Alfred Jarry Jarry, Alfred (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Jarry, Alfred 1873-1907

French dramatist, author of stories and short novels, essayist, critic, and poet.

Best known for his experimental dramas, especially Ubu Roi, Jarry also wrote short novels that abandoned realism and traditional literary approaches, thereby precipitating modernist trends in the early twentieth century. In much of his fiction Jarry employed perverse and biting humor, fantastic scenarios, grotesque characters, and nonlinear narratives, exalting the imagination and human potential while satirizing bourgeois mentality, technological progress, and religion. The autobiographical and historical works among his short novels are more subtle but still convey his eccentric view of life and his condemnation of society's system of values.

Biographical Information

Jarry was born in Laval, Mayenne, near Brittany. His father was a traveling salesman for a wool factory, and his mother was the daughter of a Brittany judge. Jarry, a brilliant student though an unregenerate troublemaker, attended the Lycée at Rennes from 1888 to 1891. At school he excelled in the sciences as well as Greek and Latin, and works such as Gestes et opinions du Dr. Faustroll, pataphysicien (Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician) reflect the diligence with which he kept himself informed of the latest scientific developments throughout his lifetime. In 1891, Jarry went to Paris to attend the Lycée Henri IV and to prepare for the difficult entrance exams for the Ecole Normale. While there, he studied theories of comedy and laughter with Henri Bergson and, in 1893, met Marcel Schwob, a prominent Symbolist writer and the editor of L'écho de Paris. Schwob introduced Jarry into Parisian literary circles, and Jarry's bizarre attire and studied eccentricities brought him instant notoriety in the cafés and salons of Paris. A man who was known to keep owls and chameleons, he would appear in public wearing a long black cape, a cyclist's uniform, or perhaps a paper shirt with a tie painted on, and carrying a loaded revolver that he would occasionally fire for dramatic effect; he also began to affect the mannerisms of Ubu, the protagonist in Ubu Roi, speaking in a monotone drone and walking in a jerky, robot-like fashion. Furthermore, he abandoned himself to the use of alcohol, drinking ether when he could not afford absinthe.

Jarry's poetry and prose began appearing in L'écho de Paris in 1903, and he was awarded both of that paper's literary prizes for the best work by a young author. Thus encouraged, Jarry abandoned his plan of attending the École Normale in favor of a career in letters. He began collaborating with Rémy de Gourmont on the production of an art review entitled L'ymagier, which was devoted to the presentation of popular and religious woodcuts. After quarreling with Gourmont, he continued on his own with a review of the same nature entitled Perhinderion. This elaborate publication exhausted the modest inheritance Jarry had received upon the death of his parents, and he was thereafter forced to support himself with his writings and the financial assistance of close friends. In 1903 the Revue blanche, for which Jarry had written the weekly column "Gestes," folded. With his only reliable source of income gone, Jarry gradually succumbed to malnutrition and poverty. He died in 1907 from tubercular meningitis complicated by his alcoholism.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician is Jarry's most influential work apart from his dramas about Ubu. Jarry found his inspiration for writing the novel in the stories of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. The amazing events described in Dr. Faustroll are related by Jarry with such careful attention to scientific detail that the narrative soon begins to take on a disconcerting air of reality. In this work Jarry also defined "pataphysics" for the first time. This "science of imaginary solutions," as Jarry explained it, enables Faustroll to build a time machine, to sail in a sieve, and to calculate the surface area of God. Pataphysics is Jarry's most ingenious device, and many modern writers have acknowledged the influence of Jarry's absurd "science" on their works. Another work with a pseudoscientific premise, Le surmâle (The Supermale) takes as its subject the physical limits and potential of humans. In the first part of the short novel, human is pitted against machine in a 10,000 mile race between a train and a team of men on a four-person bicycle. In the second part, a man participates in an experiment to determine the number of sexual climaxes that can be achieved by one person in a twenty-four hour period. In Les jours et les nuits (Days and Nights) Jarry uses his own experiences in the military as the basis for a story that is both a satire of army life and an account of an individual's spiritual quest. Drawn mainly from the texts of Classical historians, the events of Messaline (Messalina) portray the debauchery and moral corruption initiated by Messalina, the wife of Emperor Claudius.

