Gérard de Nerval Nerval, Gérard de (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Gérard Labrunie


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Gérard de Nerval 1808-1855

(Born Gérard Labrunie) French poet, short story writer, dramatist, translator, novelist, essayist, and critic.

For additional information on Nerval's life and works, see .

Widely regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the subconscious in fiction and poetry. Noted for his vivid delineation of hallucination and dreaming and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originate from such diverse sources as art, mythology, religion, fantasy, and the occult. Plagued by mental illness for much of his life, Nerval is said to have derived his greatest creative energy from his madness, while the themes of his most highly esteemed works, notably Les chiméres (1854; The Chimeras) and Sylvie (1854; Sylvie: Recollections of Valois), are thought to have been directed by his several persistent personal obsessions.

Biographical Information

Nerval was a small child when his mother died. He was raised by a great-uncle in the Valois, a rural region of France that appears in Sylvie and other works as an idyllic landscape. At age twenty he published a translation of Goethe's Faust, which Goethe himself acclaimed. Nerval became a member of the Jeune-France, a group of Romantic artists and writers who challenged the established classical school with radical artistic theories, flamboyant dress, and eccentric behavior. But Nerval's carefree bohemian life became troubled as increasingly severe money problems and mental difficulties befell him. Biographers suggest that Nerval's premature separation from his mother led to intense infatuations with women later in life; in his writing, women are depicted in various guises as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity. The most enduring of these unrequited passions was for an actress named Jenny Colon, whose aloofness and early death hastened the deterioration of Nerval's mental health. Soon after her death, Nerval embarked on an extended journey through Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon. This trip excited his imagination with mystical and exotic motifs and provided material for Voyage en Orient (1851; Journey to the Orient). Ironically, the madness that afflicted Nerval also heightened his artistic sensibility, and it was in his final, most painful years that he produced his greatest works. Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself from a railing in a Paris alley at the age of forty-six.

Major Works

Nerval's first literary success came with his Journey to the Orient, a book of travel essays interjected with fictional elements. In 1854 Nerval published his first generally acclaimed masterwork, a compilation of short stories and poetry titled Les filles du feu (Daughters of Fire). Many of the minor narratives in this collection feature elements of fantasy and autobiography, as well as accounts of hallucinations, dreams, humor, and a treatment of the doppelgänger theme. The work also contains the story Sylvie. Merging fantasy with reality, the narrativ's protagonist, Gérard, struggles with his love for an imaginary, idealized woman, Aurelie-Adrienne, as well as the real Sylvie. Obsessed with the fantastic images of ideal women he fabricates in his mind, Gérard eventually destroys his chances of forming a relationship with the real woman. Also published as part of Les filles du feu, the sonnet sequence Les chiméres is considered by most critics to be Nerval's greatest poetic accomplishment. Each of the twelve sonnets is imbued with mythological and religious imagery, as well as themes derived from Nerval's own life. The poems of Les chiméres are interwoven, with recurring characters and allusions that parallel religious history and the alchemist's process of turning base metals into gold. The author's last published work, Aurélia (1855) suggests that each person lives a second life through his or her dreams. This story features a narrator who, after falling into a hallucinatory state, begins to see his doppelgänger. Using the figure of his double, Nerval in Aurélia presented his impressions of his own mental deterioration in a narrative he described as a symbolic "descent into hell."

Critical Reception

Criticism of Nerval since his death has generally focused on the visionary quality of his writings and his influence on later writers. Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolists were inspired by his use of cryptic symbols and his fascination with hallucinatory states. The Surrealists celebrated Nerval as a spiritual ancestor, a courageous pioneer in the exploration of the subconscious. Also, Nerval's recreation of scenes from memory and reverie bears similarities to later stream-of-consciousness writing and prefigures the work of Marcel Proust, who called Nerval Aassuredly one of the three or four greatest writers of the nineteenth century. In recent years, scholars have begun to look more closely at Nerval's texts, particularly Sylvie, Les chiméres, and Aurélia, all of which were written during periods of madness. In these works critics commend Nerval's innovative use of dreams and visions, the semiotic qualities of his language, his copious references to mythology and religion, and the incorporation of events and people from his own life.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Faust de Göthe [translator] (poetry) 1828

