Against the Grain

by Charles Marie Georges Huysmans

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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