Critical Reception

When Jarry died in 1907 his place in literature was far from assured, and his name was already fading from the literary scene. He remained in obscurity until the 1920s when the dramatist Antonin Artaud acknowledged Jarry as an inspiration for many of his theories and works. In 1949 the modernist writers Boris Vian and Eugene Ionesco honored Jarry's invention of pataphysics by instituting the Collège du Pataphysique ("College of Pataphysics"), declaring that it "refused to serve any purpose, refused to save mankind, or what is even more unusual, the world." Despite such assertions, the College's official publications, such as Les Cahiers du Collège de Pataphysique (The Notebooks of the College of Pataphysics), have consistently been among the best available sources of criticism on Jarry, and its members have made many valuable contributions to Jarry scholarship. Today an increasing number of critics consider Jarry as important an author as Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and the study of his writings has accelerated in recent years. As critical controversies surrounding Jarry's works are more closely examined, readers may more fully comprehend his "daring and enigmatic works," written, as Linda Klieger Stillman has pointed out, "at a critical moment in the history of man and of literature: the inauguration of what we now call the modern age."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Les jours et les nuits: Roman d'un déserteur [Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter] 1897

L'amour en visites 1898

Messaline [Messalina: A Novel of Imperial Rome; also translated as The Garden of Priapus] 1901

Le surmâle: Roman moderne [The Supermale: A Modern Novel] 1902

Gestes et opinions du Dr. Faustroll, pataphysicien [Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician] 1911

*La Dragonne [The She-Dragoon] 1943

*Completed by Charlotte Jarry.

Other Major Works

Les minutes de sable mémorial (drama, prose, and poetry) 1894

César-antéchrist [Caesar-Antichrist] (drama) 1895

"De l'inutilité du théâtre au théâtre" ["Of the Futility of the 'Theatrical' in the Theater"] (essay) 1896

Ubu Roi [Ubu Roi; also published as King Turd, King Ubu, and Ubu Rex] (drama) 1896

Ubu enchaîne [Ubu Enchained; also published as King Turd Enslaved] (drama) 1900

Spéculations (essays) 1911

Ubu cocu [Ubu Cuckolded; also published as Turd Cuckolded] (drama) 1944

Oeuvres complètes. 8 vols, (dramas, essays, poetry, and novels) 1948

La revanche de la nuit (poems) 1949

King Turd (dramas) 1953

Selected Works of Alfred Jarry (dramas, essays, poetry, and novels) 1965

The Ubu Plays (dramas) 1968

†Written in 1897 or 1898 though first published in 1944.

Michael Wilding (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Supermale, in London Magazine, n.s. Vol. 8, No. 4, July, 1968, pp. 110, 112.

[One of the principal figures of postmodern Australian literature, Wilding is best known as the author of experimental short stories and as a founding editor of Tabloid Story, one of the most influential Australian literary magazines of the 1970s. Rejecting traditional realistic narrative, he strove in his early work toward a fusion of fantastic, surreal, pastoral, ironic, and self-reflexive elements. In the following review, Wilding praises The Supermale and judges it an "affront to the bourgeoisie. "]

The Supermale, an exhilarating and...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Linda Klieger Stillman (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Physics and Pataphysics: The Sources of Faustroll," in Kentucky Romance Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, 1979, pp. 81-92.

[An educator and critic specializing in French literature, Stillman has published two works on Jarry, La Théâtralité dans l'oeuvre d'Alfred Jarry (1980) and Alfred Jarry (1983). She is a membre honorifique of the Collège de Pataphysique, a somewhat fantastical organization embodying Jarry 's philosophy of pataphysics, and a member of the Société des Amis d'Alfred Jarry. In the following essay, Stillman finds that Jarry used scientific theories as the basis for much of Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician.]...

(The entire section is 5083 words.)

Linda Klieger Stillman (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Modern Narrative Technique: Jarry, the Pretext," in Sub-Stance, No. 36, 1982, pp. 72-81.

[In the following essay, Stillman asserts that Jarry's short novels "illustrate many modernist theories and techniques. "]

Alfred Jarry's influence on successive generations of writers is both explicit, in the sense of direct recognition by his heirs, and implicit, in the sense of creating a climate propitious for textual experimentation and for changes in conceptual foundations.

Much critical attention has been devoted to Jarry's role in avant-garde theater, and specifically to his fathering of the Theater of the Absurd. Ubu's legacy traces its...

