(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Des Esseintes family has a long history. In the Château de Lourps, the portraits of the ancestors show rugged troopers and stern cavalrymen. The family, however, follows a familiar pattern; through two hundred years of intermarriage and indulgence, the men become increasingly effeminate. Now the only remaining Des Esseintes is Jean, who is thirty years old. By a kind of atavism, Jean’s looks resemble those of his first grandsire. The resemblance, however, is in looks only.

Jean’s childhood was unhappy. His father, living in Paris most of the time, visited Jean briefly at school once in a while when he wished to give moral counsel. Occasionally, he went to see his wife at the château. Jean was always present at those hushed interviews in which his mother took little interest. Jean’s mother had a strange dread of light. Passing her days in her shaded boudoir, she avoided contact with the world. At the Jesuit school, Jean became a precocious student of Latin and acquired a fair knowledge of theology. At the same time, he was a stubborn, withdrawn child who refused all discipline. The patient priests let him follow his own bent, for there was little else they could do. Both his parents died while he was young; at his majority, he gained complete control of his inheritance.

In his contacts with the world, Jean goes through two phases. At first, he lives a wild, dissolute life. For a time, he is content with ordinary mistresses. His first love is Miss Urania, an American acrobat. She is strong and healthy; Jean yearns for her as an anemic young girl might long for a Hercules. Nevertheless, Miss Urania is quite feminine, even prudish in her embraces. Their liaison prematurely hastens his impotence. Another mistress is a brunette ventriloquist. One day, Jean purchases a tiny black sphinx and a chimera of polychrome clay. Bringing them into the bedchamber, he prevails on her to imitate Gustave Flaubert’s famous dialogue between the Sphinx and the Chimera. His mistress, however, is sulky at having to perform offstage.

After that phase, Jean begins to be disgusted with people. He sees that men reared in religious schools, as he was, are timid and boring. Men educated in the public schools are more courageous but even more boring. In a frantic effort to find companionship, he wildly seeks the most carnal pastimes and the most perverted pleasures.

Jean was never strong, and from childhood he was afflicted with scrofula. Now his nerves are growing weaker. The back of his neck always pains him; his hand trembles when he lifts a light object. In a burst of despairing eccentricity, he gives a farewell dinner to his lost virility. The meal is served on a black table to the sound of funeral marches. The waitresses are nude black women. The plates are edged in black; the menu includes dark bread, meat with licorice sauce, and wine served in dark glasses.


(The entire section is 1189 words.)