In the second half of the nineteenth century, intellectual analysis became the driving force behind the art of fiction in France. In reaction to Romanticism, the new generation produced the realism of Gustave Flaubert and of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. Although no novel by the Goncourts can be compared to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), the Goncourt brothers are credited with producing the precursors of the great works of naturalism byÉmile Zola. For these writers, the novel became a kind of critical commentary on human society and especially on the social structure of the Second Empire. The Goncourts tended to focus on the plight of a single individual, analyzing the hereditary and environmental factors that contribute to the particular conflict at the heart of each novel.
Charles Demailly, written nearly a decade after En 18, was the first of the Goncourts’ novels to receive serious critical attention. The hero, Charles Demailly, is a journalist for a newspaper called Le Scandale. Attempting to keep his personal integrity intact, he isolates himself from his cronies and writes a serious novel. At the same time, he marries an actor, Marthe, who turns out to be stupid and cruel and who destroys him with the help of a colleague in journalism who is envious of Charles’s literary success. Marthe’s betrayal causes Charles to go mad, and he ends up in an asylum.
As might be expected, the novel was not favorably received by journalist critics at the time. As would nearly always be the case, the characters were closely modeled on acquaintances of the Goncourts, but in Charles Demailly the emphasis is on venal journalism; writers of quality are omitted. A typical flaw is the lack of a plot line to blend the disparate scenes.
It was the Goncourts’ next novel that brought their first critical success. In Sister Philomène, the Goncourts left their own familiar world of arts and letters to write of a nursing sister who falls in love with an intern. To research the setting of their novel, the Goncourts spent several days in the hospital in Rouen, to which they gained entry through Flaubert, whose father was a doctor. The result was a novel in which life in a hospital—reactions of the patients, conversations among the interns, visits of the chief surgeon—creates an absorbing, somber atmosphere.
The publication of Sister Philomène coincided with the vogue for realism, and as a result it received praise as a study from life. The realist writers were heavily influenced by the work of Hippolyte Taine, who held that an individual can be explained by his or her race, his or her moment in history, and his or her milieu. Thus, the novel begins with a lengthy section showing how the girl, Marie Gaucher, is reared and how her temperament, social class, and upbringing cause her to become the nurse, Sister Philomène. The Goncourts were always fascinated by the interplay of illusion and reality in human lives, and here the theme appears in the portrait of the idealistic young nurse beginning to perceive the realities of her new profession.
The first scene in the hospital takes place at night, when the nurses make their rounds by candlelight. The play of darkness and light underscores Philomène’s confusion between a romanticized view of her profession (bringing light and life to the suffering) and the inescapable realities of pain and death. This passage demonstrates the Goncourts’ artistry in description, for unlike some extreme advocates of realism, they believed that flat documentation must be illuminated by a fine writing style and artistic effects. In time, their characteristic style became known as écriture artiste (artistic writing).
Philomène’s beloved is a young doctor, Barnier, who conceals a sensitive soul beneath a gruff, even crude, exterior. He finds the ideal love he seeks in his relationship with Sister Philomène. This love contrasts with the disillusion he encounters when obliged to operate on a former mistress, Romaine. She had remained for him a symbol of youthful love but now appears in a “fallen” state, having been injured during an orgy. Nevertheless, when his surgical skill cannot save Romaine, Barnier is in anguish. In a moment of madness, he embraces Philomène with passion, then commits suicide out of guilt and despair.
Sister Philomène demonstrates that the Goncourts had learned how to manage the form of the novel, providing credible motivations for their characters against a realistic setting. They had also proved capable of leaving their own world to examine a strange, even disagreeable, milieu in a way that has been called prenaturalistic.
For their next novel, the brothers wished to study an entire social class, that of the modern bourgeoisie during the Second Empire. The novel was to have analyzed that middle class held in contempt by artists and writers of the time for its love of money, lack of taste, and naïve belief in “progress.” The initial plan was modified when the Goncourts became friends with Louis and Blanche Passy. Jules admired Blanche to the extent of wishing to make her the heroine of a novel, and thus Renée Mauperin became the story of an intelligent, lively girl at odds with the conventions of her bourgeois family.
Most of the novel is a study of the bourgeoisie, for which Renée serves as a foil and a victim. The premise is that Renée has been educated by her doting father to think for herself and to see through the dull pretensions of her social class. It is not surprising, then, that she refuses all offers of marriage to the shallow young men her despairing mother finds as suitors. The central situation of the novel, however, deals with Renée’s social-climbing, eminently proper brother, Henri, and his machinations to marry the wealthy daughter of his mistress.
This situation violates Renée’s sense of honor, especially when Henri gives up his family name, at the request of his future father-in-law, to take on a noble one. The new name is supposed to have been extinct, but a last survivor appears, having been notified by Renée. When the aristocrat kills the arriviste in a duel, Renée falls ill of a heart disease and dies.
The novel scores some points against the pretensions of conventional society, especially in the portraits of Renée’s older brother and sister. Henri is clearly an unscrupulous, but superficially correct, young man. The implication of his social success is that he is a typical bourgeois type, ambitious for money and power. The sister, Madame Davarande, has accepted society’s values entirely and without question. She spells her name in the aristocratic fashion, d’Avarande, and seeks moral guidance from a fashionable priest, who “makes God seem chic.”
Renée’s spiritual and physical drama, which dominates...
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