(The entire section is 4227 words.)

Gerald Gillespie (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Faust en Pataphysicien," in Journal of European Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, March-June, 1983, pp. 96-108.

[Gillespie is an American educator and critic specializing in German literature. In the following excerpt, he examines the relationship of Doctor Faustroll to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's character Faust in order to define Jarry's beliefs about the nature of the artist and the imagination.]

The vogue of Goethe reached an apogee in France during the Symbolist period from about 1880 to the outbreak of the Great War; translations and interpretations of his Faust abounded. Writing in the Revue indépendante in April 1882, Gustave Kahn asserted...

(The entire section is 2860 words.)

Linda Klieger Stillman (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Days and Nights, Novel of a Deserter," in Alfred Jarry, Twayne Publishers, 1983, pp. 60-91.

[In the following excerpt, Stillman discusses the symbols and themes of Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter, emphasizing the significance of the protagonist's double, or doppelgänger.]

[In Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter] Sengle, having been drafted, loses himself in reveries of Valens, his double, to avoid the misery of life in uniform. Sengle's homoerotic, narcissistic love for his fraternal double allows him to contemplate his own image projected outside of himself: Valens is Sengle himself at a younger age, imagined by Sengle as his younger brother....

(The entire section is 4980 words.)

Keith Beaumont (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sexual and sporting feats: Messaline and Le Surmâle," in Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study, St. Martin's Press, 1984, pp. 227-61.

[In the following excerpt, Beaumont studies themes in Messaline, especially that of sexuality.]

Messaline appeared in six successive issues of La Revue Blanche from 1 July to 15 September 1900, triumphantly marking the beginning of Jarry's regular contribution to that review, and was published in volume form by the Éditions de la Revue Blanche in July 1901. Jarry's main source for the events of the novel is Book XI of Tacitus' Annals, supplemented by details from Juvenal,...

(The entire section is 5492 words.)

Nigey Lennon (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Is Pataphysics?; or, Turkistan Revisited," in Alfred Jarry: The Man with the Axe, Panjandrum Books, 1984, pp. 65-71.

]Lennon is an American critic. In the following excerpt, she defines pataphysics, particularly as presented in Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician.]

[What is Pataphysics?] First of all, let us begin by ruling out what Pataphysics is not. It is heartening to commence with such a simple and easy task, for when it comes to the precise and accurate dissection of matters pataphysical, many are called but few are chosen.

1. Pataphysics is not an expensive and demanding sociopsychological regime. One need not...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jarry's The Supermale: The Sex Machine, the Food Machine, and the Bicycle Race. Is It a Question of Adaptation?" in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 3 & 4, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 492-507.

[An American educator and critic specializing in French literature, Knapp is the author of many monographs on French literary figures, including: Antonin Artaud, Louis Celine, Paul Claudel, Jean Cocteau, Georges Duhamel, Jean Genet, Louise Labé, Gerárd de Nerval, Jean Racine, and Emile Zola. In the following essay, she interprets The Supermale as a warning about the dehumanization that Jarry believed accompanies technological advancement.]


(The entire section is 6413 words.)

Teresa Bridgeman (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Innovation and Ambiguity: Sources of Confusion in Personal Identity in Les jours et les nuits, " in French Studies, Vol. XLV, No. 3, July, 1991, pp. 295-307.

[In the following essay, Bridgeman attempts to justify stylistic and technical innovations in Days and Nights: Novel of a Deserter that have disconcerted readers.]

Alfred Jarry's Les Jours et les nuits: Roman d'un déserteur presents a challenge in ambiguity which few readers appear prepared to take up. Remy de Gourmont, in his review for Le Mercure de France of Jarry's early collection, Les Minutes de sable mémorial, defends obscurity which, as part of the process of...

(The entire section is 5795 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Wright, Barbara. Introduction to The Supermale by Alfred Jarry, translated by Ralph Gladstone and Barbara Wright, pp. i-vi. New York: New Directions, 1964.

Brief account of Jarry's life. "Against the tragic negativity of his personal life," observes Wright, "Jarry almost to the end practiced every sort of positive artistic creativity."


Beaumont, Keith. Alfred Jarry: A Critical and Biographical Study. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984, 364 p.

Survey of Jarry's life and works. Beaumont devotes chapters to the discussion of Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician;...

(The entire section is 221 words.)