Léo Burckart (drama) 1839

Voyage en Orient [Journey to the Orient] (travel essays) 1851

Les illuminés (sketches) 1852

Lorely: souvenirs d'Allemagne (travel essays) 1852

*Les filles du feu [Daughters of Fire] (short stories and poetry) 1854

†La rêve et la vie [Dreams and Life] (poetry and short stories) 1855

Selected Writings (poetry and short stories) 1957

Œuvres complètes. 10 vols. 1926-32

Œuvres. 2 vols. 1960-61

* Includes the short story Sylvie (translated as Sylvie: Recollections of Valois in 1887) and the collection of poems titled Les chiméres (translated as The Chimeras in 1933).

†Includes the short story Aurélia (translated as Aurelia in 1932).

Geoffrey Wagner (essay date 1957)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to Selected Writings of Gérard de Nerval, translated and with a Critical Introduction and Notes by Geoffrey Wagner, Grove Press, 1957, pp. 5-46.

[In the following excerpt, Wagner offers a survey of Nerval's works and a summary of his influence.]

Il n'y a qu'un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: c'est le suicide. Juger que la vie vaut ou ne vaut pas la peine d'être vécue, c'est répondre à la question fondamentale de la philosophie.

Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe

More than most writers Gérard de Nerval has suffered from failing to fall into any very definite period or genre. His influence has been wider than his appeal and he has not always come off well in the rather arid region of literary history for his work, like the work of any mystic poet, resists classification. André Gide, of all writers, has lately been referred to as a mystic and in the sense that his work was always concerned with spiritual values this surprising judgment is just enough. But if Nerval is anything, he is that rarity, a natural French mystic poet, and it was this aspect of his genius that demanded from him that withdrawal from what we call the social ego, that attempt to mount higher "pour nous isoler de la foule," as he put it, which has meant much to the surrealist writers of our century.

Although a poet like Yeats refers to Nerval with the obvious affection of affinity, he has too often been handicapped by the stereotype of him as the gentle dreamer, which developed in the latter half of the last century. In his own time he meant a great deal. Baudelaire, we believe, was introduced to both Petrus Borel and Nerval by Edouard Ourliac;1 he paid tribute to Nerval in his article on Hégésippe Moreau2 and borrowed his well-known gibbet image in "Un Voyage à Cythère" from Nerval's Voyage en Orient Beyond this Nerval's translations from Goethe, Bürger, and other German authors, persuaded many French scholars and writers to further efforts in this field and he himself was one of the first major French poets to assimilate fully into his work the influence of the blaue Blume school of poetry. His whole erotic orientation is deeply indebted to Hoffmann. His appreciation of Ronsard, Du Bellay, and their contemporaries, considerably affected his successors, while his work on the legends of the Valois, which he loved so much, awakened a living interest in the literature of the French provinces. Nerval seems to have been read consistently in France throughout the Symbolist movement and his influence there to have been pervasive. But if for Henri de Régnier his voice was like a silver bell, it is more to the somber notes of Aurélia that our century has responded. There have been, of course, notable exceptions. Even Jean-Paul Sartre has confessed to being seduced by Sylvie, the "divine Sylvie" as Maurice Barrès called it. Proust, in whom we find perhaps the happiest and most confident elaboration of the implications of Nerval's work, referred to Sylvie in Le Temps Retrouvé as one of the masterpieces of French literature and likened its method of involuntary memory to his own.

But it has been Nerval's visions, particularly those of Aurélia, that have chiefly fascinated our century, especially in the attempt of surrealism to find a new freedom in the casuistry of the dream.

Nerval's first poems, published when he was still in his teens, were political verses after the style of Delavigne, rather exaggerated for contemporary taste, but interesting as showing the young "revolutionary" poet looking back to the heroism of a warlike France, a France now left "malheureuse et trahie." These Élégies Nationales were quickly followed by the translation of the first part of Faust which drew such praise from Goethe. To Eckermann, Goethe added that he thought the work a prodigy of style and that Nerval would become one of the purest and most elegant writers in France. Gretchen's song at her spinning wheel, "Chambre de Marguerite," resembling the later cries of Nerval's own heart, is put into French with a simplicity that makes it a poem in its own right, and Nerval indeed printed it separately on occasion.

