Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527
(Pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle) French short story writer, novelist, travel writer, critic, and biographer.
One of the most highly regarded French authors of the nineteenth century, Stendhal achieved his lasting reputation mainly on the strength of his two major novels, Le rouge et le noir (1830; The Red...
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- Critical Essays
(Pseudonym of Marie-Henri Beyle) French short story writer, novelist, travel writer, critic, and biographer.
One of the most highly regarded French authors of the nineteenth century, Stendhal achieved his lasting reputation mainly on the strength of his two major novels, Le rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black) and La chartreuse de Parme (1839; The Charterhouse of Parma). Like other writers of the Romantic era, he celebrated extreme emotional states and actions, coining the term "Beylisme" to describe the passionate pursuit of self-fullfilment that was his personal goal. Unlike other Romantics, however, he wrote in a straightforward, realistic manner, critically examining the social climate and manners of his time.
Stendhal adored his mother, who died when he was seven. However, he despised both his lawyer father and his native provincial town of Grenoble, and escaped as soon as he could under the pretense of attending a school in Paris that he never actually enrolled in. Earning his living as a civil servant and military bureaucrat, he cultivated friends among the literary salon socialites of Paris, and served as a supply officer with Napoleon's army. In Milan, where he was stationed for several years, he became a heartfelt devotee of Italian art and culture. For the rest of his life he divided his time between Paris and Italy, devoting himself to the two major interests of his life, pursuing romantic adventures with women and writing.
Major Works of Short Fiction
As a young, aspiring writer, Stendhal failed in his ambition to become a playwright specializing in comedy, but found some success as a critic and travel writer. In middle age he devoted himself increasingly to fiction. Beginning with the unsuccessful novella Armance (1827), a study of a young man driven to suicide by sexual impotence, he went on to create the novels that critics regard as his most significant works, The Red and the Black, The Charter-house of Parma and the unfinished Lucien Leuwen. He also wrote a small number of short stories. These include "Mina de Vanghel," about the tragic romantic affairs of a German heiress, which was later reworked into the novella Le rose et le vert (1837; The Pink and the Green), and the handful of tales that were later collected under the title Chroniques italiennes (1855; Italian Chronicles). These Italian stories, including "The Cenci," "Vittorio Accoramboni," and the novella-length "Abbesse de Castro," were for the most part adaptations of old manuscripts dating from the Renaissance that Stendhal had collected while living in Italy. Dealing with forbidden sexual desires and gruesome murders, they reflect Stendhal's fascination with the sort of passionate Romantic experience he felt could be found in Italy but not in the rational civilization of France.
For the most part, Stendhal's short fiction has been regarded as secondary to his more accomplished full-length novels and nonfiction writings. However, scholars have found value in studying these shorter pieces as reflections of his developing skills as a storyteller, finding in them themes that would take shape in his more important works. Particularly interesting to contemporary critics is Armance, its depiction of a psychosexually tormented hero inviting a wide range of interpretations.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153
Armance; ou, quelques scènes d'un salon de Paris en 1827 (novella) 1827
Le rose et le vert [The Pink and the Green] (novella) 1837
L'Abbesse de Castro (novella) 1839
Chroniques italiennes [Italian Chronicles] (short stories) 1855
Other Major Works
Vie de Haydn, de Mozart, et de Métastase (biography) 1814
Histoire de la peinture en Italie (nonfiction) 1817
Rome, Naples, et Florence en 1817 (travel essay) 1817
De l'amour [On Love] (nonfiction) 1822
Racine et Shakespeare [Racine and Shakespeare] 2 vols. (criticism) 1823-25
Vie de Rossini (biography) 1823
Promenades dans Rome (travel essay) 1829
Le rouge et le noir [The Red and the Black] (novel) 1830
Mémoires d'un tourise [Memoirs of a Tourist] (travel essay) 1838
La chartreuse de Parme [The Charterhouse of Parma] (novel) 1839
Lucien Leuwen (unfinished novel) 1855
Lamiel (unfinished novel) 1889
La vie de Henri Brûlard [The Life of Henri Brulard] (autobiography) 1890
Souvenirs d'égotisme [Memoirs of an Egotist] (autobiography) 1892
Oeuvres complètes 72 vols. (prose) 1927-37
The Private Diaries of Stendhal (diaries) 1954
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SOURCE: "The Eternal Tourist," in Stendhal; or, The Pursuit of Happiness, Doubleday and Co., 1946, pp. 401-17.
