Edmond de Goncourt and Jules de Goncourt Analysis
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...
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