Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

The Goncourt Journals were begun on December 2, 1851, the day on which Louis-Napoleon dissolved the National Assembly and made himself dictator, as a first step toward becoming Emperor of the French. The journals span the years of the Second Empire in France.

It was the intention of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt to capture and record “momentary reality” in their journals. They carefully noted their impressions and the actual words of men of their time. As in their realistic novels they tried to be objective, so in their journals they claim as their own an attempt at complete impartiality. Though Edmond was eight years older than Jules, they thought as one, and there is nothing to suggest any difference in opinion concerning the correct interpretation of any event or circumstance. The journals are in fact far from being objective or impartial. Part of their interest lies in the light these records of people and the age cast upon the personal preferences and prejudices of the Goncourts.

In the net they cast, the Goncourts catch not only the most outstanding men of letters of the period, but in addition acquaintances of the latter. Though Victor Hugo, for example, could not possibly be present in Paris at that time, since he was in exile in the Channel Islands, his literary or spiritual presence is very much felt; for both Gautier and Sainte-Beuve—friends of the Goncourts—had been very close to Hugo, and frequently reminisced about him.

The brothers were masters of the word portrait in miniature. To the initial portrait, new touches and shadings were added over the years, until eventually the person represented in it seems to acquire a life of his own within the journals. Moreover, so great is the Goncourts’ success in revealing to the reader the antipathies and enthusiasms of the persons they describe, that even writers of previous centuries—Voltaire, Diderot, Moliere, Corneille—seem to be given a breath of new life in these pages.

The Goncourt brothers did not depend fully upon their writing for an income. However, they were members of a relatively new breed of men in France; that is, they were professional men of letters, imaginative writers in the hire of a society with whose ideals they did not necessarily agree. The brothers share with other artists of the period characteristic preoccupations and dislikes. Thus, as a document giving information about the current of ideas during the Second Empire, the journals are precious.

The exasperation caused by the severity of censorship under Napoleon the Third is shown as not being by any means peculiar to Baudelaire and Flaubert. In the journals, it emerges as a pattern of frustration. Similarly, Baudelaire’s preference for the town over the country and his very fear of nature are shown to be sentiments that the Goncourts understand and feel also; by a process of extension that the reader will readily operate, this aversion will be viewed as rather characteristic of the age. The Goncourts, with their extremely refined sensibility, their artistic tastes, and their Parisian life, voice their hostility to Nature in several places. In one they ask whether a thinking man does not feel ill at ease in the country, as if in the presence of an enemy.

While it is true that the Goncourts did seem to prefer the city to the country, this fact should not be interpreted as a stamp of approval for the industrialization and mercantilism spreading throughout France in the 1850’s and 1860’s. In places, there are references to the “American Babylon” that the Goncourts feared France was becoming. Their distaste for the “Exposition Universelle” of 1867 is made very plain. For them, it was a symbol and a summing up of the “Americanization” and industrialization which they resented. In another interesting entry, the brothers lay bare what was for them a symptom of creeping commercialism in France: they point out that in the bookshops of Paris the bookseller has given up the practice of leaving out a chair for his customers. The new emphasis, the Goncourts claim, is upon buying, not browsing. Their distaste, incidentally, was common to many writers of the time.

Unlike the creations of Balzac’s vast imagination, the real literary figures who appear and reappear in the journals do not come with their price tag, their holdings of property and...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)