[In the following excerpt, Josephson examines Stendhal's thematic approach to the Italian Chronicles.]
One cherished literary project that Stendhal reserved for his leave of absence was that of adapting into French the collection of Italian memoirs which he had been gathering for many years. These genuine documents, he held, formed a veritable "introduction to the knowledge of the human heart." They teemed with conspiracies, robberies, rapes, and murders, often committed for the sake of ambition; they were for him penetrated still with "the fierce energy . . . the gigantic passions of the Middle Ages."
Modern Italian thinkers, like Benedetto Cróce, tend to smile a good deal at the habit of most Italophiles, including Stendhal, of seeing everywhere the Italy of pagan voluptuousness, Machiavellian perfidy, and Borgian crime. Stendhal doubtless exaggerated in picturing the Italy of his time in such colors as he used; but his interpretation of seventeenth-century Italy as an era of relative anarchy and large-scale brigandage, following the downfall of most of the city-republics, scarcely errs, and was later corroborated by the more extensive researches of Jacob Burckhardt.
But whereas Burckhardt, and also the French historian, Michelet, popularized the idea that the Renaissance civilization was a "final flowering" of culture, engendered by the revival of Hellenistic learning (Humanism), Stendhal, before them, shrewdly suggested that there was a strong relationship between the whole "rebirth" of the fine arts in Italy and the social tendencies and drives dating from the Middle Ages—a view that is much closer to that of today's historical theorists. To his mind the men of the Renaissance, and even their near descendants, approached what might be called "the state of nature." They were what "noble savages" were to Rousseau, and "primitives" to aesthetes of today. Stendhal, then, saw "natural man" in the contemporaries of Lorenzo de' Medici and Leonardo. In those days society was a miracle of courtly refinement and artistic creativeness; yet the age was notable also for its excesses of lust, violence, and treachery. To Stendhal this was no paradox. He wrote in a letter of November 21, 1835:
It was those bold morals that nurtured the Raphaels and Michelangelos whom people pretend to imitate so stupidly by means of academies and schools of fine arts. What they forget is that it needs a bold spirit to wield the brush of a master, and not that of some poor devil condemned to pay court to a bureaucrat in order to get a commission for a picture.
To the uninhibited violence and passion of the earlier Italians, Stendhal, like some psychoanalysts of today, attributes their creative genius. It was, for his time, a challenging and advanced notion, very close to Freud's idea that the great creative artist may be defined as "a successful neurotic." In the same spirit, Stendhal, so lawabiding himself, fondly regards the seventeenth-century banditti and assassins who are heroes of the tales he writes or adapts, in his volume of Italian Chronicles (Chroniques italiennes), as individual manifestations of the drive toward liberty and justice. All previous ideas about these people, as given by writers of the "melodramatic" school, are false, he declares at the beginning of the story of "The Abbess de Castro." "One may say, in general, that those brigands were the opposition to the cruel governments which in Italy succeeded the republics of the Middle Ages." How often they used poison or the stiletto to dispatch some petty tyrant!
