Diderot's Family Romance: 'Les Bijoux Indiscrets' Reappraised

By Fowler, J. E. | The Romanic Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Diderot's Family Romance: 'Les Bijoux Indiscrets' Reappraised


Fowler, J. E., The Romanic Review


In his perceptive analysis of Les Bijoux indiscrets,

Ellrich situates it in a tradition of debate on women, "the

familiar opposition dating at least from the Roman de la

Rose".(1) There is on the one hand the "Platonic defense of

women", and on the other "an anti-feminist, naturalistic

current", the tension between the two constituting "the

central thematic and structural element of [Diderot's]

first novel" (282-283). Ellrich concludes that the novel

tends to reinforce the "anti-feminist" view of women

expressed by Mangogul (289). However, it proves difficult

to reconcile the ending with such a reading. For whilst

most of the novel's episodes tend to confirm Mangogul's

view, when the ring is finally used on Mirzoza the voice of

her bijou speaks only words of fidelity; and as Mirzoza

herself reasons, "s'il y a une femme sage, il peut y en

avoir mille" (143).(2)

Yet if we do not follow Ellrich's lead, are we instead

to conclude that the final chapter and the main body of the

novel cancel each other out, in that we are told nothing

about women except that there is more than one view of

them? Or are we to understand that virtuous and lascivious

women exist in roughly the proportion of one to thirty? If

only as a matter of reading intuition, such inferences seem

inadequate. Indeed, the reader may suspect he or she has

been playfully drawn into a debate on women as futile as

that which occurs between Jacques and his Master: "Et les

voila embarques dans une querelle interminable sur les

femmes, Pun pretendant qu'elles etaient bonnes, l'autre

mechantes, et ils avaient tous deux raison ... l'un sages,

l'autre libertines ... et ils avaient tous deux raison".(3)

I would argue that instead of inquiring what the work

has to tell us concerning women, we can read it in terms of

desire, or more precisely as the symptomatic expression of

certain desires and anxieties in relation to sexual

difference. Close reading reveals that Mirzoza's

desirability derives not only from her own purity, but also

from the depravity of women in general; she is desired, not

for herself in any absolute sense, but because she is

different from the others. A new relationship between the

main body of the novel and its ending emerges in the light

of this. Mangogul's denigration of other women throughout

the novel is as essential to Mirzoza's apotheosis as the

vindication which occurs in the final chapter. Once Mirzoza

has been tested by the ring, we realize that the others'

bijoux have been saying, not: "All women are worthless",

but: "We are worthless, but there is one who is not". This

can be read, not as a matter of logical contradiction, but

as the expression of a range of connected phantasies,

wishes and anxieties. This new approach to Les Bijoux

indiscrets is rich in consequences and these in turn throw

new fight on Diderot's later narratives.

The Desire of Difference

The plot of Les Bijoux indiscrets suggests that Mirzoza is

virtuous, and also that all other women resemble each other

in not being so. They are not by any means identical; but

they are equally influenced by an inexorable sexual impulse

which prevents them from being satisfied either with

celibacy or with fidelity. This similarity, confirmed by

experimentation with the ring, allows Mangogul to construct

a taxonomy of women. Entitled "La Morale de Mangogul", this

system is based entirely upon the differing vicissitudes of

the all-present sexual instinct:

Si j'accordais une ame aux femmes, je supposerais volontiers [. …

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