Alain-Fournier Essay - Critical Essays

Henri-Alban Fournier

Analysis: The Wanderer

In The Wanderer, Alain-Fournier has written one of those few novels whose riches are not exhausted by analysis, however prolonged. Its multivalent textures, organic use of imagery, psychological depth, and contrapuntal themes reveal a structural integrity that is peculiarly modern. At the same time, the novel summarizes and brings to consummate expression a variety of concerns, preoccupations, and attitudes germane to the French Symbolists. It may be construed simply and straightforwardly as a novel of adventure or, on a complementary level, as a quest for the Absolute that makes abundant, though discreet, reference to medieval legend, ancient myth, folktale and fairy tale, and the symbols and procedures of religious initiation. It may be relished for the haunting, restrained lyricism of its prose, its delicate evocations of a landscape flickering with impressionist light and Symbolist overtones, its unprecedented fusion of fantasy and factuality, its insights into adolescent psychology, and, finally, its depiction of a mythopoeic search for salvation.


François Seurel, the narrator of the story, recounts the events associated with his family’s move, fifteen years earlier, to the village of Sainte-Agathe. A shy and reclusive adolescent suffering from a slight limp, Seurel is gradually cured after the arrival of a dynamic and imperious youth named Augustin Meaulnes. Dominant and intense, the seventeen-year-old Meaulnes becomes the accepted leader of the other schoolboys. When Monsieur Seurel (François’s father) chooses another student to join François in meeting his grandparents at the local train station, Meaulnes rebels by stealing a horse and cart and taking off on his own.

Meaulnes soon becomes lost and, after a night in the woods, arrives at an isolated château where, as he later discovers, festivities are in preparation for a marriage between the spoiled son of the house, the sixteen-year-old Frantz de Galais, and his fiancé, an impoverished seamstress named Valentine Blondeau. After entering the château through a window, Meaulnes is mistaken for a guest and subsequently joins in a masked ball arranged by the children of the domain. Diverted, along with the other revelers, by the antics of a costumed Pierrot, Meaulnes soon retires to a secluded portion of the house, where his attention is arrested by the sound of a distant piano. Entering a small chamber occupied by children turning the pages of storybooks, Meaulnes beholds, seated at a piano, a young girl who later proves to be Frantz’s sister, Yvonne de Galais.

The next day, during a boating party, Meaulnes meets and talks briefly with Yvonne. He returns to the château to find the revelers in a state of consternation and disarray. Frantz has failed to return with his bride, and the guests, tired of waiting, grow restless, moody, and cynical, entertaining one another with bawdy songs and off-color jokes.

As he is about to leave, Meaulnes is accosted by a youth in naval costume; this youth turns out to be Frantz de Galais. His fiancé, mistrusting the effects of his lofty ideals, has abandoned him. Frantz orders Meaulnes to suspend the proceedings. As Meaulnes is hurried from the château in a rolling carriage, a flash of light accompanied by the report of a gun explodes from the depths of the forest. This is followed by the apparition of the costumed Pierrot carrying the inert body of Frantz de Galais.

The rest of the novel is devoted to Meaulnes’s unsuccessful attempt to return to the lost domain. After a brief interval following Meaulnes’s return to Sainte-Agathe, a mysterious stranger, his head wrapped in bandages, arrives at the village in the company of a dissolute strolling player named Ganache. (They turn out to be Frantz and the erstwhile Pierrot.) Before disclosing any information concerning the whereabouts of his sister, Frantz departs, having chosen to lead the itinerant life of a gypsy.

Meaulnes travels to Paris in the hope of seeing Yvonne at the Galaises’ city residence, but the house is abandoned. Waiting outside the house, like Meaulnes, is another figure: a girl, dressed in black with a white collar like a “pretty Pierrot.” Like Meaulnes, she is companionless. Despairing of ever seeing Yvonne again, Meaulnes accepts Valentine (for this chance-met girl is indeed Frantz’s former fiancé) as his mistress.

In the meantime, Seurel has discovered the whereabouts of Yvonne. She is a regular customer at his uncle’s country store. Having lived vicariously for so long in Meaulnes’s adventure (and knowing nothing of Meaulnes’s relations with Valentine), Seurel now hopes to bring Meaulnes and Yvonne together. He arranges to meet Meaulnes at his parental home but is astonished at Meaulnes’s apparent reluctance to give up an intended journey. (As is later disclosed, Meaulnes had abandoned Valentine after discovering that she was Frantz’s fiancé. Hence, Seurel’s arrival with news of Yvonne synchronizes unmercifully with Meaulnes’s intention to find and retrieve the self-destructive Valentine.)

