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Alain-René Lesage 1668–1747
(Also Le Sage) French novelist, dramatist, and translator. The following entry provides criticism of Lesage's works published from 1942 through 1988. For further information on Lesage's life and career, see LC, Volume 2.
Lesage has been called the creator of the French picaresque novel and the first...
(The entire section contains 39658 words.)
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- Critical Essays
Alain-René Lesage 1668–1747
(Also Le Sage) French novelist, dramatist, and translator. The following entry provides criticism of Lesage's works published from 1942 through 1988. For further information on Lesage's life and career, see LC, Volume 2.
Lesage has been called the creator of the French picaresque novel and the first writer of his country to produce the popular roman de moeurs (or "novel of manners") which later influenced such English novelists as Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett. His most famous novel, Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (1715-35; The Adventures of Gil Bias), has become a classic of European literature and contributed significantly to the growth and popularity of the picaresque narrative in eighteenth-century Europe. As a dramatist, Lesage had less of an impact on world literature, but his finest plays—Crispin, rival de son maître (1707; Crispin, Rival of His Master) and Turcaret (1709)—have led many critics and scholars to compare his wit and satire with Molière's and to praise his comédie insight into human nature. Besides his own works, Lesage's translations and adaptations of important Spanish writers, including Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla and Pedro Calderon de la Barca, helped expose both France and all of Europe to Spanish literature, particularly the many great novels and dramas of the seventeenth century that either had gone untranslated or had been forgotten.
Lesage was born in Sarzeau, a small coastal village in Brittany. His father was a counselor, notary, and registrar at the Royal Court of Rhuys who provided his family with a relatively comfortable existence. Beyond this, little is known of Lesage's early life until the death of his parents, after which he was placed under the guardianship of two uncles. Unconcerned with the child's welfare, his guardians squandered his sizable inheritance. Almost penniless, Lesage entered the Jesuit College at Vannes, concentrating on rhetoric and the humanities until he reached the age of eighteen. He then pursued law studies in Paris, where he was called to the bar in 1692. While in Paris, Lesage met Antoine Danchet, a literature student who later became a poet and librettist, who encouraged Lesage to translate foreign works into French. After his marriage to Marie-Elisabeth Huyard, and the birth of his first son, Lesage began translating Greek poetry, and in 1695 was introduced to the literature of Spain through his friendship with the Abbé de Lyonne, who provided him with an annual stipend, which he received for the next twenty years. At the Abbe's suggestion, Lesage began translating and adapting the works of Rojas Zorrilla, Calderón, and Lope de Vega, and by 1707, he had turned
to writing his own material. The farce Crispin, performed at the Comédie-Française, was an immediate success, and in the same year Lesage published his first significant prose work, the novel Le diable boiteux (1707; The Devil upon Two Sticks), which sold through numerous printings. Two years later, Lesage completed Turcaret—a drama satirizing the powerful French financiers who controlled the country's economy through their management of tax revenues, which he submitted to the Comédie-Française for production. Because of the play's sensitive material, the company refused to perform the work until ordered to do so by the government. Turcaret enjoyed but seven successful performances before the Comédie-Française withdrew the piece from its schedule, possibly because financiers succeeded in bribing the actors. After this incident, Lesage abandoned the Comédie-Française and devoted his energies to writing fiction and composing both short farces and comedies of manners for the Théâtre de la Foire. Gil Bias, published in four volumes over twenty years, was Lesage's greatest popular success, though many of his contemporaries, including Voltaire, argued that the novel was a translation from an unpublished Spanish manuscript and not an original creation. In addition to this immense achievement, Lesage produced a number of adaptations from Spanish sources, including Histoire de Guzman d'Alfarache (1732; The Pleasant Adventures of Guzman of Alfarache), Histoire d'Estevanille Gonzales (1734; The Comical History of Estevanille Gonzales), and Le bachelier de Salamanque (1736; The Bachelor of Salamanca), all of which demonstrated his skills as a translator and adaptor but evidenced a decline in his imaginative powers. Toward the end of his life, Lesage became almost totally deaf and was forced, because of poverty and ill-health, into the care of one of his sons at Boulogne-sur-Mer, after which he became extremely reclusive. He died at the age of seventy-nine.
Lesage's work can be divided into three major categories: his short farces for the Théâtre de la Foire; his Molièresque comedies Crispin and Turcaret; his prose fiction, including his translations and adaptations. Though the majority of his canon consists of the nearly one hundred one-act plays he wrote alone or in collaboration for the Paris fairs, these reveal formulaic writing and little artistic refinement. They remain historically important, however—through Lesage's involvement with the Paris Fairs, he helped unite the numerous small companies into the Opéra Comique, which remains a thriving aspect of the French theater. Crispin and Turcaret comprise Lesage's best work as a dramatist. Both social satires, the former depicts the quest for advancement by the title character, a resourceful and unscrupulous valet. Although Lesage's aim was to satirize the weakening of traditional class barriers, in the process he created a unique character in Crispin, a self-serving individual superior to his master in both intellect and resourcefulness. This element of social and moral satire is more harshly repeated in Turcaret, Lesage's only full-length drama. The play traces the downfall of a wealthy financier at the hands of a group of schemers. Critics consider Turcaret comparable to the best works of Molière for its wit, topical satire, vivid characterization, and ruthless portrayal of human vices. Lesage's fiction includes his Spanish adaptations, of which critics generally consider The Bachelor of Salamanca the most artistically satisfying; as well as his semihistorical novel Les aventures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier (1732; The Adventures of M. Robert Chevalier), which demonstrates his ability to write an accomplished story outside the Spanish picaresque tradition; and his satire The Devil upon Two Sticks, which established its author as a satirical novelist. Although the latter narrative began as an adaptation, Lesage quickly abandoned his Spanish model and developed a line of wit and caustic commentary entirely his own. The story depicts the chance encounter between the devil and a young gentleman, and the evening they spend atop a tower spying into the private lives of Madrid's inhabitants. Blending supernatural elements with realism, and satire with melodrama, the author created an original work with universal appeal. Lesage's picaresque epic, Gil Blas, is by far his most satisfying and imaginative novel. Critics have variously interpreted it as a picaresque biography, a study in moral and spiritual education, a satirical allegory of French society under Louis XIV, or a combination of all three. Neither hero nor martyr, the title character personifies the common man in a corrupt world, the individual who is willing to accept things as they are and adapt to changing conditions. As in the German bildungsroman (or "novel of development"), he begins as an innocent and ends, after initiation into the evils of the world, as a reformed sinner. Because of the development of Gil Blas's character, most critics view the novel as more complex than the traditional rogue biography, which characteristically focused on incidents rather than characterization. Others, however, have argued that Lesage merely adapted the picaresque story to his specific needs and created his own literary form, into which he incorporated both middle-class and aristocratic values.
Modern discussions of Lesage's work have focused on style and literary techniques, comedic aspects, the significance of Lesage's works in relation to literary and historical developments of his age. Analyzing the artistic intent of Gil Blas, Malcolm Cook has proposed that Lesage used the novel to express his satiric vision of humanity and his personal dislike of institutions such as the medical profession, which levied enormous fees for highly questionable, and often deadly, treatments. Studying the structure of Gil Blas, V. S. Pritchett and Vivienne Mylne have discussed the narrative's placement in the picaresque tradition. Contending that the protagonist possesses qualities of both the rogue and the puritan, Pritchett proposed that Gil Blas was composed during a period of literary transition, when the rogue was losing some of his knavish traits and assuming an increasingly naive persona. Mylne has argued that the narrative is a blend of the picaresque novel and the roman comique (or the satirical novel). Critics have also expounded on the significance of Lesage's theatrical canon. Roseann Runte, for example, has explored his dramas as counterparts to his novels, surveying the plots, themes, language, characters, and style of both genres, and observing that each of these elements points to Lesage's overall comedic vision. Focusing on the theatrical aspects of Crispin, Walter E. Rex has investigated the concept of vraisemblance—or the appearance of truth—in the play, documenting how the dramatist followed eighteenth-century literary conventions by relying on contrivances and formulae, including crafty language and the staging of illusions, to achieve plausibility. Perhaps the most significant issue among contemporary scholars centers on the influence of eighteenth-century cultural events on Lesage's works, particularly Crispin and Turcaret. Citing the increased importance of monetary wealth over aristocratic birth in the social hierarchy, several critics have viewed Crispin's master-servant relationship as representative of the social turmoil of the period. Several scholars, for instance, have equated the rise of Crispin, a servant whose personal ambition takes precedence over the needs of his master, with the rising bourgeoisie of eighteenth-century France. Tracing the increasing power of the financier (or tax collector) during the era, other critics have examined the pointed satire of the world of finance in Turcaret, whose vain, pretentious title character suffers a humiliating downfall prompted by his quickwitted valet.
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Le point d'honneur [translator and adaptor; from the drama No hay amigo para amigo by Rojas Zorrilla] (drama) 1702
Crispin, rival de son maître [Crispin, Rival of His Master; adapted from a play by Hurtado de Mendoza] (drama) 1707
Le diable boiteux [The Devil upon Two Sticks] (novel) 1707; also published as Le diable boiteux [enlarged edition], 1726; also published as Asmodeus; or, The Devil on Two Sticks, 1841
Don César des Ursins [translator and adaptor; from the drama Peor está que estaba, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca] (drama) 1707
La tontine (drama) 1708
Turcaret, ou Les Etrennes (drama) 1709
Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane [The Adventures of Gil Blas] 4 vols, (novel) 1715-35
Roland amoureux 2 vols. (verse novel) 1717-21
Les aventures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, capitaine de flibustiers dans la nouvelle France [The Adventures of M. Robert Chevalier, Called de Beauchêne, Captain of Privateers in New-France; translator and adaptor; from a novel by Vicentio Espinella] (novel), 1732
Histoire de Guzman d'Alfarache [Pleasant Adventures of Guzman of Alfar ache; translator and adaptor; from the novel Guzmán de Alfarache, by Mateo Alemán] (novel) 1732
Histoire d'Estevanille Gonzalès, surnommé le garçon de bonne humeur [The Comical History of Estevanille Gonzales, Surnamed the Merry Bachelor; translator and adaptor; from a novel by Louis Valez de Guevara y Dueñas] (novel) 1734
Le bachelier de Salamanque; ou, Les memoires de D. Chérubin de la Ronda [The Bachelor of Salamanca; or, Memoirs of Don Cherubin de la Ronda; translator and adaptor] (novel) 1736
Mélange amusant de saillies d'esprit et de traits historiques des plus frappants (novel) 1743
Le théâtre de la foire (librettos), 1783
Oeuvres. 12 vols, (dramas, novels, and journal) 1821
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SOURCE: "Sofa and Cheroot," in A Man of Letters: Selected Essays, Random House, 1985, pp. 193-96.
[Pritchett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story, and for what critics describe as his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following essay, originally published in 1942, he discusses how Gil Blas has positively influenced English writers and helped shape the growth of the picaresque narrative. Pointing out that Lesage served as an "intermediary between ourselves and that raw, farcical, sour, bitter picaresque literature of Spain, " the critic suggests that the novel's appeal arises from its "clear, exact, flowing style which assimilates the sordid, the worldly, or the fantastic romance with easy precision, unstrained and unperturbed."]
When we ask ourselves what the heroes of novels did with themselves in their spare time, a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, there can be no hesitation in the answer. Novel after novel confirms it, from Tom Brown at Oxford back to Fielding and Smollett: they stretched themselves on a sofa, lit a cheroot and picked up again The Adventures of Gil Blas. Once more they were on the road with that hopeful young valet from the Asturias as he went from town to town in Old Castile in the reign of Philip IV, always involved in the love affairs and the money secrets of his employers, until, a model of Self-Help, he enters the valet-keeping classes himself and becomes secretary to the Prime Minister. Say your prayers (his loving parents advised him when he set out for the University of Salamanca which he never reached, at least not to become a student), avoid bad company, and above all keep your fingers out of other people's property. Gil Blas ignored this good advice from the beginning and returned home at last to a benign retirement as a rich man and a noble. Not exactly a sinner, not exactly virtuous, Gil Blas is a kind of public statute to what we would call the main chance and to what the Spaniards call conformidad or accepting the world for what it is and being no better than your neighbour.
English taste has always been responsive to Le Sage; his influence on English writers and his vogue were far greater among us than they were in France. Defoe probably read him; Smollett translated and copied him. Le Sage became the intermediary between ourselves and that raw, farcical, sour, bitter picaresque literature of Spain which, for some reason, has always taken the English fancy. Gil Blas took the strong meat of the rogues' tales and made it palatable for us. He put a few clothes on the awful, goose-fleshed and pimpled carnality of Spanish realism, disguised starvation as commercial anxiety, filled the coarse vacuum, which the blatant passions of the Spaniards create around them, with the rustle and crackle of intrigue. We who live in the north feel that no man has the right to be so utterly stripped of illusion as the Spaniard seems to be; Gil Blas covered that blank and too virile nakedness, not indeed with illusions, but with a degree of elegance. It was necessary. For though the picaresque novel appealed to that practical, empirical, rule-of-thumb strain in the English mind, to that strong instinct of sympathy we have for an ingenious success story—and all picaresque novels are really unholy success stories—we have not the nervous system to stand some of the things the Spaniards can stand. What is Lazarillo de Tormes, the most famous of the picaresque novels, but the subject of starvation treated as farce? We could never make jokes about starvation.
Compared to the real Spanish thing, Gil Blas is a concoction which lacks the native vividness. It belongs to the middle period of picaresque literature when the rogue has become a good deal of the puritan. Historically this transition is extraordinarily interesting. One could not have a clearer example of the way in which the form and matter of literature are gradually fashioned by economic change in society. The literature of roguery which Le Sage burgled for the compilation of Gill Blas is the fruit of that economic anarchy which early capitalism introduced into Spanish life. In England the typical character of the period is the puritan; in Spain his opposite number is the man who has to live by his wits. A system has broken down, amid imperialist war and civil revolt, poverty has become general among those who rely on honest labour. There is only one way for the energetic to get their living. They can rush to the cities and especially to the Court and help themselves to the conquered wealth of the New World, to that wealth or new money which has brought poverty to the rest of the population by destroying the value of the old money. I am not sure how far economists would confirm the generalisation, but it seems that Spain used foreign conquest and the gold of the New World to stave off the introduction of private capitalism, and the parallel with Nazi policy is close. At any rate, instead of the successful trader, Spain produces the trader frustrated, in other words, the rogue.
They are, of course, both aspects of the same kind of man, and that is one of the reasons why Defoe and English literature got so much out of the picaresque novel, so that it is hard to distinguish between Defoe's diligent nonconformists and his ingenious cheats and gold-diggers. Gil Blas himself represents the mingling of the types. He is not many hours on the road before he is adroitly flattered and cheated. It is the first lesson of the young and trusting go-getter in the ways of the world. Until he gets to Madrid his career is one long list of disasters. He is captured by robbers, robbed by cocottes in the jewel racket. The hopeful young man on the road to an estimable career at the university is soon nothing but a beggar and is well on the way to becoming a knave by the time he sets up in partnership with a provincial quack doctor. Madrid really saves him from the louder kinds of crime. Intrigue is, he learns, far more remunerative. He goes from one household to another as a valet, filling his pockets as he goes. The knave has given place to the young man with an eye for a good situation and whose chief social ambition is to become a señorito or petit maître, extravagantly dressed and practising the gaudy manners of the innumerable imitators of the aristocracy. No one is more the new bourgeois than Gil Blas—especially in his great scorn for the bourgeois. And there is something very oily about him. How careful he is to worm his way into his master's confident so that he may become a secretary and rake off small commissions or in the hope that he will be left something in the old man's will! Much later, by his attention to duty, he becomes a secretary to a Minister, and sells offices and pockets bribes. What of it?—he is no worse, he says, than the Minister himself, or the heir to the throne who has dirty money dealings all round, or those old ladies who pose as aristocrats in order to palm off their daughters on wealthy lovers. There is a sentence describing an old actress which puts Gil Blas's ambition in a nutshell. She was 'Une de ces héroïnes de galanterie qui savent plaire jusque dans leur vieillesse et qui meurent chargées des depouilles de deux ou trois générations'.
'To be loaded with the spoils'—that is very different from the fate of the real picaro of the earlier dispensation, and Gil Blas is not entirely cynical about it. 'After all' (he seems to say, his eyes sharp with that frantic anxiety which still exercises Spaniards when there is a question of money), 'after all, I worked for it, didn't I? I served my master's interest? I'm a sort of honest man.' And when he decides to keep a valet of his own and interviews the applicants, there is a charm in the way he rejects the one who has a pious face and picks out one who has been a bit of a twister too.
The character of Gil Blas himself could hardly be the attraction of Le Sage's book, and indeed he is little more than a lay figure. The pleasures of picaresque literature are like the pleasures of travel. There is continuous movement, variety of people, change of scene. The assumption that secret self-interest, secret passions, are the main motives in human conduct does not enlarge the sensibility—Le Sage came before the sensibility of the eighteenth century awakened—but it sharpens the wits, fertilises invention and enlarges gaiety. But again, the book is poor in individual characters. One must get out of one's head all expectation of a gallery of living portraits. Le Sage belonged to the earlier tradition of Molière and Jonson and foreshadowed creations like Jonathan Wild: his people are types, endeared to us because they are familiar and perennial. You get the quack, the quarrelling doctors fighting over the body of the patient, the efficient robber, the impotent old man and his young mistress, the bluestocking, the elderly virgin on the verge of wantonness, the man of honour, the jealous man, the poet, the actress, the courtier. Each is presented vivaciously, with an eye for self-deception and the bizarre. The story of the Bishop of Granada has become the proverbial fable of the vanity of authors. And that scene in the Escorial when the Prime Minister, in order to impress the King and the Court, takes his secretary and papers out into the garden and pretends to be dictating though he is really gossiping, is delicious debunking of that rising type—the big business man.
The pleasure of Gil Blas is that it just goes on and on in that clear, exact, flowing style which assimilates the sordid, the worldly, or the fantastic romance with easy precision, unstrained and unperturbed. It is the pleasure of the perfect echo, the echo of a whole literature and of a period. You are usually smiling, sometimes you even laugh out loud; then boredom comes as one incident clutches the heels of another and drags it down. No one can read the novel of adventure for adventure's sake to the end; and yet, put Gil Blas down for a while, and you take it up again. It is like a drug. Self-interest, the dry eye, the low opinion, the changing scene, the ingenuity of success, the hard grin of the man of the world—those touch something in our natures which, for all our romanticism and our idealism, have a weakness for the modus vivendi. The puritan and the rogue join hands.
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SOURCE: "Lesage and Conventions," in The Eighteenth-Century French Novel: Techniques of Illusion, second edition, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 49-72.
[In the following essay, Mylne focuses on Lesage's literary technique and method in Gil Blas, particularly his character development, narrative style, and use of language. The critic also speculates on the reasons for the stylistic inconsistencies between the early and later volumes of the novel.]
Lesage states that in Gil Blas he intends to portray 'la vie des hommes telle qu'elle est' (I, I). To the reader of the period this announcement would indicate clearly enough that the book was of the kind known as a roman comique or roman satirique, that it would present a humorously critical view of various social types, and had no pretensions as to being 'historical'. The further admission, 'J'avoue que je n'ai pas toujours exactement suivi les mœurs espagnoles', would provide a hint, if any were needed, that Lesage had drawn his material from French society: for 'Madrid', read 'Paris'. Many of his readers would in any case be familiar with his previous book, Le Diable boiteux (1707), which had proved extremely popular. This work contains a number of satirical sketches set in a pseudo-Spanish milieu. The 'local colour' is however limited to superficial details with which most French readers would be familiar: duennas, guitar-playing and the like. In some cases the supposedly 'Spanish' personages are palpably modelled on French originals; the inquisiteur malade whose anxious female penitents compete to supply him with remedies is plainly less an Inquisitor than the kind of Directeur we shall meet again in Le Paysan parvenu. For Frenchmen, Lesage's 'Spain' was therefore no unfamiliar territory, and the reader of 1715, as he began Gil Blas de Santillane, might well expect to be offered the same kind of entertainment as he had already enjoyed.
The first pages of the novel itself would however show that Lesage was now following a different convention. In Le Diable boiteux he had borrowed, as a framework for his sketches, the fairy-tale device of a djinn or demon who has been imprisoned in a bottle. When this Devil is released he entertains his liberator, Don Cléophas, by showing him the secret life which goes on beneath the roofs of 'Madrid'. In contrast to this fantasy-framework, the opening paragraphs of Gil Blas, where the hero describes his upbringing and sets out on his travels, indicate that the book is cast in the mould of the picaresque novel. Even within the limits of the first chapter, however, the story has become picaresque-with-a-difference. Gil Blas's parents, though poor, are respectable; he has an uncle who is a canon of the Church; and the boy is given as good an education as the town of his birth can provide. This is already in contrast to the opening pages of most Spanish picaresque novels: these 'heroes' start their stories as ragged foundlings or as the children of rogues and swindlers, and are left to fend for themselves at an early age. (The life-story of Scipion, in Gil Blas, is typical in this respect.) For Gil Blas himself, Lesage has adapted the convention and lifted his narrator above the squalor and poverty, the brutality and coarseness of the traditional picaro:
Ce n'est plus le même monde, ce ne sont plus ces gueux pouilleux, cette vermine repoussante, ces vanu-pieds sans feu ni loi, ces ventres creux et affamés, ces aigrefins sans vergogne ni conscience. Si Gil Blas se souvient de son origine picaresque, le picaro du moins a été sérieusement décrassé.
[quoted in Essai Sur Lesage romancier by Léo Claretie, 1890]
The same kind of conclusion emerges if, because of Lesage's opening promises, we compare Gil Blas with earlier French satirical novels. These too laid much emphasis on the sordid, on grotesque physical details and crude or scabrous incidents. (Such an approach was often part of a deliberate protest against the ridiculously overrefined attitudes of heroic novels.) By its general tone, therefore, Gil Blas marks a shift away from both the picaresque novel and the roman comique, towards a world which, without being idealized, does observe certain standards of polite society. This does not entirely preclude vulgar episodes and scatalogical details, but in the overall effect coarseness has become the exception rather than the rule.
If we look for precedents in the urbane presentation of a first-person story, then memoirs and memoir-novels are the obvious comparable form. These works, generally written—or supposedly written—by persons of birth and breeding, usually kept within those limits of discretion and decency which a gentleman might be expected to observe.
Gil Blas can therefore be described as a fusion of at least three kinds of work: while covering much the same subject-matter as previous satiric novels, its plot begins along the lines of the traditional Spanish picaresque novel, and it has the tone of the more recent French development, fictional memoirs. Lesage's originality lies in his combination of these different elements.
The aspect of Gil Blas which readers remember most clearly is probably the general tone or 'feel' of the book, and we shall consider this first. The most important factor in this urbane atmosphere is the prose style which Lesage attributes to Gil Blas, as narrator. This style would have been inappropriate for a rough-and-tumble picaro, since it is the mode of expression of an educated man with a neat turn of verbal wit. Gil Blas was eventually to owe his political power to a gift for clear, effective writing; the Duc de Lerme gave him a job largely on the strength of a written report which Gil Blas had prepared. It may not be safe to assume that Lesage foresaw this turn of the plot when he began writing, but whether by accident or design he made Gil Blas narrate his adventures in a style which is happily consistent with his education and his capabilities.
