Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129
In Adolphe, Benjamin Constant develops three major themes: the role of society in creating the mores and morals by which a particular society lives and the power of that society in enforcing its code of morality, especially in regard to women; the force of passion; and a man’s quest for self-discovery. The first two themes connect the novel to eighteenth century fiction while the third theme anticipates the twentieth century novel, in which self-discovery intensifies into self-realization with the antihero. Constant’s novel provides an essential link between the eighteenth century novel that portrays the individual as a member of society and twentieth century fiction that focuses on the individual as a unique creature yet representative of all human beings.
The society of Constant’s novel is that of the haute bourgeoisie and nobility of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is a patriarchal society, governed by men and affording them the opportunity to achieve power, fame, and importance. Adolphe has shown considerable prominence as a student, and his father believes that he will enjoy success in his life. Achieving this success is to be the focal point of Adolphe’s life.
Women in this society serve two purposes: As proper wives they produce children, and those unsuitable as wives exist for the amusement of men. Throughout the novel, Adolphe is aware of this moral code. He seduces Ellénore out of vanity and the desire to prove that he can seduce her. He never considers marrying her, for Ellénore is unacceptable as a wife. The ruin of her family in Poland, her ten-year liaison with the Count de P——, and her two illegitimate children negate any consideration of marriage. Likewise, the Count de P—— has never considered marrying Ellénore.
Through the character of Ellénore, Constant portrays the common conception of a woman’s life during the period: that a woman’s life is totally on an emotional level, that love to her is synonymous with life. Once she has fallen in love with Adolphe, Ellénore is obsessed with him. She sacrifices everything for him. She destroys her acceptance, though it is a reluctant acceptance, in society as the Count de P——’s mistress, abandons her children, and eventually destroys herself. Her passion for Adolphe is so strong that she cannot live without him; her grief at his rejection of her leads to her illness and eventual death. The motif of an impossible or unwanted love relationship being solved by the woman’s death is common in the eighteenth century novel. For example, it appears in Abbé Prévost’s Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731, 1733, 1753; Manon Lescaut, 1734, 1786) and in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters, 1761; better known as The New Héloïse). Although the century prided itself on its rationalism, it could not totally reject the power of emotion and of passion, in particular, to control the individual.
This theme of an overwhelming, life-controlling passion is the operating force of Adolphe. Ellénore refuses to let Adolphe leave her; she pursues him. Adolphe keeps returning to her. Even though Ellénore inhibits his freedom and his possibility of being successful in society, he cannot leave her. Adolphe wants both to be loved by her and to be free from her. He cannot escape his passion. He attempts to explain his inability to renounce her and walk away as his pity, which is elicited by her suffering and grief. He repeatedly plans to break with her; he assures his father and Baron T—— that the liaison is over. He lies to them and to himself. When she dies, he realizes that he is alone, not loved by any woman. Adolphe leads a disillusioned, pointless life after destroying the woman he has loved. He is a victim of his own passion.
However, Constant goes beyond a mere depiction of fatal passion in his novel. As Adolphe struggles with his vacillation, finds excuses for himself, and analyzes his acts and his emotional reactions, he foreshadows the antiheroes of the twentieth century novel. With his character of Adolphe, Constant focuses on the individual and on personal self-realization. Adolphe becomes painfully cognizant of his ability to harm others, of how any interaction with others contains within it the potential to harm. He is also intensely aware of himself, of his vanity, of his needs. In his attempt to become who he is, to achieve self-realization, Adolphe is the predecessor of Michel in André Gide’s L’Immoraliste (1902; The Immoralist, 1930) and of the existential characters of twentieth century writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.
To avoid criticism of the novel as a fictional fantasy, Constant creates an account of how he came to possess the novel’s “manuscript” and how it came to be published. With the inclusion of a preface, a letter to the editor, and a response to the letter in the novel’s introduction—and with further explanation about why the editor had decided to publish the novel—Constant presents evidence of the tale’s veracity.
The manuscript, he writes, was found among the belongings left behind by an unidentified man whom Constant had met at an inn. The manuscript had been discovered in a case found by someone on a local road, which both Constant and the man had traveled. The manuscript was then given to the innkeeper. The innkeeper had Constant’s permanent address, but not that of the other man, so he sent the items to Constant. Later, Constant met a man who insisted upon reading the manuscript; upon returning it, the man stated that he knew many of the people mentioned in the manuscript. Constant decided to publish the manuscript as a true account of the misery suffered by the human heart. The first-person narration adds authenticity and substantiates the intimate facts revealed about Adolphe.
Constant uses the motif of movement, as he describes the arrival of letters and the movement of people from one place to another, to give structure to his novel; he also uses this motif to move the action along. Letters reveal information with important consequences for the characters. Moving entails separation and reunion for Adolphe and Ellénore. The motif also reinforces Adolphe’s emotional vacillation.
From the time of its first publication, readers and critics of Adolphe have viewed the work as an autobiographical novel, a depiction of Constant’s life in a fictional form. There are definitely biographical elements in the novel; however, Adolphe is more than a fictionalization of a life, it is a detailed look at society and the individual, at passion and its effects, and at the individual as a potentially harmful self-creating being.