In any event, Seurel convinces Meaulnes to meet Yvonne at a country outing organized by Seurel and Monsieur de Galais. The meeting proves to be a disaster. To Yvonne’s mortification (for her father has lost his fortune in paying off the accumulated debts of his son), Meaulnes dwells obsessively on the vanished splendor of the lost domain. Finally, Meaulnes starts an argument with Yvonne’s father over his imprudence in saddling the broken-down cart horse, Belisaire. That evening, in a fit of remorse, Meaulnes asks Yvonne to be his wife.

On the evening of the wedding, Frantz returns. He persuades Meaulnes to accompany him on a search for his lost fiancé. To Seurel’s incredulity and dismay, Meaulnes departs with Frantz. Seurel becomes, in consequence, both surrogate husband to Yvonne and substitute father to the child conceived on the night before Meaulnes’s departure. Following the birth of her child, Yvonne dies and Seurel is appointed guardian. After an indeterminate interval, Meaulnes returns, having successfully reunited Frantz with Valentine. Presently Meaulnes departs with his daughter to a nameless destination. Seurel is left with nothing save a host of indelible memories and the book in which they are enshrined.


The opening pages of The Wanderer immediately enunciate the themes and dramatic situations subsequently borne out by the novel’s haplessprotagonists: François Seurel, the diffident yet deeply compassionate narrator; Augustin Meaulnes, the figure of youthful valor who betrays his best impulses and precipitates those around him into tragedy and regret; and Frantz de Galais, the wayward, erratic embodiment of those demoniac forces that explode toward the novel’s conclusion. These characters, although sharply differentiated and thoroughly believable as dramatic figures, are, to a certain extent, psychological counterparts of one another. (Triadic figures are, of course, common ingredients of fairy tales, as in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “The Three Little Pigs.”) Here, however, the three protagonists represent, on a psychological level, individual aspects of a single, fragmented ego. The resemblance between the names “Frantz” and “François” is not merely fortuitous, nor is it merely accidental that Meaulnes, at one point in the novel, sustains wounds to the head and knee—the respective locations of Frantz’s scar and François’s affliction.

The very first words of the novel evoke that sense of an irretrievable happiness that, through François’s delicate and subtly cadenced prose, envelops the characters, scenes, and situations of The Wanderer with a profound and poignant sense of nostalgia. After mentioning a nameless “He” who will turn out to be the principal subject of the book, François remarks of the house, the neighborhood, and the countryside of his early adventures that “we shall not be going back to it.” Here, then, is one of the themes, casually broached and tentatively suggested, that colors the lives and attitudes of the chief characters—namely, the search for a lost paradise variously identified with an idealized childhood, an uncorrupted heart, or a state of pure and disinterested love. “My credo in art and literature,” wrote Alain-Fournier, “is childhood: to render this state without puerility, but with a profound sense of its mystery.”

Childhood is, of course, the period of human life most frequently extolled by the Romantic school of the nineteenth century. The child enjoys a continued imaginative transformation of reality; the boundaries between ego and world are nebulous. Hence the child becomes the type and emblem of the poet. Moreover, the sense of oneness with the whole of Being is more readily available in childhood (before the process of ego building has begun) than at any other period. In consequence, the child’s unconscious participation in the whole of reality is analogous to the conscious awareness of that wholeness that is deliberately cultivated by the mystic. It is one thing to be an adult, however, and to cherish childhood as emblematic of the spiritually awakened conscience; it is another thing altogether to be an adult and wish to return to a condition from which, by virtue of one’s temporality, one is debarred.

