Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1424
A new kind of literary world comes into being in Paris during the mid-nineteenth century—the world of the journals and little newspapers that thrive on gossip and superficial aesthetic criticism. By creating and catering to the shifting fads of the fashionable world through concentrating on personality, modishness, and sensationalism, they debase the public’s taste.
Two young men among the writers for one of these journals, Scandal, are thoroughly immersed in this world. Nachette, a belligerent, clever man who fled his father’s bad name in his home province, enjoys the power that he believes the journals possess to create or to ruin a reputation. Couturat, hiding behind a mask of innocence and gaiety, is a thorough opportunist. Also among the group is Charles Demailly, who dislikes the dilettantes and their trivial gossiping but seems unable to do anything more than observe them ironically as he accompanies them to cafés, salons, and balls.
After many illnesses as a child, Charles grew up a nervous and acutely sensitive young man. The heightened perceptivity of all his senses extends to an unusual awareness of emotional nuances in those around him, but at the same time it prevents him from finding satisfaction in real life. His search for perfection always meets his uncanny ability to perceive imperfection: Pleasure for him pales at the slightest false note. Even in writing, his real refuge, his hypersensitivity is a handicap, for his meticulously keen observation and his attention to detail almost preclude true depth and greatness.
A letter from his old friend Chavannes urges Charles to visit him in the country and to settle down to serious writing. Although Charles declines the invitation, he does go into seclusion to work on his novel. At last his book, La Bourgeoisie, is finished, but his friends at Scandal, irritated because he deserted them and jealous of his potential success, decide to do their best to prevent that success. Scarcely bothering to read the book, they ignore its attempt to convey psychological reality. Instead, they use the title as an excuse to generalize wittily on it as an inept social document. Full of anguish at these reviews, Charles wanders about the streets until he meets Boisroger, a poet who cares nothing for the superficialities of society. He recognizes the novel’s worth and introduces Charles to a circle of men who are true artists in various fields. Charles is happy among these vivid, intelligent people, and he greatly admires their individualism and their informed opinions on art and literature.
Charles’s uncle dies, leaving him feeling bereft. A discussion of the nature of love leads some of his friends to assert that the artist cannot be a true husband or lover; other men seek in love what the artist finds only in creation. These two factors predispose Charles to fall in love as a protest against the loneliness that his friends feel is unavoidable. At the theater, he sees a charming young ingénue, Marthe, and feels strongly attracted to her. At last he meets her at a masquerade ball; three months later, they are married.
For a time, they create a blissful world in which only they exist. Marthe delights Charles with her affection and endearing, childlike ways. Charles works secretly on a play whose heroine captures Marthe’s coquettish innocence. Finding his hidden work, Marthe is enraptured by it because the role is so well suited to her. Charles is delighted by her appreciation. Failing to look beneath the surface, he assumes, in his idealization of her, that she is actually the character he created.
After Marthe reads an article by the now-fashionable Nachette that criticizes Charles’s work, she suggests that he find a collaborator to help him with the play. Charles realizes that she cares only for his reputation and its effect on her own and not for his work. With that, he begins to see her as she really is: an insensitive chatterbox, full of false sentiment and other people’s ideas. Marthe, too, tires of her sweet role. Now she tries another: the woman who despises her husband for the love he bears her and who delights in violent changes of mood and in being wholly self-absorbed.
When his distress at his disillusionment in his wife’s character makes Charles ill, the couple go to a provincial spa so that he might recover. Charles rejoices in the placid beauty of the country, but Marthe, bored, poses as the martyred wife. Refusing to leave, she shows her pique in subtle ways. Her banality and insincerity further torture Charles, but the growing realization that she no longer loves him is even worse, for it threatens to destroy what remains of the image he created.
At a country fête, they meet the group from Scandal, and the visitors return to dine with them. Nachette stays on for a week. Shortly afterward, a mock play in which a sweet ingénue is held prisoner by a neurasthenic appears in Scandal. Charles is hurt, not by the silly play but by knowing that Marthe deliberately created the impression on which it is based.
After Charles grows well enough to return to Paris, events there combine to break him down again. He discovers that his wife borrowed money, ostensibly because he is a madman who never gives her any. In retaliation for his indignation at her falsehoods, she then announces that she is leaving her role in his play, which is in rehearsal. At length, trying to create a scene, she tells him that she loves Nachette. When he refuses to give her the opportunity for histrionics, she leaves.
She returns the next day, however, full of remorse, and almost succeeds in captivating Charles again with her winsome affection. For two weeks, she behaves as if they are again on their honeymoon. When she asks to have her role back, however, Charles refuses, saying truthfully that it is too late for any change before the opening night. At that, she breaks into a furious tirade, saying that she never loved him and that she spread stories to dishonor him. Overcome with anguish, Charles weeps. When she laughs at his tears, he runs into the street. Eventually, he regains enough self-control to return and to order her out of the house.
When Marthe leaves, she takes the letters Charles once wrote to her while gaily parodying some of his friends in the inner circle of artists into which he was welcomed. Although innocuous, the letters, when lifted out of context and changed slightly, look like malicious attempts to scoff at his friends. Marthe, unable to bear the thought that her husband’s play might be a success without her, believes that if these influential gentlemen are offended, they might somehow contribute to its ruin.
Spitefully, she gives the letters to Nachette, who is engaged in a silent struggle with Couturat for control of Scandal. Nachette recognizes the sensational value but tells Marthe to leave him; she can do him no good, and her charms are wearing thin. Couturat, the opportunist, wins the paper, however, and sees in the letters, set up on the front page, an excuse to fire Nachette and establish himself as a good fellow. He sends one copy of the front page to Charles and burns the rest.
Charles’s friend Chavannes brings the news that Charles suffered an attack when he saw the journal. At length, Charles, wraithlike but calm, appears to hear Couturat’s supposedly profound apologies. To Charles, the knowledge that Marthe was behind the attempt to ruin him is intolerable. Loathing Paris, the theater, and life itself, he refuses to allow the performance of his play and withdraws to another part of the city. There, only his old nurse cares for him as he sinks into apathy and madness. Feeling his reason slipping away, he tries to write but can only scrawl his own name over and over.
Charles is taken to an asylum where treatment gradually restores him to health. When he is at last well enough to go outside, he rejoices at the prospects of a new life. He feels able to attend a small theater, but when he sees his wife on the stage—for Marthe descended to playing in second-rate theaters—madness overcomes him once more. After months of violence, he becomes calm again, but with the calmness of an idiot or a beast. So he lives, little more than a heap of flesh, to the end of his days.
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