Gérard de Nerval Nerval, Gérard de (Short Story Criticism) - Essay

Gérard Labrunie


(Short Story Criticism)

Nerval, Gérard de 1808-1855

(Born Gérard Labrunie) French poet, short story writer, playwright, translator, novelist, essayist, and critic. See also Gerard de Nerval Poetry Criticism.

Widely regarded as a precursor of the Symbolists and the Surrealists, Nerval was one of the first writers to explore the realm of the subconscious, suggesting that "the dream is a second life." Remembered for his vivid delineation of the illusory mental states such as dreams and hallucinations, and for the far-reaching influence of his artistic vision, Nerval presented images in his works that originated from such diverse sources as cabalism, mythology, religion, fantasy, and the occult. His themes were directed by several persistent personal obsessions, and his greatest creative energy resulted from the insanity that plagued him much of his life.

Biographical Information

Nerval was a small child when his mother died while assisting her husband, a surgeon in the Napoleonic army, on his tours of Germany. He was raised by a great-uncle in the Valois, the charming rural region of France that was to remain in his memory—and appear in Sylvie and other works—as an idyllic landscape of childhood perfection. During his schooling in Paris, he displayed precocious literary talent, publishing at age twenty a translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, which the great poet himself acclaimed. His belletristic reputation thus established, Nerval became a member of the Jeune-France, a group of Romantic artists and writers who challenged the established classical school not only with radical artistic theories but with flamboyant dress and eccentric behavior. Nerval delighted his comrades one afternoon by parading through the Palais-Royal gardens with a lobster on a leash of blue ribbon. "He does not bark," Nerval declared, "and he knows the secrets of the deep." But Nerval's carefree Bohemian life became troubled as increasingly severe money problems and mental difficulties befell him. The fact that he had never known his mother haunted Nerval, making him susceptible, even as a boy, to profound infatuations with women, who are depicted in various guises throughout his writing as unattainable embodiments of ideal femininity. The most enduring of these unrequited passions was for an actress, Jenny Colon, whose aloofness and early death hastened the deterioration of Nerval's mental health. Soon after Jenny died, Nerval, always an avid traveler, embarked on a journey to the Orient. This trip excited his imagination with mystical and exotic motifs and provided material for Voyage en Orient (Journey to the Orient). Ironically, the madness which plagued Nerval heightened his artistic sensibility, and it was in his final, most painful years that he produced his greatest works: the fine, pure narratives and enigmatic, expressive sonnets. Seemingly a victim of his own tormented vision, forty-six-year-old Nerval was found hanging from a railing in a dank Paris alley with the last pages of Aurélia in his pocket.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Nerval's short fiction was largely affected by the author's recurrent battles with insanity. "His works, far from suffering from his madness, seem to be enhanced by it, or even contingent upon it," commented H. Kay Moon. The author's prose pieces contain fantastic elements, the theme of the double, or doppelgänger, autobiographical elements, hallucinations, dreams, and humor. Nerval's mastery as an artist began with Journey to the Orient, a book of travel essays interjected with fictional elements. In 1854, a compilation of short stories and poetry titled Les Filles de feu (Daughters of Fire) was published, containing Nerval's lauded tale, Sylvie. In this story that merges dream with reality, the narrator, Gérard, struggles with his love for a mythic female personae, Aurélie-Adrienne, and a real woman Sylvie. In Gérard's mind, Aurélie and Adrienne are fantastic images of ideal women who eventually merge into one figure. His illusory search for the perfect love ruins his chances for a relationship with the real Sylvie. Kari Lokke summarized the message in Sylvie: "Paradoxically .. . the wistful, delicate beauty of Sylvie, Nerval's stylistic and tonal masterpiece, is created by Nerval's combination of this mythic and esthetic vision of the Valois and its women with the melancholy realization that such a sublimated mode of interaction leads away from the present and the love of a real human being to an ideal past or a Utopian future." The author's last achievement, Aurélia, presents the world of dreams as another life. This story, inspired by unattainable love, features a narrator who, after falling into a hallucinatory state, begins to see his doppelgänger. The tale depicts the two different states of being in which the narrator and his double exist.

Critical Reception

Sylvie and Aurélia, written during periods of madness, are Nerval's most critically acclaimed prose pieces. His earlier short fiction did not receive much attention; according to Moon, they "merely represent Nerval's ability to follow the literary current of his time." Overall, critics have lauded the author's work for its visionary quality, which influenced many 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 re-creation of scenes from memory and reverie evokes stream-of-consciousness and prefigures the work of Marcel Proust, who, in his Marcel Proust on Art and Literature 1896-1919, called Nerval "assuredly one of the three or four greatest writers of the nineteenth century."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Voyage en Orient [Journey to the Orient] 1851

Les Illuminés 1852

Les Filles du feu [Daughters of Fire] (novellas and poetry) 1854

Le Rêve et la Vie [Dreams and Life] (short stories and poetry) 1855; includes Aurélia

Sylvie: Recollections of Valois 1887

Œuvres Complètes. 10 vols. 1926-32

Aurélia [Aurelia] 1932

Selected Writings (short stories and poetry) 1957

Œuvres complémentaires 1959-

Œuvres 2 vols. 1960-61

Other Major Works

Faust [translator] (poetry) 1828

Léo Burckart (drama) 1839

Lorely: souvenirs d'Allemagne (travel essays) 1852

Les Chiméres [The Chimeras] (poetry) 1854; published in Les Filles du feu

Arthur Symons (essay date 1898)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Problem of Gérard de Nerval," in The Fortnightly Review, Vol. LXII, No. CCCLXXIII, January, 1898, pp. 81-91.

