Academic journal article Intertexts

Men-of-the-World and Demimondaines: Gender Representation and Construction in Villiers De l'Isle-Adam

Academic journal article Intertexts

Men-of-the-World and Demimondaines: Gender Representation and Construction in Villiers De l'Isle-Adam

Article excerpt

A "rhetoric of fiction," to borrow Wayne Booth's familiar phrase, involves different positions and attitudes on the author and narrator's part, depending on the generic choice s/he makes and effects s/he seeks as s/he endeavors to make the reader accept the "reality" of the universe produced by the fiction. Irony, paradox, and denial lie at the core of the overall rhetoric of Auguste de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. The following reflections will explore the ways in which Villiers uses these strategies to construct gender identities. In the wake of Baudelaire and Poe, with a great admiration for Wagner, Villiers is associated with the development of French symbolisme and can be viewed as a significant participant in the culture of the fin de siecle. His fiction, in particular the Contes cruels (1883) and Nouveaux contes cruels (1888), contributed to the production of a kind of dark humor characteristic of the period. (1) His tales--which should be read with his novel, L'Eve future (1886) in mind--construct gender identities which both adhere to the heteronormative binaries (male/female) and undermine them, because of social and historical determinations: the fin de siecle, aesthetic and the elite dandyism which characterized it. More effete or softer models of masculinity are set as positive alternatives to traditional, more aggressive, even violent stereotypes. (2) Ironic and/or paradoxical strategies contribute both to re-articulate a quirky heteronormative framework and to undermine this very framework.

Logically, in Villiers as later in Proust, a rhetoric of identity will revolve around names and naming, and all the devices that pertain to them. Not only does Proust explicitly devote pages to the topic of names, (3) the Recherche is haunted by an anxiety of identification. On his last appearance in society, Swann has become the Hebrew prophet, and Charlus functions as a prototype of the homosexual, to the point that his name becomes an antonomasia to name the whole species (the Charlus). In Villiers' collections, several tales revolve around an eponymous female character whose name, thrown as it were into the reader's face as an enigma, calls for an elucidation (Antonie, Sylvabel, La Reine Ysabeau [Queen Ysabeau]). (4) At least two, instead of a name, present a characterization which functions as an antonomasia (L'Inconnue, L'Incomprise [The Unknown Woman, The Misunderstood Woman]). By contrast, men do not lend their names to stories (Le Traitement du docteur Tristan [Dr. Tristan's Treatment] presents a very different structure). Functions, however, appear in titles. Sombre recit, conteur plus sombre [A Somber Tale, An Even More Somber Storyteller] thus refers to a specific male character, as does Le Convive des dernieres fetes [The Guest of the Last Festivities], a tale in which the identity (or rather the defining passion) of the unknown foreign nobleman is the crux of the narrative, and the revelation of this obsession its climax. The balance is not even between the genders. The fact that the eponymous Maryelle (whose name is also mentioned in L'Enjeu [The Stake]) is a pseudonym suggests that identity is, indeed, at stake. If the Guest of the Convive is an enigma, (5) women are constantly presented as mysterious (unknown, even unknowable, misunderstood ...). The secret is both a source of anxiety and a pseudo-mystery--the latter characterization suggests a strategy to forestall the threat at the heart of numerous male characters' anxiety. Women are represented as destructive for men, and quite a few scenarios point to a fear of castration.

Gender and Narcissism

Fear of castration/destruction is expressed through a foregrounding of narcissism, which appears in Villiers to produce gender specific scenarios--though it is a threat to male characters whether it is represented in a male or female character. Le Desir d'etre un homme [The Desire to Be a Man] develops an interesting paradox, as the male protagonist, an allegedly well-known second-rate actor, fails to achieve his goal of becoming a man; un homme, here, is ostensibly used in the all-inclusive sense of the word, to refer to a human being with real feelings as opposed to an actor who only represents imitated emotions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.