The Wanderer is informed by a growing awareness that the celebration of childhood, when protracted beyond its limits, becomes demoniac and obsessive; concomitant with this awareness emerges a collateral theme: “the dialectic of desire.” This dialectic, as outlined by C. S. Lewis in his preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), may be described as follows. Human beings are so constituted that they perpetually feel the paucity of present satisfactions. In order to hide this emptiness and discontent, one is perennially engaged in the search for some object that can fill the vacuum of existence. Each object pursued or desired is inevitably disappointing insofar as it fails to secure everlasting happiness. In consequence, one scuttles from object to object, goal to goal, in the hope of securing that without which one is miserable. The fallacy inherent in the pursuit becomes evident, however, when the attainment of some cherished and sought-for treasure does not produce the lasting effect desired. Sometimes, when present objects do not satisfy expectations, one wrongly believes that if it were in one’s power to return to some luminous moment in the past, one could again be happy. Such a return, however, would reveal only that the “luminous” moment similarly involved the pursuit of a distant goal or the longing for a vanished past. Hence one is obliged to resign oneself to a moody cynicism or, through an act of secondary reflection, to arrive at a greater understanding of the dilemmA&Mdash;namely, a recognition that one is created to enjoy a felicity not available in the world of spatiotemporal objects. The things sought—the wonder of childhood, the purity of first love, the ecstasy of sexual union—have an analogous relationship to the true object of the quest but should not be confused with it.

Sea imagery

The divine discontent of Romanticism points, then, to a reality of ultimate and transcendent worth, and it is the recognition of this reality (or the failure to recognize it) that is thematically central to The Wanderer. Indeed, one of Alain-Fournier’s signal achievements in this novel lies in his ability to make the reader conscious of that reality as it impinges on human existence, and it is through an especially cunning stylistic device—the consistent use of marine imagery—that this effect is achieved. Through repeated and strategic references to the sea, Alain-Fournier is able to achieve that sense of what the French call dépaysment, the feeling of being transported from one’s present surroundings into a more mysterious dimension of existence. In a letter to Rivière, Alain-Fournier claimed that his intention in the novel was not simply to reproduce the sights, sounds, and impressions associated with his childhood home in the landlocked region of the Sologne but to capture “that other mysterious landscape” at which the real landscape hints or that it suggests, to “insert the marvellous into reality” without straining credulity or surpassing the world of concrete objects and living forms. To achieve his effects, Alain-Fournier fused the idealized conventions of romance narrative with the low mimetic style of realistic fiction.

Thus, after a matter-of-fact inventory of the household and schoolroom associated with Meaulnes’s adventure, Seurel suddenly introduces an image that has the effect of transposing the reader above the immediate scene into an atmosphere of haunting suggestivity and alien coldness: “This was the setting in which the most troubled and most precious days of my life were lived; an abode from which our adventurings flowed out, to flow back again like waves breaking on a lonely headland.” The haunting image of the “lonely headland” coupled with the fairy-tale superlatives “most troubled” and “most precious” has the effect of jolting the reader out of the present and into that vast Symbolist “beyond” that Alain-Fournier inherited from the poets and artists of his generation. Throughout the novel, sea imagery is used to expand the sense of horizon, to make the reader conscious of a quest that is essentially religious. Significantly, as the novel progresses and the characters fail to live up to their early impulses, the imagery darkens, as connotations of shipwreck and loss supplant the first hopeful sense of adventure.


Notwithstanding the intricacies of the narrative, the reader is aware from the very beginning that the plot—like a bass line in music—sustains an imposing edifice of suggestive details, symbolic episodes, and allegorical events. Virtually every paragraph hints of or highlights the book’s implicit themes or comments, through oblique but dexterously chosen effects, on the significance of the characters and dramatic situations. When, for example, Seurel as a small boy first arrives at Sainte-Agathe under the protection of his parents, the first problem that concerns his mother is the distressing abundance of doors and windows that need to be “blocked before the place is habitable.” From this point on, images of doors and windows ramify in an exceedingly suggestive manner. They belong to that network of images in the novel that opposes interiors to exteriors, warmth to cold, and darkness to light. For Seurel, the warmth and security of the maternal home is both a starting point and orientation. Throughout the novel, he persists in identifying happiness or fulfillment with the domestic hearth. Meaulnes, on the other hand, is associated with roads and cold. In fact, his arrival occurs on “a cold Sunday in November,” and it is he who, as Seurel later reflects, “extinguishes the lamp around which we had been a happy family group at night-time when my father had closed all the wooden shutters.” Unlike Seurel, however, Meaulnes is continually tempted by the allure of a ceaseless journey toward an indeterminate goal.

Meaulnes is the demoniac force that makes Seurel and the other schoolboys conscious of their limitations. He initiates the transition to adulthood by compelling his schoolfellows to recognize impulses...

(The entire section is 6353 words.)