In 1821, Stendhal had appealed to Sir Walter Scott by letter, urging him to turn to Italy for his subjects, and "paint a true picture of the Middle Ages. . . . " He had suggested stories based on the lives of Rienzi, Cosimo de' Medici, and others. But Scott never replied to him, though other English authors such as Byron and Shelley were already utilizing the lore of Italy with notable results. Stendhal had continued his reading and purchasing of old Italian manuscripts until this became a mania with him throughout the 1820s and 1830s. Eventually he possessed a hundred quarto volumes of manuscripts. He wrote to Sainte-Beuve, in December 1834, "I have selected that which appealed to me as revealing the human heart. . . . Their style is without pretension or noble rhetoric, and I shall translate them thus." The manuscripts themselves he desired to bequeath to a library in Paris, so that men could see that he had written the truth.
In 1837, finally, he was able to make an arrangement with Francois Buloz, editor of the newly founded Revue des deux mondes, to publish these tales in his own French versions. Two years later they appeared in book form.
Each of his Chroniques is a drama of passional violence. In "The Abbess de Castro" the heroine loves and is loved by a brave soldier of fortune who, in an unsuccessful attempt to abduct her, kills her father, then is forced to flee for his life. She is shut up in a convent, but eventually, thinking her lover dead, becomes the mistress of the Bishop of Castro, and bears a bastard. Her adulteries being discovered, there is great scandal, and this at the moment when her first lover returns from exile to reclaim her. Though she might have escaped condemnation, in remorse, and for honor's sake, she kills herself.
"Vittoria Accoramboni" is the case of a lady who secretly poisons one husband after another, but of whom a horrid vengeance is exacted by the brothers of one of her victims. Pursued by the authorities, these murderers are only done for after a stirring, pitched battle in the streets of Venice. The other tales, which include that of "The Cenci," dominated by such subjects as incestuous passion, parricide and rape, are pitched in much the same key. In this whole collection, only the tale of "Vanina Vanini" is set in the nineteenth century. This is based on the affair of a brave young Carbonaro and a young girl of the Roman nobility who, by chance, succors him when wounded, and at the risk of her own life nurses him back to health. She loves him madly, and willingly yields the flower of her virtue to him; but when one day she sees that his heart is more wedded to the cause of Italian liberty than to herself, she betrays him to the authorities. The inclusion of "Vanina Vanini," a story presumably based upon a recent episode, among the collection of true chronicles of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, is Stendhal's way of saying that Italian "primitivism" survives in his own time, that men and human motives have changed little.
These stories of crime and vengeance, which Stendhal in the main adapted faithfully enough from original manuscripts, are in one sense a compensation for the very sedentary life he had led since 1814, much as in the case of our sedentary authors of crime fiction and their readers. But in a more important sense they reflect his deep interest (despite his love of reason and logic) in "primitive" passion and violence, in the "unexpected" (le divin imprévu), that he constantly distinguishes in the unconscious mind. His preoccupation, at this stage, is not with ideas of social order, but with the realities of instinctual passion, fear, aggressiveness, greed, lust, in individual and group, the unshrinking knowledge of which offers a challenge to our systems of ethics. The Italians of the Renaissance were, for him, men and women who developed their individualities as far as possible, defying the limits of morality and religion that had confined men's behavior in earlier times. (For this reason, Nietzsche, in imitation of Stendhal, later wrote that he wished we might become again as the men of the Italian Renaissance.)
But in this world of violence, are there any standards or code of values that may serve to defend society, in the long run, against limitless evil? To Stendhal (as for Burckhardt later) the sense of honor was a moral determinant in the Renaissance Italian when all else failed. In the long opening story of "The Abbess de Castro," approximately the size of a short novel, Stendhal, with his usual shrewdness, presents a complex picture of such unbridled conduct, yet shows the sense of honor irrevocably determining the self-inflicted fate of the Abbess. It is the same motive, that, in the guise of selfless patriotism, in "Vanina Vanini," determines the young revolutionary rather to go to his death on the wheel than accept the chance of escape which his treacherous mistress, in her repentance, offers him. The sense of honor is an enigmatic enough mixture of conscience and egotism; it is compatible with vice and maddening illusion; yet the most gifted personality, though plunged in defeat or despair, may still draw immense strength from its source.
