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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1490

Having creditably completed his studies in Göttingen in spite of a somewhat dissipated life, Adolphe is expected, after a preliminary period of travel, to take his place in the governmental department of which his father, the minister of a German electorate, is the head. His father has great hopes for...

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Having creditably completed his studies in Göttingen in spite of a somewhat dissipated life, Adolphe is expected, after a preliminary period of travel, to take his place in the governmental department of which his father, the minister of a German electorate, is the head. His father has great hopes for his son and is inclined to be lenient about his indiscretions, but because of an inherent timidity shared by father and son—a timidity combined, on the part of the father, with a defensive outward coldness—no real sympathy is possible between the two.

The constraint generated by this relationship has a considerable effect on Adolphe’s character, as does a period he spends as the protégé of a much older woman whose strong and unconventional opinions make an indelible impression on him. This period, spent in long, passionately analytical conversations, ends with the woman’s death.

Upon leaving the university, Adolphe goes to the court of the small German principality of D——. At first, he is welcomed, but he gradually attracts resentment for his mannered frivolity, alternating with scathing frankness, which stem from his profound indifference to the society of the court. The woman who formed his mind bequeathed to him an ardent dislike of mediocrity and all of its expressions, and he finds it difficult to reconcile himself with the artificiality of society and the necessity for arbitrary convention. Moreover, his only interest at that time is to indulge in passionate feelings that lead to contempt for the ordinary world.

One thing that does impress Adolphe is to see the joy of a friend at winning the love of one of the less mediocre women of the court. His friend’s reaction develops in Adolphe not only the regrets connected with piqued vanity but also other, more confused, emotions related to newly discovered aspects of his desire to be loved. He can discover in himself no marked tastes, but soon after making the acquaintance of the Count de P——, Adolphe determines to attempt to establish a liaison with the woman who has shared the count’s life for ten years and whose two illegitimate children the count has acknowledged.

Ellénore is a spirited woman from a good Polish family that has been ruined by political troubles. Her history is one of untiring devotion to the count and of constant conflict between her respectable sentiments and her position in society—a position that has gradually become sanctioned, however, through the influence of her lover.

Adolphe does not consider himself to be in love but to be fulfilling an obligation to his self-esteem; yet, he finds his thoughts increasingly occupied with Ellénore as well as his project. Unable to make a verbal declaration, he finally writes to her. His inner agitation and the conviction he sought to express rebound, however, and his imagination becomes wholly entangled when Ellénore refuses to receive him. That convinces him of his love, and he finally succeeds in overcoming her resistance to his suit.

When the count is called away on urgent business, Adolphe and Ellénore bask for a few weeks in the charm of love and mutual gratification. Almost immediately, however, Adolphe begins to be annoyed at the new constraint imposed on his life by this attachment, rewarding though he finds it. The idea that it cannot last calms his fears, and he writes to his father upon Ellénore’s urging, asking permission to postpone his return for six months. When his father consents, Adolphe is immediately confronted again by all the drawbacks involved in his remaining at D——. He is irritated at the prospect of prolonging the deceptions required by his affair, of continuing the profitless life he leads under Ellénore’s exciting domination, and, above all, of making her suffer by compromising her position. For upon his return, the count has become suspicious.

Adolphe’s resentment leads to a quarrel with Ellénore, in which are made the first irreparable statements that, once spoken, cannot be recalled. The quarrel and the forced intimacy that follow it only increase Ellénore’s anxiety and ardor, and she decides to break with the Count de P—— when he orders her not to see Adolphe. Adolphe cannot summon the courage to reject her sacrifice, although it causes him great anguish and destroys in a moment the social respect that Ellénore has acquired after years of effort. His sense of duty increases as his love weakens; he is willing to fight a duel at the slightest disparaging remark about her, yet he himself wrongs her in inconsequential social conversation. When the time comes for him to leave, he promises to return, fearing her violent grief. Moreover, he discovers that the arrival of the break he has longed for fills him with keen regret, almost with terror.

Adolphe writes regular letters to her, each beginning with the intention of indicating his coldness but always ending with words calculated to restore her confidence in his passion. At the same time, he relishes his regained independence. When Ellénore understands from Adolphe’s letters that it will be difficult for him to leave his father, she decides to join him. He writes to advise her to postpone her coming, but she becomes indignant and hastens her arrival. Adolphe resolves to meet her with a show of joy that conceals his real feelings, but she senses the deception immediately and reproaches him, putting his weakness in such a miserable light that he becomes enraged. In a violent scene, the two turn on each other.

When Adolphe returns to his father’s house, he learns that his father has been informed of Ellénore’s arrival and has taken steps to force her to leave the town. His father’s concern with Adolphe’s future is undoubtedly genuine, but it unfortunately takes the form of adherence to the standard values of a corrupt society and can only have the effect of strengthening the bond between the lovers. Adolphe makes hurried arrangements and carries Ellénore off precipitately, smothering her with passion. Always astute, she detects contradictions in his actions and tells him that he has been moved by pity rather than by love—thereby revealing something he would have preferred not to know and giving him a new preoccupation to conceal.

When the two reach the frontier, Adolphe writes to his father with some bitterness, holding him responsible for the course he has been forced to take. His father’s reply is notable for its generosity; he repeats everything Adolphe has said and ends by saying that although Adolphe is wasting his life, he will be allowed complete freedom. In the absence of the necessity to defend Ellénore, Adolphe’s impatience with the tie becomes even more pronounced. They settle for a time in Bohemia, where Adolphe, having accepted the responsibility for Ellénore’s fate, makes every effort to restrain himself from causing her suffering. He assumes an artificial gaiety, and with the passing of time he once again comes intermittently to feel some of his feigned sentiment. When alone, however, his old unrest grips him, and he makes vague plans to flee from his attachment.

At this point, Adolphe learns of a fresh sacrifice that Ellénore has made, the refusal of an offer from the Count de P—— to settle her again in suitable circumstances. Adolphe, grasping at this opportunity, tells her that he no longer loves her; at the sight of her violent grief, however, he pretends that his attitude has been a ruse. Another possibility of escape occurs after Ellénore’s father is reinstated in his property in Poland: She is notified that he has died and that she is the sole heir. Because the will is being contested, Ellénore persuades Adolphe to accompany her to Poland. Their relationship continues to deteriorate.

Adolphe’s father writes, pointing out that since Adolphe can no longer be considered Ellénore’s protector, there is no longer any excuse for the life he is leading. The father has recommended Adolphe to his friend Baron T—— (the minister from their country to Poland) and suggests that Adolphe call on him. When the young man does, Baron T—— assumes the father’s role and attempts to separate the lovers. Adolphe spends a night wandering in the country, engaged in confused meditations in which he tells himself that his mind is recovering from a long degradation.

Ellénore makes another futile effort to penetrate the closed sanctuary of his mind, but a new alignment of forces emerges as Adolphe succumbs more and more to the influence of Baron T——. He continues to procrastinate about ending the relationship. When the baron forwards some of Adolphe’s incriminating letters to Ellénore, she becomes fatally ill. Adolphe is finally freed by her death, which produces in him a feeling of great desolation.

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