In vocabulary and grammar this style is 'neutral'. It avoids the pretentious inflated effects of some heroic novels, and also eschews low or vulgar terms. A more original and idiosyncratic aspect of Gil Blas's narrative manner is its peculiarly witty and astringent quality. This can be called 'ironic' in the general sense that many statements do not mean what they appear to say, but it is not always the simple irony of suggesting the opposite of the surface meaning. For instance, when the cook and the negro servant try to persuade Gil Blas that he is well off in the robbers' den, they use the very terms and arguments which could be used—and doubtless often were—to convince some reluctant postulant of the advantages of the monastic life:
Vous êtes jeune, et vous paraissez facile; vous vous seriez bientôt perdu dans le monde. Vous y auriez indubitablement rencontré des libertins qui vous auraient engagé dans toutes sortes de débauches, au lieu que votre innocence se trouve ici dans un port assuré. La dame Léonarde a raison, dit gravement à son tour le vieux nègre, et l'on peut ajouter a cela qu'il n'y a dans le monde que des peines, Rendez grâce au ciel, mon ami, d'être tout d'un coup délivré des périls, des embarras, et des afflictions de la vie (I, 23).
This kind of wit-by-implication and various other forms of irony, usually employed for criticism, are frequent in Gil Blas's narrative, and one consequence of this trait is that the reader is, or should be, continually on the alert.
Such wit and irony are appropriate to the general attitude of Gil Blas towards his own adventures and the foibles of other people. Lesage has thus given an added piquancy to the cheerful if disillusioned outlook of the traditional picaro. But a consistently ironic style has its disadvantages. The coolness and detachment which generally characterize this manner may be out of place in sad or pathetic situations, and can become an obstacle to the adequate treatment of serious feeling.
Admittedly it is not often that Gil Blas is deeply touched, since his ebullient nature makes light of incidents which would be catastrophic for more impressionable characters. However, on the rare occasions when Lesage does deal with some moving experience in Gil Blas's life, the limitations of the ironic approach become evident. One may take as an instance the death of Gil Blas's first wife, Antonia. He refers to this as 'un événement que plus de vingt années n'ont pu me faire oublier, et qui sera toujours présente à ma pensée' (II, 269). He then describes his immediate reaction to Antonia's death:
Je tombai dans un accablement stupide; à force de sentir la perte que je faisais, j'y paraissais comme insensible. Je fus cinq ou six jours dans cet état; je ne voulais prendre aucune nourriture; et je crois que, sans Scipion, je me serais laissé mourir de faim, ou que la tête m'aurait tourné: mais cet adroit secrétaire sut tromper ma douleur en s'y conformant; il trouvait le secret de me faire avaler des bouillons en me les présentant d'un air si mortifié, qu'il semblait me les donner moins pour conserver ma vie que pour nourrir mon affliction.
There is surely something slightly comic about the mortified air of Scipion bringing in the soup; and the neat play on words in 'conserver ma vie' and 'nourrir mon affliction' is not particularly suggestive of a man still feeling the full bitterness of his loss. Furthermore, this and other emotional crises of Gil Blas's life are dealt with so briefly that such passages may make little impression on the reader. Thus the moments of stress lack the emphasis which can come from ample development as well as from stylistic differentiation.
We must not however be led into concluding that Lesage was, in general, unwilling to portray the deeper emotions. He certainly tried to do so in Gil Blas, and he can even be said to have cultivated a different style for such subject-matter. The novel contains two tragic love-stories, L'Histoire de doña Mencia and Le Mariage de vengeance, as well as several other tales in which feelings run high. And it is obvious that Lesage adapts his manner to suit these narratives. The style in such episodes tends to be more elevated, and there is clearly some attempt to achieve effects of deep emotional stress and pathos. This attempt, we may feel, is not wholly successful. Lesage relies too much upon simple predictable reactions in his characters and a conventional expression of their feelings. For instance, the dialogue between Blanche and the young King in Le Mariage de vengeance (I, 224-5) is built on emotional as well as verbal clichés. As M. Bardon justifiably points out, when she protests that both her marriage-vows and her gloire forbid her listening to the King's pleas, 'Blanche parle ici comme une héroïne de Corneille' (I, 387, n.756). But Lesage has not established either the dramatic tension or the poetic context which could support such language.
One might also criticize Lesage for failing to differentiate between the speaking voices of the various aristocratic characters in their misfortunes. Doña Mencia's first husband says, as he resigns himself to leaving her, 'Je vous aime plus que moi-même; je respecte votre repos, et je vais, après cet entretien, achever loin de vous de tristes jours que je vous sacrifie' (I, 42). Don Alphonse, forced to leave Séraphine because he has killed her brother in a duel, strikes the same note: 'Je vais attendre avec impatience à Tolède le destin que vous me préparez; et, me livrant à vos poursuites, j'avancerai moi-même la fin de mes malheurs' (I, 272). One reason for these similarities is that the noble characters in Lesage's serious stories rarely if ever go beyond the limits of their strict code of ethics and behaviour; they conform to type.
Not all the interpolated stories, however, are attributed to the nobility. We hear the adventures, as told by themselves, of the garçon-barbier and Don Raphaël, of Laure and Scipion. And here again one's verdict must surely be that these characters share a common style rather than possessing any distinctive tone which might mark them off as individuals. It is, in essentials, the manner of Gil Blas himself, and a number of verbal echoes accentuate the family ressemblance. Gil Blas, arriving in the robbers' den, is told that he is to work under Léonarde. He says, 'La cuisinière (il faut que j'en fasse le portrait) était une personne de soixante et quelques années' (I, 14). Don Raphaël, taken prisoner by corsairs, becomes the servant of a Pacha, and observes, 'Ce pacha (il faut que j'en fasse le portrait) était un homme de quarante ans … ' (I, 299). Apart from such repetitions, these lower-class narrators have the same turns of speech, the same bent for irony, and a general homogeneity of expression which tends to make the narrative manner of any one of them indistinguishable from that of the others, or indeed from that of Gil Blas himself. Once again we are dealing with types rather than with unique individuals, and this is an aspect of Lesage's characterization we shall need to consider more fully at a later stage. Here we can conclude that at a purely linguistic level, Lesage has two distinct narrative styles: the neutral manner of Gil Blas and his compeers, frequently spiced with irony and wit; and the rather more elevated mode of expression of the aristocracy, generally serious, and often verging on bombast when it aims at a high and tragic tone.
The doctrine of stylistic levels was of course a commonplace of literary theory in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Auerbach, in Mimesis, sees the breakdown of this hierarchy of styles as a crucial factor in the development of realism.) In practice, it was based on three interdependent factors: the social status of the characters involved; the nature of the subject-matter—tragic, serious or gay; and on the established hierarchy of literary genres. In Gil Blas the element of class would seem to predominate, for, as we have seen, Gil Blas and his equals are not made noticeably to change their normal style when they suffer some serious misfortune. Unlike the aristocrats, they have no heights of language which may help to express their feelings in moments of stress. Against this, however, one must set the contemporary notion that, by the very nature of things, the sufferings of kings and nobles are inherently more important, more deserving of our interest and sympathy, than any misfortunes of a person of lower social status. Beresford Cotton, for instance, suggests that de Pontis's Mémoires
may suffer in some people's esteem because the person whose life is described attained to no higher a post than that of a Captain in the Guards and Commissary-General of the Swiss troops [quoted in Memoirs of the Sieur de Pontis, translated by Charles Cotton (1694)].
He then explicitly formulates, and accepts, the idea on which such criticisms were based:
I own that persons of the first quality are more entertaining subjects, as their virtues and their vices commonly bear proportion to their higher station. They have it most in their power to be eminently good or bad; and consequently such relations fill our minds with greater and more surprising ideas.
The unhappy incidents in the aristocratic stories in Gil Blas are therefore automatically more serious than any mishaps undergone by lesser men, and the language of the noble episodes is thus geared to the true gravity of events, as well as to the class of the narrator.
The third factor, the correlation between various levels of style and their appropriate literary genres, seems to break down in Gil Blas, since in this work the different styles are juxtaposed in successive chapters. Here, however, we are dealing with a consequence of the freedom which the comic novel enjoyed, largely because it was outside the dictates of serious literary theory. Writers of comic novels paid no allegiance to the concept of unity of style. They could and did bring passages of lofty rhetoric into their more colloquial and vulgar narrative, for purposes of burlesque. Another procedure utilized in the comic novel, and apparently at odds with its general aims, was the use of an elevated style for episodes which were clearly meant to be taken seriously. Such episodes were often inserted stories of the type known as nouvelles, and were supposedly related by someone other than the principle narrator.
This device raises two problems of technique: a question of realism concerning the style of the secondary narrator; and the larger issue of plot-structure and interpolated stories.
In the picaresque novel and the memoir-novel we have, in theory, only one narrator. When other characters 'tell us' their stories, these tales are, in the fictional situation, merely passed on to us by the chief narrator himself. But supposing such stories are couched in a different and distinctive style? If we apply real-life standards, the question then arises whether anyone is likely to be able to repeat a whole story faithfully, in the exact terms of the original narration, without altering it according to his own habits of speech and thought. An author who shows some awareness of this problem is already utilizing, to however slight a degree, a criterion of realism: he is conscious of possible disparities between the postulated fictional situation and the corresponding situation in real life. As early as 1599, Aleman noticed the problem and attempted a solution. In Guzman de Alfar ache, about one-third of Book I is taken up by the tale of Daraja and Osmin, related by one of the group of people with whom Guzman is travelling. After the story, Guzman makes an appreciative comment on how it had held their interest, and adds: 'Howbeit, it was somewhat more enlarged by the author, flourished over with finer phrases and a different soul to that which I have delivered unto you.' But remarks on this subject are exceptional among the early writers of first-person novels. They tend to follow implicitly the literary convention that their narrator has a memory like a tape-recorder, and can play back a story exactly as it was told to him. Lesage took this line, and it is by this criterion that we can blame his failure to convey individual differences within his two main narrative styles. Later novelists, more alive to questions of realism and plausibility, were to give the problem more attention. Reported stories and reported conversations, as we shall see, became the subject of comments and explanations by writers who were concerned with creating an effect of authenticity.
As for the larger question of how and why novelists made such a generous use of inserted stories, we are dealing here with the combined effects of several literary models and traditions.
On the one hand we have the nouvelle, a genre whose development in France was linked to its growth in Italy and Spain. The early examples of such stories were usually grouped in collections, with a framework which described the occasion on which the tales were supposedly narrated. The Decameron and Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron illustrate this pattern. The stories thus grouped together often had no connection with each other or with the framework situation. It was therefore a simple matter to lift them from their context and 'borrow' them for use in other settings or in another language. This ease of transfer probably contributed to the development of the nouvelle as an independent form. Thus a story from Don Quixote, Novela del Curioso impertinente, was translated into French and published separately in 1608, before the whole novel had appeared in French. As this example indicates, Spanish writers of comic or burlesque novels had begun to insert novelas into the body of their works. (The tale of Daraja and Osmin, in Guzman de Alfarache, shows the same process in the picaresque novel.) French authors, too, soon made a habit of introducing nouvelles in comic novels.
The method of presenting the interpolated nouvelle is simple, and somewhat reminiscent of the framework situation devised for collections of tales. In the novel, some reason is provided for a principal character to have a few hours on his hands, and at this juncture someone happens to be present who happens to know an interesting story, and proceeds to tell it. The story does not, as a rule, involve the person who recounts it. Occasionally this secondary narrator reappears at a later stage in the novel, but more often he or she drops out after telling the nouvelle, and is never seen again.
The narrator of an histoire, on the other hand, is generally a character who plays some part in the main action of the novel. Moreover, the histoire itself is often concerned with the narrator's own adventures. Theoretically, therefore, the histoire should be more closely linked to the whole work than is an interpolated nouvelle. The link may nevertheless be slight or almost nonexistent. When the barber has told his life-story to Gil Blas, the latter does go on to share in the festivities provided by the barber's uncle, and he even begins the next chapter: 'Je fis quelque séjour chez le jeune barbier' (I, 130). But this is the last we hear of the barber, and the whole episode could be deleted from the book without in any way affecting the course of Gil Blas's career. An histoire which is brought in like this has scarcely any more connection with the novel as a whole than the average nouvelle.
In contrast to this example, Doña Mencia's histoire does have some bearing on the main plot. It is to save her that Gil Blas devises his stratagem to escape from the robbers' den, and she later gives him some money which sets off his next adventure. Her story also explains how she came to be making the journey on which the robbers killed her husband and captured her. This kind of histoire, one might agree, has a legitimate function in the structure of the whole novel, while this particular example also possesses the merit, to our eyes, of being fairly short. More debatable are the histoires related by Don Raphaël, Laure and Scipion. Apparently Lesage himself realized that Don Raphaël's account had exceeded the appropriate limits: Gil Blas comments that 'le récit me parut un peu long' (I, 334). The Histoire de Scipion also takes up a good deal of space. As for their bearing on the plot, these three characters do all exert some influence, in their varying ways, upon the course of Gil Blas's life. But one might still be tempted to query the relevance of much of the information they supply about their past lives.
A further refinement or complication of technique is the histoire which is split into two or more instalments. In the Tower of Segovia, Don Gaston de Cogollos relates the misfortunes which attended his love for Doña Helena (II, 151-65). Several years later, when he meets Gil Blas again, he is in a position to describe the incident which has brought his love-affair to a happy conclusion (II, 306-8). The trouble here is that as Don Gaston plays no appreciable rôle in the main plot, the reader has heard nothing of him for nearly thirty chapters, and may well have some difficulty in remembering the first part of his story when the sequel is presented.
All these types of interpolated histoires, and yet more complicated variants, had been current in the seventeenth century, not only in comic and satiric novels, but in serious fiction such as L'Astrée and the heroic novels of the mid-century. (In the more ambitious works, the histoires were of course of a prevalently refined tone.) It was this practice of inserting minor narratives into the main story-line which earned such novels the label of romans à tiroir. Since the use of interpolated stories like these is now quite foreign to our ideas of plot-structure and coherence, we shall understand it only if we discover the reasons which led to its adoption.
The most obvious reason is the existence of an early and respected model. The Aethiopica, a novel written in the third century A.D. by Heliodorus, was as near as the genre could get to a truly 'classical' precedent. A copy of this work was discovered after the sack of Budapest, and was published at Basle, in Greek, in 1534. Amyot's translation appeared in 1547, and Magendie lists seven re-impressions up to 1626, as well as other versions and adaptations of the novel. More than any other single work, this story of the adventures of Theagenes and Charicleia helped to shape the seventeenth-century serious novel. Huet says of the work:
Tel qu'il est, il a servi de modèle à tous les faiseurs de Romans, qui l'ont suivi, et on peut dire aussi veritablement qu'ils ont tous puisé à sa source que l'on dit que tous Poètes ont puisé à celle d'Homere.
[quoted in Traité des romans]
This model consists of a main story, episodic in structure, which acts as a framework for other intercalated stories.
Some writers also defended histoires on the basis of supposed similarities between serious novels and the epic. The episodes of epic poems and the 'histories' in novels were classed together and described as 'plutôt des beautés que des défauts' [quoted in Scudéry's Ibrahim, Préface].
Apart from such appeals to respected literary antecedents, there were even some claims that the use of interpolated histoires presented positive literary advantages. Stories told by minor characters could add variety to the main plot by introducing new points of view. They could provide moments of respite and repose in the flow of the central narrative. They could create suspense by intervening to delay the outcome of some crucial incident. They could even contribute to vraisemblance, since it is 'natural' for two people meeting for the first time to tell each other something about their past life.
These arguments would not, I imagine, carry much weight with most modern critics. And already in the seventeenth century there were some writers who were prepared to attack the procedure:
Outre que l'auteur en déduit lui-même l'histoire principale, il introduit plusieurs personnages qui en récitent d'autres, avec un langage qui est souvent trop affecté pour le temps et le lieu…. Et même pour embrouiller davantage le roman, ayant introduit un homme qui raconte quelque histoire, celui-là rapporte aussi celle qu'un autre a raconté, avec ses propres termes, faisant une histoire dans une autre histoire, ou le roman d'un roman; de sorte qu'on a peine à se ressouvenir qui c'est qui parle, de l'auteur, et du premier personnage, ou du second; et quelque attention qu'y donne le lecteur, il ne sait plus enfin où il est.
[quoted in De la Connoissance by Sorel]
Some sixty years later Lenglet du Fresnoy, looking back on the history of the genre, saw these complications as a cause of the decline of the long heroic novel:
Les aventures des grands romans … étaient si coupées et si embarrassées les unes avec les autres, que l'attention se partageait trop ….
On s'est rebuté de tant d'embarras dans une lecture qui doit instruire sans fatiguer. Les petits romans ont suppléé à ce désagrément.
[quoted in De l' Usage des romans, 1734]
Even if this diagnosis is true as regards the grands romans, the practice of inserting subsidiary stories lingered on until well into the eighteenth century. The last volume of Gil Blas, containing the Histoire de Scipion, came out in 1735. It was in 1742 that Marivaux published Parts IX, X, and XI of La Vie de Marianne, devoted to the life-story of Marianne's friend, the nun. And Prévost's unfinished Le Monde moral (1760) likewise shifts its centre of interest from the narrator's adventures to those of the Abbé Brenner.
Were there, perhaps, unavowed or unrecognized reasons for this widespread and persistent habit? One mundane practical consideration not likely to be mentioned by the novelists themselves, is that such intercalated stories helped to spin out the work. The ease with which they could be inserted spared the writer the effort of extending or elaborating his main plot, or of creating sub-plots. For an author like Lesage, not skilled in the structure of long stories, such a method was extremely useful in padding out his successive volumes.
A further and more specifically literary reason for the practice is that the chief interest of novels, at this time, lay in their story-line, in the adventures, in the element of what-happens-next. At this level, any story with lively events is a good thing; and the more stories a novel contains, the better it will be. This attitude would account for the apparently gratuitous inclusion of nouvelles, which seem to have even less artistic justification than histoires. And the relative importance attached to interpolated stories as such is shown, for instance, by the fact that the eighty or so histoires in L'Astrée are separately indexed in each volume, as though they were attractions to which the reader might want to return. Indeed, when the intercalations are on this scale, the novel seems to be moving towards the form of the collection of nouvelles, where the framework is no more than a pretext for assembling the stories.
There is not much explicit evidence to support this suggestion that actions and events took pride of place in the novel. Indeed, the occasional plea for greater subtlety and verisimilitude in characterization would seem to imply that some novelists were aware of other potential sources of interest in the genre. Nevertheless, the multiplicity of separate tales, the speed of events, the way that novelists press on to the next adventure, all seem to bear out the notion that the story-line was the prime object of interest for writer and reader alike.
This approach to the novel is a simple one, indeed it is little more than the child's love of a 'good story'. But we
should not on that account adopt a condescending or dismissive attitude towards it. A 'good story' has never ceased to be a merit in the novel. However, it is obvious that the seventeenth-century taste for a wealth of interwoven stories produced works which are, by modern standards, confused as to structure and artistically unsatisfying. We can scarcely recover the approach of those early readers, who had learnt to suspend their interest in the hero so as to follow up the adventures of some other character. But at least we can realize that for such readers these interpolations were not unexpected distractions, but an accepted element of the novel as they knew it.
Apart from the stories, there is in Gil Blas another element which can be seen as digression. This is the portrayal of people who cross Gil Blas's path without affecting his career. A case in point is the former actor, Carlos Alonso de la Ventoleria. When he calls on the actress Arsénie, Gil Blas provides a brief description of his appearance (I, 184). Curious as to the character of this Señor cavallero, he then turns for information to Laure, who says: 'Je vais te le peindre au naturel', and proceeds to sketch in the actor's past life and present habits. Gil Blas rounds off the description with: 'Tel fut le portrait que ma soubrette me fit de cet histrion honoraire.' The portrait is thus made to stand out as something of a set-piece. A page or two later comes another vignette, this time a playwright who is forced to accept the actresses' haughty treatment in order to get his play a reading. Here it is the situation, and especially the behaviour of the actresses, which is the point of the picture, and Lesage obtains his effect by showing the personages in action.
On other occasions we are given a whole group of portraits together. In the salon of the Marquise de Chaves, an obliging colleague sums up for Gil Blas the characters of the various habitués as they appear, providing illustrative anecdotes, and ending up with a sketch of the Marquise herself (I, 253-5).
In the mind of Lesage and his first readers, there was a distinction to be made among these portraits. Some were drawn from specific models, and readers in the know would recognize the actor Baron or a distinguished salonnière like Mme de Tencin. (It was to cover cases of this kind that Lesage included his assurance that he had not portrayed any particular person.) Others were based on familiar Parisian types like the petit-maître, and such descriptions would have been qualified at the time as caractères. Generally speaking, the caractère stresses some specific trait or tendency in its subject, such as the frivolity and fatuity of the petits-maîtres.
The individual portrait, after being a pastime in seventeenth-century salons, found its way into novels such as Mlle de Scudéry's Clélie, which were romans à clef. These portraits tended to be isolated set-pieces. We have seen how Lesage draws attention to his portrait of La Ventoleria-Baron, and we shall find Marivaux following the same method in La Vie de Marianne. The literary salons had also fostered the writing of caractères, a minor genre which might have faded into oblivion had it not found a master-hand in La Bruyère.
In Gil Blas the modern reader cannot always distinguish between these two kinds of character-sketch, unless there are editorial notes to supply the requisite information. However, the difference in origin is obviously of minimal importance nowadays. It is rather the literary merit of these sketches, whether specific or typical, which deserves our attention. Lesage would seem to have enjoyed creating them; they are usually well and wittily executed, with a neat and vivid touch; and they exhibit his special flair for highlighting motives of vanity.
Since the character-sketches in Gil Blas possess these real merits, it is perhaps thankless to ask whether they should be there at all. Yet the fact remains that they are, from a structural point of view, a defect rather than an asset. During the histoires, Gil Blas is reduced to the rôle of a listener; for the kind of portrait we have been discussing, he has become a passive spectator. And in either case, his own story is temporarily shelved. To be fair, one should notice that just as he can integrate an histoire into the main plot, Lesage can also work his social portraits into the stuff of Gil Blas's life. The group of petits-maîtres and their valets who give Gil Blas his first notions of the life of fashionable young aristocrats are just as much types as the guests in the Marquise's salon. But Gil Blas learns from the valets, so that the episode affects him and is a stage in his development. The actor, the playwright, the guests of Mme de Chaves, merely pass before his eyes, exert no influence on him, and disappear after having halted the action yet once more.
The justification for these supernumerary portraits lies of course in Lesage's undertaking to show us life as it is. And their presence reveals his interest, an interest which overrides considerations of plot, in the various kinds of foolishness and self-importance which flourished in the society of his day. We see people not only as participants in unusual actions and adventures, but carrying out their everyday rôle in society, as flatterers or would-be intellectuals or quarrelsome men of letters. The whole purpose of passages like these is to capture the essence of certain social types.
This fondness of Lesage for the typical personage goes even deeper, and underlies his whole approach to the portrayal of character. The majority of his characters in Gil Blas are types: we can fit them into categories, and their behaviour is always predictable within the limits of that category. Among the remaining characters, many could be termed eccentrics, but even those eccentrics whom Lesage chooses to portray follow a clear pattern. The character simply carries to extremes one of the traits which is in any case associated with his class or type. Spaniards are by reputation dilatory and fond of idleness; Don Bernard de Castil Blazo takes this to the point of arranging his whole life so that he can avoid even the trouble of managing an income. Many Church dignitaries are vain of their talents as preachers, and the Archbishop of Grenada shows how far such vanity can go. Doctors are ignorant, but each of them swears by his own system; Dr Sangrado's excesses are only an extension of this habit. What is lacking, in such cases, is the unexpected touch which lifts a character out of the rut and gives him individuality.
Since some critics have expressed doubts as to whether Gil Blas himself is a complete and convincing character, it is clear that even he, the hero of the book, may not convey to every reader that vivid sense of a unique personality which is created by masters of characterization. Gil Blas, it may be claimed, has no trait, no quirk of feeling or behaviour, which makes him absolutely distinct from other characters of his kind and class. On this particular and crucial case, opinions may differ; Gil Blas's own adventures do after all dominate the novel, and his reactions may seem variable enough, within their limited range, to evoke for some readers the image of a complete and credible personality. The fact remains, however, that Lesage's talents lie more in the portrayal of types and recurrent traits than of unique individuals.
