Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929

Charles Demailly, one of the early novels of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, describes the world of journalism in which they were enmeshed as well as the world of belles lettres to which they aspired. Although the theme of venal journalism was common in nineteenth century fiction, the thinly veiled portraits of their acquaintances were regarded as exposé. In addition to describing the offices of the journal Scandal in detail, the Goncourts present portraits of the journal’s directors. They show how the lives of struggle, the wounded egos, and the disappointments create the acrimonious and insensitive journalistic character. At the journalists’ café, the conversation is inelegant and witless. At the writers’ café, Charles Demailly meets fictionalized versions of Théophile Gautier and Gustave Flaubert, and the conversation reflects an authenticity and shows up the shoddiness of the first group.

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The journalists of Scandal epitomize the duplicity and emptiness of the world of Parisian letters. Couturat doggedly pursues his ambitions while laughing and punning; Malgras preaches duty and honor while obviously repressing evil instincts; and Bourniche is merely an imitator with no inner self. The journal pretends to be a responsible publication even while its journalists invent stories. The Goncourts believed that the low estate of journalism resulted from writing having been transformed into a trade. The world of journalism is merely a microcosm of a society given over to false values while maintaining an illusion of virtue. Charles, a true writer, dedicates himself to art as an antidote to the hypocrisy of the age. He is at ease among the literati with their personal integrity and, as the pages of his journal reveal, agrees with their elitist view of art.

The novel’s second story line explores the interactions of artist and woman. The love affair between Charles and Marthe is based on the experience of a friend of the Goncourts, who told them of his wife’s physical abuse and defamatory scheming. The brothers regarded women as “hysterical animals” lurking behind a façade of beauty and as morally bankrupt creatures of sensation. They made an exception of the women of the salons, whose attitudes reflected those of their male contemporaries. In their own lives, the brothers preferred women without education, titles, or power. Although they recognized female beauty as inspiration, they theorized that celibacy is indispensable for the true artist. Adopting the deterministic point of view of naturalist novels, the Goncourts blamed the hypocritical upbringing of bourgeois women for their destructiveness.

Marthe meets Charles at a masked ball and appears in costume at various points throughout the novel, which emphasizes her ability to create a false identity. The reality behind the illusion is soon revealed. Although the honeymoon of Charles and Marthe seems idyllic, the Goncourts suggest that, however delightful, it is merely a lie. Marthe utterly lacks appreciation for art. Her ideal literature is formulaic and sensational. She encourages Charles to work with a hack collaborator to insure greater success and profit. Although Marthe’s beauty initially inspires Charles’s art, her scheming destroys him.

Charles’s mental instability begins when he retreats from the exterior world to an inner one of fragmentary visions. In a complete reversal, the exterior world becomes illusion and the interior one of nightmarish reality. The Goncourts treat Charles’s illness with clinical precision. Charles’s doctor explains his illness as the weakness of a contemporary man with an overwrought nervous system. Motifs of the collapse of a decadent society pervade the end of the novel, and the beauty of nature is contrasted ironically with the horror of humanity.

The characters in Charles Demailly are representatives of traits the Goncourts wish to present rather than fully developed individuals. There is no explanation for Marthe’s viciousness or for her reversal from love to villainy. Although the narrator suggests that she continues her role of a villainess from a play in which she stars, it is not developed within the story. Charles is never physically described and has no past, no family, no close friends; he exists in a vacuum. The dialogue, however, is successfully rendered with a combination of low and high discourse. The combinations of letters, diary entries, and plays taken from the newspaper contribute to the realistic detail assembled in the novel.

In the brothers’ collaborations on their novels, Jules usually worked on the characters and dialogue while Edmond developed the architecture of the book. Like many of their works, Charles Demailly unfolds slowly in a succession of internally fragmented chapters, and the action culminates suddenly and explosively. The text oscillates between reality and fantasy. The fact that both brothers were artists is reflected in the attention they give to visual effect. As part of their “painterly writing,” they frequently invent new words and combine unusual descriptive terms. In its emphasis on nuanced tone and gradations of light and color detached from a subject, their syntactical technique is comparable to that of the Impressionist painters. In general, the brothers favor abstraction as a means of creating visual effect.

Charles Demailly was greeted with little enthusiasm when it first appeared. Critics considered the integration of styles unsuccessful, the relation of events disordered and confused, and the attack on journalistic circles of which they were members personally offensive. Yet in its thematic coherence and stylistic invention, the semifictional depiction of the Goncourts’ literary world stands out from other novels of the time. Charles Demailly realistically portrays the process of establishing a career as a writer, and it retains historical interest as a portrait of the literary scene of the period.

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