Renée Mauperin

by Edmond de Goncourt, Jules de Goncourt

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Critical Evaluation

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Above all, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt valued truth in literature; in all of their novels, they attempted to find the truth of the subjects they chose. In this they were in the vanguard of a literary trend in the late nineteenth century known as naturalism, which reached its zenith in the works of Émile Zola. In Renée Mauperin, the Goncourts analyze with shrewdness and precision a particular segment of Parisian society. Viewing this world through the eyes of an intelligent and sensitive young woman, they depict the shallowness and pettiness of many of the self-satisfied people who dominate society and try to dominate her.

The book also describes the various conditions of women in mid-nineteenth century France. There is the impetuous young Renée, who as a child cuts Denoisel’s hair and smokes her father’s cigarette and who later struggles against the conventions imposed on young Parisian women in 1864. There is Madame Mauperin, with her passion for “symmetry” and her fairly ordinary habit of overvaluing her son and undervaluing her daughter. Two other typical types of the period are Madame Davarande, the society matron who is religious only because she believes that God is chic, and Madame Bourjot, an intelligent woman married to a shallow and petty fool. In this society, the authors seem to suggest, only a shallow person seems able to find contentment, and this seems particularly to be the case for women.

Many of the other characters, notably Renée’s doting and scholarly father and the sophisticated and subtle Abbé Blampoix, are well drawn. The Goncourt brothers were not known for character analysis, but their characterization in this novel surpasses that in many of their other books. Renée’s sudden admission of having inadvertently caused her brother’s death is skillfully and devastatingly handled; the moment reveals complexities of Renée’s character that up to that point had been only suggested.

The novel is filled with witty conversations that bring the era to life. The authors, aware of the value and interest of precise details, integrate them into the book through conversations and descriptions, often using them to delineate character. Frequently, conversations are used to suggest comments on society, as when a room full of talking people is described as “voices . . . all mingled together in the Babel: it was like the chirping of so many birds in a cage.” It is this cage that Renée wants to escape, but ultimately this is possible only through her death.

The novelistic strength of the Goncourts lies in pure observation. Perhaps they are less broad in their accomplishments than the greatest nineteenth century novelists, but in their best books, such as Renée Mauperin, they combine a precise and vivid picture of the society they knew so well with a sympathetic and touching story and shrewd observations on human nature.

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