …

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