Stendhal's recurrent absorption in the anti-rational, the unexpected and the fantastic in human nature, has troubled many pious moralists. Yet what he attempted with so much insight was to introduce method and subject to reason these hitherto forbidden, uncharted regions of the mind. (It was a work that at the end of the nineteenth century would be taken up on a grand scale both as the field of scientists and great novelists.) Meanwhile he bids us in the Italian Chronicles to seek "understanding of the profound hatreds, the eternal suspicions, which gave so much wit and courage to Italians of the sixteenth century, and so much genius to their artists."
Nor was he wrong to say this, we reflect, when we think of the residual violence that has featured Italy's recent tragic history, and Germany's, under the madmen of power. Indeed, Stendhal recalls to us that a secret esteem for crime lurks in the minds of the uneducated masses, behind the facade of a policed civilization, and is linked with impulses either of revolution or of destruction and retrogression. He was of course not the first thinker to make such observations. From Stendhal and Freud (both essentially men of reason grappling with the anti-rational) we have received gloomy warnings of the dangers that lie in the easy assumption of an inevitable social progress. Nevertheless Stendhal—his was no "closed system," to be sure—clung firmly enough to his faith in a naturalistic "logic," a pragmatic strategy of happiness. Similarly, in his later years, Freud's dark presentiments about the future of human society were also brightened by hope for the conciliation of the ego and the collective.
The Italian Chronicles, besides being the most spirited of Stendhal's shorter pieces, have the added value of providing a key to the understanding of his last book, that masterwork of his ripe years, The Charterhouse of Parma. It was while he lived in France that he dreamed of Italy in her freshest colors. It was while he was absorbed in reading over and adapting one of his most precious Italian manuscripts, one giving the secret history of the celebrated Farnese family, that the inspiration came to him to enlarge upon this subject in the form of a novel.
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SOURCE: "Preface to Armance," in Pretexts: Reflections on Literature and Morality, Meridian Books, 1959, pp. 260-74.
[In the following essay, Gide discusses the theme of impotence in Armance.]
To speak properly of Stendhal, one would have to have something of his style. If we take his word for it, he almost always writes out of boredom; but so lively is his pleasure in doing so, that we never share his boredom, but only the pleasure that follows it. There is no struggle; he never says anything excepting when he wants to; that is, with the least effort. As others yield to idleness, he gives himself over to thought. When he is logical, he is naturally so because of a healthy mind; he does not claim to be logical, since he claims nothing; and he amuses us the most when he ceases to be logical, because then he is carried away by his passion and by that sensibility, in him more exquisite than reason, because logic is the property of all and sensibility is his alone, and because it is he, above all, whom we love in what he says. So much so that we are not vexed if he is mistaken and if we cannot adopt his tastes. But these he values, and I do not know which would astonish him more, if he were to return to earth today: the disrepute into which have fallen almost all the works of art that he extolled—operas, pictures, statues, poems—or the signal favor in which his own writings are held. I am well aware that he hoped to be read later; but could he foresee—and would he not have lost that natural tone, had he foreseen—that the slightest stroke of his pen would be sought out with a kind of meticulous devotion which Baudelaire alone was to share with him in our time, as also Baudelaire alone shared with him the very unjust rejection by his contemporaries; could he foresee, after all, that his work, devoid of artifice, of artificiality, would appeal to us today with such youthful grace among so many ruins; that Taine, who had extracted all the conscious theory from it, would not succeed in making us disgusted with it, that we would be able to find a completely different teaching in it, more secret, as if expurgated?
