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.
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...
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