Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

As one of the most classic examples from the era of the fin de siecle, A Rebours (the original French title of Against the Grain) presents themes most commonly associated to the French Decadents.

All literature set during the era of the fin de siecle deals with the ...

(The entire section contains 887 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

As one of the most classic examples from the era of the fin de siecle, A Rebours (the original French title of Against the Grain) presents themes most commonly associated to the French Decadents.

All literature set during the era of the fin de siecle deals with the common preoccupations in the psyche of individuals living during a time period. This time in history was rife with scientific discoveries, paradigm shifts, and socioeconomic changes that shook the common understanding of life.

Therefore, topics such as inherited traits and diseases, spirituality and hedonism, and even the definition of "beauty" are all themes that are repeated throughout novels of the same era. It is like an open window through which we can see the Victorian mindset illustrated in its entirety.

Themes in A Rebours, a novel which greatly influenced Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, include most of the topics mentioned in the previous paragraph.

A) Artifice versus nature—Des Essientes, like all aesthetes, seeks the ultimate show of beauty. He spends a lot of his fortune in the creation of the artificially perfect environment to which he retires, only to revel in material pleasures, much like Dorian Gray does in Wilde's novel.

Des Essientes's treasures are extravagant in nature and have nothing to do with natural beauty or spiritual satisfaction. Everything is material: he owns books, jewels, art collections, and even a tortoise with jewels encrusted in its shell. All of these "toys" are meant to create a perfect space for someone of an extremely sensitive nature. We ultimately find out that, despite how hard he tried, Des Essientes's tragedy is that he is simply incapable of feeling joy.

B) Unchecked indulgence versus the weakness of the flesh—As a decadent and a hedonist, Des Essientes feels entitled to experience every sensation in life that causes pleasure. Think of Lord Henry Wotton in A Picture of Dorian Gray. Following that dictum, he overindulges so much that his body caves in.

Tragically, he has inherited illnesses from generations of inbreeding. As such, his genes prove to be too weak to withstand the indulgent pressures that he insists on imposing upon himself. Like his bejeweled tortoise, which dies because of the weight of the jewels that Jean insisted on planting in her, Des Essientes's own body implodes because of his self-imposed excesses. Perhaps not all humans are intended to enjoy the ultimate spoils of pleasure, no matter how rich or wellborn they may be.

Whatever he attempted proved vain; an unconquerable ennui oppressed him. Yet he persisted in his excesses and returned to the perilous embraces of accomplished mistresses. But his health failed, his nervous system collapsed, the back of his neck grew sensitive, his hand, still firm when it seized a heavy object, trembled when it held a tiny glass (Chapter 1).

C) Degeneration and weakness—The Des Essientes clan is clearly deteriorating genetically from generation to generation. This will have catastrophic results, since he is the last to carry his family name.

The decadence of this family had followed an unvarying course. The effemination of the males had continued with quickened tempo, [and] the Des Esseintes had intermarried for two centuries, using up, in such consanguineous unions, such strength as remained.

As a result, a family who was once powerful and socially superior has fallen due to its own decadence. In fact, Jean's corruption of the body may be indicative of the corruption of his soul as it falls pray to hedonism. This is also another theme that influenced Wilde's Dorian Gray.

D) Dissatisfaction

Des Esseintes is isolated, and he experiments with himself and his senses by spending and consuming lavishly. Unfortunately, nothing pleases him. His most lewd desires end up in impotence, and all his life is, like the novel itself, entirely anticlimactic. Nothing major really happens; there is no discovery and no epiphany. He simply exists within opulence with the limitations of someone who is too physically and mentally ill to enjoy anything.

E) Unhealthy Family Relationship

From the start of the novel we can see that most of the psychological issues with Jean stem from a poor upbringing that was filled with an excess of material possessions and no emotional support.

He retained but a vague memory of his parents and felt neither affection nor gratitude for them. He hardly knew his father, who usually resided in Paris. He recalled his mother as she lay motionless in a dim room of the Château de Lourps.

Jean essentially grew up alone. He never really felt any love coming from anyone toward him. By the time he was 17, his parents had both died. He was then left to his own devices and the psychological issues that he will carry within until his last breath.

F) Aestheticism—Clearly, this is the guiding force of the plot, since the ultimate goal of a hedonist and an aesthete is to find perfect beauty. We find rich descriptions of extravagance and excess all throughout the novel. This is not just a desire to indulge, it is also a frantic attempt to make things aesthetically pleasing to extract at least a degree of emotion from Des Esseintes. Sadly, it seems that no matter how much beauty he sees, his own corrupted nature forbids him from partaking in the joys of beauty.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Against the Grain Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Characters

Next

Critical Essays