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...
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