I am pleased to have been asked to speak specifically about Armance. Up to now this book has been somewhat neglected; unjustly so, in my opinion. Admiration is directed toward Le Rouge et le noir, La Chartreuse, Lucien Leuwen even, or toward the incomparable Henri Brûlard, for which, whenever I reread it, I feel that I would sacrifice all the rest. And yet I know certain writers, not among the least important, who retain a kind of predilection for Armance. But in the eyes of the common reader and even of Stendhalians, Armance has not yet fully recovered from the judgment of Sainte-Beuve: "This novel, enigmatic in its basic premise, without truth in its detail, gives no promise of imagination and genius."
It must be confessed that the book is disconcerting. The plot unfolds not only among the characters, but especially between the author and the reader. I might almost be tempted to say that it makes game of the reader. If we read Armance superficially, at first we see only an idyl; if we persist in this interpretation, we sense vaguely that we are duped and we find this embarrassing. We need the explanation that I should be very bold in proposing, if I were not aided precisely by Stendhal himself: in a certain letter of his to Mérimée, we will find the key to Armance, the key to the enigma that the book poses for the reader. As long as the key word is lacking, the character of Octave, the hero of the novel, remains incomprehensible; once we have it, everything becomes clear; this hero, who is in love, is impotent.
Impotent: this is revealed in his gestures, his actions; but we could remain in doubt because the novel skillfully maintains the secret. On two occasions Octave is ready to reveal his secret to the woman whom we must call, in spite of everything, his mistress; but first his courage fails him, and rather than confess that, he uses another secret to feed the curiosity that he awakens, a shameful secret, but less ignominious in his eyes, an old transgression either imaginary or real; he "tells his friend that when he was young he had a passion for stealing." But we sense clearly that this is only a pretense, sufficient, however, to upset Armance and to disconcert the reader.
"Well," said Octave, stopping, turning toward her, and staring at her steadily, no longer as a lover, but so as to read her mind, "you will know everything; death would be less painful to me than what I must tell you, but I do love you much more than life. Must I swear to you, no longer as your lover (and at this moment his gaze was not that of a lover), but as a gentleman, as I would swear to your father, had the grace of heaven permitted him to live, do I need to swear to you that I love you, alone, in this world as I have never loved, as I shall never love? To be separated from you would be death for me, and a hundred times worse than death; but I have a hideous secret, which I have never confessed to anyone, and this secret will explain to you the peculiarities that are my fate."
However, he does not yet tell his secret; he finds it more expedient to write it. But the letter never reaches Armance; she will never know this secret—nor will the reader unless he has been able to guess it.
In addition to the explanatory letter to Mérimée, we have for our enlightenment a copy of Armance, annotated by Stendhal himself, in which, opposite this sentence: "Love her! I, a most unfortunate man!" we read this handwritten indication: "Try to make the reader guess the impotence, put here: 'And how could she love me?'"
And further along after the sentence: "He had a horror of this feeling [love]"; we find: "A thousand times in four years he had sworn to himself that he would never love. The obligation not to love was the foundation of his whole behavior and the great concern of his life."
Thus the impotence of Octave is never precisely mentioned; constantly implied, it provokes a certain attitude and certain gestures in the hero which are inexplicable unless we presuppose it. To make the reader guess this impotence is, we might say, the very subject of the book, and I know of no other that requires a more subtle collaboration of the reader; to tell the truth, not until we are informed and reread the book do we understand the full meaning of certain indications that we first take at face value. Take, for instance, this epigraph from Marlowe put at the beginning of the second chapter: "Melancholy mark'd him for her own, whose ambitious heart overates [sic] the happiness he cannot enjoy." This is translated almost literally in the chapter that follows by this sentence: "A passionate imagination led him to overrate in his own mind the happiness he could not enjoy." If this exquisite sentence, which could just as well fit any human being of a somewhat romantic disposition, takes on a more concrete, more precise meaning when it is applied to Octave, we are given no indication of this in the beginning. Likewise, when Stendhal writes, speaking of Octave: "The only thing he lacked was an ordinary soul," we understand what he meant only later: if he had an ordinary soul, he would have been less tormented by this secret.
