Study Guide

Adolphe

by Benjamin Constant

Adolphe Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Having creditably completed his studies in Göttingen in spite of a somewhat dissipated life, Adolphe is expected, after a preliminary period of travel, to take his place in the governmental department of which his father, the minister of a German electorate, is the head. His father has great hopes for his son and is inclined to be lenient about his indiscretions, but because of an inherent timidity shared by father and son—a timidity combined, on the part of the father, with a defensive outward coldness—no real sympathy is possible between the two.

The constraint generated by this relationship has a considerable effect on Adolphe’s character, as does a period he spends as the protégé of a much older woman whose strong and unconventional opinions make an indelible impression on him. This period, spent in long, passionately analytical conversations, ends with the woman’s death.

Upon leaving the university, Adolphe goes to the court of the small German principality of D——. At first, he is welcomed, but he gradually attracts resentment for his mannered frivolity, alternating with scathing frankness, which stem from his profound indifference to the society of the court. The woman who formed his mind bequeathed to him an ardent dislike of mediocrity and all of its expressions, and he finds it difficult to reconcile himself with the artificiality of society and the necessity for arbitrary convention. Moreover, his only interest at that time is to indulge in passionate feelings that lead to contempt for the ordinary world.

One thing that does impress Adolphe is to see the joy of a friend at winning the love of one of the less mediocre women of the court. His friend’s reaction develops in Adolphe not only the regrets connected with piqued vanity but also other, more confused, emotions related to newly discovered aspects of his desire to be loved. He can discover in himself no marked tastes, but soon after making the acquaintance of the Count de P——, Adolphe determines to attempt to establish a liaison with the woman who has shared the count’s life for ten years and whose two illegitimate children the count has acknowledged.

Ellénore is a spirited woman from a good Polish family that has been ruined by political troubles. Her history is one of untiring devotion to the count and of constant conflict between her respectable sentiments and her position in society—a position that has gradually become sanctioned, however, through the influence of her lover.

Adolphe does not consider himself to be in love but to be fulfilling an obligation to his self-esteem; yet, he finds his thoughts increasingly occupied with Ellénore as well as his project. Unable to make a verbal declaration, he finally writes to her. His inner agitation and the conviction he sought to express rebound, however, and his imagination becomes wholly entangled when Ellénore refuses to receive him. That convinces him of his love, and he finally succeeds in overcoming her resistance to his suit.

When the count is called away on urgent business, Adolphe and Ellénore bask for a few weeks in the charm of love and mutual gratification. Almost immediately, however, Adolphe begins to be annoyed at the new constraint imposed on his life by this attachment, rewarding though he finds it. The idea that it cannot last calms his fears, and he writes to his father upon Ellénore’s urging, asking permission to postpone his return for six months. When his father consents, Adolphe is immediately confronted again by all the drawbacks involved in his remaining at D——. He is irritated at the prospect of...

(The entire section is 1490 words.)