From all this it would seem that Lesage, whatever his failings, did at least fulfil his initial promise to provide a general portrait of society. But as the novel progresses, we move from a timeless scene, with a transparent veneer of Spanish local colour, to a specific period, with Spanish historical events and personages dominating the action. From the middle of Book VIII onwards, Gil Blas becomes as much an 'historical novel' as some of the seventeenth-century works with their inflated claims to historicity. Since this development is scarcely foreshadowed in the earlier part of the novel, we need to consider how the historical element makes its appearance, what effects it produces on the work as a whole, and the possible reasons for its introduction.
The first chapters of Gil Blas's story are timeless. They are set in a vague past which is Gil Blas's youth, but have no precision as to a date or even a decade. If any reader were interested in pinning the story down to a definite period, he could find his first clue in the course of the barber's story. In the discussion of contemporary playwrights which the barber overhears (I, 104), two living authors are mentioned. The elder of these, Luis Velez de Guevara, died in 1644. Therefore, even allowing for the lapse of time in the barber's life since this incident, we might safely suppose this stage of Gil Blas's story to be happening before 1650. Actually, of course, it seems highly unlikely that the average reader of Gil Blas would have either the interest or the requisite factual knowledge to date the episode in this way. Nor can I believe that Lesage had any intention of fixing his story in time by a reference of this kind. The names of the two writers are thrown in partly as local colour, and partly to confirm the prestige of the barber's uncle, who is mentioned as having more talent than either of them.
The same approach is evident at a later stage, when Fabrice speaks of three contemporary writers, Lope de Vega, Cervantes and Gongora (II, 61). The point here is that Fabrice has chosen Gongora as his model in matters of style.
However, by this stage in the novel (Book VII), Lesage had at least become aware of the problem of period. In the first edition of Volume I, Gil Blas listened to Don Pompeyo telling the story of some recent events which were supposed to have taken place in Portugal before Philip II's conquest of that country in 1580. Unfortunately, this episode turned out to be an anachronism in relation to the events of Gil Blas's career in Volume III. It is here, only six or seven years after hearing Don Pompeyo's story, that Gil Blas begins to work for the Duc de Lerme, a minister of Philip III—and de Lerme's period in power ran from 1598 to 1618.
Having thus fixed the novel in time by references to the Duc de Lerme and Philip III, Lesage realized the discrepancy between this dating and that of the Don Pompeyo episode. In the preface of 1724 he offered the reader his excuses:
On a marqué dans ce troisième tome une époque qui ne s'accorde pas avec l'histoire de Pompeyo de Castro qu'on lit dans le premier volume. Il paraît là que Philippe II n'a pas encore fait la conquête du Portugal et l'on voit ici tout d'un coup ce royaume sous la domination de Philippe III sans que Gil Blas en soit beaucoup plus vieux. C'est une faute de chronologie dont l'auteur s'est aperçu trop tard, mais qu'il promet de corriger dans la suite avec quantité d'autres.
Lesage corrected this mistake by the simple expedient of transferring the story to a Polish setting, though without bothering to alter the references to things Portuguese, such as bull-fights. As for the other mistakes, he did not succeed in eradicating them all, and a score or so of chronological inconsistencies remain in his final text.
We shall discuss more fully, in a later chapter, the whole problem of the novelist's accuracy in factual and practical details. For the moment it is enough to say that eighteenth-century authors attached far less importance to such details than do most modern writers. And in the case of Gil Blas, the chronological slips are not serious enough to distract the reader or be considered as major flaws in the work.
It is, then, by the introduction of the Duc de Lerme that Lesage takes the decisive step into history. Most of his early readers must have recognized de Lerme as a real person; he had, after all, been a famous statesman of a major European power, and had lived not much more than a century earlier. Much the same effect might be produced nowadays, for English readers, by bringing a person such as Talleyrand into a novel set in France. A majority of readers, though not possessing much detailed knowledge about him, would still be aware that this was an historical personage. This particular effect of the Duc de Lerme's appearance has now faded; unless there are editorial notes to help them, most readers will not appreciate the 'reality' of this character. And how many readers, when they come across mentions of two successive Kings of Spain, pay any heed to the authenticity of the events in which Gil Blas is involved? It seems likely that time, shifts of political power, and increasing literary sophistication have largely destroyed for us the effect of Lesage's incursion into history.
On the other hand, the move into real time produced an effect upon the plot of Gil Blas which is still perceptible. Having chosen to link his hero's career with the successive 'reigns' of the Duc de Lerme and the Comte d'Olivarès, Lesage found himself tied down to a precise chronology instead of a vague slipping past of the years.
In the first part of the novel there is little attempt to convey a realistic impression of the passing of time. We move from one event to the next, and the periods between events are briefly dismissed, often with a mere phrase such as, 'Après six mois', or 'Quelques semaines plus tard'. One might say that this is a picaresque handling of time. Just as the traditional pícaro wanders freely from town to town, not bound by any ties of place, so his actions follow on each other's heels without any apparent relation to objective standards of time. This rambling method is quite suitable for Gil Blas's early days, but breaks down when his life has to obey the exigencies of history. In particular, Lesage does not manage to suggest the length of the period when the Comte d'Olivarès is in power. It comes as a distinct shock when, after a brief sequence of episodes taking up some sixty pages, the Count talks of his twenty years of service (II, 337), or when Gil Blas mentions the lapse of twenty-two years since Antonia's death (II, 348).
It would seem, from all this, that Lesage increased his own difficulties by choosing to combine Gil Blas's life with the events of a given historical period. Why did he make the choice?
One likely reason depends on his persistently derivative method of writing. Apart from the translations and adaptations which he published as such, Lesage always drew largely on other authors for anecdotes and situations, and Claretie has shown that he also plagiarized himself. In 1734 Lesage published Estebanille Gonzalès, his adaptation of a quasi-picaresque work which purported to be the memoirs of a clown in the service of the Duke of Amalfi. Volume IV of Gil Blas appeared in 1735, and it is clear from the similarities between the two that much of the historical matter in this last part of Gil Blas was adapted from the 'Life' of Gonzalès. Since the historical episodes of Volume IV follow coherently and smoothly from those of Volume III, it seems more than likely that Lesage had already studied the Spanish 'memoirs' when he was writing the chapters which introduce the Duc de Lerme and the historical background. The shift into history may therefore be a development suggested merely by Lesage's other current occupations.
Apart from this external stimulus, it may be argued that there were artistic reasons for this development, since it fulfils certain logical requirements of the plot. One should not, I think, accept too easily the assertions of some critics that the novel has no coherent plot. We have already noticed the various digressions and distractions which may blur the outlines of the central story, but there is a main thread to be discerned: Gil Blas's gradual rise from helplessness and poverty to power and wealth. This rise is conducted on three levels. Gil Blas works in households of successively higher social status (the few weeks with Arsénie are the only backward step in this otherwise steady progress). Within these households he occupies positions of increasing trust and responsibility, from valet to steward to confidential secretary. And finally there is a parallel increase of self-assurance and sophistication in his own character and behaviour. This progress may be the simplest of linear plots, but it does provide a story which is more than a sequence of casually juxtaposed episodes.
In relation to this plot, Gil Blas's move into the realm of history can be seen as an artistic necessity. By the end of Book VI he is not merely the trusted employee of a rich noble, Don Alphonse, but even his friend. In Book VII he has a position of trust with the Comte Galiano which involves overseeing the whole household, including the intendant. After this, if he is to continue his gradual rise in status, the inevitable step is from service with a 'private' aristocrat to working for a grandee who is involved in public affairs, and who is thus known and 'historic'. This development can therefore be seen as logically consonant with the preceding stages of the plot of the novel, and even as a necessity.
In a sense, once Gil Blas has become confidential secretary to the Duc de Lerme, there are no more worlds for him to conquer. Lesage has given the story a new lease of life, however, by making him become corrupted by power, so that a fresh field for improvement is in fact open to him—the reform and mastery of his own vices. This conquest of character is adroitly fitted into the pattern of historical events. Gil Blas is disgraced for his part in the Prince's affaire with Catalina. This has the effect of separating his career from the Duc de Lerme's, and when the Prince comes to the throne and de Lerme falls from power, the way is open for Gil Blas to return to court. The interval in Gil Blas's life between his release from prison and his service with the Comte d'Olivarès is chiefly taken up with the idyllic interlude of his love-match with Antonia, which shows him in a new light. And when, after Antonia's death, he comes back to Madrid and regains his previous heights of influence, he shows that his change of heart in prison has taught him to resist the temptations of power. The period serving the Comte d'Olivarès is therefore a contrast to, and not a mere repetition of, the years with the Duc de Lerme. So it seems fair to say that Lesage has shown considerable skill in his dovetailing of Gil Blas's moral development into the successive 'reigns' of de Lerme and d'Olivarès.
It can safely be assumed that Lesage never had in mind any 'master-plan' of Gil Blas. With its linear plot, the story could grow indefinitely by the mere addition of fresh episodes showing the continuance of Gil Blas's progress. And Volume III carries on this trend, established in the first two volumes. Nevertheless, once he began drawing on his sources of Spanish history, Lesage must surely have realized that the novel was taking a fresh turn. His prefatory remarks, and especially the assurance that he had portrayed no particular persons, were clearly contradicted by the introduction of historic Kings and courtiers. Why, then, did Lesage not alter his Déclaration when he revised his first two volumes?
Various reasons, alone or in combination, may account for his letting this inconsistency remain. There is, first, the general insouciance about accuracy which has already been mentioned. Secondly, Lesage may have considered that the comic or satiric aspect of the novel was more important than the historic element, which did not merit any special mention. Thirdly, he may not even have fully appreciated the fact that his utilization of specific historic 'truths' might be inconsistent with the aim of offering general truths about society.
Lesage was indeed, as far as one can gather or deduce, the very reverse of a conscious artist. Steadily occupied with all kinds of writing, some of which amounted to little more than hack-work, he seems to have given little or no thought to the theory of his craft. What he did, in practice, was to draw freely on all the resources of prose fiction which were familiar to him, and to make his novels follow any convention of form or subject-matter that seemed to him convenient or likely to please the public. Where he accepted the conventions without query or modification, he is generally, by modern standards, at his weakest. This is most obvious in the nouvelles and histoires, the portraits and caractères with their effect of cumbering and confusing the plot. Where he adapts the traditional elements to his own ends, the change tends to be advantageous. His alterations to the picaresque convention, making the hero rise through society instead of remaining in the gutter, meant that he covered a far wider range of social strata and callings than any previous writer of satiric novels. Roman de mœurs is a phrase often used rather loosely; if it implies a work which provides an overall impression of a given society, then there is much to be said for calling Gil Blas the first true roman de mœurs in French. At the same time, Lesage's avoidance of the coarser elements hither-to associated with comic and satiric novels, showed that this type of work could be respectable by both social and literary standards.
On these two counts alone, it is clear that Gil Blas is important, a landmark in the development of the novel which cannot be neglected by anyone who is studying the history of the genre. This is not however to affirm that it can necessarily claim a place among world masterpieces, or even among French ones. Apart from its unsatisfactory structure, a defect one may learn to ignore, this novel seems, by comparison with the works of comic masters such as Cervantès or Molière, both superficial and obvious. Lesage's penetration of emotions and motives is rarely more than skin-deep, and is totally lacking in subtlety. In successive episodes he illuminates the surface of his world, but throws scarcely any light into the depths of more complex feeling and behaviour. The human reactions he can effectively convey are limited both as to range and as to intensity.
What merits remain when we have made these reservations? Even if the work is episodic, many of the episodes are brilliantly handled. Gil Blas's first experience of being a valet—and a legatee—in the household of the cosseted canon; his sad lesson concerning the penalties of honesty with the Archbishop of Grenada; these and many another incident are concisely, wittily and vividly narrated, and linger in the memory. Even if we complain that the characters are types rather than individuals, and broadly sketched in rather than delineated with subtle detail, we still remember Laure and the rogue Don Raphaël, Dr Sangrado and the grandee whose life revolved round his pet monkey. We remember, that is, those characters and those episodes which are fully in harmony with the novelist's most distinctive trait: that lucid, ironic style which is the voice not only of Gil Blas, but of Lesage himself.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5068
SOURCE: "Lesage—Marivaux—Prévost," in A Literary History of France: The Eighteenth Century, 1715-1789, Ernest Benn Limited, 1970, pp. 78-119.
[In the following excerpt, Niklaus analyzes the evolution of Lesage's writings in relation to events in his life, contending that the author "recorded faithfully and in a straightforward, incisive manner his own … experience; the picture of his times which he gives us may be over-dramatised, yet it strikes one as exceptionally vivid, illuminating, basically accurate, and often penetrating."]
Alain-René Lesage was born on 8 May 1668 at Sarzeau, near Vannes, in Brittany, and he retained many Breton characteristics, including a love of independence that led him to accept poverty rather than to forfeit his freedom of action and his integrity. He was the only son of Claude Lesage, barrister, solicitor, and recorder of the royal court of Rhuis, who died in 1682; since his mother, Damoiselle Jeanne Brenugat, had died in 1677, he was made the ward of two uncles, Gabriel Lesage and Blaise Brenugat. His mother was of an old Breton family, and his early childhood, unlike his later life, was spent in reasonable affluence. About 1686 he was sent to the Jesuit college of Vannes, where he received a good education, and developed his taste for the theatre. In 1690 he was sent to complete his education in Paris, where he studied first philosophy, then law, and was ultimately called to the Bar. He made the acquaintance of the poet and librettist Danchet, and the friendship which followed was to last sixty years.
In order to earn his living he became a notary's clerk and clerk to a financier and led a free and easy existence; he was well liked in the salons and frequented the Société du Temple, the home of the Vendôme family, and that of the duchesse de Bouillon. He met Dancourt, who befriended him and urged him to become a dramatist; it is believed that he had a liaison with a lady of quality, but soon became interested in a poor and beautiful girl, Marie-Elisabeth Huyard, the daughter of a carpenter, whom he married in 1694. He had three sons and one daughter, and is known to have enjoyed a happy family life. By 1695 Lesage lost interest in his legal career, and turned to writing. On Danchet's advice, he translated the Lettres galantes d'Aristénète (probably from a Latin version of the Greek original), from which he derived no financial profit. The abbé de Lyonne took him under his protection in 1698, securing for him an income of 600 livres. He advised Lesage to learn Spanish, and to seek inspiration in the picaresque novels, suggesting that he translate the plays of Calderón and Lope de Vega. In 1700 he published two five-act comedies under the title Théâtre espagnol, Le Traître puni (imitated from Rojas) and Don Felix de Mendoce (imitated from Lope de Vega). In February 1702, Lesage presented on the stage of the Théâtre Français Le Point d'honneur, a three-act play adapted from Rojas. This skit on duelling was not well received, and ran for only two nights. Lesage then published a free translation of Fernández de Avellaneda's continuation of Cervantes' work under the title Nouvelles Aventures de l'admirable Don Quichotte de la Manche (1704, 2 vols.). In 1707 he met at last with literary success. The Théâtre Français performed a five-act comedy, Don César des Ursins, an adaptation of a Calderón play, which proved a failure; but the performance included a one-act play, inspired by Hurtado de Mendoza's Los Empeños del mentir, with the title Crispin rival de son maître, which proved extremely popular outside court circles (15 March). In the same year he published his first great prose work, Le Diable boiteux, which he was subsequently to expand. This work is once more drawn from Spanish sources (Guevara's El Diavolo coivelo), but is in fact a satire aimed at Parisian society, only the framework being truly Spanish. We find in it anecdotes about Ninon de Lenclos, Dufresny, Baron, and other contemporaries. The character of the devil Asmodée has been transformed. In 1708-9, Lesage offered a one-act play, La Tontine, to the Théâtre Français, which declined to put it on, probably for political reasons, and it was only much later that it was performed at the Théâtre de la Foire, under the title Arlequin colonel, and later still, in 1732, on the stage of the Comédie Française. La Tontine was a public loan to which individuals subscribed according to their age group, in order to qualify for an annuity which increased as their numbers in the same age group died off. The second of these loans had been raised in 1696 and the whole scheme became the object of heated discussion in 1708. This accounts for Lesage's interest in the subject, and also for the criticism he evoked. With characteristic persistence, Lesage then offered a new one-act comedy, Les Etrennes, in 1708, which was again turned down by the Comédiens français. He expanded this play into five acts, but Turcaret ou Les Etrennes, as it was now called, did not fare any better. The traitants, a group of vulgar, newly rich financiers whom Lesage had satirised in his play, were successful in getting the play suppressed, largely through their connections with the actresses of the Théâtre Français.
Lesage read his play in the salons to rouse interest in it, and the circulation of a story that financiers had offered him 10,000 francs to keep the play off the stage proved to be excellent publicity. Turcaret was eventually put on at the Théâtre Français, thanks to the intervention of Monsieur, but it was withdrawn after seven performances (14 February 1709), as a result of which Lesage became involved in a quarrel with the Comédiens.
His abortive experience with La Tontine and Les Etrennes led him to turn away from the Théâtre Français and towards the more popular, if less exalted, Théâtre de la Foire. The winter fair of Saint-Germain and the summer fair of Saint-Laurent attracted mountebanks and strolling players, supplemented after the expulsion of the Italian players from Paris in 1697 by companies performing so-called commedia dell'arte scenarii in the Italian manner and others containing lesser players from the expelled company who fled to the fair booths rather than return to Italy or tour the provinces. From these bastardised forms of Italian comedy a genre including acrobatics and dancing, to fit the requirements of players and audience, evolved with great rapidity and popular success. These forains were further stimulated by a lively and continued struggle waged with the Théâtre Français, which continued until the Revolution broke out. Throughout the century the Comédiens du Roi strove to exert their own monopoly and to deprive the forains of their right perform, by any means which came to hand, fearing a rivalry that might, and did, rob them of their audiences. Throughout the century, the forains evaded every edict, and avoided destruction; they continued to evolve a form of theatre based upon Italian comedy, and which developed despite all the stresses imposed upon it by the Comédiens. They enjoyed an increasing popularity, drawing their patrons from among the workers, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy. Their struggle for survival made them alert and adaptable, revolutionised stage technique, and as time went on offered the possibility of satiric drama of a direct, ebullient, and often virulent kind.
From 1712 until 1734 Lesage wrote for this theatre, which offered better financial reward as well as greater artistic freedom. Eighty-eight of his plays are to be found in the Théâtre de la Foire (10 vols., 1737).
Twenty-nine of the plays appear under the name of Lesage alone, twenty-three in collaboration with d'Orneval, thirty-two with d'Orneval and Fuzelier, one with d'Orneval and Autreau, one with d'Orneval and Piron, and one with Lafont and Fromaget. His first are: Arlequin empereur dans la lune and Arlequin baron allemand, ou Le Triomphe de la folie (in three acts with vaudevilles and écriteaux), in collaboration with Fuzelier and Dominique….
[Lesage's] considerable [dramatic] output is in addition to the ill-fated La Tontine (one act), given without success at the Théâtre Français in February 1732, and the following novels: Le Diable boiteux (1707); Gil Blas de Santillane (Books I-VI of which appeared in 1715, Books VII-IX in 1724, and Books X-XII in 1736); Roland amoureux, a novel in verse, taken from the Italian Boïardo (1717-1721, two vols.); Entretiens des cheminées de Madrid, added to the third edition of Le Diable boiteux (1726); Histoire d'Estevanille Gonzalès and a dialogue entitled Une Journée des Pargues (1734); and La Valise trouvée (1740). Finally there is the Mélange amusant de saillies d'esprit et de traits historiques des plus frappants (1743).
Lesage is one of the most prolific writers of comédies-vaudevilles or comédies mêlées d'ariettes, genres considered to be the forerunners of comic opera. The form of these plays resulted from the prohibition of dialogue and singing on all stages except that of the Théâtre Français and that of the Opéra, imposed by the Comédiens and circumvented by the forains.
Even this long list of works is incomplete, for in the year in which he brought out the first part of Gil Blas, Lesage also wrote the adventures of Marie Petit, who kept a Paris gaming-house in the early years of the century, and in 1703 M. Fabre, 'envoyé extraordinaire de Louis XIV en Perse', a work which he later abandoned. He also undertook adaptations and translations. His Histoire de Guzman d'Alfarache nouvelement traduite et purgée des moralités superflues (1732) is an abridged version of Mateo Alemán's romance, which had also inspired Chapelain (1621), Gabriel de Brémon (1696), and others. Les Aventures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, which has been held to be an authentic autobiographical document, is from the work of Vicentio Espinella. Le Bachelier de Salamanque ou Les Mémoires de don Chérubin de la Ronda (1736-38), is also based on a Spanish manuscript. Lesage in the course of his work in the theatre developed a strong dislike of all actors, and bitterly resented his own sons' desire to go on the stage. His eldest son, René-André, became an actor of repute under the name of Montménil, and on 28 May 1726 he played Mascarille in Molière's L'Etourdi with great success; he then toured the provinces, returning two years later to Paris, acting the part of Hector in Regnard's Le Foueur, of Davos in Terence's Andria, and of La Branche in Crispin rival de son maître, and finally Turcaret. But his father remained unreconciled and the news that his third son was to take up a stage career in Germany, under the name of Pittence (1730), only added to his grief and anger. This third son eventually returned to Paris, where he put on two comic operas, Le Testament de la Foire and Le Miroir véridique, at the Foire Saint-Germain. The second son, the Abbé Julien-François Lesage, who lived at Boulogne-sur-Mer, was successful in arranging a temporary rapprochement between his father and his brothers, but only after Lesage had been induced to see Montménil's performance in the role of Turcaret; and his last years were saddened by the death of his eldest son in 1743. Too old to work, extremely deaf, and quite poor in spite of his prodigious output, he went to Boulogne with his wife and daughter, Marie-Elisabeth, to live in the home of the abbé, his second son. He dined almost every day with the Abbé Voisenon, who wrote of his kindly wit. He had quiet obstinacy and the independence of the Breton. His deafness at the age of forty obliged him to use an ear trumpet, which he referred to as his 'bienfaiteur'.
Two plays and two novels stand out from this vast output. Crispin rival de son maître is generally considered to be one of the best-constructed one-act plays ever to be staged. The plot is unoriginal, borrowed from a Spanish play by Hurtado de Mendoza, in which an adventurer tries to marry the sister of a man whose life he has saved by posing as her fiancé. Professor T. E. Lawrenson has reminded us that there is in fact a close resemblance between Mendoza's play and the adventure of Jérôme de Moyadas in Gil Blas. The play provides a social document of interest. It heralds the regency and the new social confusion, underlined by the language spoken by both servants and masters, and also the rise of men of intrigue. The milieu is bourgeois; M. Oronte, father of Angélique, is a tax-farmer, and Valère a chevalier d'industrie (an adventurer or card-sharp). Lesage gives to his valets exuberance of temperament and speech and the ability to cope with situations, before Beaumarchais ever created Figaro. He has what Lintilhac called le mot qui ramasse, an ability to use telling short-cuts. His style of writing owes nothing to the preciosity of the salons. Lawrenson rightly speaks of its drama of the outspoken, as opposed to the drama of half-statements which characterises the theatre of Marivaux. Minor scenes lead naturally and logically into major ones. There is great dramatic economy, and the structure of the play allows for rapid movement, which creates a sense of speed and suspense, and the possibilities of discovery are piled on at an increasing rate as the play reaches its finale.
