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...
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