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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

Against the Grain, or a Rebours, was written by Joris Huysmans in 1884, and it tells the story of a young duke named Jean des Esseintes who indulges in a life of debauchery in Paris but suffers from tremendous boredom and bemoans his lack of purpose. He then retreats to a secluded villa outside Paris and devotes his life to doing nothing but indulging his aesthetic tastes. Des Esseintes lives in the country for about six months, during which time he immerses himself in art and literature and the acquisition of fine things. His health is ailing, and he lives a solitary existence, his every pursuit aimed solely at satisfying his desire for luxury and excess. Des Esseintes rejects society and he rejects scientific progress. He rejects anything associated with bourgeois ideals. Des Esseintes remains removed from these things until his health begins to deteriorate and he must return to Paris to get medical assistance. The story has very little plot, and it can be argued that des Esseintes’ life has very little purpose, as his existence revolves solely around self-indulgence and decadence.

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Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1189

The Des Esseintes family has a long history. In the Château de Lourps, the portraits of the ancestors show rugged troopers and stern cavalrymen. The family, however, follows a familiar pattern; through two hundred years of intermarriage and indulgence, the men become increasingly effeminate. Now the only remaining Des Esseintes is Jean, who is thirty years old. By a kind of atavism, Jean’s looks resemble those of his first grandsire. The resemblance, however, is in looks only.

Jean’s childhood was unhappy. His father, living in Paris most of the time, visited Jean briefly at school once in a while when he wished to give moral counsel. Occasionally, he went to see his wife at the château. Jean was always present at those hushed interviews in which his mother took little interest. Jean’s mother had a strange dread of light. Passing her days in her shaded boudoir, she avoided contact with the world. At the Jesuit school, Jean became a precocious student of Latin and acquired a fair knowledge of theology. At the same time, he was a stubborn, withdrawn child who refused all discipline. The patient priests let him follow his own bent, for there was little else they could do. Both his parents died while he was young; at his majority, he gained complete control of his inheritance.

In his contacts with the world, Jean goes through two phases. At first, he lives a wild, dissolute life. For a time, he is content with ordinary mistresses. His first love is Miss Urania, an American acrobat. She is strong and healthy; Jean yearns for her as an anemic young girl might long for a Hercules. Nevertheless, Miss Urania is quite feminine, even prudish in her embraces. Their liaison prematurely hastens his impotence. Another mistress is a brunette ventriloquist. One day, Jean purchases a tiny black sphinx and a chimera of polychrome clay. Bringing them into the bedchamber, he prevails on her to imitate Gustave Flaubert’s famous dialogue between the Sphinx and the Chimera. His mistress, however, is sulky at having to perform offstage.

After that phase, Jean begins to be disgusted with people. He sees that men reared in religious schools, as he was, are timid and boring. Men educated in the public schools are more courageous but even more boring. In a frantic effort to find companionship, he wildly seeks the most carnal pastimes and the most perverted pleasures.

Jean was never strong, and from childhood he was afflicted with scrofula. Now his nerves are growing weaker. The back of his neck always pains him; his hand trembles when he lifts a light object. In a burst of despairing eccentricity,...

(The entire section contains 1371 words.)

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