Crispin is a brilliant comedy of intrigue, to be compared in this respect with the plays of Regnard. Lesage developed his technical skill by learning how to modify the action of Spanish dramas to suit French taste. By cutting out monologues and tirades, he speeded up the action and promoted a new liveliness on the stage. Crispin himself is interesting from another point of view, for he belongs to a long line of valets de comédie bearing that name (1654-1853). Lawrenson has traced him from Scarron's L'Escolier de Salamanque through plays by Poisson, Hauteroche, Champmeslé, Montfleury fils, La Thuillerie, Lesage's own Crispin in Le Point d'honneur (1702), Lafont, Regnard, Delon, Mayet, Pessey, and Leclercq. He was incarnated by three generations of actors belonging to the same family, the Poissons, which partly accounts for the surprising degree of consistency in playing the part of this cunning and very self-confident valet. Lesage changed a popular stock character into a Crispin unique in that he becomes his master's rival, and in this he is clearly differentiated from the valets who preceded him, the Mascarilles, the Jodelets, the Scapins, the Frontins, and from his Italian counterpart Arlequin, who was dominating the Théâtre de la Foire at that time. The full story of the valet de comédie is as long as that of comedy itself. Comedy was born in a society based on slavery, and the servus of Plautus and Terence (whose Andria Lesage had translated) survived the passing of time, albeit in a new guise. The servant-master relationship changed with evolving social patterns, but ultimately became conventional in the theatre, the servant always concerned with his freedom or his wages first and the interest of his master second. With Lesage he is for the first time solely concerned with his self-advancement and usurps the function of the master. The bold title of this short and often acted play was to resound throughout the century, for the spectators were able to witness the rise of a servant in a society now primarily concerned with money, and no longer with aristocracy of birth. Crispin rival de son maître is essentially a comedy of intrigue, with a character title, a plot, and some repartees that were to gain in significance with the passing years. Certain slogans taken out of their context, such as 'La justice est une si belle chose qu'on ne saurait trop l'acheter', and individual expressions of opinion, such as Crispin's 'Que je suis las d'être valet! … je devrais présentement briller dans la finance', presage Beaumarchais, but Crispin himself belongs to a world that still hopes for reform and does not foresee revolution. Crispin is less dangerous than Frontin in Turcaret.
Turcaret is the second play under review, and the social background it reflects needs to be borne in mind if the work is to be properly understood.
France was enduring military defeat from all quarters. In 1708 the British and their allies took Lille and in 1709 the French were seriously defeated at Malplaquet. Court life had long since lost its golden glitter. The ageing Louis XIV and Mme de Maintenon had turned to religion, the cost of living had gone up, and the nobility were in a changed position, one in which it was increasingly difficult to cut a figure in Paris and at the same time maintain their estates in the provinces. At Versailles and in Paris fortunes were lost by the nobles at the gaming tables. The bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was growing in power; the prevailing mood was a desire to enjoy life to the full. Tragedy had become unpopular and comedy, especially farce, was welcome, provided that it had vitality and movement. Perhaps the most peculiar social change at that date was the rise of the financier, also called commis, agent de change, sous-fermier, fermier, traitant, partisan, and maltôtier. These were in fact tax-collectors, and went back to the time of Colbert who, in 1681, had established a Compagnie de quarante financiers, required collectively to pay the government 670,000 livres per annum, but entitled to recoup themselves by levying customs, traites, aides (on drink), and gabelle (on salt). The lease or traite (hence the word traitant) to collect certain taxes in specified areas was ceded for six years to a financier embodied by Lesage in Turcaret, who received 4,000 livres per annum for his services. A whole world of directeurs, inspecteurs, contrôleurs, ambulants, vérificateurs, and commis buralistes gravitated around them, exempt from paying taxes and hoping for preferment to the nobility. Around them flocked agioteurs, or speculators, and usurers. All these men were disliked by the nobility, for they amassed enormous fortunes as the aristocracy were losing them. Some set themselves up as patrons of the arts, as did Crozat, who helped Watteau, and others later became publishers, who favoured the philosophes. The peasants, like the aristocrats, hated them and generally held them to be responsible for the bad state of the country. In his play Turcaret Lesage drew on contemporary conditions and on libelles, or satirical pamphlets, as also on varied works such as Les Agioteurs by Dancourt, and Factum de la France (1707) by Boisguillebert; on Giton in La Bruyère's Les Caractères, Harpagon in Molière's L'Avare, Dorante in his Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and La Rapinière in Jacques Robbe's play of that name (1682), in which there is a scene similar to that between Rafle and Turcaret; on Le Mercure galant by Boursault (1683) and Esope à la cour, Esope à la ville, and La Coquette, by Baron; and on L'Eté des coquettes by Dancourt, Le Banqueroutier by N. de Fatouville (1687), to be found in Gherardi's collection of Italian plays, La Foire de Besons (1695), and La Foire Saint-Germain (1696). The name Turcaret has been linked with that of the lackey Cascaret, to be found in the commedia dell'arte and in Dancourt. In Gherardi's collection, Lesage could find Regnard's Arlequin, homme à bonne fortune, and could also draw on his Le Foueur and his Critique du 'Légataire universel' (1708). Lesage borrowed from Dancourt's Le Chevalier à la mode, La Folle Enchère (1690), Les Fonds perdus (1686); also from Dufresny's Les Bourgeoises à la mode (1692); and finally from his own Diable boiteux and Crispin rival de son maître. But these varied and general sources merely add to the contemporary relevance of the play. Turcaret himself stands out as a character and his name has become a byword.
The play is often said to be gloomy. It is not realistic in the modern sense, for the décor is virtually non-existent. It is not as well constructed as Crispin rival de son maître. The tempo is fast, especially in the last two acts, and owes something to the movement of commedia dell'arte. This prevents the mood from becoming too serious. The technique has much in common with the narrative technique utilised in Gil Blas, which is essentially a picaresque novel. We find a similar discontinuity in the episodes of the play, and we move from comic scene to comic scene. 'Le jeu de l'argent et de la surprise' has been suggested as a sub-title.
The plot revolves around the question of whether the financier will succeed in marrying the young widow, but the fifth act vindicates arbitrary justice, rather than providing a solution. The return of Mme Turcaret, and the intervention of the king's justice, which bring the play to an end, are external factors; and the demise of Turcaret is a kind of dénouement postiche, or contrived ending, which has been likened to that of Tartuffe. The final triumph of the servant Frontin is full of irony. Frontin summed up very adequately the subject of the play in the following words: 'Nous plumons une coquette; la coquette mange un homme d'affaires; l'homme d'affaires en pille d'autres: cela fait un ricochet de fourberies le plus plaisant du monde.' Over the years we see that critics have questioned the comic element in the play. Today, however, through a better understanding of commedia dell'arte, and a close examination of other plays of the time, it has been possible to present a gayer interpretation of a comedy which has lazzi, or gags, and fantasy as well as realism, though the characters should be taken seriously; even when highly stylised they belong to professions which have determined their nature and their actions. The Chevalier is a melancholic yet passionate gamester, full of vanity; Turcaret is bold, careless, libidinous; the Baronne, a widow and a coquette, is clearly a stock character; Frontin is in the tradition of Arlequin, Scapin, or Crispin; and Lisette is a variant of Colombine. Lesage extends sympathy to none of them. His cold detachment, his quick wit, and his feeling for sharp repartees and well-timed ripostes, coupled with his unfailing ability to construct a scene, would have sufficed to establish his claim to distinction among French dramatists. It is, however, his satire of the world of finance and money, and his presentation of a vast and corrupt society unredeemed by a single example of a good man, which have won him a special place in the history of the theatre. If Turcaret was not the first financier to be put on the stage, he was the first character of the kind to be studied in depth against his social background, in his relations with others, and especially as he had evolved through the exercise of his profession. There are therefore serious undertones to this comedy which leave a sour taste in the mouth—a fact which enhances Lesage's moral condemnation of the characters. Turcaret, although now judged more comic than has hitherto been thought, does nevertheless serve as a pointer to the drames of the latter half of the eighteenth century, and contains many biting remarks that are worthy of Voltaire's pen in their sophisticated wit.
Frontin now belongs to the same social class as his master; he has grown in power since Crispin, who had merely confined himself to hopes of a great financial future. Frontin has a better technique, an abler assistant, and more real power, and the triumph of this valet de comédie heralds that of Figaro. The closing lines of the play show a mastery of nuance and a felicity of language which all alert spectators will relish, and which has only been equalled by Voltaire:
Lisette: Et nous, Frontin, quel parti prendrons-nous?
Frontin: J'en ai un à te proposer. Vive l'esprit, mon enfant! Je viens de payer d'audace: je n'ai point été fouillé.
Lisette: Tu as les billets?
Frontin: J'en ai déjà touché l'argent; il est en sûreté; j'ai quarante mille francs. Si ton ambition veut se borner à cette petite fortune, nous allons faire souche d'honnêtes gens.
Lisette: J'y consens.
Frontin: Voilà le règne de M. Turcaret fini; le mien va commencer.
The proposal of marriage is unusual in its form and the real implications are clear. Love for the likes of Frontin and Lisette is a very special thing, as their choice of words and form of persuasion reveal. Lesage can say all in a few words, and with crystal clarity, by compression and implication. A rascally financier as the essential theme of a play will be found in Balzac's Mercadet (1851), O. Mirbeau's Les Affaires sont les affaires (1903), E. Fabre's Les Ventres dorés (1905), and especially H. Becque's Les Corbeaux (1882).
The same qualities of style are to be found in Lesage's Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane, which is a long comdy of manners presented in the form of a picaresque novel. Voltaire thought that Lesage had borrowed his episodes from Vicente Martinez Espinel, whose partly autobiographical novel Relacions de la vida del escudero Marcos de Obregón was published in 1618 and soon translated into French, under the title Relation de la vie de l'écuyer Marcos Obregon; in fact Lesage did borrow ten passages from this work. The Jesuit priest P. Isla thought that Lesage had translated a Spanish manuscript since lost, so he retranslated Gil Blas into Castilian with some success. An academic controversy over Lesage's originality ensued. It must be obvious that Lesage, like Molière, borrowed from all sundry, but that the essence of Gil Blas, its style and tone, its realism and fantasy and satire, is original. The Spanish setting mainly lends piquancy to an unmistakably French scene, and contemporaries of Lesage had the added pleasure of experiencing a slight if somewhat bogus sense of dépaysement, such as was exploited, among others, by Montesquieu in the Lettres persanes, and Beaumarchais in the Barbier de Séville. In Gil Blas Lesage shows his ability to portray characters which seem to have the authenticity of the theatre rather than that of ordinary life, and offers a wealth of realistic details which lead us to accept inconsistencies in the plot. The work abounds in brilliant scenes and stylised dialogue which call for production on the stage. The same rapid movement carries all before it and the structure of each episode—but not of the work as a whole—is as taut as in his plays.
We witness a series of tableaux owing something to the literary technique of La Bruyère, conjuring up haphazardly a whole world of people of all ranks and characters, with their peculiar manners, tastes, and foibles. There are petty thieves and canons, doctors and writers, prelates and actors; there are old men in love with young girls of dubious morals laying snares for the old and rich; there are Ministers, dukes, and servants. Dr Sangrado with his hopeless remedies, Fabrice the poet, Raphaël and Laméla, who, weary of their role of penitents, abscond with the monastery funds, and many other characters stand out in one's memory. They come and go and reappear in very different moods. Both Smollett (who translated Gil Blas) and Walter Scott were filled with admiration at the richness and vitality of Lesage's comédie humaine.
The hero, Gil Blas, is on the high road at the age of seventeen. He is gay and full of illusions, and is bent on social advancement, financial success, and, above all, personal happiness. He moves through life without any strong moral principle, concerned mainly with personal advancement and survival in the jungle of society. He is an arriviste who only succeeds late in penetrating into high society. He becomes intendant of Don Alphonse, and then secretary to the duc de Lerme. But his success leads to his corruption. A further twist of fortune leads him to end his days at home, in the role of the good father. Gil Blas is Everyman, neither more nor less moral than most ordinary men, whose behaviour and standards are determined by events. He is neither vicious nor moral, but natural, somewhat naïve, and disarming. He is without prejudice and humorously self-centred. He grows in maturity with the author himself who worked on the novel over a period of more than twenty years. He may be likened to Candide; Lesage's rapier thrusts, anti-clerical wit, and use of irony bring home the similarity.
Lesage, like all the novelists of the period, who were constantly being attacked for immorality or uselessness, is at pains to stress the moral benefit to be derived from his tale, as well as the enjoyment. He can be placed in the moralist tradition of La Bruyére. In fact it is his restraint in the use of moral lectures that commends the book to us today; and nineteenth-century criticism, centred on an attempt at moral justification for the novel, leaves present-day readers indifferent. His fictional technique is of greater consequence. Lesage lacked the creative power and the penetration of Cervantes, who incarnated in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza two opposite yet complementary aspects of mankind. We have to wait for the dialogue between Jacques le Fataliste and his master in Diderot's last novel to rediscover, in a very different setting and intellectual climate, something of the dichotomy of man and his mind. But Lesage recorded faithfully and in a straightforward, incisive manner his own more limited experience; the picture of his times which he gives us may be over-dramatised, yet it strikes one as exceptionally vivid, illuminating, basically accurate, and often penetrating.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8532
SOURCE: "Parallels Between Lesage's Theatre and His Novels," in Enlightenment Studies in Honour of Lester G. Crocker, edited by Alfred J. Bingham and Virgil W. Topazio, The Voltaire Foundation, 1979, pp. 283-99.
[In the following essay, Runte evaluates Lesage's dramatic works as complements and reflections of his novels, with a focus on structure, characterization, language, and plot patterns.]
In Turcaret's shadow an eloquent troupe of Arlequins, Scaramouches, Clitandres and Alis has long been eclipsed. Lesage's theatre has, like many of his translations and novels (Don Quichotte, Don Guzman d'Alfarache, Les Aventures de M. Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, Estevanille Gonzales, Le Bachelier de Salamanque), been classed as secondary literature despite appeals such as that made by Eugène Lintilhac [in Lesage (1893)]: "Pourtant elles [ces œuvres secondaires] ont un titre général à l'indulgence de la postérité, celui d'avoir nourri leur auteur en lui permettant de polir son Gil Blas vingt ans durant. Elles en ont d'autres d'ailleurs, et l'une, au moins de ces œuvres alimentaires, le Théatre de la Foire, mérite d'etre lue."
It is not the purpose of this essay to justify a reading of Lesage's theatre by attributing extraordinary literary merits, hitherto undiscovered, to the plays. Rather, it is to consider the plays as alimentary works contributing to and reflecting the conception of those novels for which we remember Lesage. Some of the plays preceded the novels, as in the case of the Aventures de Robert Chevalier, while others succeeded the novel as in the case of Le Diable boiteux and Arlequin invisible. We will seek parallels and common themes. Rather than individual cases of influence, we will note general exchanges between the genres and will consider the importance of the dramatist's art in the composition of the novels. Charles Dédéyan says [in Lesage et Gil Blas (1965)]: "Du Théâtre de la Foire, à la Foire sur la Place, sinon à la Foire aux Idées, la distance ne sera pas grande." Dédéyan goes on to remind us that according to Palissot Lesage's novels "semblent avoir été brochés au sortir du spectacle", and traces a comparison between Molière and Lesage. Other critics have also noticed that 'the novelist is everywhere reinforced by the dramatist, a rare and excellent combination' [quoted in Minuet by F. C. Green (1935)]. Some theatre specialists, including Maurice Albert [in Les Théâtres de la foire (1660-1789) (1900)], have suggested that Lesage, "ce malicieux et pénétrant observateur [,] voulut que son théâtre nouveau fût une sorte de second Gil Blas, un Gil Blas dramatique et populaire". At least two critics have noted that a study of the theatre might lead to a better understanding of the novels. Lintilhac teases the imagination with his remark on the theatre: "on y trouve d'utiles renseignements sur la conception de la vie et la meilleure des clefs de Gil Blas" [quoted in Lesage et Gil Blas]. More explicitly, Agueda Pizarro indicated that 'the plays may be thought of as prototypes of the novels, particularly where the elaboration of character is concerned' [quoted in the unpublished dissertation Lesage, Picaresque Paradox and the French Eighteenth-Century Novel, 1974].
The first similarity between the two genres, as executed by Lesage, lies in their structure. His novels are romans à tiroirs and his theatre, a ricochet of fourberies, presents strings of cameo sketches which may be called a théâtre à tiroirs. In his article, 'Récit et "histoires" dans les romans de Lesage', Jean Oudart notes that the novelistic tiroirs are of two varieties: homodiegetical (linked to the hero or the plot) and heterodiegetical (totally independent). Similarly, the tiroirs of the plays are homodiegetical as in Les Trois commères in which the tales of the three wives are tied together by the competition which inspires them or in Roger de Sicile, surnommé le roi sans chagrin in which the characters are linked by the relationship between Roger, Lizette and Arlequin and by their universal quest for happiness. The tiroirs are heterodiegetical in plays which are like reviews: La Foire des fées, Le Temple de mémoire, Les Amours déguisés. In these plays, each scene may be viewed and understood without reference to the others. They are loosely joined by an exposition and by the stage presence of a single character or characters. In La Foire des fées, for example, the fairies hold court and are presented with a number of demands by a series of unrelated characters such as the naïve Nicette who desires the gift of coquettishness. Although the plays hardly follow the three unities, both the number of subplots and their development are limited. It might be more appropriate in this context therefore, to consider the theatre as a picaresque whole through which Arlequin travels in various disguises and assumes different ranks and roles. Each of the plays represents another chapter.
Jean Oudart finds that the heterodiegetical stories are of such similar conception that 'à vue de titres, elles pourraient même permuter entre elles: "L'histoire de Belflor et Léonor" (Le Diable boiteux) prendre la place de celle de "Dom Alphonse et la belle Séraphine" (Gil Blas) ou de "Dom André d'Alvarade et de Dona Cinthia de la Carrera" (Le Bachelier de Salamanque)' [quoted in Bulletin de recherches et travaux de l'Université de Grenoble (1976)]. The case of the independent scenes in the theatre, and indeed, of the theatre considered as a picaresque whole, is similar. This interchangeability is the result of the repetition of ideas, themes, situations and characters. Lesage's work resembles an abstract mosaic or puzzle with interlocking pieces which may be replaced at will. The multiplicity of similar tiroirs may be one of the contributory factors to the neglect of such a large part of Lesage's work. The scenes tend to become blurred in one's memory and give the impression of déjà vu. In another context, F. C. Green calls Turcaret Lesage's only memorable comedy. It may well be that the Théâtre de la foire as a whole followed the way of its parts, few of which are strikingly different in conception. On the other hand, this similarity observed among the tiroirs of the two genres individually, may be generally recognised among the parts of Lesage's work as a whole. As stories may be exchanged with each other, so may they be replaced by scenes from the theatre.
Lesage seems to have been conscious of creating dramatic scenes in his novels. In Gil Blas, for example, when Laure has just deceived the marquis de Marialva, she says 'Avoue, Gil Blas, [ … ] que nous venons de jouer une plaisante comédie! Mais je ne m'attendais pas au dénouement.' Not only do the characters act and speak as if they were on the stage, but their intrinsic theatricality is proved by the transposition of Asmodée and Don Cléofas to the stage in the prologue to Turcaret and Asmodée's presence in plays such as Arlequin invisible and the preface and the Critique de Turcaret. In both novel and theatre, the episodes are linked by the personality of a Gil Blas, a Don Cléofas and an Asmodée or an Arlequin. The exposition and denouement of the play introduce and explain the action to the spectator. The narrative passages linking the independent tales in the novel perform the same function.
The characters who give unity to the two genres have certain similarities as well. They are alternatively spectator and participant in the action. Both Gil Blas and Arlequin visit nearly all levels of society. Arlequin, roi de Serendib, Arlequin Mahomet, Arlequin Huila, Arlequin Colombine, Arlequin Endymion and Arlequin, roi des Ogres are a theatrical parallel for Gil Blas student, rogue and minister. The people whom they observe and with whom these picaresque protagonists interact are, as Lester Crocker has said, animals. The menagerie includes cocks, chickens, nightingales, pigeons, larks, leeches, doves, barbary apes, tigresses, kittens, dogs, wolves, mackerel, lambs, doves, kites, werewolves, suckling pigs, etc. In both the novel and the theatre the human race is divided into two classes: the hunters and the hunted. However, the classification, like the society, is never stable. At one moment in Gil Blas the prosecutor is a kite who is clutching a dove in his claws (GB,i.445). At another, he is the quarry sought after when a loan is needed (GB.ii.147). Similarly a woman may be perceived to be a lamb yet may actually be a tiger (GB.ii.14-15). In the theatre she will treat her unwanted lovers 'comme chiens dans un jeu de quilles' [in Le Théâtre de la foire ou l'opéra comique (1721)]. The prosecutor can be a disagreeable person, a nasty pigeon (F.ii.285), or a fish which those seeking financial assistance must trap: 'Nous n'avons pas fait une heureuse pêche. Le poisson a vu l'hameçon, il n'a point voulu mordre à l'appât' [in Recueil des pièces mises au théâtre français (1739)]. In like manner a woman, once a dragon, becomes a sheep after only a few years in the convent (F.vii.29). The choice of animal represent ing the human is linked to sex (women are chickens, doves, nightingales, sheep and tigresses while men are cocks, dogs, pigeons, owls, fish and mackerel) and to occupation (financiers are either suckling pigs or wolves; clerics are suckling pigs as well; lawyers are kites or other birds of prey), and to role (the hunter versus the hunted). The animal representation varies as well depending on the situation of the perceiver and his relationship to the other human 'animal'. At times no specific animal is mentioned but the human assumes animal characteristics which tend to debase him. For example, in Le Monde renversé, Arlequin describes philosophers: "Et quand ils disputent, on dirait qu'ils vont se manger le blanc des yeux" (F.iii.223). In Gil Blas the philosophers in discussion foam at the mouth (GB.i.34). The emphasis on the ignoble animal traits (foaming at the mouth suggests mad dogs, and eating the eyes the pecking of carrion birds) is employed here for a satirical effect obtained through the contrast of supposedly rational humans and irrational beasts. Robert Chevalier excuses his use of violence for the same satiric reason: 'Si j'eusse eu affaire à des gens raisonnables, j'aurais employé les prières et les politesses' [in Les Aventures de Monsieur Robert Chevalier, dit de Beauchêne, capitaine de flibustiers dans la Nouvelle-France (1780)].
When characters are not compared to animals in simile or assigned their traits in metonyms, they dream symbolic dreams of animals. In Le Diable boiteux we see two women,
l'une rêve qu'elle prend des oiseaux à la pipée, qu'elle les plume à mesure qu'elle les prend; mais qu'elle les donne à un beau matou dont elle est folle et qui en a tout le profit. L'autre songe qu'elle chasse de sa maison des lévriers et des chiens danois dont elle a fait longtemps ses délices, et qu'elle ne veut plus avoir qu'un petit roquet des plus gentils, qu'elle a pris en amitié.
In dream the first woman resembles both Robert Chevalier's first mistress and the Baronne in Turcaret, in action. In Le Tableau du mariage Diamantine refuses to marry at the last minute because she dreamt that 'j'ai vu deux pigeons qui sortaient d'un colombier'. The female caressed the male who responded by pecking her and flying away (F.ii.280). The characters have claws and ani mal snouts; they nest and graze. They extend hooks and nets and set traps to ensnare each other. They are characterised by their appetites which are shockingly violent. When they are not pursuing a suckling pig or turtle dove to consume—'La faim fait sortir le loup hors du bois' (F.iii.451)—they are endeavouring to escape someone else's cooking pot. The metaphor is substantiated in Arlequin, roi des ogres ou les bottes de sept lieux where Arlequin narrowly escapes being cooked and eaten by the ogres and is, in turn, offered his choice of dish by nationality (French, Spanish, Dutch) and by sex and profession (petit-maltre, etc.). A similar evocation of cannibalism is present in Les Aventures de Robert Chevalier in a satirical passage which imagines that if the Indians had discovered Europe they would have been greeted by people with very strange habits, not the least of which was to disdain eating those killed in battle. The justification in both scenes is worth noting as it demonstrates a similar concern:
ARLEQUIN: Que vous êtes barbares!