Content to remain for the moment a translator, and a scrupulously careful one (he produced, for instance, five versions of a ballad by Bürger between 1829 and 1835), Nerval published French versions of selections from Klopstock, Schiller, Heine, and others. He then edited a volume containing work by Ronsard, Du Bellay, and their contemporaries, whose style so influenced his own. In his comments on these writers in La Bohème Galante, called "Les Poëtes du XVIe Siècle," however, he is by no means uncritical and sees them, in Ben Jonson's words of the ancients, "as guides, not commanders." Referring to the "école de Ronsard" in particular, he laments "l'espèce de despotisme qu'elle a introduit en littérature."

After 1830 Nerval began writing his first plays, as was only natural for a young author who had that year witnessed the bataille d'Hernani, and his work became more original. His Odelettes, deliberately modelled on Ronsard, began appearing in various periodicals and attracted attention chiefly for their classical adherence to conventions of form, which were at that time so out of fashion among the young. However at this point, as we know, Nerval's interests were unfortunately returned to drama by Jenny Colon, and shortly after she left him, his only success came out, Léo Burckart.

This political piece of young Germany of the Sturm und Drang era, reminiscent of the early Schiller, once again shows the "revolutionary" Nerval. There are some excellent scenes, particularly where the student's court passes sentence of death on Léo, who is actually among them behind a mask, and there is a powerful finale where the fanatical student idealist, Frantz Lewald, sent in to kill Léo, is driven to take his own life. The character of Léo himself is well drawn—the theoretical revolutionary who is offered, and forced to accept, the task of putting his theories into practice, only to find the pitfalls of politics too much for him; while Frantz, torn between love for Marguerite, Léo's wife, and his revolutionary ideals, though perhaps an over-romanticized character, can still arouse our sympathy.

After his first bout of insanity and subsequent trip to the Middle East, Nerval published his Scènes de la Vie Orientale, re-edited in 1851 as Voyage en Orient, a work Gautier called, in a typical phrase, "ce livre adorable, plein d'amour, d'azur et de lumière." Apart from its interest in connection with contemporary travel, mentioned above, it contains, in some of Nerval's best prose, much of his deepest thinking on nature and esoteric religions, on Swedenborg and the Cabala "qui lie les mondes" and in the heavenly correspondences of things on earth.

His poems began appearing more frequently now, and a collection came out at about the same time as La Bohème Galante which, apart from its critical section referred to, is an account of his life in Paris, in the same way that Lorely, Souvenirs d'Allemagne, dedicated to Janin and published in 1852, was an account of his experiences in Germany.

On August 15th, 1853, Nerval's first really important work, Sylvie, appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes. This enchanting work is a frame-story with its roots in literary pastoralism. One thinks of d'Urfé's Sylvie in what is perhaps a consummate instance of pastoral romance, and one recalls that l'Astrée was, like Nerval's work, both an autobiographical compilation and a roman à clef with an obdurate shepherdess and that "chagrin d'amour" which must have drawn Heine to Nerval, and vice versa. Both works, l'Astrée and Sylvie, reacted against prevalent philosophies of materialism, both are covered in a patina of nostalgic reverie, with the longing of late afternoon and with a desire for the golden age. Meanwhile, the idyllic moment on an island, which we find in so many romantics, including once again Rousseau, lends itself readily to various interpretations; The Tempest is perhaps a supreme example of this literature which the Jungian symbolism fits so well, with the fortunate island (personality) set in the turbulent sea (unconscious).

The main theme of Sylvie is formed by a series of utterly simple anecdotes of the author's youth at his uncle's home in the Valois. By its sense of unusual intimacy, by the pathos of Sylvie's position objectively conveyed, and by its derangement of time in the interests of the life of the psyche rather than in those of normal chronology, the work would alone rank high among autobiographies of adolescence. But it is in manner that it is almost perfect, for here the purity of Nerval's heart was clearly reflected in the luminosity of his style.

