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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

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We can argue that Against the Grain has only one main character, though it does have minor secondary characters that are mentioned as part of the memories that make most, if not all, of the narrative. Oscar Wilde describes the book as follows:

[It is] a novel without a plot and with only one character

He further adds that the novel is not so much a biography but mainly "a psychological study of a certain young Parisian."

We can also agree that this young Parisian is worthy of all the attention in the book, as his life of decadence and hedonism touches upon his inherited genetic traits, his family history, and the future of his entire clan.

[Des Esseintes] spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own.

Additionally, Des Esseintes's past, present, and future affect only his character, and no other character in the book. Therefore, it is safe to argue that the entire plot circles around one person, and that this person is Des Esseintes.

His parents

There are two other significant characters worth mentioning. They are important because their presence in Des Essenintes's life influences Jean and the way his fate turns. These two characters are his mother and his father.

His mother is described as "a recluse" that avoids the light and spends her time in her chateau. His father is aloof and seldom around, but he visits his wife and son when he can. Both parents died when Jean was quite young, so their deaths may have been yet another reason for Jean's peculiar personality.

Aside from his parents, there are other minor characters, such as Miss Urania:

[She] haunted him by reason of her very difference, but almost instantly, offended by the intrusion of this natural, crude aroma, the antithesis of the scented confection [violet candies that were aphrodisiacs].

There is also the other lover—the equally strange ventriloquist who is described as "petite" with "brown hair" and more delicate than the acrobat.

One last character worth mentioning is the "bulldog," the syphilitic woman who threw herself at him. Jean is somewhat fixated on the horrors of syphilis, and he often thinks of how generations "from sire to son" have given the terrible disease to one another.

This causes a terrible dream in which he sees a woman consumed by syphilis—something that is indicative of his personal fear about the disease.

The characters worth looking into are those who affected Jean. It seems as if he never really affected anyone other than himself.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558

Jean Des Esseintes

Jean Des Esseintes (day zeh-SAHNT), the last descendant of a family of French aristocrats that has long been in decline, having fallen prey to the hereditary enfeeblement that—according to a common belief of the nineteenth century—was brought on by continued intermarriage and love of luxury. At the age of thirty, he is anemic, “neurasthenic” (a term replaced in modern parlance by such phrases as “highly strung”), and prey to all manner of real and imaginary illnesses. He already has indulged his appetite for commonplace pleasures and ordinary vices to the limit and now desires to become a recluse, surrounding himself with the best of everything that human artifice has to offer. He intends to live in splendid isolation, and although he retains two servants to do the housework and regularly consults his doctor, he remains the only authentic character in the narrow realm of his existence. In selecting the objects with which he intends to embellish and glorify his privacy, Des Esseintes always prefers the artificial to the natural and the fantastic to the representational. He prefers hothouse flowers to those that can stand exposure to the elements, and he has a particular affection for carnivorous plants. He prefers perfumes carefully designed by human artificers; these have the capacity to induce an orgiastic ecstasy in him. His favorite painter is Gustave Moreau, who delighted in depicting exotic femmes fatales in gorgeously elaborate surroundings. His favorite poets are Charles Baudelaire, the great pioneer of what Théophile Gautier called the “Decadent style,” and Stéphane Mallarmé, who carried that style into the new era of Symbolism. Des Esseintes considers the prose poem to be the ideal literary form, but among longer prose works, he favors those that take such delight in opposing or slyly subverting common notions of propriety that they become “satanic,” like the works of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly. Des Esseintes’ own moral views are calculatedly perverse, and he is fond of arguing against every position taken for granted by conventional moralists. Although he is able to furnish his new villa according to his tastes, gradually bringing it to maturity as a utopia in miniature, Des Esseintes’ pleasure in his project is undermined by the fact that his health continues to trouble him. He is warned by his doctor that continued indulgence of his luxurious tastes will kill him, but when the doctor’s prescription for a dietary supplement of beef tea is mistaken for a recipe for an enema, Des Esseintes is delighted to discover yet another form of perversity: that of taking one’s nourishment into the wrong end of the alimentary canal. This is, however, his last defiant attempt to go “against the grain” of convention; he accepts thereafter that he must change his habits. He decides to enter a monastery but conserves his perversity to the end in maintaining that he is reconciled to the church not because its dogmas are true but because they are so utterly and magnificently impossible.

Mme Des Esseintes

Mme Des Esseintes, his mother, a recluse who dreads light and spends her life secluded in her darkened bedroom. She dies while her son is young.

M. Des Esseintes

M. Des Esseintes, Jean’s father. He lives in Paris and seldom visits his wife and child. He dies while Jean is young.