Things, Distinction and Decay in Nineteenth-century French Literature

  • Brian Rigby
Part of the Warwick Studies in the European Humanities book series (WSEH)


French prose forms of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are largely uncluttered by things and the paraphernalia of everyday life. The literature of sensibility and of the ‘mal du siècle’ tends to offer a world of such unremitting psychological, emotional and philosophical intensity that the presence of ordinary things would constitute a rather earthy and matter-of-fact intrusion into a relatively abstract aesthetic space which deals with thoughts and feelings, but pays little attention to external, physical and concrete aspects of reality. One thinks of Balzac’s question (which in the context of the fictional practice of the time, Pierre Barbéris has called a sacrilegious one): ‘Do people eat in René?’1 In the epistolary novels of the late eighteenth century one almost feels that the only ordinary things to be found are the letters themselves, although in the case of a work such as Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) the reader is hardly likely to believe that, given the weight of Saint-Preux’s missives, they were ever capable of being carried and delivered by any postal service. In a first-person ‘mal du siècle’ work such as Adolphe (1816) the only object the reader is likely to remember is the ‘cassette’ which is found on the road and which contains the manuscript of the récit — which itself contains no mention of things.


Material Thing French Literature Material Desire Ordinary Thing Shop Window 
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  1. 1.
    Quoted in P. Barbéris, Le ‘Père Goriot’ de Balzac: écriture, structures, significations (Paris: Larousse, 1972) p. 184. When Walter Scott brought his bric-à-brac to the French novel, it was normal to see this as a corruption of the French fictional tradition and to consider this as having been characterised by its abstraction and its idealism. In Baudelaire’s La Fanfarlo, Samuel Cramer laments the dire influence of Scott: ‘What a bore of a writer! A dusty excavator of dead chronicles — a deadly pile of junk, a hoard of bygones of every description — coats of mail, pewter pots, antiquated furniture, gothic taverns and melo-dramatic castles haunted by a crowd of clockwork puppets dressed in gaudy jerkins and doublets. … What a difference from our excellent French novelists in whom passion and morality are always more significant than any materialistic description of inanimate objects!’ (Baudelaire: The Poems in Prose with ‘La Fanfarlo’ , ed., introduced and tr. F. Scarfe (London: Anvil Press, 1989) p. 223).Google Scholar
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    For a wide-ranging study of ‘banal objects’ in literature, which adopts a different perspective from that taken here, see N. Segal, The Banal Object: Theme and Thematics in Proust, Rilke, Hofmannsthal, and Sartre (London: Institute of Germanic Studies, 1981).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 50–1. Balzac shared this view of the meretricious nature of nineteenth-century things: ‘The ruins of the Church and the Nobility; the ruins of Feudalism and the Middle Ages are sublime. … The ruins of the bourgeoisie, however, will be nothing but an ignoble pile of rubbish made up of papier-mâché, plaster and daubs. This enormous factory, turning out little things and shiny ephemeral goods, will in the end be seen to have produced nothing, not even dust. The wardrobe of a great lady of past times could furnish the whole suite of rooms of a banker. What will they do in 1900 with the wardrobe of a present-day queen?’ H. de Balzac, ‘L’Hôpital et le peuple’, in La Comédie humaine, vol. x, ed. M. Bouteron (Paris: Gallimard, 1950) p. 1080.Google Scholar
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    The term is used in La Peau de chagrin. See the English translation by Herbert J. Hunt, The Wild Ass’s Skin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977) p. 38.Google Scholar
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    On the social history of suicide by drowning in the Seine, see R. Cobb, Death in Paris, 1795–1801 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).Google Scholar
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© Brian Rigby 1993

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  • Brian Rigby

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