Of course the reader must remember that the element of distortion, present here in the purposeful confusion Nerval makes of the three women, Sylvie, Adrienne, and Aurélia, was due to the fact that memories of all three were entwined in his own mind around that central conception of womanhood which stylized his amatory writing from now on. The round dance, with which the work begins, is essentially a round of his erotic trinity, Sylvie and Adrienne surmounted by Aurélia, the Blessed Virgin.

In a sense Sylvie is one of our last and most lovely pastorals, a lament for a vanished and vanishing world, not only, Rousseau-like, for the rural life yielding to increasing urbanization, but also for the past world of the author's own soul. Sylvie is singularly touching when Nerval interjects moments of humor that show us how well he understood himself. This, then, is conscious nostalgia. It is devoid of self-pity. It is a laurel wreath Nerval places on the passing of time, and its permanent appeal, especially its appeal to Proust, shows how harmoniously conceived, how deceptively well controlled, and how beautifully balanced in its antiphonal refrains from section to section, this little masterpiece is. In the light of his whole work its pantheism balances the Christianity of the last part of Aurélia, unorthodox as this may be.

In 1854 Sylvie was put together with other stories, including "Emilie,' a narrative of the Revolution in Alsace, one of Nerval's finest, if least typical, stories, and published as Les Filles du Feu, together with an important dedicatory letter to Dumas. "Emilie," which is equal to the best of Merimée or Maupassant, shows another side of Nerval's genius, one that should not be overlooked, and it is as well to balance any large weight of his autobiographical writings with a plain story like this in which he showed admirable technical ability. It is not surprising that the author of this tale was the son of an Army surgeon, but it is pleasant to see Nerval fully in control of a form of writing of his day, and it is only in the old Abbé's descriptions of the countryside that Nerval here relinquished a fairly taut, direct narrative style. Again, suicide haunts the story.

Nerval's most significant prose work, Aurélia, did not appear complete in his lifetime. In a phrase, Gautier called the work "la Folie se racontant elle-même" and so indeed it is. It is not difficult to find Freudian symbolism, in our enlightened age, in these hallucinations. Nerval, however, warns us against the vulgarity of the purely scientific method of approach. Yet L.-H. Sebillotte has not had to be perversely ingenious to find an Oedipus complex in Aurélia.12 Almost everything, ranging from Mariolatry to Orphism, could be, and has been, worked out of Nerval's hallucinations, but presumably only Dr. Blanche will ever know which of these manifestations were the outstanding signs and signals of Nerval's illness.

The basis of the book is Nerval's unrequited passion for Aurélia, or Jenny Colon, and his spiritual pilgrimage through a disordered world to this goal. The central figure is a composite abstraction of womanhood, an Ewig-Weibliche invested with Nerval's omnivorous reading in the Cabala, the Zohar, Egyptian religions, the medieval schoolmen, and the magnetic scientists, like Gilbert, of the early Seventeenth Century, sources which have been skilfully detailed by Jean Richer.13 Adjusting time in a Proustian way, Nerval presents this central figure as his cryptic trinity, in the main consisting of Sylvie and Adrienne surmounted by Aurélia. Octavie is only a passing flame—did not Anthony leave Octavia for Egypt?—while Pandora, Marie Pleyel, leads this Faust to his Helen, as we read at the beginning.

Aurélia herself is essentially a Beatrice, rather than a Gretchen; she is a Schekhina, the woman, like Spenser's Sapience, with the attributes of pure good who alone leads to the Godhead. She is the Blessed Virgin and the eternal mother, in short, the vision who tells the protagonist:

Je suis la même que Marie, la même que ta mère, la même aussi que sous toutes les formes tu as toujours aimée. A chacune de tes épreuves j'ai quitté l'un des masques dont je voile mes traits, et bientôt tu me verras telle que je suis.

