Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
Written after Romanticism had flowered and faded in France, Dominique is quite similar to the personal memoirs and novels that appeared in early nineteenth century France. François René de Chateaubriand’s René (1802; English translation, 1813) and Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816) are examples of novels of this period. Eugène Fromentin’s novel is similar to the Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut (1731) as well, because Dominique, like Manon Lescaut, has to do with irresistible and destructive passion.
However, Dominique’s roots in French literary history go deeper than the Romantic and pre-Romantic eras. In some sense, the novel’s hero moves in the tradition of courtly love, worshiping as he does, for at least half the novel, a beautiful woman from afar. Early in his story, Dominique places Madeleine on a pedestal; he admires her, yet he fears approaching her. His status as adoring pseudo-knightly lover is indicated ironically by his name, which derives from the Latin dominus, which suggests that Dominique is a lord of sorts, a man reigning over his own domain. The irony is that Dominique has deep feelings of inferiority and insecurity; he is hardly a lordly or dominating type until he reaches maturity.
The novel opens with a depiction of the mature Dominique, lord of an estate, Les Trembles, married and the father of two children. The novel’s first two chapters state the theme of passion versus self-control, and, consequently, service to others. The Dominique whom readers and the first-person narrator of the first two chapters meet is a man of about forty years, known in the environs as a man dedicated to his family and to doing good for others. The lesson he has learned about self-preservation and the importance of dedicating oneself to others is what Dominique talks about in the rest of the novel.
The young Dominique was raised by his aunt in Normandy; he is a young man who loves his native countryside. Without great enthusiasm, he later goes to Paris to pursue his studies and a career as a writer. His friend and counselor in these early years is Augustin, who bears the name of a famous saint and philosopher—which emphasizes his role as the choice of traditional reason, faith, and restraint. Throughout the novel, Augustin serves as Dominique’s mentor, offering an example of what one can achieve in life, not through impulse and feeling but by means of discipline. In Dominique’s youth, Olivier d’Orsel also opposes Dominque’s propensity to self-pity, passivity, passion, and despair. When Dominique, in despair after Madeleine marries the Count of Nièvres, becomes mired in a sense of futility and even destroys his written work, Olivier tries to convince him that love is merely a question of chance—that Madeleine is a unique woman, fated in some way to be the love of his life. Later, however, Olivier is seen to be a less than admirable character, when he spurns the love of Madeleine’s sister, Julie. At that point, as Olivier explains to Dominique, he has become very much a selfish, pleasure-seeking man of the world, believing in nothing but his own satisfaction. Much later, ironically, it is Dominique’s wife who, believing that doing good and committing oneself to others is one’s very reason for living, unknowingly precipitates Olivier’s attempted suicide. In contrast, Augustin marries, but with neither the passion Dominique feels for Madeleine, nor the cruel self-interest that motivates Olivier. Dominique despises what he calls the “movement” of life in Paris, the social frenzy that he likens to a whirlpool that threatens those in the Parisian sea with shipwreck. In his frustration with this life and with Madeleine’s determination to keep him at an emotional distance, he begins to think of confessing his love for her. He conceives of an attack, a direct approach to her, thinking in terms of swordplay, a military expedition, a seduction.
Madeleine’s vulnerability dissuades Dominique from this brutal attack, although she does, with chagrin, recognize the love Dominique has for her. Oddly enough, Madeleine devotes time and energy to exorcising Dominique’s passion for her from his heart—destructive as it is to their well-being. This attempt at a “cure,” as Madeleine calls it, fails.
Madeleine’s discouragement with Olivier’s treatment of Julie and her frustration with her attachment to Dominique comes to a head when Madeleine leads Dominique on a horseback ride through the forest on her estate, excitedly spurs on her mount, and expresses in a brutal fashion the depth and nature of what she feels for Dominique. Her excitement, flushed cheeks, convulsive laughter, and breathless animality when she faces Dominique with her riding crop in her teeth, leads them to a revelation of the dangers unrestrained physical passion holds.
Here is the crisis, and here is where Dominique understands his need for metaphysical and for spiritual rest. At this point in his life and in his relationship with Madeleine, he decides to put his life in order. He decides, first of all, to never see Madeleine again. He then withdraws from the animation of the world, and he returns to his beloved Les Trembles. His marriage ensues.
It is only to be expected that the final image in the novel is that of the sage Augustin, at last a successful public figure and a happy one, who arrives at Les Trembles for a visit.