ADARIO: Moins que les autres hommes.
ARLEQUIN: Manager son semblable! Quelle cruauté!
ADARIO: Hé, n'en faites-vous pas paraître davantage, vous autres, lorsque vous égorgez d'innocentes bêtes pour vous nourrir de leur chair, après qu'elles ont labouré vos champs, après qu'elles vous ont donné leurs toisons pour vous couvrir? Nous, en mangeant des hommes, nous croyons en même temps purger la terre de mauvais animaux, de monstres pleins de malice qui ne songent qu'à nous nuire. Vous, qui pensez avoir en partage toute l'humanité, comment en usez-vous les uns avec les autres? Vous vous querellez, vous vous chicanez, vous vous pillez, chez vous le plus fort ôte au plus faible la subsistance, cela ne s'appelle-t-il pas se manger?
Il est naturel qu'ils [les sauvages] tuent leurs ennemis [ … ] pour quelle raison voulez-vous qu'ils ne les mangent pas? Trouverions-nous bien raisonnable, un chasseur qui n'ayant jamais vu que des perdrix rouges, n'en tuerait pas une grise qui viendrait dans son canton, ou qui l'ayant tuée, et la voyant grosse et grasse, l'enfouirait plutôt que de la manger?
The final sentence of the play is practically a summary of Lesage's view of society and the manner in which he portrays it in his works. The passage in the novel is followed by a critique of the violence, inhospitality and religious intolerance of Europeans in the style of Les Letters persanes.
Not only do people seek to devour each other, but they are devoured by their passions. Lust is a metaphoric dog which bites his victim who, in Les Enragés, suffers 'distemper' or 'rabies'. In Gil Blas passion is 'une maladie qui vous vient comme la rage aux animaux' (GB.i. 178). When pushed to excess, even noble sentiments like justice become bestial and grow claws (T.ii.56). In Gil Blas, vanity causes Séphora to become enraged 'à un point que, si vous [Gil Blas] ne sortez au plus vite de ce château, sa mort, dit-elle, est certaine' (GB.ii. 16). In Les Enragés a poet is put in a cage, so poisoned is he by his own venom. 'Morbleu!' cries he, 'si je les tenais ces beaux Messieurs les Quarante! Morbleu! si je les tenais, comme je les croquerais!' (F.vi.94).
The animality stresses man's consuming passions, his brutality, violence and cruelty. Yet at the same time, the constant reference to man as animal adds an element of realism to a novel replete with mythological references and to a theatre whose stage is crowded with gods, fairies, demons and other exotic personages. Lesage stresses repeatedly the fact that man must have some passions. He cannot live on water, but must have meat and wine. In La Tontine (T, ii.373):
AMBROISE: [ … ] faites-moi mettre à la broche une bonne oie.
M. TROUSSE-GALANT: Rien n'est plus indigeste.
AMBROISE: Donnez-moi donc des saucisses de cochon.
M. TROUSSE-GALANT: Cela sera trop salé.
AMBROISE: Trop salé, trop doux, trop cru, trop cuit; que diable voulez-vous que je mange?
M. TROUSSE-GALANT: Une once de fromage mou [ … ] avec deux ou trois verres de tisane hépatique.
AMBROISE: Je suis mort. Je suis enterré.
And in Gil Blas (GB, i.138-39):
Mais s'il [le docteur Sangrado] nous défendait, à la servante et à moi, de manger beaucoup, en récompense, il nous permettait de boire de l'eau à discrétion [ … ] après avoir été huit jours dans cette maison, il me prit un cours de ventre, et je commençai à sentir de grands maux d'estomac, que j'eus la témérité d'attribuer au dissolvant universel et à la mauvaise nourriture que je prenais.
In Les Aventures de Robert Chevalier the hero nearly dies twice from lack of meat and wine. He attempts to subsist on grass and leaves and water and becomes ill. As we learn in the 'hermit's' dissertation on food in Gil Blas, delicate meats and exquisite stews inspire sensuality and corrupt natural, pure taste. On the other hand, a crust of bread and water are not sufficient to sustain life. Gil Blas has to learn to balance his diet. He goes from extremes, enforced hunger (due to poverty) to over-consumption (due to greed) to a desire to return to absolute simplicity (due to disgust). This last desire is in the end moderated by Scipion's advice that they sufficiently arm themselves against hunger in order to render their retreat pleasant. This change in diet parallels Gil Blas's development from deceived to deceiver to one aware of deception but able to accept it—he has two children 'dont je crois religieusement être le père' (GB.ii.486). Gil Blas is at first victim of the strong, then one of the victors. At the conclusion he withdraws from the world of the consumer with a large enough supply of experience and nourishment for his now reasonable desires.
In concluding this section, let us examine a few favourite expressions repeated in both theatre and novel to demonstrate the remarkable similarity between the two genres. In the theatre Lesage says that a painter who lodges in a cabaret is 'comme un poisson à l'eau' (F.ix.451). Arlequin amorously sighs in La Queue de la vérité to Zaïde, 'Hélas! éloigné de vos yeux j'étais comme un maquereau hors de la mer' (F.iv.194). Gil Blas thinks to himself when he has found a comfortable position: 'à juger sur les apparences, tu seras dans sa maison comme le poisson dans l'eau' (GB.ii.99). Copies or mimics are repeatedly classed as monkeys as we note for example in Le Diable boiteux (DB.ii.262) and in Le Traître puni where Don Garcie says to Don André, in an enthusiastic outburst on their friendship: 'Enfin, vous êtes le singe de mes actions et je crois que si je me perçais le sein de mon épée, vous seriez tenté d'en faire autant.' Don André's valet, in an ironic aside, replies, 'Oh! pour cela non. Voilà ce que le singe ne feroit pas sur ma parole' (T.i.13). Don André is both too reasonable and too vicious to be a singe. Don Garcie, in his naïve ardour, fails to recognise the serpent behind his mask. In speaking of the Baron's advice about women, Beauchêne says, 'il me semble que le Baron est comme ce rat, lequel ayant perdu sa queue, voulait persuader aux autres animaux de son espèce que les queues ne faisaient que les embarrasser, et qu'ils devaient tous s'en délivrer' (B.ii.121). However, in La Queue de la vérité we find the same animal appendage serving a much nobler purpose in a rather ignoble, mixed metaphor: 'Ah! si tous les souverains avaient une semblable queue, ils manieraient bien le gouvernail de leur empire! Qu'ils éviteraient d'écueils avec une pareille boussole!' (F.iv.217). It is the equivalent of Diderot's speculation on the state of a world where all philosophers would be kings and kings philosophers. In this second example, the monkey's tail is a symbol of truth and the king did not wear it but used it in the same manner as the magic ring in Les Bijoux indiscrets. Another recurrent image is that of the turtle doves symbolising the happy marriage. In both theatre and novel the image is employed satirically, for, in Lesage's world, there are few virtuous people and consequently, few happy couples. In Les Aventures de Robert Chevalier Dame Bourdon marries a giant, devil of a woman with one eye to a mere slip of a man, a petulant tailor, because she is sure that he 'n'osera souffler devant sa femme, quand une fois il aura connu de quel bois elle chauffe'. This way she is sure they will not fight and gives her blessing to these two tourterelles (B.ii.12-13). Prior to their violent argument over the number of years they have been married, M. and Mme Pépin ironically swear, in Le Tableau du mariage, that they have always lived together in peace (F.ii.310):
M. PEPIN: Mme Pepin est une franche brebis.
MME PEPIN: M. Pepin est un vrai petit mouton. Il y a trente-huit ans que nous vivons ensemble comme deux tourterelles.
In La Pénélope moderne Olivette swears her loving fidelity to her absent husband: 'Je veux toujours, dans ce château / Gémir en chaste tourterelle, / En attendant mon tourtereau.' The valet, Pierrot, informs us, 'Je ne suis point la dupe de cette Tourterelle-là. Je la vois un peu trop souvent prendre son vol du côté du jardin où Groscolas notre jardinier [ … ]' (F.vii.8).
The list of repetitions could be endless but even this brief example reaffirms the correspondence between the two genres and it signals the fact that Lesage's menagerie is both limited and domestic. The list of dramatic personae in the theatre and of characters in the novels does not include exotic beasts. The use of common animals to represent people brings them close to home even when they wander abroad. The same animals represent people of every class and profession making their appetites and failings universal. Lesage was obviously not seeking new and brilliant metaphors. He was attempting to be realistic and easily comprehensible. The theatre audience had to capture the essence of the character in a brief time on a single verbal cue. The animal metaphors and metonyms are for Lesage a kind of shorthand he employs to describe in one word the distinguishing traits of the character. Like the masks and costumes in the theatre, these zoological sallies provide an instantly recognisable caricature of the personage. Finally, they lead us to note that most frequently caricature is a substitute for character in Lesage's works.
The references to mankind as a menagerie of rapacious animals echoes a similar usage to be found in the works of three authors of the preceding century. On the one hand, these images are reminiscent of La Bruyère who speaks of 'des loups ravissants, des lions furieux, malicieux comme un singe' [quoted in Les Caractères (1956)]. Lowering man to an animal level, removing his rationality and making him prey to his passions is a typical device of the satirist. Lesage's humanity is well armed with tooth, claw and horns: 'Un cocu, Monsieur, est tout le contraire du coq. Le coq a plus d'un coq' (F.iii.241). However, we must agree with both Charles Lenient who states: 'les loups, les singes et les vautours tiennent une assez large place dans le monde qu'il [Lesage] nous décrit, sans leur en garder trop de rancune' [quoted in La Comédie en France au XVIIIe siècle (1888)], and with Lester Crocker who sums up the question in the following sentence: 'In Gil Blas as in Le Diable boiteux, Lesage portrays men and women as a compound of good and evil, animals in the main, but having truly human potentialities that are sometimes realised' [quoted in An Age of Crisis]. The satirist's vision is black and white, Lesage's is chequered, more droll than bitter. He invites us to laugh with him at his characters in their motley garb, not at ourselves.
We turn thus from satire to comedy and find another forerunner of Lesage in Molière who also used these images in his theatre. For example, Philinte exclaims in Le Misanthrope:
Oui, je vois ces défauts dont votre âme murmure
Comme vices unis à l'humaine nature;
Et mon esprit enfin n'est pas plus offensé
De voir un homme fourbe, injuste, intéressé,
Que de voir des vautours affamés de carnage,
Des singes malfaisants, et des loups pleins de rage.
[quoted in Oeuvres complètes, 1971]
Molière is usually less cynical and simply states in Tartuffe, for example: 'L'homme est, je vous l'avoue, un méchant animal' [quoted in Oeuvres complètes]. It is nearly an understatement when the situation in which it was uttered is considered. Lesage's novels are more closely related to comedy than to satire. While satirical elements are present, the overall effect is comic. As F. C. Green has noted in his comparison of Lesage and Smollett, Lesage's observations, unlike those of Smollett, are made from a certain distance. Lesage shows us life as a comedy of errors, full of faults. He was neither an optimist nor a pessimist: he was a realist. He realised that society could not be changed. In that sense he is neither reformer nor revolutionary. When Gil Blas develops a conscience, he does not become a crusader; he withdraws from society. Although Lesage was cynical, he did admit the possibility for improving human nature by controlling (moderating) the passions. We might recall that Don Cléofas has seen all of three cases of happy love and at least one virtuous woman: 'Elle se débarrassa de ses mains, et ce qui jusqu'alors n'était arrivé à aucune fille; elle sortit de ce cabinet comme elle y était entrée' (DB.i.170) This sentiment is echoed in the preface to Turcaret:
il y a de fort honnêtes gens dans les affaires; j'avoue qu'il n'y en a pas eu trés grand nombre, mais il y en a qui, sans écarter les principes de l'honneur et de la probité, ont fait actuellement leur chemin et dont la Robe et l'Epée ne dédaignent pas l'alliance. L'auteur respecte ceux-là. Effectivement il aurait tort de les confondre avec les autres. Enfin il y a d'honnêtes gens dans toutes les professions. Je connais même des commissaires et des greffiers qui ont de la conscience.
[quoted in Pizarro's Lesage]
Likewise in Roger de Sicile and in La Statue merveilleuse a virtuous, faithful woman is found (albeit after a long search). In Le Traître puni the exception to the rule is again applauded: 'Je sais bien qu'il y en [des femmes] a dont le coeur et la tête tournent à tout vent comme une girouette; mais il en est aussi de moins changeantes et de vertueuses' (T.i.8). Mercure appears on stage just before Pandore opens her famous box in La Boîte de Pandore and tells us that we are about to witness what may be the last example of innocent love on earth. Lesage takes care to document these exceptions.
The inhabitants of Lesage's menagerie are a mixture of caricatures of contemporary figures (Voltaire, Law, Lecouvreur) and characters from 'le monde bariolé de la Régence: traitants, gens de robe, abbés, valets, joueurs, agioteurs, Normands, Picards, robins' [quoted in Chaponnière's 'Les comédiens de moeurs du théâtre de la foire']. What is remarkable is that Molière's types such as Tartuffe, representing a vice, have been replaced by a social class represented by an occupation. Turcaret became a type, but a social type, by definition anchored in an occupational category. He is greedy and cruel but so are all of the other characters. Their passions (animal appetites) are fed by their desire for social mobility. In Le Diable boiteux the intendant dreams happily that he is getting rich while his master is ruining himself. In Turcaret Frontin does not dream, he acts. Few characters wish to remain in their present condition. The financier (le cochon) in Les Animaux raisonnables is an exception: 'Je veux rester cochon toute ma vie, c'est ma première vocation, [quoted in Chaponnière's 'Les comédiens de moeurs du theatre de la foire']. The more common case is given expression by Crispin who says, 'Que je suis las d'etre valet! Ah, Crispin, c'est ta faute, tu as toujours donné dans la bagatelle, tu devrais présentement briller dans la Finance. Avec l'esprit que j'ai, morbleu, j'aurais déjà fait plus d'une banqueroute' (T.ii.105). Even in jail Robert Chevalier struggles to be 'le coq des prisonniers' (B.i.129-30). In the Théâtre forain, Arlequin would be a vrai petit-maître if he had more money (the key to social mobility) (F.i.296). Likewise, Gil Blas, when serving a petit-maître, apes his airs and is told by a friend 'que pour être illustre, il ne me manquait plus que d'avoir de bonnes fortunes' (GB.i.238). Since this meant an affair with a lady of quality, it involved acting the part of a wealthy noble, his master. However the deceiver in this case is also deceived and his wealthy beauty turns out to be an actress (he was so occupied playing his role that he did not perceive her mask) who informs him that 'tu es en homme ce que je suis en femme' (GB.i.245). The society painted is extremely mobile. Not only do valets replace their masters, but in Zermine et Almanzor, the supposed shepherd is king while the princess turns out to be a shepherdess. In the constant struggle for upward movement, characters risk imprisonment. The images of cages, cells and caves oppose those of freedom which is expressed in terms of motion. Gil Blas travels when he is his own master. In Le Théâtre de la foire the trip is often the pretext to seek freedom. For example, in Le Jeune vieillard Arlequin is obliged to set sail to liberate himself from the spell of an enchanter. In numerous plays, and in Le Diable-boiteux as well, the lover is obliged to travel to foreign lands to free his mistress who was kidnapped. In both genres the protagonists voyage to free themselves of the effects of their passions (usually the morose effects of a love scorned or lost).
Since the animals are rational, strength in the contest for power and position in society is measured not only in terms of physical prowess but also of intelligence or wiliness. Characters must perceive what animal is actually their opponent. The kite may hide his talons and appear to be a dove when attempting to obtain his prey.
La Fontaine is the third seventeenth-century author with whom Lesage's vision of society as jungle is comparable. Beaumarchais's observation could be conceived of as referring to Lesage: 'Dans la fable les animaux ont de l'esprit et [ … ] dans notre comédie les hommes ne sont souvent que des bêtes, et qui pis est, des bêtes méchantes,' [quoted in Oeuvres complètes].
When Lesage invites Momus on stage to speak to the Gent ratier (F.v.16), the reference is overt. Similarly in Le Diable boiteux we see a reference to actors as the Gent comique. (DB.ii.199) Lesage obviously sees some of his illustrations as fables in prose. For example in Gil Blas he refers to a previously recounted tale as 'la fable du cochon' (GB.i.270). In scenes of flattery, the parallel with the fable of the Fox and the Crow is evident. Crispin calls M. Oronte 'le phénix des beaux pères' (T.ii.158). Gil Blas, prey to a flatterer, relives the fable in its entirety. The fable begins 'Maître corbeau', a title already indicating the flattery intended. The parasite in Gil Blas commences his address in a similar fashion: 'Seigneur écolier' (GB.i.40) His use of savantissime reflects the superlative in the fable. Gil Blas, 'la huitième merveille du monde', ['le phénix des hôtes de ces bois'] is given the same lesson by his admirer as the crow in the fable: 'Soyez désormais en garde contre les louanges' ['Tout flatteur / Vit aux dépens de celui qui l'écoute']. However, unlike the crow who 'Jura, mais un peu tard, qu'on ne l'y prendrait plus', Lesage's hero pays the bill for his dinner 'dont j'avais fait si désagréablement la digestion' and continues on his way 'en donnant à tous les diables le parasite, l'hôte et l'hôtellerie' (GB.i.44). Unfortunately, Gil Blas does not learn his lesson that easily. He repeatedly falls victim to the same trap, learns to use the art of flattery himself, and finally recognises the dangers of playing the role of either the fox or the crow. While Lesage does not appear to attempt to preach the moral of the fable, he does not forget its existence. The continual reference to the animal world recalls the world of the fable. If Lesage is not a moralist, the world he describes is not a world without moral. Lesage read La Fontaine's contes as well as his fables. We note that entire plays like La Matrone d'Ephèse and Les Trois commères rely on La Fontaine for inspiration. His interest in the comic vision far outweighed his concern for moral predication.
A trait which Lesage shares with all three seventeenth-century authors is his portrayal of professional characters. While Dédéyan supposes Sangrado to be inspired by Molière, Green thinks that he is considerably modified by the influence of the Regency. The images of doctor, faussedévote, Tartuffe, lawyer, and author are common to all four authors. The variations are slight. However, it should be noted that Lesage's Sangrado also has his parallel in the theatre. For example, M. Trousse-Galant who appears in both L'Obstacle favorable and in La Tontine, expresses the same faith in bleeding and purging as Sangrado. M. Galbanon in Les Enragés demonstrates a similar confidence in the marvellous qualities of water. All lose cases in strikingly similar circumstances. All are unreasonably stubborn in following their precepts despite the disastrous results. The obvious ridicule of a M. Trousse-Galant, diagnosing the malady of a young man as pregnancy, demonstrates the satire to which this profession is exposed through these caricatures. Examples of the similar attitudes of these characters may be easily found:
Sangrado: Gil Blas, under the influence of this doctor, says, 'Le désagrément que j'avais eu chez l'épicier ne m'emêpcha pas d'ordonner dès le lendemain, des saignées et de l'eau chaude.'
La Tontine: The apothecary says to the doctor: 'Je n'ai pas bonne opinion de cette tisane rafraîchissante que vous me faites faire pour les Pleurétiques.' The Doctor replies: 'Effectivement, en voilà douze qu'elle emporte, sans compter M. Bonnegriffe [ … ] Un bon médecin va toujours son train sans se rendre à des épreuves qui blessent des principes établis et reçus dans l'Ecole.'
L'Obstacle favorable: When informed that 'M. le Bailli empire à vûë d'oeil, depis la chienne de drogue qu'ous li avez fait prendre [it is the servant who speaks] (F.vi.281), the doctor increases the dosage.
The main characters have more in common than their travels and appetites. Both are comic heroes. For example, Crispin refuses to fight just as did Gil Blas. They are both cowards. Crispin says to his opponent: 'Me prenezvous pour un Cid?' and accepts whatever insults his opponent wishes to offer him (T.i.323). Similarly Gil Blas reveals that 'je me sentis tout à coup siasir, comme un héros d'Homère, d'un mouvement de crainte qui m'arrêta. Je demeurai aussi troublé que Pâris, quand il se présenta pour combattre Ménélas' (GB.ii.13) He replaces his sword and decides to talk rather than fight. Here, the reference to great heroes in both cases makes the protagonist smaller and more humble.
The portraits of actors are again similar. The actresses possess the universal talent of pleasing men in public and ruining them in private. Their mores are questionable and their relationship to authors remains far from satisfactory. In novels and plays the opinion expressed about curés is the same. However, the references to them in the theatre are all indirect. There is not one who actually appears on stage. Other characters speak of them. In Crispin, rival de son maître, for example, Crispin has a letter in his pocket which was addressed to 'M. Gourmandin, Chanoine' (T.ii.13) This reminds us of the Chanoine Sedillo who left Gil Blas two books: a cookbook and a treatise on indigestion (GB.i.136). All priests like good food in copious quantities, in Lesage's universe. Like professions some nationalities have a specific character. Germans (DB.i.23) become Swiss on stage. They are drunkards, described in a word by their appetites for liquid nourishment.
Lesage paints a picture of the society of his day. It is no wonder that the characters in both genres which describe the same world would be similar. The characters exercise the same professions; their motivation is universal and their unscrupulous means of obtaining their ends are common coin.
The plays and the novels are further related by similarity in situation and incident. In both, disguises (male as female, female as male), serenades under balconies, kidnappings abound. The plot of La Princesse de Chine is the same as that of the story of the Prince Farrukrouz and Princesse Farrukhnaz (the hero becomes deranged on viewing the princess). The plot of Les Mariages de Canada recalls the intercalated tale in Les Aventures de Robert Chevalier in which those who arrive in Québec have marriages arranged for them by a lady who distributes her stock of 'merchandise' (women) according to her whim.
Similar situations arise too frequently to take note of them all. However, in Le Diable boiteux we observe a youth who is described as follows: 'C'est un nouveau marié. Il
y a huit jours que sur le rapport qu'on lui fit des coquetteries d'une aventurière qu'il aimait, il alla chez elle plein de fureur, brisa une partie de ses meubles, jeta les autres par les fenêtres, et le lendemain il l'épousa' (DB.i.299). This certainly recalls Turcaret who goes to great expense to redeem himself for his fit of anger during which he broke the Baronne's dishes because he believed Marine's report. Le Traître puni features two friends as rivals as in Le Diable boiteux. In the same play we see a scene involving a nocturnal entrance into the bedchamber of a sleeping damsel which is similar to that in Gil Blas (GB.i.382). The woman ruining the rich financier to enrich a young lover is repeated in Le Diable boiteux, Turcaret, Gil Blas and the Aventures de Robert Chevalier. The noble who becomes jealous of a citizen who appears richer than he is common to Achmet et Almanzine, the Contes persans and Gil Blas. The liberated captive who returns to discover some changes in his domestic situation is found both in Le Diable boiteux and La Pénélope moderne. The presence of so many similar and repeated incidents and characters may stem from the fact that Lesage often used the same sources for his inspiration in both the theatre and the novel.
The transfer of Lesage's dramatic style to his novels has often been noted. Green signals the absence of many descriptive or digressive passages and the preponderance of verbs—'doing words' [quoted in Minuet]. Dédéyan remarks: 'Enlevons les dit-il, les répond-il, les j'expliquai, les je répondis, et nous aurons constamment dans Gil Blas de remarquables monologues ou dialogues de théâtre' [quoted in Lesage et Gil Blas]. As the theatre presents a rapid succession of portraits in review, so in the novel do we find the same technique. An example is the series of portraits sketched at the home of the Marquise de Chanves. In both genres, they are satiric and rely on the exaggeration of a single trait, often an animal appetite, to achieve their effect in a swift movement.
