What is a summary of Chapter 2 of Women of the Left Bank, "Secret Passages: The Faubourg St. Germain"?

Expert Answers
teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This chapter introduces us to the expatriate female author's experience in Paris by delineating Edith Wharton's lifestyle in the heart of the Faubourg St.Germain on the Paris Left Bank.

With the accomplished French novelist, Paul Bourget, as her guide through the realm of cultured French society, Wharton is initiated into the exclusive world of French nobility. Meanwhile, the new privileges this powerful alliance  accords her has a deleterious effect on her marriage with Edward Wharton. Both divorce in 1913. Now free to explore possibilities within the cultured echelons of French society, Wharton presides over her own Parisian salon, replete with the sort of familiarly exclusive elements she has come to depend on.

Ironically, Wharton's seeming preoccupation with conventionality is viewed by the younger generation as unfashionable. Despite this, her stubborn refusal to capitulate becomes a curious form of contention between her and the French novelist, Marcel Proust. While Proust's cynical observations of French nobility is largely an experiment in critical analysis, Wharton misunderstands, and accuses the young author of elitism. To Wharton, it is not enough to be well-bred, one must also be inclined towards a clear appreciation for intellectual pursuits. Yet, Wharton's seeming obsession with observing all the social conventionalities of an upper class hostess masks an underlying fear of being marginalized. Hence, her tendency to preserve all the established intricacies of feminine deportment becomes a matter of self-preservation for the author.

However, Wharton's fixation with established tradition is tested when the Dreyfus Affair threatens to disrupt the comfortably established social camaraderie the Faubourg St. Germain has become famous for. An emerging anti-Semitism and prejudice against homosexuality sets itself at variance with the Catholic and royalist-based elements of Faubourg society. Curiously, at this time, male homosexuality is loosely condoned while female homosexuality is constrained by conventional expectations for what French society terms as deviant behavior. Women with homosexual inclinations are expected to observe perfect discretion in their predilections, either under cover of the marriage covenant or other accepted arrangements. Depending on class and social station, further discrepancies in the degree of societal toleration for such idiosyncrasies can be observed. For instance, aristocratic women who leave their husbands for female lovers are soon deprived of the legal and social protections their former positions afforded them.

The difficulties engendered in the homosexual debate is further complicated by the scientific community's designation of homosexuality as a type of pathology. Hence, the works of many homosexual writers such as Wilde, Cocteau and Montesquiou are depicted as intellectually vacuous and stylistically lacking in mature elements.

teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While both female and male homosexuality appear to have been nominally accepted in Faubourg society, the realities are far less encouraging; both female and male homosexuals experience marginalization and rejection by mainstream French society. Additionally, while male homosexuality is viewed as the greater threat to the integrity of civilized society, female homosexuality is viewed as both a harmless, mental aberration and voyeuristic perversion by men willing to profit from it.

Our knowledge of homosexuality in Faubourg society is predicated on the works of Proust, Vivien, Barney, and Colette. Operating amid the contradictory world of 'repression and licentiousness,' an emergent feminist movement begins with the delineation of women's lesbian experiences. Yet, with few exceptions, such works still portray the lesbian experience as fraught with pain, suffering, neurosis, and alienation. Renee Vivien's own death from slow starvation, alcohol and drug addiction, is well known among Left Bank expatriates. Such stories 'tended to confirm the belief that homosexuality constituted both moral and psychological deviancy that could only end in mental illness or death...'

Despite the inherent pitfalls in Faubourg society for social iconoclasts, Wharton manages to preserve her equilibrium by both accepting the experimental characteristics of such an open society and marginalizing what she terms any aberrations against aristocratic conventions. In the rest of the chapter, she lauds the freedoms enjoyed by French women, emphasizes her support for equal discourse between men and women in American society, and welcomes seminal friendships with men and women. Indeed, her friendships with Henry James, Walter Berry, and Anna de Noailles become the catalyst for inspiring her continued sense of independence and emerging self-confidence. In Paris, Wharton has found the personal freedom she craves, untainted by the threat of isolation and stigma.

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question