Around this composite creation unites a conflagration of dream and reality. On the physical level there is the woman who played such a special erotic role in Nerval's life: on the spiritual, we have the transformation—"l'actrice Jenny Colon, Aurélia, devient la Médiatrice, Isis, la Vierge," as Béguin puts it. As with other mystical writers, like Hoffmann, for example, with whom Nerval has such close affinity, occult or pseudo-occult ideas become direct emotional stimulants to the artist. Nerval's hallucinations are sanctified in his sight by the imagination, they are pure vision, unlimited by the conscious, and for this reason he sees it his duty to give them to posterity:

Je croirai avoir fait quelque chose de bon et d'utile en énonçant naïvement la succession des idées par lesquelles j'ai retrouvé le repos et une force nouvelle à opposer aux malheurs futurs de la vie.

This method of awakening memory, then, opened the way for the vision that so triumphantly greets us in the work of Marcel Proust; it hints directly at Proust's method of involuntary memory, a method which, as Justin O'Brien puts it, "repose sur une de ces expériences où la mémoire affective agit sans qu'intervienne la volonté."

Nerval's love attitude, as we have seen, involved the phantasy that Jenny was with him always; this idea, like the doctrine of noblesse oblige in literature (in which our ancestors are always looking over our shoulders), surely enhances the exhibitionist factor. For under the surveillance of what we like to call the ego ideal there is little privacy. Consequently you must put all on paper, you are forced to confessional literature, of which Aurélia is an outstanding example.

At the same time Jenny-Aurélia, like Beatrice for Dante, was his "étoile" ("El Desdichado"): the poet is astrophel, guided (like the magi) by the star, which plays a moral role. There is here, as under different circumstances to Dante, a proximate relationship between ritual and myth. To be a lover in this world is to be a poet, and to be a poet is to love. Like Beatrice, too, Jenny-Aurélia exists on four levels: she is a beautiful girl, she is a living symbol of God's beauty, she is an incitement to virtuous behavior in this life (the moral meaning), and, lastly, on the anagogical level, she is the fortress of heaven itself. This longing for union, coupled with the mission of poet as prophet (vates), Nerval saw as his highest aspiration; contemplation of his "étoile" was the function of his work.

Aurélia is outstanding, one has to confess, more for its subject-matter than for its style. It is not one of Nerval's best-written works; marred too often by the fulsome phrasing of its period, its last pages show his artistic discrimination at its lowest ebb. The picture of individual man horribly alone, walking through a lost world where the stones shout out at him and bodiless voices shriek from the shadows, is, however, like a nerve-end of our consciousness contracting in advance. Just as it is impossible to read the city poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine today without feeling that they contain an extraordinary significance for our time, so it is hard to hear Nerval calling out from his asylum without a tremor of sympathy, and perhaps also fear at the apparently uncontrollable progress of materialism that can make a poet write:

les visions qui s'étaient succédé pendant
mon sommeil m'avaient réduit à un tel
désespoir que je pouvais à peine parler . . .

Je me levai plein de terreur . . .
le sentiment qui résulta pour moi de ces
visions . . . était si triste, queje me sentais comme perdu . . .

je n'ai jamais éprouvé que le sommeil fut un repos . . .

Yet if we take a cosmic view of this suffering, we must remember that Nerval did not. For him it was simply a hellish dualism—"dualisme chronique," as Baudelaire is thought to have called it—and a "descente aux enfers" to bring back what he thought was truth. He would have agreed with Gauguin that God belongs to the dream, but this does not mean that he treated insanity as an escape.

"Tendre fol," he has been called, "le pauvre Gérard," "gentil Nerval," "doux rêveur,"14 but there is something stronger about this man who, while writing to Deschamps in 1854 "je travaille et j'enfante désormais dans la douleur," could produce this epitaph on his own life, not as a plea for leniency, but as the picture of a world that he thought would help others. In some ways the words of the document Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf left behind him in his bourgeois boarding-house fit Aurélia also:

These records, however much or however little of real life may lie at the back of them, are not an attempt to disguise or to palliate this widespread sickness of our times. They are an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation. They mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full.

Nerval's poetry was only posthumously assembled, the collection of 1877 being the first to enable a true appreciation of his value as a poet, and to show how the three ages of the poet, of which he wrote in Petits Châteaux de Bohème, bear a direct relation to his work.

First, there come what he called the poems written "par enthousiasme de jeunesse." These include the early political poems, imitations of Delavigne, Béranger, and others, the best of which concern the Grande Armée in Russia, perhaps owing to his mother's death and his father's wound in these campaigns.

