(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1424 words.)