Regarding E.T.A. Hoffmann's novella Mademoiselle de Scudéri. A Tale from the Times of Louis XIV, what role does Mademoiselle de Scuderi play in the story, and what are your thoughts about the character and actions of Cardillac, one of the main characters in the story?
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E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1819 novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi: A Tale From the Times of Louis XIV, is a very complicated story involving multiple layers and a mystery surrounding a series of robberies and murders. The title character exists at both the center and at the margins of this story, with her initial Marie Antoinette-style coldness towards the victims of these horrific crimes eventually giving way to a more humanitarian perspective. Learning of the thefts of so much valuable jewelry, and insensitive to the plight of the rightful owners, many of whom are dead from stab wounds to the heart, this aristocratic woman can only remark "Un amant qui craint les voleurs N'est point digne d'amour" (“A lover who fears thieves is not worthy of love”). As Hoffmann’s story progresses, however, de Scuderi is revealed as a thoughtful, sensitive person more concerned for the treatment of others and for justice than the reader is initially led to believe. Her entreaties with Court officials and, eventually, with the king himself reveal her to be genuinely concerned with the welfare of Olivier Brusson and Madelon, the daughter of the jeweler Rene Cardillac with whom Olivier has fallen in love. Mademoiselle de Scuderi is at the center of the story’s activities, first as the recipient of a box of Cardillac’s creations, and then as an observer or, more accurately, a listener, of tales regarding the history of these jewels and the machinations that led to them arriving at her doorstep. She becomes the neutral observer to the story of the jewels creation, their sale to prominent men, and their theft and return to their creator, Cardillac. A good description of de Scuderi’s role in Hoffmann’s story is provided in the following passage, in which Olivier relates to her the circumstances of his arrest for committing murder:
“Over and over again Mademoiselle de Scudéri had the very minutest circumstances of the awful event related to her. She specially inquired if there had ever been any quarrel between Olivier and the father, whether Olivier was altogether exempt from that propensity to hastiness which often attacks the best tempered people like a blind madness, and leads them to commit deeds which seem to exclude all freewill;”
Mademoiselle de Scuderi, introduced in a less-than-flattering light, comes to serve as the novella’s conscience.
The character of Rene Cardillac proves considerably more complex than the title character. In fact, he is revealed as something of a psychopath, obsessed with the retention of his creations despite they’re having been commissioned and paid for by clients. The troubling nature of Cardillac is suggested in the following passage, in which Mademoiselle de Scuderi and Madame de Maintenon discuss the mystery of the box of jewels:
“René Cardillac was then the cleverest worker in gold in all Paris, one of the most artistic, and at the same time extraordinary men of his day. Short rather than tall, but broad−shouldered and of strong and muscular build, Cardillac, now over fifty, had still the strength and activity of a youth. To this vigour, which was to be called unusual, testified also his thick, curling, reddish hair and his massive, shining face. Had he not been known to be the most upright and honourable of men, unselfish, open, without reserve, always ready to help, his altogether peculiar glance out of his grimly sparkling eyes might have brought him under suspicion of being secretly ill−tempered and wicked.”
This passage hints of a dark side to the famed and highly-respected jeweler, who will himself perish at the hands of another intended victim. As with the mademoiselle, however, there is more to Cardillac than we initially believe. As Olivier continues to relate his story to de Scuderi, he presents a portrait of his employer that reflects an individual capable of remorse and desperate to not leave this life with his injustices left unaddressed. The following lengthy quote by Olivier from Hoffmann’s story illuminates Cardillac’s deepest nature, which is lacking in the evil that characterized him in life:
"When he [Cardillac] mentioned your name, Mademoiselle, dark veils seemed to be lifted, revealing the bright memory of my happy childhood, which rose again in glowing colours before me. A wonderful comfort came into my soul, a ray of hope, driving the dark shadows away. Cardillac saw the effect his words had produced upon me, and gave it his own interpretation. 'My idea seems to please you,' he said. 'I must declare that a deep inward voice, very unlike that which cries for blood like a raving wild beast, commanded me to do this thing. Many times I feel the strangest ideas come into my mind—an inward fear, the dread of something terrible, the awe whereof seems to come breathing into this present time from some distant other world, seizes powerfully upon me. I even feel, at such times, that the deeds which my Evil Star has committed by means of me may be charged to the account of my immortal soul, though it has no part in them. In one of those moods I determined that I would make a beautiful diamond crown for the Virgin in the Church of St. Eustache. But the indescribable dread always came upon me, stronger than ever, when I set to work at it, so that I have abandoned it altogether. Now it seems to me that in presenting Mademoiselle de Scudéri with the finest work I have ever turned out, I am offering a humble sacrifice to goodness and virtue personified, and imploring their powerful intercession.'”
The actions of Cardillac, involving murder and theft, are obviously reprehensible. Hoffmann presents this character, though, as entirely human, and not beyond redemption. There is no excusing his crimes, but in a society in which justice and empathy were often absent, his final act of contrition warrants him a kind thought.
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