This brief survey tends to bear out the initial premise that the theatre shares a great number of similarities with the novels. The question which remains is, does the theatre shed any further light on the novels? Is it a key to understanding their meaning and composition?
On the level of composition, a reading of the theatre brings out in a more striking fashion the dramatic nature of the novels. The technique of the author who speaks in Le Diable boiteux recalls the stage director and the dramatist conscious of the requirements of his audience. Lesage sets the stage rapidly and focuses on the dialogue. Portraits are painted through dialogue or action and the action in the novel repeats that of the theatre. The slapstick chamberpot which lands on Gil Blas's head is reminiscent of that worn by Arlequin in Arlequin, roi de Serendib. Gil Blas's stealthy and comic exit from the home of Dona Mergelina, for example, reads like a scenario for a stage presentation. The juxtaposition of gross appetites and literary and mythological metaphors creates humour in both genres. The animality of man is rendered in each case by simile and a sustained metonymical system. The use of proverb and fable renders the works more familiar and personal.
On the level of ideas, the theatre does offer, in a sense, a key to the novel. The key lies in the preponderance of references to man as a voracious animal. He is seen as a rational animal prey to appetites of lust, interest and vanity. Carried away by these, he loses his capacity to reason and vies for power, money and social status like an animal without a conscience. Lester Crocker says correctly that the majority of the inhabitants of the world of Lesage bear out Hobbes's phrase: homo homini lupus. However, happiness lies in overcoming the passions and living under the discipline of virtue. For Lesage this discipline is attained in a state of voluptuous repose like that advocated by the proponents of la philosophie naturelle. It is the median between indifference (boredom) and passion. It lies in moderation which brings physical health and spiritual tranquillity. Pleasure is good while ambition for glory and money are rejected. The reduction of man's mental processes to elements of simple sensations reflects the philosophy of Hume. However, Lesage separates reason and passion. In his view, man must satisfy the physical desires. Gil Blas is neither a hermit nor an ascetic. The pleasures of the table and his chosen society allow him to exist in a state of repose and control his passions. Thus we see that while Lesage does reduce man to an animal, he also retains the possibility of man's transcending this nature. Like La Fontaine, he saw man engaged in a power struggle in which the strongest would rule. Both authors, nonetheless, retained an ideal. They each saw true friendship, true love and noble, faithful sentiments as a possibility. They retained an essentially comic vision of the world. If La Fontaine saw his fables as an 'ample comédie à cent actes divers', the same could be said of Lesage's novels. La Fontaine was criticised by eighteenth-century fabulists for placing the value of amusement before that of instruction. La Motte even speculated that the fabulist had gotten so carried away with the joy of narration that he neglected the moral. La Fontaine, he suggested, wrote the fable and later attempted to find a moral to suit it. Lesage's compositions might follow a similar pattern. At times the author seems to be so intrigued with his adventure story that he neglects to stop for reflection. Like his heroes whose peregrinations lead them across vast and often imaginary spaces, the author becomes occupied with providing food and lodging, necessary to sustain them. Yet the moral of moderation (virtue) is visible throughout the several volumes of Gil Blas and in the individual plays in microcosm. Two patterns repeat themselves with only slight variations. Arlequin finds himself in the lap of luxury, his life is subsequently imperilled, and finally he accepts an intermediate, reasonable level at which to find happiness. The second pattern involves a true lover, separated from his mistress by a series of obstacles which, once overcome, will allow them to live happily. The two patterns in the theatre reflect the two poles of Lesage's writing: realism and a kind of romantic escapism. Like the fairy tales then in vogue, Lesage's works blend fantasy and reality producing a release for the reader/spectator which allows him to view the real world from a new perspective and appreciate the satirical elements inherent in the works. Within the pattern, the encounter of a bumbling and lusty Pierrot and the omniscient enchanter, Merlin, carries on the clash of opposites, providing dramatic tension. The reader is at once invited to enter a fantasy world and to return to a supremely real world where man's faults are magnified. The effect is like looking through a pair of bifocals or through both ends of the telescope at once. Lesage continues the use of contrast in juxtaposing utopia and reality. In Le Monde renversé every aspect of the perfect society is juxtaposed with its counterpart in the real world. The same technique is used in the Aventures de Robert Chevalier where the ideal society is created by the Indians and is contrasted to a very satirical vision of European civilisation. The juxtaposition of contrasting elements and ideas: domination/submission, male/female, freedom/incarceration, vice/virtue, deceit/disclosure, illusion/reality are typical of Lesage's Spanish predecessors in the picaresque novel. They are also effective tools for satire. Man is caught between these poles. When he gives in to his appetites, he becomes consumed by them and is their victim. He is like the young girl in Les Routes du Monde. She must choose her path in life: le chemin de la vertu (a rocky path), le chemin de la fortune, or le chemin de la volupté. She is completely free to make the decision by herself, just as Pandore in La Boîte de Pandore is at complete liberty to open the box or to leave it closed. In both cases the temptations are stronger than the influence of the parents. Indeed, they are so inviting that it would be the rare human who could resist. However, once the step is taken, it is difficult to return to the path of virtue. Once initial innocence is lost, it can never be recaptured. However, serenity can be found as we see with Gil Blas in his second marriage and with Mezzetin in Les Mariages de Canada. Mezzetin is accorded his first wife in a second marriage and left to learn love: 'Dans un dé ert, où la Nature ne fournirait pour nourriture / Que de l'eau claire et du pain, / Un amant avec sa Maîtresse / Oublierait le genre humain. / Contentement passe richesse' (F.ix.360). This idea is frequently repeated. Love and friendship are pure emotions and do not require the excessive alimentation necessitated by passions which lead men to lose their rationality and become carnivores without conscience.
The separation between rationality and animality is pointed out in Le Diable boiteux where we learn that 'c'est vers la pointe du jour que les songes sont plus vrais, parce que dans ce temps-là l'âme est dégagée des vapeurs des aliments' (DB.i.185). We see Gil Blas looking for pure, simple nourishment. This reflects his desire to remove himself from the temptations of society which he has begun to recognise as the false road to happiness. Yet, separating himself from this way of life does not necessarily lead man to happiness. He can be haunted, like the comte-duc d'Olivarès. When the passions have been fed beyond a certain extent, they in turn devour man. Gil Blas is never corrupted so thoroughly that he cannot return to virtue and honesty. He is proud of the fact (GB, ii.9):
Je pouvais faire ce coup [voler de l'argent] impunément, je n'avais qu'à voyager cinq ou six jours, et m'em retourner ensuite comme si je me fusse acquitté de ma commission. Don Alphonse et son père n'auraient pas soupçonné ma fidélité. Je ne succombai pourtant point à la tentation; je puis même dire que je la surmontai en garcon d'honneur. Ce qui n'était pas peu louable dans un jeune homme qui avait fréquenté de grands fripons.
The iron grip of habit, the power of vice, is evidenced as well in Crispin, rival de son maître where Crispin and La Branche fall on their knees to implore their masters' leniency and compassion. 'Franchement la dot nous a tentés. Nous sommes accoûtumés à faire des fourberies, pardonnez-nous celle-ci à cause de l'habitude' (T,ii.189). The guilty parties are rewarded with wives and a fortune. Like the ridiculous Venus in disguise, Mme Turcaret, the vicious are rendered foolish but they are not overly punished. The audience is invited to forget Turcaret's problems with the law and to laugh with the marquis: 'Ah, ma foi, chevalier, tu me fais rire, ta consternation me divertit, allons souper chez le traiteur, et passer la nuit à boire' (T.ii.374). A certain distance is always maintained. The spectator is ever to laugh at the foibles of the stage personalities. The finger of condemnation is never pointed specifically at the spectator. In this respect Lesage is like La Fontaine. Neither accuses his reader of having the faults criticised. Like La Fontaine, if La Motte's accusation has even an element of truth, Lesage is more conscious of entertaining than educating. Gil Blas is not a Bildungsroman and there is no development in character throughout the many volumes of the theatre. Arlequin and Gil Blas may learn to modify their behaviour but they remain human animals. The only difference between them is that, with each play, Arlequin begins with a clean slate. Gil Blas, on the other hand, retains the lessons of his experiences (albeit often ill learned) from one chapter to the next. Virtue is a discipline, like regulating one's diet. It is a difficult task to accomplish when one is a hungry animal in a world of tempting dishes. In both theatre and novel when the hero strays from the path of virtue and is caught with his face besmeared with cream, we laugh with Lesage.
If the theatre is a key to the ideas contained in the novels, it is perhaps first of all because it reminds us that Lesage's vision is essentially comic. The key is universal and it unlocks a stage door which carefully distinguishes the space between spectator and scene. In both genres the structure is linear and the social movement is vertical (the rise of Frontin and the fall of Turcaret). The plot patterns, situations, characters and even bits of dialogue found repeated in both genres give emphasis to the theme of man as beast whose appetites, sex and interest, cause him to vie for a position of dominance in a society which values power, money and sexual gratification. In turn man is prey to his bestial passions. If he succeeds in dominating them, he will be rewarded with repose and happiness and the feat will undoubtedly be recorded in Asmodée's memory.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3346
SOURCE: "Impact," in Crispin rival de son maître and Turcaret, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1987, pp. 76-84.
[In the following essay, Evans explores the comic impacts of Crispin, Rival of His Master, and Turcaret, finding the former primarily a farcical piece, and the latter an ironic social commentary.]
If in previous chapters we may have seemed to stress similarities of method in Crispin rival de son maître and Turcaret, this should not lead us to forget that even plays using broadly similar structures and techniques can have quite different overall impacts. In general terms, the nature of the comic impact will initially depend on whether the laughter is felt to be more or less an end in itself or whether it is harnessed to other purposes, whether we simply delight in watching the comic sparks fly or whether, as in satire, we are called upon through the laughter to make a judgement of sorts on what we are shown. Our reaction to the classic comic incident involving someone slipping on a banana skin will depend on who falls, in what circumstances the fall takes place and whether the result is bruised buttocks and hurt dignity or a broken spine and total paralysis. In other words, the nature of the comic impact will depend on the nature of the characters involved and on the context, consequences and outcome of the comic action.
In Crispin rival de son maître there are some lines which assume the character of social satirical sallies of a rather general kind. This is the case when Crispin says to himself, 'Ah, Crispin … tu devrais présentement briller dans la finance. Avec l'esprit que j'ai, morbleu, j'aurais déjà fait plus d'une banqueroute' (2,1-5), when La Branche says of Damis, 'S'il est sage, Madame! Il a été élevé avec la plus brillante jeunesse de Paris' (8,18-19), or when he comments on Orgon's lawsuit with the remark that 'la justice est une si belle chose qu'on ne saurait trop l'acheter' (10,20-21). Such lines, which are fairly rare, are nevertheless for the most part incidental, and any attempt to give social satirical force to the play as a whole is certainly to distort its effect. Crispin rival de son maître is a relatively unalloyed comic piece, a version of farce even if the comic agilities are more intellectual than physical, more verbal than knockabout. This appears to have been the view of the contemporary audience, if we accept the (not always reliable) evidence provided by the Frères Parfaict's commentary on the play's reception in their Histoire du Théâtre Francais: 'la comédie de Crispin rival fut regardée comme une farce … Crispin rival ne présente qu'un petit évé ement, et qui ne peut intéresser que par la force du comique, qui règne dans cette pièce du commencement à la fin.' But its particular character can be judged if it is compared with another, more recent description of one of the fundamental forms taken by farce: 'The simplest kind of farce requires little more than a suitable victim, a practical joker and a good idea for a prank … one clown says to another, "Let's do the old man" or "Let's do the old man again" and the farce moves forward. At this level, farce is very little removed from ordinary circus clowning … without any particular purpose being served by his (i.e. the victim's) humiliation.'
Of course, Crispin and La Branche are more than mere pranksters, even if the former does have a bright idea and the latter's willingness to get involved stems in part from a kind of aesthetic appreciation of the 'beau coup à faire'. They are more p¯caros than practical jokers; they hope to get more than fun out of their trickery. And yet they do not represent any real threat or danger to the social fabric. The title of the play may be arresting; in genuine social terms its content is a good deal less daring. The two rogues, we might remember, have only re-entered service because they have come to grief in their criminal ventures, and Crispin's real complaint—one not shared by La Branche, notice—is that he happens to be serving a master whose lack of funds prevents him from enjoying the style of life to which he (and, no doubt, his master also) would like to become accustomed. So, in their scheming, these servants seek merely to profit, not to usurp. If they had succeeded in obtaining some ill-gotten gains from their schemes, they would have been content to skip the country, and they are more than happy when a 'legitimate' outlet can be found to satisfy their ambitions. There is nothing subversive in any of this.
Furthermore, neither the rogues' self-seeking nor the victim's potential loss have the stature and substance to warrant the kind of highly aggressive treatment which sets out to provoke outrage or indignation. The stakes are neither high enough nor made real enough for that. Combined with this is the fact that the outcome of the play is not disaster and the humiliation of persons, but an ironic happy ending which depends on the schemers' integration into society being viewed with wry worldly amusement, and certainly not with real concern or bitterness. Such an ending is merely the splendid, theatrically appropriate final twist given to this self-contained comic tale: it exploits the generally accepted view of the world of finance without constituting any serious or significant comment. For Lesage and his audience, if not for the rogues, fun is the major objective in Crispin rival de son maître.
If Crispin rival de son maître has been widely appreciated for the deftness of its comic structure and the slickness and humour of its dialogue, the range of critical opinion regarding the impact of Turcaret is broader and more varied, as the review of reactions given in Lawrenson's edition reveals. Opinions differ as to the overall character of the play and to the relative emphasis to be placed on the non-satiric and the satiric aspects. There is also disagreement about the scope and the tone of the satire. More recent descriptions of the play have tended, rightly in my view, to highlight the more frankly entertaining aspects, that is, the wit and irony of the dialogue, the essentially comic nature of the characterisation and the structural fun provided by the action. Nevertheless, many critics would still wish to stress the boldness and bitterness of Lesage's attack on the financier, or to point to the absence of sympathetic characters—a feature of the play which has clearly disturbed a lot of people from the period of its first performances onwards—in order to underline the somewhat grim, even pessimistic view of social life which, it is claimed, underpins the play and gives it a rather unattractive atmosphere.
There can be no doubting the particular pointedness of Turcaret in its own day. The play's power to offend financial circles has been cited as the cause of the difficulties Lesage had getting it performed and, if we are to believe the Critique, led to presence of cabals at its first performances. No wonder then that the author felt obliged to defend his play against charges that it discredited all financiers. The arguments he used to do so are deliberately related to what Lesage clearly regarded as the respectable and successful precedent set by Molière when he was called upon to defend one of his 'dangerous' plays, Le Tartuffe:
ASMODEE. … c'est aujourd'hui la première représentation d'une comédie où l'on joue un homme d'affaires. Le public aime à rire aux dépens de ceux qui le font pleurer.
DON CLEOFAS. C'est-à-dire que les gens d'affaires sont tous des …
ASMODEE. C'est ce qui vous trompe; il y a de fort honnêtes gens dans les affaires; j'avoue qu'il n'y en a pas un très grand nombre; mais il y en a qui, sans s'écarter des principes de l'honneur et de la probité, ont fait ou font actuellement leur chemin, et dont la Robe et l'Epée ne dédaignent pas l'alliance. L'Auteur respecte ceux-là. Effectivement il aurait tort de les confondre avec les autres. Je connais même des commissaires et des greffiers qui ont de la conscience.
DON CLEOFAS. Sur ce pied-là, cette comédie n'offense point les honnêtes gens qui sont dans les affaires.
ASMODEE. Comme Le Tartufe [sic] que vous avez lu, n'offense point les vrais dévots. Eh! pourquoi les gens d'affaires s'offenseraient-ils de voir sur la scène un sot, un fripon de leur corps? Cela ne tombe pas sur le général. Ils seraient donc plus délicats que les courtisans et les gens de robes, qui voient tous les jours avec plaisir représenter des marquis fats et des juges ignorants et corruptibles. (29-51)
In such a defence, depending as it does on claiming that only the offensive could feel offended, there is, to be sure, a healthy measure of the tongue-in-cheek, as is shown by the ironic touches (e.g. 'j'avoue qu'il n'y en a pas un très grand nombre', je connais même des commissaires et des greffiers qui ont de la conscience'). It was no doubt true that financiers were in reality as mixed a bunch as the merchants, who, as Niklaus has shown, would in a few decades' time become mythologised as figures embodying all the finest qualities of the 'enlightened' hero. Nevertheless, the vulgar, the crooked and the heartless had sufficient reality to make them serious targets, especially in times of economic hardship, even if one might suspect that Lesage's initial conception did not owe too much to the spirit of daring originality and downright denunciation.
Be that as it may, Turcaret does, of course, involve the exposure and downfall of a financier; for him the outcome is but the culmination of the whole series of humiliations and embarrassing revelations to which he is subjected throughout the play, and there is for him a real disaster to cap it all. Moreover, unlike Crispin and La Branche, Turcaret is a worthy subject for such an attack because he has no redeeming features and, more important, he has the power to affect people's lives for good or ill. His wealth gives him an authority and influence which are respected even by those who otherwise despise him: he remains Monsieur Turcaret until the end. Although we do not see anyone suffering at his hands on stage, we learn enough about his treatment of others not to treat him as an inconsequential figure. He is indeed knavish enough to warrant being made a fool of. But because the principal methods used against him by Lesage are ridicule and discomfiture, it is natural that Turcaret is made to appear more emphatically a fool than a knave in his behaviour. Indeed, … the attack is carried out by giving Turcaret a number of those general characteristics (vanity, self-importance, pretentiousness, gullibility, etc.) which comic characters often have. Yet a number of critics have been unhappy with what they see as an unsatisfactory contradiction between his success as a financier and his obvious foolishness. While this criticism is perhaps based on rather dubious 'realistic' grounds, it must also be said that within the play Turcaret himself admits, not without a touch of typical boastfulness, that, in financial circles,
un bel esprit n'est pas nécessaire pour faire son chemin. Hors moi et deux ou trois autres, il n'y a parmi nous que des génies assez communs. Il suffit d'un certain usage, d'une routine que l'on ne manque guère d'attraper. Nous voyons tant de gens! Nous nous étudions à prendre ce que le monde a de meilleur; voilà toute notre science.
Moreover, it is very much part and parcel of the irony involved in the attack that the failings and limitations of his own character should help to ensure his disgrace. As we are constantly reminded during the course of the play, his use of power and influence is strictly related to his own personal needs and desires, that is, to his need to appear to be what he is not (well-bred, cultured, tasteful, perceptive, etc.), but most especially to satisfying his sexual desires. As Flamand reveals to the Baronne,
le commis que l'on révoque aujourd'hui pour me mettre à sa place, a eu cet emploi-là par le moyen d'une certaine dame que M. Turcaret a aimée et qu'il n'aime plus.
Rather than the emphasis being put on the grim unpleasantness of such self-centredness, this is shown to be the source of the character's foolishness, as his own sister points out,
c'est un vieux fou qui a toujours aimé toutes les femmes, hors la sienne. Il jette tout par les fenêtres dès qu'il est amoureux: c'est un panier percé … il a toujours quelque demoiselle qui le plume, qui l'attrape.
This kind of concentration on the inherent comedy of Turcaret's character clearly focuses the attack on the personal nature of the corruption and abuse. There is no radical political edge to it. Even if some of the social consequences of the economic system in force in the France of the day (including an impoverished nobility and a good deal of social mobility due to the importance given to money) are present as part of the general atmosphere of the play, the targets are not tax-farming as such, or the wider economic system which could allow such a figure as Turcaret to prosper. It is for this reason, indeed, that Turcaret is not so tied to contemporary issues that it remains fixed in its own time. Turcaret's foolishness and its consequences survive and retain their comic form as does the whole pattern of the action in which the satirical elements are integrated.
For it would be wrong to reduce the whole play to being an attack on Turcaret alone. It if were, his downfall alone would be enough to complete the pattern. But his exposure is largely conducted by people whose own behaviour does not leave them immune from attack or, like Madame Turcaret, are his match when it comes to foolishness. The other principal characters may show some degree of intelligence and certain verbal skills lacking in Turcaret, but they too are (comically) hampered by their own passions and over-confidence. Indeed, they form with Turcaret a continuous chain of intertwined knavery and foolishness, thereby giving the play its particular consistency. This is also helped by the concentrated setting admitting no intrusions from, or excursions to, a wider outside world. There are no truly innocent victims in Turcaret, but neither are there completely unblinkered rogues. All the characters inhabit the same comic world where lack of total awareness and a greater or lesser degree of credulity lightens the unpleasantness. Here too the structure and outcome of the play are informative. As we saw, characters other than Turcaret are exposed and their purposes frustrated, even if the collapse of their schemes does not take the conclusive form that Turcaret's downfall does. The complete failure of the Baronne and the Chevalier depends not only on Turcaret's fate, but upon Frontin's seeming success. But by getting the money and seeing himself as a replacement for Turcaret, Frontin hints at a continuity, even a recurrent cycle of events, with all that that implies for his future in turn.
It is for such reasons also that it would be unwise to jump too readily to the conclusion that the absence of 'good' characters reflected a pessimistic view of life or even a cynical acceptance of the way of the world. Although the ending of the play may not point to any major correction of the world which is represented, it does not mean that the writer endorses, or even tolerates, the rogues' view which dominates the action. It is not Frontin who has the last laugh, it is Lesage, if we respect the final irony. And if Frontin believes that cheating and being cheated adds up to a complete picture of 'le train de la vie humaine' and that you can only 'beat them by joining them', we do not have to share that opinion. Indeed, only those who do not share it can appreciate the full ridiculousness of a world based on such views. Here again, the absence of moral characters within the play does not mean the absence of values and countervailing assumptions about the necessary basis of true social behaviour. If the cynical viewpoint is the one which underlies the conduct of the characters, the writer nevertheless relies on the audience being aware of other values and assumptions. Even if they have no clear spokesman or spokeswoman in the play, these values and assumptions are indirectly, and sometimes comically, alluded to. For instance, in her complaints about her brother's fraternal and marital behaviour, Madame Jacob refers us to a quite different emotional world of human relationships. Indeed, Turcaret's callousness can only be properly registered by the implied allusion to other, opposite qualities.
However, it is perhaps the Marquis who, in his own frivolous way, is the most interesting figure in this context. He has a certain attractiveness which the others do not have. This is in part due to the fact that he does not stand to benefit from the financier's ruin, in part from the detached amusement with which he seems to view himself and others. To this extent he offers a standpoint from which to judge the other characters. Of course, the detachment is still only partial in his case. His cruel treatment of the Turcarets, for example, is clearly inspired by a need to avenge himself. Nevertheless, when, in a parody of the strong-willed hero of Corneille's tragedies, he encourages the Chevalier to give up all claims on Madame Turcaret by commenting that 'il est beau de se vaincre soi-même' (V,11,15), he unwittingly points to what is indeed the only real possibility of salvation or reform for all the characters in this grasping, hedonistic world.
What leads the characters to 'defeat themselves' in the comic sense is the fact that they cannot overcome their own desires. Their failure to do so is the source of both their perversity and their absurdity. In Turcaret we are shown how self-centred materialism and pleasure-seeking lead people to prey upon one another and turn them into victims of each other. In such a world 'fourberies' will inevitably ricochet. Abusers attract abusers, and thus viciousness becomes a sort of self-defeating folly. It is a farcical form of social life which has no true social relationships, no social cement. It is the ironic concentration on the ludicrous consequences of such an unstable world which prevents the excesses of selfishness and hedonism from being merely disgusting or dispiriting.