Stendhal knows perfectly well that we lack the explanation for which we are waiting during the whole course of the book; he knows he ought to give it to us; but, as he confesses in a note (26 May 1828): "I can find no way of saying this becomingly in the work; rather in the preface" Of all of Stendhal's books, none other had greater need of a preface than this one; and if I seem to emphasize this a little too much, the words I have just quoted are my excuse.
Thus in his first novel (and right away it is important to note that Stendhal was already forty-four years old in 1827 when he wrote it, and that this first novel is already his seventh work), Stendhal offers us a "case": the case of an impotent man; and what may seem paradoxical, an impotent man in love. On the contrary, is it possible that he found the theory of his master Cabanis paradoxical? "It is the seminal humor alone that... " a theory later adopted by De Gourmont, who also refuses to see anything in the feeling of love not dictated by this humor and not both aroused and satisfied by the act of procreation. The character of Octave is in direct contradiction to this truly elementary thesis. And since it becomes the feeling of love to find an opportunity for both recognition and exaggeration in obstacles and constraint, Stendhal seems to have wanted to show us that the strongest love rises up from the deepest frustration: of all the lovers in Stendhal, here is perhaps the most fervent one.
The obstacle is not exterior or moral; it is in his very constitution. Octave loves, and loves all the more passionately because he knows that he should not love, that he loves without hope, in spite of himself and the oath he swore to himself never to love, knowing very well that he can burn only with a completely mystic flame, and that, oh, shame! his flesh must remain deaf, not answering the call, knowing that he must disappoint his beloved.
To give this drama its fullest eloquence, Octave had to be endowed with the most exquisite scruples: for with a "common soul" Octave could have cheated—Stendhal notes this; and since everything in the character of his hero becomes clear after we learn his secret, we understand why Stendhal at this point stresses the "feeling of duty" which dominates all his thoughts. Octave consents to envisage marriage and love only in terms of all the obligations that they bring with them—obligations that he well knows he cannot fulfill. Now we understand why Octave first thought of becoming a priest, not through any religious vocation, but through cowardice, as if to conceal the reason for a compulsory celibacy under the rule. Finally we understand those pages, among the most mysterious and the most interesting in the book, which tell us of the bad company Octave keeps, at the time when he is most in love with Mademoiselle de Zohiloff; we understand that among women of easy morals, among those women, "the sight of whom is a defilement," he is seeking the possibility of experiences that may at last reassure him or confirm the cause of his despair.
So, therefore, the impotent man can be in love. Here Stendhal admits a possible distinction between the two elements that love usually unites. If one of the elements is lacking, the division is fatal; but think how much more astonishing it is when no lack is involved. I do not know that it can be better or more clearly established than it is in the admirable novel of Fielding, in which he makes Tom Jones, his hero, dally with the barmaids he meets on his way and shows that the more he is in love on the one hand, the more ribald he is on the other. "The delicacy of your sex," he says to Sophia, his virginal mistress, "cannot conceive the grossness of ours, nor how little one sort of amour has to do with the heart." Here there is no longer a distinction, but a dissociation, a divergence. Fielding's whole novel seems to demonstrate this naïve divorce: it ends when pure love and carnal desire are reconciled in marriage.
Did not Victor Hugo himself, although he was a very mediocre psychologist, likewise say that Marius (in Les Misérables) would rather frequent women of ill repute than raise the hem of Cosette's skirt, even in thought? For, as Louise Labe wrote exquisitely in her Débat de folie et d'amour (Discourse III), "lubricity and glandular enthusiasm have nothing, or very little, in common with Love." This explains why then the impotent man is capable of a most fervent and tender love; more fervent even than that of ordinary lovers precisely because it is thwarted in its very essence. It is more constant, too, because it is granted no release that might, it is to be feared, make love subside—for if the satisfaction of desire can sometimes stimulate love, more often it exhausts it—and also because this is the kind of love over which time has no hold.
