Jean des Esseintes is the protagonist of J. K. Huysmans’s 1884 novel Against Nature (A Rebours in the original French). As the novel was alluded to as the “yellow book” in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, des Esseintes becomes a model for Dorian’s life of debauchery. The progression from neo-classical models occurs in Huysman’s career, as his early novels were strongly influenced by Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. Against Nature, with its focus on an alienated, hedonistic hero who rejects social conventions, locates Huysman within the Aesthetic and Decadent movements that gained strength as the nineteenth century became the twentieth century.
The Impressionistic aspects of the novel can be seen in its structure and language. In Against Nature, Huysman eschews a tightly plotted story, in which a set of discrete events unfolds logically in time. Instead, he employs lavish descriptive prose on one key episode in des Esseintes’s life. The Decadent movement’s preferences for artifice and elaboration can be seen in des Esseintes’s dedication to creating a world of illusion inside his cottage. For example, he is not content merely to drink alcohol constantly, thus reinforcing his escapism, but he creates a complex system for dispensing the varied liqueurs so that his drinking experience is endlessly renewed.
In his obsession with the physical atmosphere, des Esseintes’ endlessly pursues ways to improve on nature and create novel pleasures—such as the kaleidoscopic images produced by the jewel-incrusted tortoise shell. The weight of sustained sensuality and self-indulgence, though not condemned for its morality, does take a toll on des Esseintes, who cannot sustain the challenge he has set for himself.