Mademoiselle de Maupin

by Théophile Gautier

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The protagonist of Mademoiselle de Maupin, d'Albert, is a man who is intrigued and captured by beauty. His preoccupation with it is so extreme that it actually creates problems for him in his life. It's held him back from forming real relationships. He says:

All this does not prevent me from positively wanting a mistress. I do not know who it will be, but I see none among the women of my acquaintance who could suitably fill this dignified position. I find that they possess very few of the qualities I require. Those who would be young enough are wanting in beauty or intellectual charm; those who are beautiful and young are basely and forbiddingly virtuous, or lack the necessary freedom; and then there is always some husband, some brother, a mother or an aunt, somebody or other, with big eyes and large ears, who must be wheedled or thrown out of the window. Every rose has its worm, and every woman has a swarm of relations who must be carefully cleared away, if we wish to pluck some day the fruit of her beauty.

When a friend takes him and introduces him to Rosette, d'Albert thinks that he might have met someone who can fulfill him. But the excitement of a new relationship fades and he begins to get bored with her. Even when she takes them to the country for a gathering in the hopes of entertaining him, d'Albert is still unsatisfied.

While at the gathering, both he and Rosette have feelings for a person named Theodore. He is a beautiful man who is clever, talented, and friendly. Though he doesn't seem to have deep feelings to Rosette, he does connect more and more with d'Albert. His beauty is such that d'Albert thinks he might even be a woman. He thinks:

Theodore must be a woman disguised; the thing is impossible otherwise. Such beauty, even for a woman, is not the beauty of a man, were he Antinoiis, the friend of Adrian; were he Alexis, the friend of Virgil. It is a woman, by heaven, and I was very foolish to torment myself in such a manner. In this way everything is explained in the most natural fashion in the world, and I am not such a monster as I believed.

As they work on the play that the guests are putting on, he becomes more and more convinced that he's right. Eventually, he tells Theodore what he believes and discovers that she's really Madelaine de Maupin. She wanted to find a man to be with who was a good, authentic person. Unfortunately, men weren't willing to show their true selves to women—so she disguised herself as a man to get to the truth.

Madelaine and d'Albert have a night together that fulfills exactly what he wanted from a woman. He finds true beauty in her. But when he wakes in the morning, she's gone. In her letter, she says:

If you are too much grieved at losing me, burn this letter, which is the only proof that you have possessed me, and you will believe that you have had a beautiful dream. What is there to hinder you? The vision has vanished before the light, at the hour when dreams return home through the horn or the ivory gate. How many have died who, less fortunate than you, have not even given a single kiss to their chimera!

She recognizes that she'd never fulfill his expectations in the long-term. He will always be looking for the next thing that makes him feel in awe, rather than a relationship with a real person which can never make him feel that way consistently. By leaving, she stays a beautiful dream; she stays important. She counsels him to stay with his lover, Rosette, saying:

Comfort poor Rosette as well as you can, for she must be at least as sorry for my departure as you are. Love each other well in memory of me, whom both of you have loved, and breathe my name sometimes in a kiss.

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