This is not to claim that in Turcaret Lesage is necessarily saying that the whole of his contemporary society is like that, or that the play's value lies in its 'presentation of a vast and corrupt society': the range of characters and the scope of their activities would seem to be rather too narrow for that. What the play does show, in its unmoralistic way, is that if and when social behaviour follows such lines, it becomes ridiculous. This comic insight will remind us that the play is informed by a set of humane values, based partly on the classical virtue of lucidity, about oneself and others, of which irony is the natural expression, partly on the bourgeois certainty of the need for selflessness in private relationships and probity in public ones. If these values remain outside the world represented in Turcaret, their absence highlights the unsavoury follies which result. In the end, this is what takes Turcaret beyond the entertainment of Crispin rival de son maître and beyond dated topical attacks on tax-farmers and a section of early eighteenth-century society, so that it becomes an ironic comedy about social life which can still speak to us.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4760
SOURCE: "Crispin's Inventions," in The Attraction of the Contrary: Essays on the Literature of the French Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 73-82.
[In the following essay, Rex investigates the role of vraisemblance—or the appearance of truth—in Crispin, Rival of His Master, proposing that "the whole text is a forgery to make us believe in ersatz imitations."]
Even before Hegel had given the theme such a grandiose philosophical setting in his Phenomenology, numerous individuals in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had been aware of the special importance of the master-slave (valet) relationship for the literature of Enlightenment, and today it has become a commonplace of theatrical criticism to cite the developing drama one observes in the social oppositions, as one goes from Molière to Beaumarchais, that is, from the fascinating complexities in the tensions between master and valet as depicted by the greatest writer of the seventeenth century, to the end of the trail, which is the revolutionary impudence that explodes in Le Manage de Figaro (1784). Unfortunately for literary historians, however, in between these poles the course is anything but steady, and "progress" toward the emancipation of the valet at the master's expense is anything but regular. In Marivaux there is positive backsliding, while the author dallies and toys with the possibility of raising the valets out of their menial positions, only to lock them finally into a social machinery whose functioning assumes they will be content to stay in their place as inferiors. In a playwright such as Le Sage we find a different sort of muddying of the waters: this author, fully aware of the social potentialities of the situations he creates, nevertheless appears to be taking perverse enjoyment in deliberately refusing to let his master-valet relationship produce the kind of contrary tension these elements would develop later—despite a grandly deceptive hint in the title that they would do just that. To be sure, with this clever and calculating author one must ever be on one's guard against being taken in. But before entering into the details of the matter, the discussion must move just a bit further upstream.
Playwrights seeking to subvert or enliven life's banalities in eighteenth-century France could draw on a whole battery of clown characters for their comedies—most of them Italian, and deriving specifically from the commedia dell'arte traditions. But two very famous clowns were French: Pierrot, who was so popular he has survived until today, albeit now endowed with romantic traits he did not originally possess. And then, Crispin, who originated in the seventeenth century, maintained a respectable following in the eighteenth, and is still remembered, chiefly because Alain René Le Sage immortalized him in one of his most accomplished creations at the Comédie Française (before his famous move to the foire): Crispin rival de son maître. This play, staged while Louis XIV was still alive (1707), is an amazingly bold work of social criticism, as scholars have already noted. In terms of theatricality it is also extraordinarily interesting, as I hope to suggest.
What a sordid plot! Valère, the handsome, young, aristocratic suitor, is apparently motivated solely by money as he goes after the rich man's daughter, Angélique. At least this is what his valet, Crispin, says to him, and he doesn't protest in the slightest. For the rest, hounded by his creditors, Valère has already resorted to the most tawdry devices to get cash: using a wealthy Marquise's affection (lust?) for him to pay an alleged debt to his tailor, when actually he and the tailor are in league to bilk her for all they can; dishonest manoeuvers to borrow money against dubious collateral…. Morally, he is no better than his own quite unscrupulous valet, so that it is hard to feel indignant when we find Crispin scheming with another servant-friend, La Branche, to betray Valère, and get rich themselves.
At this point the plot gets a little complicated, by modern standards. No doubt we should have been raised on the knotty tangles of the pretenders to the Spanish throne, c. 1701, as Le Sage's generation had been, or, at least, have spent our childhoods watching the fantastic complications of the comedies at the foire. To enjoy Le Sage's play, one has to be ready to swallow anything, and fortunately, as the play proceeds, the impudent buoyancy of the author's style lifts us effortlessly over all the plot involvements.
Thus far we have encountered only one pair of lovers: aristocratic, debt-ridden Valère, and rich, bourgeois Angélique; meanwhile the two valets, Crispin and La Branche, are busily scheming to get the money for themselves. Actually, they intend to capitalize on a situation so perfectly suited to their talent for creative improvisations one would think fate had deliberately placed it in their path: Angélique has had another suitor, in fact a fiancé, named Damis, who lived in Chartres. This pair had been as good as married: contracts had been drawn up; all that remained was the paying of the dowry. But then, suddenly, the fiancé reneged: Damis found himself forced into a shot-gun wedding with a noble lady from Chartres whom he had gotten pregnant (an occurrence that is repeatedly brought to our attention during the course of the comedy). In fact, La Branche had been sent from Chartres to bring the urgent message that the wedding with Damis had been called off because the groom was already married to someone else. The contracts were to be annulled, and the obviously large dowry would not be coming out of the coffers.
This was what set Crispin's fertile imagination to work: suppose he, Crispin, were to impersonate the erstwhile fiancé and pretend he had just arrived from Chartres to marry Angélique? The wedding was scheduled for that very day; La Branche even had the groom's wedding attire with him. It was merely a question of putting on the clothes and getting through the few hours before the dowry was counted out, at which point he (perhaps accompanied by his accomplice, though this is not so sure) would slip out of town and head for the border.
It is clear that this extravagant scheme—in the play's own terms—could never have succeeded, and Crispin's clownish make-up and costume constantly showing through the groom's clothing are reminders of the fact that the impersonation can't work. Obviously, Valère will recognize Crispin and tell everyone that he is not Damis; furthermore, Valère is a close friend of Damis who had informed him by letter of his marriage to the other girl in Chartres; besides, Damis' father is about to arrive in town to convey the news of the annulment in person; we note too, that Angélique didn't even want to marry the real Damis (whom she had never seen), and her objections are likely to grow far stronger when confronted with this vulgar clown who spends most of his time flirting with her mother. In addition … But why go on? The humor and dramatic interest of the comedy lie in watching the doomed, but sometimes inspired, efforts of the two valets to stave off the mountainous evidence pressing more and more weightily on the fragile surface of their unlikely bubble that by all the laws of reason should have popped long ago and exposed them for what they were: fakes.
What saves them time and again in the various crises that dot the action of the play turns out to be the laws, written and not written, of vraisemblance, a notion that, like so many literary phenomena in the eighteenth century, was turning unexpectedly problematic. The word itself meant literally, of course, giving the appearance, or illusion, of truth, and everyone agreed that it was essential to any idea of theatricality. According to the grand classical tradition, it was assumed that vraisemblance reflected the truths of nature at the same time as it followed the rules of art, each having equal importance in the production of the whole. This combination of nature and art was thought to explain the extraordinary integrity we experience in the greatest dramatic poems of Racine and Corneille. In the eighteenth century, the concept was becoming unbalanced, shifting generally in the direction of all the rules, contrivances, and formulae that were thought to compose an "art." (Critics find these easier to talk about than the elusive qualities of nature; minor authors like to cling to them.) In extreme cases, playwrights seemed to feel that, natural or not, anything could be made believable (vraisemblable) provided the right rules were being observed.
No doubt the "doctrine" of vraisemblance had numerous components and definitions, and it might be approached from several different points of view, but judging by the practice of eighteenth-century playwrights, one of the ingredients thought to be most essential in producing vraisemblance was consistency. Put bluntly, it was their conviction that if each line spoken by each personnage was entirely consistent with the character he or she was supposed to be, and also with the given dramatic situation (no easy task), this would infallibly produce the illusion of truth, i.e., vraisemblance, and at the same time the audience would be bound to believe in it. There is a real shift in emphasis here, if one looks back to the preceding century. Certainly, in Corneille and Racine consistency in this sense was assumed to be necessary, and classical authors were ready to justify their characters' behavior according to this criterion. But in the age of Voltaire the rules of consistency became to a greater degree the means by which the illusion was attained.
Today we are not always so impressed with the results: consistency spreads like some awful pall over Piron's empty tragedy, Gustave-Wasa, whereas in its day this work was highly respected, perhaps actually enjoyed, and certainly thought to be a well-sustained dramatic illusion. Even if one takes the most successful eighteenth-century tragedy, Voltaire's Zaïre, one senses how much the author is banking not merely on the powerful set of characters he has created, and on the pathos of his heroine's plight, but on the seamless consistency of every line spoken: perhaps if the consistency is totally airtight, sheer lack of oxygen will keep the audience from rising in rebellion against the unlikelihoods of the basic plot.
O rage! O désespoir! O vieillesse ennemie!
moans the helpless father of Corneille's most famous hero, in a scene everyone who went to the theatre in the eighteenth century knew by heart.
… ô trahison! ô rage! / O comble des forfaits!
moans the equally helpless hero of Alzire (II, 6) by Voltaire. As readers of Voltaire's tragedies had long been aware, examples of such much-too-close-to-be-coincidental imitations of Corneille or Racine are legion, and one of the many reasons Voltaire was so eager to fit these hemistichs from famous classical plays into his own dramatic system was that, provided he could have the lines spoken in dramatic contexts resembling those created by the original authors, their efficacy was proven. Though their power might have dimmed slightly with the passing of time, these lines were magic formulae that could invariably be counted on to light up and sustain his own dramatic illusions with tested vraisemblance. Needless to say, Voltaire saw to it that they were so exactly, so marvelously suited to the theatrical situation he was creating, the audience had no choice but to go along.
Actually we have not wandered so far away from the topic at hand as it might appear, for in our comedy by Le Sage, the valets, Crispin and La Branche, are playwrights, too, of a sort, staging their own—very unlikely—illusion for the other characters. Just as in a tragedy, the fiction on which these two "authors" rely is that if only they can present their deceit in a way that has internal consistency (thus producing vraisemblance) the other characters have no choice but to believe in it; their "audience" will automatically be hoodwinked. The trick is to find just the right words at the right time. If they can, the valets will have total control over the illusions they are creating, no matter how objectively absurd the whole contraption may appear to us—the very real, sophisticated spectators who see behind everything, of course.
Surrounded by so many sharp pins of reality ready to prick the bubble of their deception, their task is not easy. Let us consider, for example, Crispin, appearing for the first time in the groom's finery, nervously engaged in finding suitably flowery compliments with which to greet his pretended parents-in-law-to-be, just as the real groom would have done:
Ma joie est extrême de pouvoir vous témoigner l'extrême joie que j'ai de vous embrasser.
he declares to the father of the bride, barely making it to the end of the sentence, coming close to bogging down permanently in his compliment. One more "extrême joie" or "joie extrême" and he would have looked like a fool. Of course his mistake was in throwing all the logs on the fire at once: "joie" already goes pretty far, and "extrême" is by definition perched on the outer edge and leaves no room for further advance. Perhaps he will be doomed to spend the rest of the scene revolving round and round with the same immutable adjective welded, bonded, cemented to the noun that says it all. But fortunately for him, no one ever notices his near blunder, first, because he diverts attention by flirting with the mother of the bride, and second, for the very good reason that, even though he almost gets stuck with them, he has found two words that were just exactly right for the situation, so that no one has any choice but to believe they emanate from the person for whom they are so well suited: a real groom.
Also helping him through this difficult moment was another critical element working in his favor, namely, the fact that he knew quite precisely the kind of words he was expected to say, the kind of syllables he was to pronounce. This was an advantage he sorely missed, a moment later, after La Branche had left him alone with the bridal party, in order to arrange for the horses to assure their getaway (it always tempts fate, to count the chickens before they are hatched). Suddenly the father of the bride inquires about the lawsuit the real groom's father has been deeply involved in. Lawsuit? Crispin finds himself obliged to manufacture syllables relating to a complicated situation he never heard of. Since La Branche is not there to help, he has to brazen it out, and wisely realizes that the best way to get rid of this uncomfortable topic, and put it behind him, is to pretend the suit is over. He simply announces that the suit has been won—and the strategy works like a charm. Not only the father of the bride, but the mother, too, declares herself most satisfied to hear the good news. Crispin is just in the clear when unfortunately he makes the mistake of not leaving it at that. Perhaps he feels it is a little early to drop this obviously consequential topic, or perhaps he suffers a spell of overconfidence. Whatever the reason, he finds himself improvising further reflections on how much it meant to his father to win, how much money it had cost, but then (fatal garrulousness, that, given the crook saying the words, is just asking heaven for trouble), justice is such an excellent thing, it's worth any price…. Whereupon, he utters one syllable that looks so innocent it couldn't hurt anyone, but which suddenly rears up and throws his whole feigned identity into jeopardy: he refers to the alleged opponent in the lawsuit as "[le] plus grand chicaneur [ … ] de tous les hommes." "Men???" But the real opponent in the real lawsuit was a woman. The real father made that very clear, so what is he talking about? Suddenly all is crisis.
Actually the situation is not hopeless, if only because Crispin has learned, albeit through a dangerous blunder, a magic syllable—femme—that he can attach to his phras es, and that will brighten everything with vraisemblance. All he needs is a verbal extension cord; even "homme" will light up, too, as we see:
Oui, sa partie était une femme, d'accord, mais cette femme avait dans ses intérêts un certain vieux Normand qui lui donnait conseils. C'est cet homme-là qui a fait bien de la peine à mon père [ … ]
The point is that, provided one observes the main law of vraisemblance, "homme" is just as serviceable as "femme." In fact, since both of them are the merest illusions anyway, they are actually interchangeable. Any word would do: even "chien" might have been used instead, if only Crispin had known enough about the "real" lawsuit to make it fit. The play's verbal surface is so thin, meaning is so lacking in depth and weight as to skim off into meaninglessness.
In this connection, if one wanted to pick out the single most important trait of this comedy, perhaps one might choose slipperiness, for, even in the language of the play, the syllables are constantly sliding in and out of place, just as "homme" slides in for "femme," and then Damis, the suitor from Chartres, slips in and out of the wedding (and into bed with another girl at the last moment), while Crispin tries to slip into his place, and into Valère's place, alternating giddily between fake suitor and valet. Aristocratic Valère slides far down the social scale in his sordid conduct, as we saw (his name almost rhymes with "valet"), while the real valet, La Branche, sliding up the scale, describes his recent fourberies using a précieux language that makes him sound positively upper class. And frictionless substitutions are everywhere in this well-oiled comedy: naturally the two valets can change places whenever they wish, one taking over for the other, but even the mother of the bride—whose youth obviously belongs to a distant past—can stand in for her daughter, blushing prettily at the fake groom's compliments, and acting positively nubile when he assures her he would have preferred her instead.
In the supple manipulations of vraisemblance, one of the most daring strategies is invented by La Branche to get himself out of an especially tight corner (scene 14)—a problem, incidentally, that the audience could see coming for some time. We had already learned that Valère was supposed to be personally acquainted with Damis, who had informed him by letter of his sudden marriage to the other woman in Chartres. Naturally we expect that Valère will tell Angélique that Damis is already married—so she is free to marry him, Valère. Naturally, too, the father of the bride will be informed of the other wedding, and will confront La Branche with the facts and denounce him as the deceiver he is. This is the tight corner mentioned above.
Faced with the father's accusation, La Branche first pretends that, far from admitting guilt, he cannot even understand what the father is talking about. This rather weak ploy fails; indeed the father threatens to summon the police commissioner, a clear and present danger that inspires La Branche to reach new heights of invention: just who was it, he asks the father, told him about Damis' marriage to the girl in Chartres? Valère? But of course, that explains everything: Valère is himself in love with Angélique and wants to marry her. He dreamed up the false story and forged a letter to make it seem plausible. Enter Crispin, who plays along, adding that Valère did it all to get the dowry. Everyone knows about Valère's debt; the creditors are pounding on the door. Meanwhile, there are roars of laughter from La Branche (What a devil, that Valère!), grand hilarity from the father (Imagine that young fellow thinking he could put something over on a clever person like me!); and rather nervous spasms of laughter from Crispin (Ha! Ha! Ha! But it was a close call, and the news about Damis' wedding may cause trouble yet!).
La Branche's strategy flawlessly conforms to the laws of vraisemblance. First, his story all hangs together because there is so much allegedly certifiable "truth" in it. Most of the events "really" happened that way: indeed there is supposed to be a suitor; in fact, there are supposed to be two suitors pursuing Angélique. There is a forged document making it all seem possible, too (just like the text of the play by Le Sage). The father is being hoodwinked into a false belief (not unlike the audience in the theatre), just as La Branche stated, and Valère is depicted as being in debt, and hence very interested in the dowry. Of course, much of the "truth" of the story applies to themselves, the valets, rather than to Valère; it is essentially the tale of their own fourberie, "falsely" attributed to Valère, that La Blanche is relating. But actually it doesn't matter to whom, if anyone, the events "happened." It suffices that they have the ring of truth. Since the vraisemblance is flawless, the success is assured: the indignant father on the spot wants to advance the hour of the wedding, so as to thwart Valère and his creditors all the sooner. But the supreme masterstroke comes from Crispin, who even manages to convince Valère that the letter from Damis doesn't actually say what in fact it actually says. Illusion is so rampant, no one can know any more where the "real" truth lies.
To give another example: in a later scene (18), the two valets are discussing their getaway plans (a fateful topic that has already brought on one mishap, as we saw). Has La Branche procured the horses? He has. Crispin suggests that the Flanders road is the one they should take. Meanwhile La Branche stares off distractedly into the distance. No doubt he is looking in the very direction of their escape, imagining Crispin and himself on those galloping horses, money bags clanking with coinage, going so fast they're already just a speck in the distance … When suddenly the dream of their departure reverses itself and comes back toward them, walking on two rather elderly feet, coming right onstage. The speck in the distance La Branche has been staring at has turned into M. Orgon, La Branche's employer from Chartres, Damis' father, who has come to Paris expressly to break off his son's marriage in person. Obviously if the father of the ex-groom meets the father of the bride, the game will be up, and the two valets perform prodigies of ingenuity to keep each out of sight of the other. But their efforts are useless; they are beaten before they start: the two fathers' names are Orgon and Oronte, no one can keep that straight, or apart. They belong together, in fact they are virtually identical, so that it's the most natural thing in the world when, at the end of the play, Orgon slips into Oronte's place and takes the other man's wife off to the dance.
But the most curious illustration of slipperiness comes in scene eight, where La Branche tries to hand over to the father of the bride a forged letter supposedly written by Orgon in Chartres. This bit of écriture is a key piece in the construction of the illusion the valets are creating because it allegedly identifies and authenticates Crispin as the groom to be and gives a plausible explanation for Orgon's absence from the wedding of his own son. (He allegedly has the gout, which also is supposed to explain why the letter is written in an écriture so trembly it can hardly be deciphered, much less compared with any other specimen of his handwriting.) But oddly, at this critical moment, La Branche, three times in a row, either hands over, or almost starts to hand over, to the father wrong letters—letters addressed to other persons, for other purposes. It's a droll scene, to be sure, when the father, expecting an envelope addressed to himself, bearing his identity, is suddenly brought up short by:
A Monsieur Craquet, médecin dans la rue du Sépulcre
which brings on the inevitable joke about a doctor making his residence in the same quarter as his patients.
Again, La Branche pulls out a wrong envelope:
A Monsieur Bredouillet, avocat au Parlement, rue des Mauvaises Paroles
And there is still a third:
A Monsieur Gourmandin, Chanoine de …
Critics have been somewhat embarrassed by this part of the scene. The jokes on the envelopes are rather low comedy—one-liners; they interrupt the action, and they are certainly gratuitous.
But perhaps that is just the point, for these letters don't belong in this comedy at all. They suggest, in fact, other fictional possibilities, other plot situations, other texts, écritures, that, had the envelopes been opened and the letters actually read, might well replace the fictions at hand. Again there's a slightly uneasy feeling about the momentary slippage, about a play whose main plot is so loosely tied into place, whose characters are so inherently light-weight—wobbly and inconsequential, like the weak-headed mother of the bride—it wouldn't matter very much if they sailed off into other situations and other identities. It begins to seem as if everything in this play, from the syllables, words, and sentences, to the characters, the exposition, and the outcome, might change places with something else, and this implies a curious system of values working throughout the comedy in which everything is equal.
Perhaps not quite everything. For one factor at least seems to be standing against the leveling forces in this brilliantly conceived comedy: after all, the valets have deliberately created false roles for themselves. Crispin is not the fiancé he claims, and La Branche, too, knows who is lying. Surely the one element that cannot be abolished or interchanged is the basic opposition between the "real" characters supposed to be concerned with real weddings and real sons and daughters, and these mystifying clowns who knowingly put on masks and hoodwink for purposes that are quite different from the motives they feign.
This may seem like solid ground, yet even here the distinctions break down (ultimately there are no distinctions in this play, even the one between male and female is in jeopardy): for when the bubble finally bursts and both valets' vraisemblance-producing syllables run out, when the jig really is up and the culprits are forced to admit their guilt and tell the truth about themselves, we suddenly find that, on the flimsiest of pretexts (it's all supposed to be a gesture of gallantry toward the giddy, vain mother of the bride) the valets have been not only pardoned by those they have deceived, but instantly welcomed into the fold as business partners, friends, allies, virtual members of the family. So that, at the end, the deceivers collapse into the deceived, and from the celerity and ease with which it happens one can only conclude that there never had been any real differences between them in the first place. Indeed nothing remains standing, the whole play has deconstructed—not that we have any time to think about it. For already the characters are going off to the wedding festivities, the curtain at the Comédie Française is falling, and the applause of the (at last) real audience reminds us that it was all fakery, anyway, fraudulence, clowning. The whole text is a forgery to make us believe in ersatz imitations, a pack of cards.
If one were still writing amid the critical modes of the 1960s or 1970s it might make a fitting conclusion to this discussion to observe that Le Sage's consciousness of the void beneath the words, constructing and deconstructing the scenes, makes his art seem astonishingly modern. But now that we are in an era more sympathetic to history, the emphasis naturally shifts: we move beyond the problematic confinements of language to note how many of the play's most ingratiating qualities depend on its origins in a time quite unlike our own, and also, how well this playful approach to illusion and theatricality at the Comédie Française was preparing Le Sage for his starring role as impudent librettist at the foire.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4971
SOURCE: "A Comic Novel," in Gil Blas, Grant & Cutler Ltd., 1988, pp. 45-58.
[In the following essay, Cook examines the comic elements in Gil Blas by concentrating on several targets of the novel's satire—including the judicial system, the medical profession, and the theatrical world—and the title character's encounters with their intrinsic hypocrisy and artificiality.]
If Lesage's novel can still be read with pleasure today it is essentially because of the author's comic vision. Lesage managed to produce a work which is both general and specific in its comedy, treating both types and individuals, dealing with what is comic in reality and producing imagined scenes of wit and insight. The ironical position of the narrator is one obvious source of comedy: we laugh at Gil when he expects us to, but we also laugh when he expects it least. Lesage sees that the world is intrinsically comic: people take themselves too seriously and appear not to understand that others see them as part of the human comedy. Lesage's vision of humanity leads, naturally, to satire—of types, institutions and of real characters. At the same time the narrator's perception of reality will introduce comedy which is part of the observation of the real world. Comedy represents the unifying tone of the novel; it is not surprising that, in a comic novel, even the serious and tragic tend towards comedy, since the reader is expecting a sudden surprise or trick on every occasion. It is hard to take the serious seriously.