Stendhal had met this dissociation through his own experience. His amorous career, already lengthy (as we said, he was forty-four when he wrote Armance) offers us only rare examples of the fusion of the senses and the soul. Most often he appears either sentimental or cynical. When he recalls his mistresses in Henri Brûlard, we see him write the initials of thirteen names on the sand (and by an amorous lapse of attention he traces twice those of Angela Pietragrua) and then we hear him confess: "Most of these charming beings did not honor me with their favors, but they have literally filled my whole life. After them came my works." And he adds: "As a matter of fact, I have had only six women whom I loved"; and if we want to count only his "successes," we are forced to reduce that number to four. It must be admitted that this is a very small number for someone who made pleasure the great affair of his life. This can be explained: for probably Stendhal was not very attractive, physically at least. He had no illusions about this. "Had I been happy," he wrote, "I would have been charming. Not because of my face and manners, certainly, but because of my heart, I could have been charming to a sensitive woman." But at that age when, filled with passion, it seems that he could have been most seductive, he experienced only rebuffs, so he confesses: "Therefore I spent without women the two or three years when my temperament was the most lively."
Not only did Stendhal know the dissociation of love and pleasure through his own experience, but he knew very well that an excess of love can go so far as to inhibit, if not precisely desire, at least the physiological reflexes that enable us to satisfy it. In one of the final chapters of De l'Amour, after having noted this sentence of Montaigne: "This misfortune [the "fiasco"] is to be feared only in undertakings in which we find our being tense beyond measure with desire and respect. ... " he adds, "if a grain of passion enters the heart, there enters also a grain of possible fiasco."
However, Octave's pride does not bear the idea of a fiasco; whether his impotence is incurable or temporary, he clearly foresees that if there is any woman in the world incapable of awakening his flesh, it is precisely the one whom he idolizes; whereas he can still hope to succeed with women of easy virtue.
Another consideration probably makes him keep to their society: he would rather have the reputation of a debauchee than to be thought incapable of being one. "The incredible scandal of your reputed conduct is said to have won for you an unfortunate notoriety among the most disreputable young people in Paris," says Armance to Octave, and the expression "is said to" is used only to indicate that she still has doubts; she expects a protest from Octave, but Octave cannot utter a denial, and "noticing with delight that the voice of Armance was trembling" when she related the gossip she had heard about him, he finally says to her: "All they have told you is true but will no longer be so in the future. I shall not appear again in those places where your friend should never have been seen." He says this either because he is carried away by his love for Armance and fears hurting her; or because there is no further reason for his going there, having acquired both the confirmation of his impotence and the false reputation he wanted in order to hide the fact.
Thus, without stressing the nature of this impotence, Stendhal allows us to understand that there is no outward sign of it, that it is not, properly speaking, organic, and that it includes the exterior attributes of virility. For too often it is thought to be accompanied by a general effeminacy, to be visible in the features of a face that has remained beardless, to be heard in high-pitched voice. But in the mechanism of love, the gears are many; little good it does to have those of the body in perfect state if their functioning remains uncontrolled by those of the soul, if the shifting of the gears does not take place.
Of the few "babylans" (to use Stendhal's word) who have confided in me, the saddest case—which could indeed be that of Octave, and that is why I tell it at this point—seems to be that of a young man, perfectly normal in appearance and physiologically whole, but incapable of sensual pleasure. The only release allowed him came during his sleep, but he did not feel it and became conscious of it only upon awakening. For him, pleasure was a terra ignota of which he dreamed constantly, which he tried in vain to attain, and toward which the smug tales of travelers to that land attracted him. As he begged me to help him find some remedy to his anguish, I put him into the hands of a very expert little actress who, I think, could do nothing for him. It would have been necessary to begin earlier.
