Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Vautrin and Same-Sex Desire in le Pere Goriot.(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Vautrin and Same-Sex Desire in le Pere Goriot.(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

An awareness of Vautrin's sexual interest in other men, and particularly Eugene Rastignac, in Balzac's Le Pere Goriot is not new. Though Philippe Berthier, in his often cited article on male same-sex desire in the three "Vautrin" novels, Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes, Illusions perdues, and Le pere Goriot, "Balzac du cote de Sodome," shows the extent to which eminent Balzac scholars like Bardeche and Barberis fought to deny it as late as the 1970s (167-68), his own 1979 essay, while focusing largely on Splendeurs et miseres, brought the issue squarely to the forefront of scholarly attention. Since then, however, there has been little extended examination of the nature of Vautrin's desire and Balzac's way of presenting it in what remains one of his best known and most often read works. Because that presentation is complex and fascinating in ways not explored by Berthier or those few who have written on the topic since, it bears further detailed analysis.

First, and following Berthier's lead, it is important to examine the specific nature of Vautrin's interest in Rastignac and other men, especially since our way of viewing male same-sex relations as a manifestation of what we have come to term homosexuality is very different from those current in 1834 when Balzac wrote the novel; if this difference is not kept in mind, we risk skewing our understanding of what the author actually wrote. (1) Part of Vautrin's interest in Rastignac, at least as the latter sees it, is an attempt to gain control over the young student that, while often linked to sexuality in this novel, is not itself what we would understand as being a form of sexual desire. At one point, for example, the narrator remarks that "il lui [a Rastignac] semblait que ce singulier personnage [Vautrin] penetrait ses passions et lisait dans son coeur" (142; my italics), that Vautrin "plongea[i]t un regard divinateur dans l'ame du jeune homme" (143; my italics). (2) The verbs "penetrer" and "plonger" certainly are sexually suggestive, but they also evoke the text's earlier remark that Rastignac himself "voulait penetrer ce mystere [regarding Mme de Restaud], esperant ainsi pouvoir regner en souverain sur cette femme si eminemment Parisienne" (93; my italics). This link makes clear that, just as Rastignac wants power over Mme de Restaud for non-sexual reasons (he wants to use her to advance in society), so Vautrin takes an interest in Eugene, penetrates and plunges into Eugene's secrets, at least in part, in order to have control over him --though, of course, in both cases Balzac's choice of verbs suggests that he saw a connection between sexual relations and domination.

Sometimes Vautrin's expressions of interest in Rastignac involve possibly ambiguous words, such as when he assures the younger man that "Je vous aime, foi de ... Vautrin" (145), or "Je vous aime, moi. J'ai la passion de me devouer pour un autre" (217). Other times the words, if not direct, seem highly suggestive. Referring to his offer to have Victorine Taillefer's brother assassinated so that she will become her wealthy father's heir and Rastignac can take advantage of her feelings for him to acquire a potentially wealthy wife, Vautrin tells the young student: "Ne vous decidez pas dans ce moment, vous n'etes pas dans votre assiette ordinaire.... Je ne veux pas que ce soit la passion, le desespoir, mais la raison qui vous determine a venir a moi" (215; my italics). (3)

Sometimes, however, there is a fairly clear physical, and thus homoerotic, aspect to Vautrin's interest in Rastignac and other young men. When the student passes out as a result of the drugged wine Vautrin had given him to prevent him from interfering with the assassination, the older man "le baisa chaleureusement au front, en chantant: Dormez, mes cheres amours!/Pour vous je veillerai toujours" (243). Shortly afterward, he confides in Mme Couture that "ce qui m'attache a ce jeune homme, ce qui m'emeut, c'est de savoir la beaute de son ame en harmonie avec celle de sa figure" (246), indicating clearly that he is susceptible to Rastignac's, and therefore men's, appearance. …

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