Françoise Mallet-Joris Rima Drell Reck - Essay

Rima Drell Reck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With the appearance of [Le Rempart des Béguines and La Chambre rouge] Françoise Mallet-Joris … was hailed as a modern successor to the Marquis de Sade and Laclos. Combining a striking command of novelistic technique with scandalous subject matter, Mme Mallet-Joris revealed a preoccupation with the politics of conflicting wills which could not fail to recall these masters of the eighteenth century. The publication of [Cordélia, Les Mensonges, and L'Empire Céleste], however, has seen the eroticism of constraint take second place to an elaboration of the anatomy of will. Closer to the classical seventeenth century in its analysis of motives and illusions, this inquiry into the will is almost geometrical in form and moralistic in intent.

The exercise of will takes on varying forms in Mme Mallet-Joris' novels. It is expressed primarily by contempt and an effort at isolation…. (p. 74)

[Hélène of La Chambre rouge] makes a discovery common to the elite in Mme Mallet-Joris' gallery of willful spirits: they are all capable of the degradation they so despise. (pp. 74-75)

Alongside the more disciplined practitioners of will, Mme Mallet-Joris ranges those who devote their lives to elaborating a lie or an illusion which makes existence bearable for them. The original illusion is an ingenuous creation, a harmless fiction, a day-dream voiced once too often. These illusions involve clashes of will only when the existence of one illusion demands the annihilation of another. (p. 76)

A third form of exercise of the will is depicted in Mme Mallet-Joris' novels. This form is simple defiance by those who will not sacrifice themselves to the delicate structure of hypocrisy. Such defiance in no way intends to impose a substitute lie or illusion. It merely demands an independent existence. (p. 77)

However, from the loving care with which Mme Mallet-Joris elaborates a complex anatomy of will in its diverse forms, it would be false to infer that only the simple-minded triumph. They escape the complexities, and also never participate in the clash of wills which exalts more complex persons…. For most persons a life without some measure of fiction would be impossible, and for a few a life without a dangerous exercise of will would not be worth living. (p. 78)

Rima Drell Reck, "Françoise Mallet-Joris and the Anatomy of the Will," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1959), No. 24, 1959, pp. 74-9.