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Mademoiselle de Scudéry Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Mademoiselle de Scudéry,” considered to be Hoffmann’s supreme achievement, may be the earliest mystery story. It served also as the inspiration for the opera Cardillac by twentieth century composer Paul Hindemith. Like many of Hoffmann’s tales, it provides a psychologically accurate portrait of a pathological personality, in this case a split personality, or a Jekyll-and-Hyde figure, the master jeweler Cardillac. Written with attention to historical accuracy, and the creation of the mood in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, the story is also a masterpiece of narrative technique, using a minor poet and spinster of advanced age, Mademoiselle de Scudéry, as the agency by which the fiendish criminal-artist is brought to justice.

A lengthy tale, “Mademoiselle de Scudéry” includes a narrative about a rash of notorious poisonings and the consequent creation of a special tribunal in Paris to hunt down malefactors. This reference serves to explain the mood of Parisians, who are almost hysterical even before the murders are perpetrated by Cardillac. It also calls into question the kind of justice available in society when a citizenry is roused, a query pertinent to events not only in Hoffmann’s time but also in the present age.

In the main story, Cardillac’s apprentice Olivier, who has Mademoiselle’s special “pet” as a baby, and Madelon, the jeweler’s daughter, are wrongfully accused of the theft of Cardillac’s jewels and his murder. The young couple are portrayed as shining examples of virtue, and Scudéry must clear up the confusion to save the innocent couple.

In what proves to be a tortuous process, Cardillac’s criminal behavior is revealed, but, to protect Madelon from knowledge of her father’s crimes, Mademoiselle de Scudéry must secretly narrate the true events to the king himself, whose heart is softened by Madelon’s resemblance to a woman whom the king once loved but lost to the convent. Formal procedures are circumvented in the interest of subjective and arbitrary considerations. Only the honesty of individuals assures that the streets of Paris are safe and that justice has been served.

Cardillac is revealed to be the victim of a prenatal influence—his mother’s pathological appetite for jewelry during her pregnancy. He is driven to create masterpieces of jewelry in his daytime identity as the irreproachable jeweler for Paris nobility (Dr. Jekyll). At night, however, he is obsessively compelled to steal the lovely baubles back, killing their rightful owners (Mr. Hyde). After many baffling murders, one of Cardillac’s victims parries the knife thrust intended to kill him and stabs Cardillac instead. Olivier, who has...

(The entire section is 650 words.)