The most obvious element of comedy in the novel is that which satirises the medical profession. There is a clear debt to Molière in the presentation of characters who ask fortunes to kill off their patients. Sangrado plays the largest part in this satire; the language Gil uses to describe his activities is extravagant and indicative: 'Ce savant médecin avait l'extérieur grave. Il pesait ses discours et donnait de la noblesse à ses expressions. Ses raisonnements paraissaient géométriques, et ses opinions fort singulières' (p. 82). The reader smells a rat! We sense hypocrisy, deceit and trickery, but Gil, at the moment of the experience, appeared less aware of the reality than he does now, in retrospect. Clearly we laugh at Sangrado but we also laugh at Gil.
Sangrado's pompous pronouncements on the nature of the human being make us, as readers, immediately suspicious: 'C'est une erreur de penser que le sang soit nécessaire à la conservation de la vie. On ne peut trop saigner un malade' (p. 82). His medical philosophy is to drain the body of all its blood and to replace the blood by water. Not surprisingly, his success rate is low, and Gil soon realises the nature of the universal panacea and appreciates that with such a simple philosophy he too can become a doctor and, eventually, earn a fortune. Which is what he intends to do, at least until his life is threatened and he abandons his promising medical career. Now, later, Gil appreciates the inefficacy of Sangrado's cures. At the time, however, he was not able to perceive the reality which is only too clear to us: 'Comme je n'étais qu'un jeune médecin qui n'avait pas encore eu le temps de s'endurcir au meurtre, je m'affligeais des événements funestes qu'on pouvait m'imputer' (p. 99). The double perspective of Gil then/Gil now heightens the comedy for the reader. We care little for the unfortunate patients who are expedited to an early grave. They are purely functional beings who have no place in our range of sentiments. But Gil, to his credit, expresses some concern.
If Sangrado were the only doctor involved in this satire we might conclude that Lesage is simply trying to introduce a scene which is intrinsically comic. But he goes one stage further. When Gil, much later, retraces his footsteps, he returns via Valladolid and finds Sangrado drinking wine, something which he had expressly forbidden. Sangrado knows he is caught out, but manages a comic response; he has found the perfect compromise: he dilutes his wine with water ('mon vin est bien trempé', p. 469).
On practically every occasion in the novel when Gil or anyone has recourse to a doctor we find a brief, critical remark decrying the 'profession'. So, for example, when don Alphonse is struck down by a fever which threatens his life, he survives because there were no doctors available (p. 308). When Gil is unconscious and treated, at great expense, by doctors he remarks, on recovery: 'je maudissais jusqu'aux universités où ces messieurs reçoivent le pouvoir de tuer les hommes impunément' (p. 377). There are similar, critical, remarks throughout the novel: pp. 180, 186, 224, 379-80, 455-56, 528, 534, and finally p. 601, when three doctors combine to kill off d'Olivarès and bring the novel to a conclusion. On one occasion only, in the story of don Gaston, can the medical profession be praised for its efficiency: 'Tout dangereusement blessé que j'étais, l'habileté des chirurgiens me tira bientôt d'affaire' (p. 443). Surgeons are not doctors, however, and cannot redress the balance of the novel as a whole. Lesage's repetition of the theme is, eventually, as comic as the theme itself. The reader comes to expect a critical remark in every appearance of a doctor, and he is seldom disappointed.
(ii) The Church
Such comedy can be described as traditional: it is not simply comic because of the nature of the profession but because behind the façade of a doctor we see a hypocrite. Much the same kind of analysis can be made for the clergy and the judiciary as they appear in the novel. Gil's uncle, a cleric, learns to read his breviary correctly for the first time while he is teaching Gil to read. The archbishopric of Grenada houses both 'vrais' and 'faux dévots', as Melchior de la Ronda points out to Gil (p. 324). And in Laure's story, in her description of Pedro Zendono, the steward of the hôpital de la Pitié, she remarks to Gil: 'Tu n'as jamais vu de face si hypocrite, quoique tu aies demeuré à l'archevêché' (p. 339). But the clergy are not important figures of satire. Lesage, like Marivaux in Le Paysan parvenu, was more interested in highlighting recognisable 'faux dévots' than in attacking the church or its beliefs.
The criticism of the judiciary in the novel is levelled more at the agents of the law than at the laws themselves or the judges who interpret them. Indeed, the satire here is comic only in that we see Gil becoming an innocent victim of forces greater than himself on occasions when he felt he had escaped. He is searched after his wrongful arrest when accompanying doña Mencia: 'ils vidèrent tout doucement mes poches et me prirent ce que les voleurs même avaient respecté, je veux dire les quarante ducats de mon oncle' (p. 57). When he is released from prison he remarks: 'Je ne me plains pas de la justice [ … ] Elle est très équitable. Je voudrais seulement que tous ses officiers fussent d'honnêtes gens' (p. 60). This satire of justice and the references we find elsewhere (pp. 94, 98-99, 286) tell us more about Gil's perception of human nature than justice itself. As Gil ages, so he realises that men are basically very similar: they wear different disguises but these appearances do not mask their real characters. The comedy of this form of satire is directed as much at Gil himself as it is at the apparent object of satire.
Gil's naïveté means that he is unaware of the corruption of the world and can fully understand it only when he is part of it. His changing status broadens his vision and introduces a vast range of satire.
(iv) The State
As secretary to the duc de Lerme, and, to a lesser extent, when he is secretary to d'Olivarès, Gil realises the power he can exert. He sells favours and soon amasses great wealth. Such rises to fortune were not unknown in the Regency. What Gil does not appear to understand, however, is that he is attempting, in his rise to power, to resemble those people he has served and despised. In satirising others, he is also satirising himself. Only after his imprisonment and disgrace is Gil lucid enough to state the lesson he has learnt: 'Les biens ne sont propres qu'à corrompre mes moeurs. [ … ] Les richesses sont un fardeau dans une retraite où l'on ne cherche que la tranquillité' (p. 461). Of course the state is not excluded from the satirical intentions of the author. But his real skill lies in his ability to satirise both hero and others simultaneously.
Lesage is at his best and most critical when satirising those elements of society he knew best: the world of literature and the world of the theatre. It is mainly through the character of Fabrice that Lesage introduces his presentation of the literary scene which allows a clear statement of his own prejudices and beliefs. There appears to be a constant, unifying theme that there is no reliable guide to literary quality: fashion, taste, self-interest and conceit all play a part in defining success, but, according to Lesage, quality and success should not necessarily be equated.
In the description of the salon of the marquise de Chaves (assumed to be the real-life marquise de Lambert (1647-1733) who was well known for her twice-weekly salon) Gil notices a disparity between the taste of the habitués and the general public. Comedy was generally despised:
On n'y regardait la meilleure comédie ou le roman le plus ingénieux et le plus égayé que comme une faible production qui ne méritait aucune louange; au lieu que le moindre ouvrage sérieux, une ode, une églogue, un sonnet y passait pour le plus grand effort de l'esprit humain. Il arrivait souvent que le public ne confirmait pas les jugements du bureau, et que même il sifflait quelquefois impoliment les pièces qu'on y avait fort applaudies, (p. 228)
One gets a very clear impression of satire here, of people, readers and critics, whose taste is based on prejudice rather than quality, to the detriment of comic authors like Lesage himself. The adverb 'impoliment' is crucial in this remark, suggesting, ironically, impudence on the part of the general public which has the cheek to disagree with the opinion of the few.
The consistent belief which Lesage appears to be putting forward is that good works will be harshly criticised while mediocrity will slip through unnoticed. So, for example, in don Raphaël's story, he explains how he became a poet: 'Je m'érigeai même en poète et je consacrai ma muse aux louanges du prince. Je demeure d'accord de bonne foi que mes vers n'étaient pas bons. Aussi ne furentils pas critiqués' (p. 281). Lesage is trying to state what appears to be a paradox which works to the detriment of quality and to the advantage of mediocrity. We can see that Gil Blas represents not only a comic vision of the world but a specific attack on certain prejudices and beliefs. It becomes a mouthpiece for Lesage himself. We are a far cry from the picaresque novel and much closer to a comic roman de mœurs.
When Gil meets Fabrice at court having lost sight of him after leaving Valladolid in a hurry, he is not told immediately of the important change which has taken place. Fabrice's new lot in life appears to be a happy one. His 'appartement' is, in fact, a room divided into four, reached by a dark and narrow staircase and decorated with maps and old theses. The bed is old and worn and the rest of the furniture is showing clear signs of age. We are kept in the same suspense as Gil. Fabrice appears to be happy, apparently unaware of the reality which surrounds him, yet which is perceived by Gil and which represents the only indicative descriptive reality of the novel. Finally, Fabrice announces his new occupation: he is an author! Moreover, he says, modestly(!), he is a good author. Gil is, not unnaturally, surprised at Fabrice's new condition. Fabrice soon explains how he came to write: he wrote a play which, on his own admission, was worth nothing but which was a great success. He concluded: 'Je jugeai par là que le public était une bonne vache à lait qui se laissait aisément traire' (p. 364). And so begins an important literary debate. Fabrice, like other authors, has an elevated view of himself. Gil is detached and ironic in his remarks and is allowed to comment on one of Fabrice's sonnets (one remembers Alceste's remarks on Oronte in Molière's Le Misanthrope). Gil finds the poem obscure and incomprehensible, to which Fabrice responds: 'tant mieux! Les sonnets, les odes et les autres ouvrages qui veulent du sublime ne s'accommodent pas du simple et du naturel. C'est l'obscurité qui en fait tout le mérite' (p. 365). Gil disagrees, of course, but Lesage has made his point. If the public is unable to distinguish between quality and worthlessness, it deserves all the bad authors who supply its needs. As we read the novel we get an ever growing impression that what Lesage is saying is that literary success is not a guarantee of literary quality. Other factors are at play: the literary world is a refined version of the real world where hypocrisy and pomposity are constant features.
When Gil dines with a number of poets brought by Fabrice he is led to the conclusion that 'la nation des auteurs est un peu vaine et glorieuse' (p. 412). Fabrice is no exception to this general rule, nor indeed are other writers as they are presented in the novel: the archevêque de Grenade (pp. 321-31), Gabriel Triaquero (pp. 483-85), don Ignacio de Ipigna (p. 533) and, of course, Gil himself, who is quite conscious of the excellent quality of his prose! ('J'étais devenu une espèce d'auteur', p. 358, and on page 550, his style is remarked upon by d'Olivarès.)
The world of literature is a world of hypocrisy and petty jealousy, a world of rivalry and antagonisms where literary quality appears unimportant. One senses an expression of Lesage's own views of the unjust treatment he felt he had received at the hands of critics. Fabrice, from this point of view, is an ideal character. He plays the part of a poet to perfection—perhaps he plays it too well since he takes himself seriously. But eventually his own opinion of himself is deflated. He finishes in the poorhouse: 'cette maison sert souvent de retraite aux beaux esprits' (p. 553). He has decided to give up writing poetry and to abandon the muses. He states, apparently unaware of the comic contradiction, 'quand tu es entré dans cette salle, je composais des vers pour leur dire un éternel adieu' (p. 554). As Laufer points out, Fabrice, at the end of the novel, has become the mouthpiece for Lesage himself: 'j'ai pris le public en aversion. Il ne mérite pas qu'il y ait des auteurs qui veuillent lui consacrer leurs travaux' (p. 554). The view expressed is one of bitterness and resentment. What Lesage appears to be saying is that contemporary popularity is worth little: it serves to bolster the pride of authors. But the only real guide to quality is that which is long-lasting, and this is something which contemporaries are ill-equipped to predict. It is also, of course, the perfect defence of an unsuccessful writer. The same idea is stated more pointedly, as we shall see, in the portrait of Gabriel Triaquero, normally considered to be Voltaire.
Fabrice makes a come-back, however. Don Bertrand Gomez del Ribero needed a poet to write his 'billets galants'. Fabrice got the job and is now prostituting his 'art' with considerable success. Moreover, his play, written on an idea inspired by his rich patron, was such a dreadful flop that don Bertrand, staggered at the bad taste of the public, had decided to reward the unfortunate author with a pension for life. As Fabrice now realises only too well, quality and success do not always go hand in hand. He is lucid enough at the end to conclude: 'les sifflets m'ont mis tout d'un coup à mon aise pour le reste de mes jours' (p. 562).
Scipion too remarks on the nature of fate which rewards mediocrity and is harsh towards quality (p. 562). The point has been made clearly enough and the personal nature of Lesage's novel is apparent through the character of Fabrice. His financial stability is short-lived, through no fault of his own, and he finishes his life in mediocrity, happy with his lot, living a life of independence and without ambitious pretentions. Fabrice's conclusions are not dissimilar to those of Gil himself. Chance and fate determine one's life, not merit and quality. In such a world ambition plays little part.
(vi) The Theatre
The novel is full of allusions and references to the world of the theatre, and there can be no doubt that there must be a relationship between this emphasis and the meaning of the text as a whole. It is apparent, throughout the novel, that Lesage is saying that the theatre is not simply to be found on the stage. Critics have disagreed about the significance of the theatrical elements.
Whatever meaning such episodes may have, one cannot escape the conclusion that the world of the theatre is, of all the worlds described by Gil, the one which appears to be most authentic and most personally motivated. It is, I think, the satire of the theatre and of actors generally which is the most effective. We see actors constantly criticising the authors who supply them with their conditions of livelihood. Book III, Chapter XI (pp. 171-74) is devoted almost entirely to an analysis of the relationship between actors and authors. At the end of the meal an author arrives: the company of actors treats him with scorn and obvious superiority. His reaction is one of fear and embarrassment. When he leaves, the conversation turns to more general comments about authors: 'Les auteurs sontils dignes de notre attention? [ … ] Traitons-les toujours en esclaves, et ne craignons point de lasser leur patience' (p. 174). Gil concludes the chapter with apparent objectivity: 'Ces histrions les mettaient au-dessous d'eux, et certes ils ne pouvaient les mépriser davantage' (p. 174).
It is apparent, throughout the novel, that Lesage bears a grudge against the 'official' theatre. The Théâtre du Prince (du Roi?) contains actors who deserve to be on the road but who have entered the troupe out of favour, as Melchior Zapata points out (p. 122). Don Pompeyo de Castro, an objective observer from Portugal, is asked to comment on the acting performance he has seen at the Théâtre du Prince. Fashion plays no part in his ambitions as he enumerates the actors and actresses he has seen, stressing particularly their inability to appear natural on stage. The audience, he maintains, is not always the best judge of quality ('Il applaudit même plus rarement au vrai mérite qu'au faux', p. 155), and he introduces the comic anecdote about the peasant and the pig (pp. 155-66).
In his presentation of the theatre Lesage is making the same general statement as the one he made about literature: There is no guarantee that merit will bring success. Actors and actresses have inflated views of their own importance; they are unable to see the true nature of the roles they are playing in society…. [It] is the theatrical
metaphor which points to the essential meaning of the novel.
(vii) 'Real' Figures
As I have already remarked, the illusion of Spain is constantly contradicted by allusions to French reality. The comic satire of littérateurs and comédiens is both of a general and a personal nature. The fictional characters introduced by Lesage have clear 'real' counterparts…. It is essentially, but not entirely, the world of literature, taken in its broadest sense, which provides these characters. The most obvious one, and the one which did most to harm Lesage's reputation, is Gabriel Triaquero, otherwise known as Voltaire. Voltaire, offended by his portrait in Gil Blas, accused Lesage of having taken the novel entirely from La vida del escudero don Marcos de Obregón and the accusation was not fully dismissed until some one hundred years later, in the edition of the novel by the comte de Neufchâteau. It is not surprising that Voltaire took exception to his portrait. Gil goes to see the first performance of a play by this 'poète à la mode' (p. 483). The theatre is fully booked in advance, such is the reputation of Gabriel, and the play is, of course, a resounding success. The author goes 'modestement' from box to box to receive his praise (p. 487). After the performance Gil returns to dine at don Alphonse's palace. There is one dissenting voice from the praise heaped on the new play: a 'gentilhomme de Madrid, qui avait de l'esprit et du goût' (p. 484). Clearly his opinion is going to be significant: he wishes to reserve his judgement. Quality is not apparent simply from one performance of the play, he claims. The play must be read if its full value is to be appreciated. The implication is, very clearly, that Gabriel is praised too readily out of pure fashion. Another cavalier disagrees: 'Il suffit que nous sachions que c'est une production de don Gabriel pour être persuadés qu'elle est sans défaut' (p. 484). The gentilhomme de Madrid, prompted by the ridiculous statement of the cavalier, starts to criticise the play with severity: 'C'est un poème farci de traits plus brillants que solides. Les trois quarts des vers sont mauvais ou mal rimés, les caractères mal formés ou mal soutenus, et les pensées souvent très obscures' (pp. 484-85). Lesage is careful to assert that his critic is both intelligent and of good taste. His remarks are damning indeed, and Voltaire would have felt peeved with reason. The most successful tragedian of the period was being humbled by a writer of novels and comedies, and called, no doubt much to his distaste, 'ce nouveau nourrisson des Muses' (p. 485). Lesage's short chapter no doubt expresses his own jealousy of Voltaire's success, and at the same time he underlines the view that while fashion may define success, literary merit will lie with posterity. One might conclude that Lesage was at least partly justified: Voltaire's tragedies are rarely performed or read today.
Lesage uses Gil Blas to express a satirical view of his own dislikes and antagonisms. The characters we can now identify would have been immediately recognisable to a contemporary readership, but the novel can still be enjoyed even if the 'real' characters remain purely fictional. One of the most striking portraits in the novel is the one of Carlos Alonso de la Ventoleria (pp. 171-72), given by Laure, who is said to represent the actor-author Baron, a rival and enemy of Lesage. He is old, dyes his hair, and claims to be twenty years younger than he is. He is conceited and self-satisfied, vain and affected. The character is described in such detail that the reader has no trouble in imagining him in real life. Contemporary readers would have picked up the one obvious clue to his identity: he had left the stage and returned much later. The satire is comic in its exaggeration, yet colourful and effective. It is clearly double-edged.
Such is the case for the other characters in the novel who are said to represent real figures. They add variety and colour to the novel: they are precisely described in a way that obviously fictional characters are not. And the illusion benefits consequentially. Boindin, the critic, is introduced as 'un petit homme' (p. 215). In Scipion's story Scipion works for don Ignacio de Ipigna (Bouhours) an author who has a unique method of composition: he writes down on cards the apophthegms he reads in classical authors, and when they are full he threads them on to metal wire, makes a garland of them, and each garland constitutes a volume: 'Que nous faisions de mauvais livres! Il ne se passait guère de mois que nous ne fissions pour le moins deux volumes, et aussitôt la presse en gémissait' (p. 533).
Gil Blas is not, I think, a livre à clef, but Lesage introduces 'real' figures when they can appear naturally in the text and enhance the comedy. I suspect that a number of characters have not been identified who may well, originally, have been contemporary figures of satire. The transposition of reality into fiction allows the author to increase the range of his comic vision.
It has been said that Lesage the novelist is never far removed from Lesage the playwright. Lesage's great skill in Gil Blas is in imagining a number of highly dramatic scenes whose main function is to make us laugh, normally at the expense of Gil himself. This is the crucial element of comedy and one which defines humour in the novel. We laugh at Gil and find him sympathetic because he is now, retrospectively, able to laugh at himself. We laugh at others and reject them because they take themselves too seriously.
A number of scenes remain vividly in the mind: Gil responding to the archevêque de Grenade's appeal to be warned when his age adversely affects his capacity to write (he does so and is promptly sacked (pp. 321-31), but the lesson in human nature is worth the loss of occupation); Gil's completely wrong assessment of Camille and her advances towards him, which we pick up very early on (pp. 67-71); the meeting with don Annibal de Chinchilla and the comic description of him ('Outre qu'il lui manquait un bras et une jambe, il avait la place d'un oeil couverte d'une large emplâtre de taffetas vert, et son visage en plusieurs endroits paraissait balafré. A cela près, il était fait comme un autre', pp. 356-57); Gil's wrong assessment of his mistress Aurore, whom he assumes to be in love with him (pp. 179-85). He spends all his money on creams, perfume and clothes, arrives for the rendezvous covered in lotion two hours too early and imagines, with obvious anticipation, the delightful scenes which are to follow. He tries to recall the plays he has seen which might include a scene he could make use of in the present circumstances, but when he arrives his mistress laughs at his antics—she wants him simply as a go-between. The hero is suitably deflated and proved to be quite wrong in his appreciation of the true situation. He invites laughter and gets his due.
It is when Gil shows himself to be less than heroic that we are most amused at him: he leaves Valladolid in a hurry to avoid a possible fight; in the showdown with his rival for the hand of Lorenza Séphora, whom he cares little about, we see Gil Blas mechanically responding to expectation: he is supposed to be angry and seeking revenge. He confronts his rival: 'Je me mis à considérer mon homme, qui me sembla fort vigoureux; et je trouvai son épée d'une longueur excessive' (p. 317), and is only too pleased to find a good reason not to fight. Gil is not the dashing hero of the adventure story: he is the ordinary, normal human being who is seeking to improve his lot. He remains in our affection because of his fallibility and this capacity to laugh at himself.
Lesage does not miss a trick in this comic novel: the irony of the narrator looking back and describing himself with detachment but in the knowledge of ultimate contentment lends itself to comedy; the use of certain forms of language and the witty phrase are constant comic factors: Gil Blas goes to sleep 'en bâtissant des châteaux en Espagne' (p. 352); the proverb 'Tu es du bois dont on fait les flûtes' becomes, in the language of Manuel Ordoñez, 'Tu es du bois dont on fait les économes' (p. 364). But it is Gil's ability to laugh at himself which provides the essence of comedy in the novel. At the end, his future assured, he spends three hours getting ready for his wedding: 'Pour un adolescent que se prépare à voir sa maîtresse, ce n'est qu'un plaisir; mais pour un homme qui commence à vieillir, c'est une occupation' (p. 608). The final phrase in the novel as he refers to his two children 'dont je crois pieusement être le père' (p. 609) alerts us to the fact that even in this sentimental ending Gil cannot avoid a slanted remark about himself. It is clearly time to analyse in more detail the character of Gil. He is the dynamic force of the novel. The comedy revolves around his account of the world and his confrontation with it. Gil, unlike the figures of satire, is mobile and free. He moves through different social echelons providing us with a seemingly detached view of the reality he observes. The comic element is stronger when the distance between Gil and his current reality is greatest; as he starts to mature and to become part of the social world he had previously mocked, so the comedy of the novel diminishes. Gil, to the end, is unaware of the assessment we are likely to make of him. He conveniently forgets his past when he observes his present reality, but we, as readers, view Gil with a detachment which may well be more critical than he, through his account, would have desired.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 235
"The Author of Gil Blas" Household Words X, No. 250 (1854-55): 488-93.
Descriptive and anecdotal biography of Lesage, including a concise history of the French stage during the playwright's era and a synopsis of contemporary reaction to Gil Blas.
"Claretie's Life of Le Sage." The Nation 53, No. 1381 (17 December 1891): 464-65.
Brief and generally favorable assessment of M. Léo Claretie's biography Essai sur Le Sage, which the unnamed critic calls "a very readable volume."
Grieder, Josephine. Introduction to The History and Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, Vol. I, by Alain René Le Sage, pp. 5-11. New York: Garland Publishing, 1972.
Examines the complexities present in Gil Blas, including the psychological and moral development of the title character and the novel's significant incidence of social satire.
Laden, Marie-Paule. "Gil Blas and Moll Flanders: Imitation, Disguise, and Mask." In her Self-Imitation in the Eighteenth-Century Novel, pp. 23-68. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Detailed comparison of the first-person narrative styles of Gil Blas and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, in which the critic examines the relationship between the inner character of the protagonist and the discourse of the narrator.
Reish, Joseph G. "Lesage's Dramatization of a Social Cycle: The Ups and Downs of the Likes of Turcaret." French Literature Series XV (1988): 31-40.
Analyzes the development of the drama's valet-master dichotomy, in which the critic concludes that the "emerging character configuration" of Turcaret-Frontin reflects "successive stages of a single extended persona."