Study Guide

Volupté

by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve

Volupté Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

On the ship that takes him to the United States, probably forever, Amaury undertakes to tell the story of his life to a young friend. Having renounced his past life to live a new one abroad, he is afraid that he might find more pleasure than he should in those past memories; but he feels that his experience can prove useful to the young man, in whom he recognizes so many of his own tendencies.

Amaury, losing his parents, was reared by an uncle in Brittany. In his youth he was sheltered from the world outside his house, which at that time was slowly recovering from the effects of the French Revolution. He spent most of his time studying, and, prone to dreaming, he was actually more concerned with the adventures of Cyrus, Alexander, and Constantine than he was with the men and events of his own day. His Latin teacher was Monsieur Ploa, a man absolutely devoid of personal ambition; only a misinterpretation of Vergil or Cicero could momentarily get him excited. Monsieur Ploa had Amaury translate the voluptuous passages of the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) or the Odes (23 b.c.e., 13 b.c.e.; English translation, 1621) of Horace with a complete candor that his disciple did not share.

When Amaury was about fifteen years old, he spent six weeks at a neighboring castle. His life there, no longer checked by his regular schedule, helped to develop his tendency to melancholy; he would disappear into the woods reciting poetry with tears in his eyes, and he would forget to come back for meals.

At the age of eighteen, he began visiting friends in the neighborhood. He would often visit Monsieur and Madame de Greneuc, in whose household lived two granddaughters orphaned during the revolution. The older, Amélie de Liniers, was a charming woman who soon considered herself engaged to him. Amaury, however, did not feel like settling down in life without first learning something of the world.

During a hunting party, Amaury met the Marquis de Couaën, an influential figure in royalist circles, who invited the young man to his castle. There Amaury met Madame de Couaën, the Irish wife of the marquis. One day, Amaury wandered in the woods, lost in his thoughts. As he emerged from the woods, Madame de Couaën called to him from the window and asked him to pick up an ivory needle she lost. When he took it up to her, she asked him if he would, in the absence of her husband, accompany her to the little chapel of Saint-Pierre-de-Mer before the sun set. As they were walking along, she explained to Amaury that she was making a pilgrimage for her mother in Ireland, from whom she received bad news.

That walk was more or less the beginning of a hopeless love relationship between Amaury and Madame de Couaën, an affair in which his respect for the marquis and the true love of Madame de Couaën for her husband left him with the sole possibility of platonic adoration. To escape such a situation, he attempted to retire as a hermit on a nearby deserted island once inhabited by Druids, but after spending only one night there, he abandoned that project. He then decided to go to Ireland on a boat that brought the marquis some secret dispatches; he would see Madame de Couaën’s mother and possibly establish some useful political connections for the marquis. As he embarked,...

(The entire section is 1396 words.)