Sand's la Mare Au Diable, Awakening through "Evil" and the Hero's Journey

By Hamilton, James F. | Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Sand's la Mare Au Diable, Awakening through "Evil" and the Hero's Journey


Hamilton, James F., Nineteenth-Century French Studies


A la sueur de ton visaige Tu gaigneras ta pauvre vie, Apres long travail et usaige Voici la mort qui te convie. (1)

Sand prefaces La Mare au diable (1846), her best known pastoral novel and probably her most widely read work, with a quotation appearing above a wood carving of Holbein. The quatrain rephrases a verse from Genesis: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (3: 19). (2) Of particular interest to us, in view of the reference to the devil in the title to Sand's novel, is the subsequent verse: "Then the Lord God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil' [...]" (3: 22; my emphasis). I contend that these verses from Genesis, linked textually through the quoted paraphrase and thematically to Sand's novel, form its subtext in her opening essay on Holbein and in the fiction which it introduces. While Genesis subjects woman to the pain of childbearing and to the authority of her husband, while it curses the ground to be cultivated and imposes labor and death as punishment for disobedience to the Lord God (which opens human eyes to "knowing good and evil"), Sand's story constitutes a countertext in fiction upholding the equality of woman, the joy of children, the fecundity of nature, the satisfaction of work, the rebirth of life after the death of a loved one, and the role of evil in the hero's awakening from depression.

In other words, reference to the devil in La Mare au diable (1846) has bearing on the novel's narrative structure and provides avantage point from which to arrive at a deeper understanding of its meaning. The reference evokes automatically the notion of evil in Genesis arising from the devil's temptation and the resulting curse of death. This original "metaphysical evil" spawns other forms of evil. As a theme, it sheds light on Sand's ideological structuring of her novel: its title prepares the opening pages in "L'Auteur au lecteur," whose critique of Holbein's allegory rejects the theological doctrine of original sin; the fictional plot in chapter three opens on the aftermath of a death, and the plot incorporates a narrative structure that centers on the confrontation of "moral evil," the harm done to others. (3) Before explaining these assertions through textual analysis, one needs first to ask a question: If evil in its various forms occupies center stage in La Mare au diable, why has it not received much critical attention? Genre, literary period, and narrative structure relate to this consideration.

The fairy-tale ambience in La Mare au diable softens the presentation of evil and mitigates its impact. Fairy tales are like dreams in that "they help to keep our conscious attitude in a healthy balance, and have therefore a feeling function" (von Franz, The Feminine in Fairy Tales 10). (4) Sand's use of the genre remains true to this healing effect. Her pastoral novels are not expected to support weighty problems of philosophic import, and the reader knows in advance that her rustic tale will probably end well. So too, Sand's hero, Germain, does not appear at first glance to share Romanticism's aesthetic of overlapping good and evil in its "criminal-saints" such as Julien Sorel, Jean Valjean, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Saint Julien. (The bewitching female characters in Sand's country novels are more overtly inclined in this direction.) Evil in this context arises from the Shadow, a kind of secondary personality or archetype for Jung and comparable to the id of Freud. (5) Although readers tend not to take seriously the surfacing of evil in the fantastic ambience of the devil's pool, the confrontation with evil constitutes an inherent turning point in the narrative mechanism used by Sand in La Mare au diable. The hero's journey with its trial through danger (monster, dragon, devil, etc.) is referred to "in Jungian terminology [...] as confrontation with and assimilation of the shadow" (Clift 91). …

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