[Symons was a critic, poet, dramatist, short story writer, and editor who first gained notoriety in the 1890s as an English decadent. Eventually, he established himself as one of the most important critics of the modern era. In his book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), Symons provided his English contemporaries with an appropriate vocabulary with which to define the aesthetic of symbolism; furthermore, he laid the foundation for much of modern poetic theory by discerning the importance of the symbol as a vehicle by which a "hitherto unknown reality...

(The entire section is 3115 words.)

Alison Fairlie (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Approach to Nerval," in Studies in Modern French Literature, 1961, pp. 87-103.

[In the excerpt below, Fairlie examines themes, form, and tone in Sylvie.]

Sylvie used to be read as a delightful country idyll. Reaction set in and it became 'le poème de la fin du monde', a 'bilan de la faillite'—'Sylvie s'achève en débâcle'. Here I disagree, and think that the undertones of the last chapter have been overlooked, and with them some of the use of themes and form throughout the story.

The outline is simple: the narrator had pursued in the actress Aurélie the reflection of the 'idéal sublime' once seen in the child Adrienne; not...

(The entire section is 2380 words.)

H. Kay Moon (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gérard de Nerval: A Reappraisal," in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. VII, No. 1, Autumn, 1965, pp. 40-52.

[Here, American educator and critic Moon surveys Nerval's life, short fiction, and influence on later literature. Moon states that Nerval is "best when he is autobiographical. "]

Unfortunately, scholars have generally neglected or ignored Gérard de Nerval as a possible precursor to modern tendencies in literature. It will be my purpose in the pages that follow to (1) explore the elements of his biography that seem to contribute to an understanding of his development as a writer, (2) venture a few observations regarding his short prose fiction, and...

(The entire section is 5020 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Isis: The Cult of the Madonna," in Gérard de Nerval: The Mystic's Dilemma, The University of Alabama Press, 1980, pp. 226-36.

[In the following excerpt, American educator and author Knapp explores the religious aspects of Isis and the role of the female in the work.]

Nerval's narrative Isis (1845) is an expression of his syncretistic approach to religion and, in particular, an example of the immense role played by the feminine principle in his cosmology.

Isis takes place in Herculaneum and Pompeii, cities destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius A.D. 79. It is night. The moon shines brilliantly and the illusion of the...

(The entire section is 5000 words.)

Peter S. Thompson (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sylvie: The Method of Myth," in Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. XII, Nos. 1 & 2, Fall-Winter, 1983, pp. 96-104.

[Below, Thompson addresses the function of myth in Sylvie, focusing on Nerval's use of colors and treatment of memory to suggest a fantastic world. The critic finds in the story an overflowing of the "unreal from amid the real."]

Gérard de Nerval's Sylvie provides not only evidence of the author's predilection for an "other," "spiritual," or mythical world—a possible escape from time—but also an example in itself of transcending myth. Since it is meant to both celebrate and exemplify a timeless spirituality,...

(The entire section is 3738 words.)

Anne-Marie Smith (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pandora's Quality of Figure," in Paragraph, Vol. 4, October, 1984, pp. 62-82.

[In the following essay, Smith describes the quality of figuration in Pandora that prevents the novella from succumbing to abstraction, disorder, and senselessness. She also delineates the differences between Pandora and "Les Amours de Vienne, " the earlier sketch by Nerval on which the novella is based.]

(The entire section is 8705 words.)

Ross Chambers (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Seduction Renounced: 'Sylvie' as Narrative Act," in Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 97-122.

[Here, Chambers analyzes several narrative approaches in Sylvie and comments on themes in the novella.]

The Narration of Madness

Why [. . .] does the narrator produce the narrative act that is Sylvie? "Si j'écrivais un roman," he says (and [. . .] it is precisely not a romance he is writing), "jamais je ne pourrais faire accepter l'histoire d'un coeur épris de deux amours simultanés." This means that, in the antiromance he does give us, the...

(The entire section is 7956 words.)

Kari Lokke (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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

[In the excerpt below, Lokke discusses Nerval's depiction of women in his short fiction.]

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, Conila, Emilie), Pandora, Aurélia, Les Chimères ("Myrtho," "Delfica," "Artémis")

This poet, who never knew his mother, who never married, who seemed most at ease with women when separated from them by the...

(The entire section is 11101 words.)

Susan Noakes (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nerval: Reading between the Lines," in Timely Reading: Between Exegesis and Interpretation, Cornell, 1988, pp. 135-56.

[In the following excerpt, Noakes observes the significance of time in Aurélia and comments on the relationship between the narrator and his double in the novella.]

The Failed Dialectic of Exegesis and Interpretation

Aurélia begins with a catalogue of the narrator's mental library and his statement that his readings have driven him mad: "[Cette folie] est la faute de mes lectures" (My readings bear the blame for [this madness]). It is important to distinguish this statement from Francesca's, for...

(The entire section is 7404 words.)

George MacLennan (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gérard de Nerval: 'Madness Tells Her Story'," in Lucid Interval: Subjective Writing and Madness in History, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992, pp. 177-95.

[Below, MacLennan studies Nerval's subjective portrayal of madness in Aurélia and relates the tale to other nineteenth-century French literature. He examines the story's conclusion and reviews Nerval's use of visionary sequences and dream narratives.]

Gérard's sojourn in the asylum in the final episodes of Aurélia parallels George Trosse's experience in Glastonbury and Cowper's in St Albans. Each protagonist undergoes a spiritual resurrection in a place of healing. In...

(The entire section is 5127 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story 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.


Rhodes, S. A. Gérard de Nerval, 1808-1855: Poet, Traveler, Dreamer. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951, 416 p.

The only full-length English biography of Nerval. The author presents critical commentary incidental to biographical information.

Symons, Arthur. "Gérard de Nerval." In his The Symbolist Movement in Literature, pp. 10-36. New York: E. P....

(The entire section is 1627 words.)