Being René, Buying Atala:
Alienated Subjects and Decorative
Objects in Postrevolutionary France
The canon of nineteenth-century French literature begins with a strange coupling. At the turn of the century, François-René de Chateaubriand published his first two novels separately, only to pair them a few years later. Together, the two works form a diptych in which men exchange stories about the dead women who had loved them. In Atala, a half-civilized American Indian, Chactas, tells how his lover, Atala, died to save her virginity. In René, the half- savage European René reveals his sister's incestuous love for him. Despite their obvious symmetry, the two works make a study in contrasts. While Atala harks back to its Enlightenment predecessors, René points the way toward Romanticism. Whereas Atala focuses on a virtuous, virginal heroine of the New World, René features an alienated, aristocratic antihero of the Old World.
Recent feminist work suggests, however, that this odd couple is also a paradigmatic pair. In Breaking the Chain, Naomi Schor argues that Atala emblematizes the "enchaining of the female protagonist" that is crucial to nineteenth-century French fiction. 1 I have proposed reading René, on the other hand, as the urtext for an insidious empowerment of men characteristic of the Romantic novel. 2 Whereas Atala reveals that the free-roaming heroine is in fact morally and then physically bound, René shows that the constraints on the hero are the basis of a new kind of male power. Together, then, the founding texts of the nineteenth-century canon signal the ever more pronounced imbalance of power between the sexes that came to characterize gender relations in postrevolutionary France. 3
Atala and René did more than just mirror or herald these changes in French culture and society, however. The publication of Atala in 1801 inspired
I would like to thank Barbara Cooper and Julia Przybos for sharing their expertise on popular culture and, particularly, Kate Jensen, Sara Melzer, Cris Miller, and Leslie Rabine for their invaluable comments on an earlier version of this chapter. I am grateful to Pomona College for the grant that made this research possible.
All translations are my own.