Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin shocked contemporaries with its unrestrained sensuality, but the novel is not concerned primarily with sexual desire; rather, its focus is the quest for an ideal lover. For d’Albert, the pleasures of the spirit hold no appeal. His orientation toward love is aesthetic, just as his evaluations of objects are artistic. The major episodes in the novel are organized around critical moments in d’Albert’s quest for ideal beauty. His discouragement initially stems from his failure to find a woman who lives up to his requirements. His affair with Rosette deepens his despair because, even though he finds her sexually exciting, she does not embody ideal beauty. He frequently laments the shortcoming of a world that lacks the embodiment of his conception of perfect beauty. He seeks that beauty in vain until he finds Mademoiselle de Maupin, whom he possesses for only one night. She leaves him because, as she explains, the human tendency to satiety will inevitably cause their happy relationship to deteriorate. The renewal of his relationship with Rosette is a compromise with reality. He rationalizes that his demands may be too extreme and that Rosette can mitigate his suffering.
Like d’Albert, Madelaine seeks the living embodiment of an ideal, but for her it is the character of a loved one that is important. Whereas d’Albert’s desires are physical, Madelaine’s are ethical. Her demands seem, however, equally extreme, though they are only vaguely described. Rosette’s passion for Théodore, the male identity that Madelaine has adopted, demonstrates precisely the kind of love that would bring Madelaine happiness. Rosette’s passion for Théodore is so absolute that it requires little requital. Assuming a male disguise, Madelaine discovers that men are fundamentally cynical in their treatment of women. Madelaine wants spiritual love and intense passion, which seem to be precisely what men avoid. At the end of the novel, Madelaine disappears, still hoping to find the ideal lover.
Much of the tension in the novel arises from an emphasis on the ambivalence of human sexuality. The physical duality of Madelaine/Théodore’s identity reflects an inner ambiguity of traditional notions of gender. Madelaine’s powerful sexual nature and forcefully articulated opinions are traditionally associated with masculinity, but her beauty and emotional sensitivity are portrayed as feminine. Gender confusion extends to the other characters as well. Rosette, who conforms to a traditionally feminine role in her relationship with d’Albert, actively seduces Théodore. D’Albert is told that he dresses in a feminine manner and finds himself looking on Rosette as a platonic friend. Although d’Albert values physical beauty, he finds himself most attracted to Madelaine’s keen mind. In fact, Madelaine provides a counterpoint to many of d’Albert’s theories. Although d’Albert desires her as a second half, she actually mirrors his own sexual ambivalence.
The triangular relationships in the novel place happiness beyond reach. The dynamics of the triangle depend on tensions and oppositions, attractions and connections. The comic triangle of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, acted out by Rosette’s guests, mirrors and complicates the relationships. Madelaine playing Rosalind is disguised as the youth Ganymede to test her lover Orlando. While disguised as Ganymede, Rosalind attracts the unwelcome attention of Phoebe. This situation mirrors her own: As Théodore she attracts the attention of Rosette, and as Madelaine she appeals to d’Albert. Rosette, as the page Isabel, pursues Ganymede much as she pursues Théodore/Madelaine. D’Albert’s confusion mirrors that of Orlando. On seeing Madelaine dressed as Rosalind for the play, both d’Albert and Rosette question her true identity.
The plot traces the protagonists’ explorations of their own identities. Since the novel’s narrative structure is self-conscious, the...
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explorations of self in the text draw attention to the fiction of fixed identity. D’Albert’s identity doubles his own ironic narration. He fantasizes and then critiques his fantasies, and then criticizes that self-reflexive impulse itself. The playacting, both in the characters’ rendition ofAs You Like It and in their interactions with one another in the novel, allows the characters to question ambiguities of identity. Gautier frequently resorts to masks and mirrors to express the duality of human existence. Metamorphosis, borrowed from Shakespeare’s play as well as from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), prominently figures as literary allusion and overarching theme.
Mademoiselle de Maupin is not only the most beautifully written of Gautier’s novels but also his most sustained profession of his creed. Many of Gautier’s theories of art appear in the preface and text, where he derides utility in art and declares that nothing is beautiful unless it is useless. The preface ultimately became the credo of the art-for-art’s-sake movement, with its insistence on the sovereignty of art, independent of moral and social conditions. The love of palpable, external beauty is a primary feature of Gautier’s work, and the novel reads as a series of vivid visual descriptions. His taste for Greek sculpture and Gothic architecture is apparent, as are rich allusions to literary precursors. A painter’s eye for visual form and color contributes to the stylistic beauty of Gautier’s prose.
According to Gautier, the artist combines masculine and feminine traits to translate the image of feminine beauty into art. The desire for an androgynous union of male and female surfaces in the novel as well. D’Albert would like to combine the awareness of beauty with the state of being beautiful. The relationship between art and sexuality is a central issue of the novel. D’Albert’s quest as both artist and lover reenacts the Romantic quest to overcome the split between self and another. Théodore/Madelaine as a work of art is not so easily appropriated by an observer. There is no simple identity to be unmasked. Constant transformation and veiled appearances dramatize the endless process of aesthetic creativity. The equivocal position of Madelaine, her ability to arouse a double passion, suggests that beauty may be loved independent of sex. Despite his lengthy passages analyzing the Romantic soul, which verge on parody, Gautier emphasizes the confining nature of sexual stereotypes, elaborates the notion of endlessly evolving beauty, and explores the nature of love, pleasure, and desire.