Second, there are the poems "faits par amour," the Odelettes, translations of German ballads, popular songs, and personal anecdotes.

Third, we have the poems written "par désespoir" or in a "supernaturaliste" state of mind—Nerval himself italicized this word, adding "comme diraient les Allemands," and he used it to describe the poems of his later years, when he was mad, the verse counterpart, in fact, of Aurélia.

The poems of the first group are generally unoriginal. Those of the second are largely reminiscent of his own life. Exquisitely expressed and perfectly formal they are little cameos of experience which, though less sentimental than Coppée, remind one more of him, or of Jammes, than of Baudelaire and his successors. "Une Allée du...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1958)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "World of a Visionary," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2933, May 16, 1958, pp. 261-62.

[In the following excerpt from an anonymous review of The Selected Writings of Gérard de Nerval, the critic comments on the wide appeal that Nerval's work has held for readers and critics over time.]

Gérard de Nerval's quasi-canonical status, attained in recent years, depends on a bewildering variety of appeals, exercised at different times and in different ways: the erotic pastoral of the tales associated with the scenery of the Île de France; the Bohemian note that attracted Andrew Lang; the blander landscapes of Giraudoux's "Théocrite d'outre-terre"; the...

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Alison Fairlie (essay date 1961)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Approach to Nerval," in Imagination and Language: Collected Essays on Constant, Baudelaire, Nerval and Flaubert, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 271-87.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Fairlie discusses the prevailing themes and images in Nerval's Les Chimeres and Sylvie.]

The immensely increasing volume of detailed and often valuable research on Nerval has made it difficult for any but the most impenitent specialist to pretend to an understanding or an appreciation of his works. A generation ago it was easier to enjoy him with a clear conscience, and he was no recognized part of academic studies. Since then he has made a...

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Dennis G. Sullivan (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Function of the Theater in the Work of Nerval," Modern Language Notes, Vol. 80, 1965, pp. 610-17.

[In the following essay, Sullivan examines Nerval's use of the theater as a religious and metaphysical image in his writing.]

Nerval is obsessed by the theatre. As if reflected in the pieces of a shattered mirror, the theater's every aspect—the stage, the actress, the play, the idea of the play—casts its particular image. The poet's attraction to the theater and his pervasive use of theatrical imagery have been related to biographical sources as various as these aspects of the theater themselves. The unsuccessful dramatist, the drama critic, and the...

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Phyllis Zuckerman (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Comedy, Tragedy, and Madness in Nerval's Roman Tragique" Modern Language Notes, Vol. 89, No. 4, May, 1974, pp. 600-13.

[In the following essay, Zuckerman analyzes Nerval's difficulty with presenting a tragic vision in his novel Roman Tragique.]

Nerval presents the Roman tragique within the introduction to Les Filles du Feu as an illustration of his inability to write a novel from a comic perspective. The unfinished state of the Roman tragique, however, indicates that for Nerval writing a novel from a tragic perspective is equally problematic. In fact, the tragic novel continually puts its own structure into question,...

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Victor Brombert (essay date 1978)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nerval's Privileged Enclosures," in The Romantic Prison: The French Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 120-32.

[In the following essay, Brombert investigates "motifs of enclosure, escape, and freedom" in Nerval's work.]

Facetious Prisons?

"Politique (1831)," originally entitled "Cour de prison," is one of the most graceful poems of Petits Châteaux de Bohème. Its wistful sadness and flexible workmanship bring to mind Verlaine.

Dans Sainte-Pélagie,
Sous ce règne élargie,
Où, rêveur et pensif,
Je vis captif,


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Claire Gilbert (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hakem," in Nerval's Double: A Structural Study," Romance Monographs, 1979, pp. 46-58.

[In the following essay, Gilbert analyzes the figure of the double in Nerval's story "L'Histoire du Calife Hakem."]

Two Nervalian heroes, Hakem and Spifame, were confined to an asylum for insanity, apparently as victims of a type of schizophrenia. They both have autoscopic experiences, a hallucinatory perception of one's own body image projected into external space.1 For both, there exist historical models which Nerval altered to fit his own experience. In providing the details of their speech and life, with obvious sympathy, Nerval invites his reader to examine...

