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

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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.

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 At the same time, he was a stubborn, withdrawn child who refused all discipline.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, he gives a farewell dinner to his lost virility. The meal is served on a black table to the sound of funeral marches. The waitresses are nude black women. The plates are edged in black; the menu includes dark bread, meat with licorice sauce, and wine served in dark glasses.

At thirty years old, Jean decides to withdraw from the world. Having concluded that artistry is much superior to nature, he vows that in his retreat he will be completely artificial. He finds a suitable house in a remote suburb of Paris and makes elaborate preparations for his retirement. The upper floor is given over to his two elderly servants, who wear felt coverings on their shoes at all times. He reserves the downstairs for himself. The walls are paneled in leather like book binding, and the only color for ceilings and trim is deep orange. In his dining room, he simulates a ship’s cabin and installs aquariums in front of the windows. The study is lined with precious books. With great art, he contrives a luxurious bedroom that looks monastically simple.

Among his paintings, Jean treasures two works of Gustave Moreau that depict Salomé and the head of John the Baptist. He ponders long over the meaning of the scenes. History being silent on the personality of Salomé, Jean decides that Moreau re-created her perfectly. To him, she is the incarnation of woman.

His library is his chief concern. Among the Latin writers, he has no love for the classicists: Vergil, for example, he finds incredibly dull. Nevertheless, he takes great delight in Petronius, who brings to life Roman decadence under Nero. He ardently loves a few of the French sensualists, Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire among them. He also has a small collection of obscure Catholic writers whose refinement and disdain for the world suit his own temperament.

For months, his life is regular and satisfying. He eats breakfast at five and dines at eleven. About dawn, he has his supper and goes to bed. Because of his weak stomach, he is most abstemious in his diet. After a time, his old ailments come back to plague him. He can eat or drink very little, and his nerves pain him. After weeks of torture, he faints. When his servants find him, they call a neighborhood doctor, who can do little for him. At last, Jean seems to recover, and he scolds the servants for having been so concerned. With sudden energy, he makes plans to take a trip to England.

After his luggage is packed, he takes a cab into Paris. To while away the hours before train time, he visits a wine cellar frequented by English tourists and has dinner at an English restaurant. Realizing afresh that the pleasure of travel lies only in the anticipation, he drives himself home that same evening and thus avoids the banality of actually going somewhere. At one stage of his life, Jean loved artificial flowers. Now he comes to see that it would be more satisfying to have real flowers that look artificial. He promptly amasses a collection of misshapen, coarse plants that satisfy his aesthetic needs.

Jean’s energy, however, soon dissipates. His hands tremble, his neck pains him, and his stomach refuses food. For weeks, he dreams away his days in a half stupor. Thinking of his past, he is shocked to realize that his wish to withdraw from the world is a vestige of his education under the Jesuits. Finally, he becomes prey to hallucinations. He smells unaccountable odors, and strange women keep him company.

One day he is horrified to look into his mirror. His wasted face seems that of a stranger. He sends for a doctor from Paris. After the physician gives him injections of peptone, Jean returns to something like normal. Then he mistakes a prescription for a dietary supplement for a recipe for an enema. For a while, Jean is entranced with the notion of getting all his sustenance through enemas. One more activity, eating, would therefore be unnecessary.

Then the doctor sends his little artificial world crashing; he orders Jean to leave his retreat and live a normal social life in Paris. Otherwise, his patient will be in danger of death or at least of a protracted illness with tuberculosis. More afraid of his illness than of the stupid world, Jean gives the necessary orders and glumly watches the movers begin their work.

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