Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Narrating the Gender Riddle: The Case of Maupassant's Yvette, "M. Jocaste," and "L'Ermite"

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Narrating the Gender Riddle: The Case of Maupassant's Yvette, "M. Jocaste," and "L'Ermite"

Article excerpt

Literary theory in general, and the various idioms of feminist theory in particular, have frequently portrayed the male relationship to discourse in powerful terms. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the majority of formulations on this topic have cast a rather unfavorable light on the dominant role that man has assumed in manipulating language and its signifying processes. Helene Cixous' landmark essay, "The Laugh of the Medusa," ranks at once among both the most well-known and the most virulent condemnations of the male's usurpation of semiotic primacy. Cixous contends that this situation has produced highly deleterious effects for women and their ability to write their own stories:

   Men have committed the greatest crime against women. Insidiously,
   violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own
   enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to
   be the executants of their virile needs. They have made for women
   an antinarcicissism! A narcissism which loves itself only to be
   loved for what women haven't got! (878)

Such messages are not limited to the essentialist feminist idiom Cixous espouses; they can be round in numerous readings and re-readings of "patriarchal" and/or "phallocentric" tendencies in male-authored texts. Shoshana Felman determines from her deconstructive reading of Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or that "[m]an alone has [...] the privilege of proper meaning, of literal identity: femininity as signifier, cannot signify itself" (25). And Domna C. Stanton articulates the sort of displacement of the female locus of signification that Felman describes as an integral component in the development of ideologies, especially apparent in the intimate relationship between man and nomenclature established in the Bible. Man's function in Judeo-Christian dogma as the namer of things prefigures his purportedly privileged role in producing language and controlling its interpretation:

   The myth of creation sets forth an etiology of naming which every
   culture has dramatized in praxis and upheld in ideology. By
   God-given right, man assigned words to things, defined their
   meanings, and thereby determined our reading, our interpretation of
   the real. (107)

The typology of reading proposed in texts such as those from which the above excerpts are taken has become familiar to all literary scholars: the dominance of male-oriented textual transmission is predicated upon the male's appropriation and objectification of the female. In the following pages, I would like to examine these assertions and the contingencies of male narrative dominance in a selection of works by Guy de Maupassant. Maupassant seems to be an especially appropriate author for a study of this sort in that he has often been criticized for precisely the reasons that Cixous, Felman, and Stanton cite in their commentaries on the male's signifying authority. Mary Donaldson-Evans characterizes Maupassant's attitudes toward nineteenth-century feminist activities as typical of "la realite d'une epoque misogyne" (64). Donaldson-Evans opines that the woman remains "jusqu'a la fin du siecle emprisonnee dans un discours paternaliste" (64) which Maupassant replicates, if not endorses. Moreover, Maupassant's own remarks seem to confirm and legitimate Donaldson-Evans' observations; indeed, Maupassant's terms are, on many occasions, glaringly incendiary. In his Chroniques, Maupassant portrays women as generally lacking in the capacities required to produce a great artwork:

   Les femmes, par millions, etudient la musique et la peinture, sans
   avoir jamais pu produire une oeuvre complete et originale, parce
   qu'il leur manque justement cette objectivite de l'esprit, qui est
   indispensable dans tous les travaux intellectuels.

      Tout cela me semble irrefutable. On pourrait amasser, dans ce
   sens, des montagnes d'arguments, aussi inutiles, puisqu'on ne fait
   que deplacer la question, et par consequent, raisonner dans le
   faux, a mon avis du moins. … 
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