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Lillian Feder (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Madness," in Madness in Literature, Princeton University Press, 1980, pp. 247-78.

[In the following excerpt, Feder explicates Aurélia as a work depicting madness as a process of self-creation and discovery for Nerval]

The Aesthetics of Madness

The extremes of Gérard de Nerval's individual transformation of certain Romantic modes, like Nietzsche's, make his work, especially his prose, anomalous within its literary and historical period. Except for this characteristic, which seems a peculiar modernism, the two writers are utterly different, even in their visionary grandiosity. Despite the narcissistic...

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Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Angelique" and "Sylvie," in Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic's Dilemma, University of Alabama Press, 1980, pp. 203-11; 211-25

[In the following excerpt, Knapp interprets the myths that Nerval created in Angelique and Sylvie, relating them to Nerval's own psychological states.]

Love that moves the sun and the other stars . . .

Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradise.

The Daughters of Fire,1 a remarkable work, includes a veritable metaphysics of fire, which takes on mythical and philosophical ramifications. The heroines of the tales in this...

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Rosanna Warren (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The 'Last Madness' of Gérard de Nerval," The Georgia Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 131-38.

[In the following essay, Warren surveys prominent themes and images in Nerval's poetry and fiction.]

When Gérard de Nerval hanged himself on the night of 25 January 1855 in Rue de la Vieille Lanterne, a sordid Parisian alley, he inscribed himself into an already hackneyed romantic mythology which mingles poetry with death in a peculiar eros. In life he had already demonstrated himself picturesquely mad, walking his pet lobster on a blue ribbon in the park of the Palais-Royal; his death by hanging from the Queen of Sheba's garter (an old apron string),...

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John W. Kneller (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nerval's 'Artemis,'" in Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws, The Modern Language Association of America, 1986, pp. 26-32.

[In the following essay, Kneller studies the language, imagery, and literary devices used in 'Artemis."]

The approaches to Les chimères of Gérard de Nerval have followed rather than anticipated the successive stages of literary criticism in France, Great Britian, and the United States. In brief, they have been extrinsic, intrinsic, and structural. For current purposes, extrinsic method will be synonymous with projection; intrinsic procedure will also go by the name of explication or commentary;...

(The entire section is 3512 words.)

Kari Lokke (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Woman: The Other as Sister,"in Gérard de Nerval: The Poet as Social Visionary, French Forum Publishers, 1987, pp. 65-103.

[In the following excerpt, Lokke discusses Nerval's social, psychological, and mythological portrayal of women in his prose.]

One glance at the titles of Nerval's major works shows women to be the heart, the center, of his fictional and poetic universe: Les Filles du feu (Angélique, Sylvie, Jemmy, Octavie, Isis, Corilla, Emilie), Pandora, Aurélia, Les Chimères ("Myrtho," "Delfica," "Artémis"). Even the Voyage en Orient seems less a travelogue than an attempt to come to terms with the feminine beauties of...

(The entire section is 7361 words.)

Scott Carpenter (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Traveling from the Orient to Aurélia: Nerval Looks for the Words," in Acts of Fiction: Resistance and Resolution from Sade to Baudelaire, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, pp. 101-24.

[In the following excerpt, Carpenter draws a connection between translation, language, and madness in Nerval's works, focusing on "Aurélia."]

Nerval was sensitive to the limitations inherent in translation even before he undertook to introduce his readers to the world of delirium in which he often sojourned. Entering the literary scene in 1828 with a new rendering of Faust, he prefaced his version of the epic with comments pertaining to the ultimate...

(The entire section is 5945 words.)

Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Villas, James. Gérard de Nerval: A Critical Bibliography, 1900 to 1967. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1968, 118 p.

Annotated bibliography of criticism on Nerval published from 1900 to 1967.


Hearn, Lafcadio. "A Mad Romantic." In Essays in European and Oriental Literature, pp. 43-54. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1923.

Characterizes Nerval as "an insane man" who nevertheless produced "literary work of the very best quality."

Quennell, Peter. "Gérard de Nerval." In The...

(The entire section is 744 words.)