"But," you will say with Cabanis, "if you agree that Octave is physiologically whole and that the cause of his babylanisme is not to be sought in an organic insufficiency, but rather in the nonobedience of that organ to the incitement of desire, this means that you recognize, in spite of what you first stated, that the mysterious intoxication of the soul is still due to the seminal humor?" This I answer by saying that the cause of impotence can also reside in the very lack of desire; that, moreover, I have never thought of venturing to deny the action of the said humor on our being; that what it was important for me to note was only that the demands of this humor can be exercised independently of love, even when it first awakens love; that love can sometimes be emancipated from it and be the more exalted the less it tends toward carnal possession. There would be much more to say on this subject. . . .
The constant preoccupation of the impotent man is to hide his secret from the eyes of everyone. He is usually most skillful in doing so, and he succeeds all the more readily because men, on this point, are quick to allow themselves to be deluded; they take so much pleasure in imagining intrigues and hidden acts in every freuentation of man and woman, thus encouraging and flattering their own salacity, that it is always easier to make others believe that a woman is your mistress than to hide the fact if she really is. From all the above, it follows that the babylans are very hard to recognize and consequently much more numerous than one thinks.
However numerous the babylans may be, and even were they more so, the case of Octave is nonetheless special. And as soon as this word "special" is applied to matters of love, its narrow meaning shrinks even more; so much so that usually the public and the critics do not willingly allow the novelist the right of invading this retreat. The slightest anomaly that the hero manifests in his relations with woman excludes him, so it seems, from the common run of humanity, who alone have the right to interest us. From the literary point of view, he is foreclosed. And so I admire Stendhal's choice of such a subject for his first novel. However, in my opinion what attracts him in this case is not the abnormal, but rather the particular.
And this is what separates him from, even sets him opposite to, Marivaux, of whom I thought irresistibly when I reread Armance. Here we find the favorite theme of Marivaux's plays: love's surprise and the slow conquest of a heart that refuses to allow itself to love; and even the naïveté of the lover who becomes aware of his feelings only when they are revealed to him by a third person: "This unexpected word [of the Comtesse d'Aumale] revealed to Octave the true feelings of his heart. . . . " We find his delicacy, his subtlety, the same sort of "tender nobility," sometimes almost his turn of mind. But I like this comparison only insomuch as it helps me sense more clearly an essential difference: whereas Marivaux (and this is what exasperates me in him) moves his heroes, who are depersonalized to the point of being abstract, through a land of delicate feelings whose map could serve anyone at all, the itinerary of Octave could be followed by no one but himself alone; the former proceeds from the general by way of deduction, and the latter works by induction; and if he seeks a general rule, he does so starting with a unique case, particular to the point of being an anomaly.
However clear this novel may seem to us at present—and I ought to have said again that of all the books of Stendhal, I find this one the most delicate and the most finely written—it nevertheless leaves us dissatisfied. Inasmuch as Stendhal tackled this difficult subject, we should have liked to see him carry it through to the end; but it seems that he loses courage at the last moment. He draws away from the final question, probably the most important; in the end, he skirts it and lets us wonder: How would Armance have received Octave's confession? That is just what we were waiting for. Faced with the inadequacy of the man she loved, how would the love of the beloved woman be transformed?
The letter to Mérimée gives us more information on this point, and we see that although Stendhal eluded this question in the book, it nonetheless preoccupied him. This letter allows us to glimpse two possible solutions after the marriage—supposing that Octave does not kill himself, the easiest way out, after all, and the one that Stendhal first proposed; for he said: "The true babylan must kill himself so as not to have the embarrassment of making a confession."
The first solution, that of the substitution of "the handsome peasant" who, at the right moment, "in exchange for a sequin" would take the place of the husband, seems to find some support in a singular sentence of Fielding:
That refined degree of Platonic affection which is absolutely detached from the flesh, and is, indeed, entirely and purely spiritual, is a gift confined to the female part of the creation; many of whom I have heard declare (and doubtless with great truth), that they would, with the utmost readiness, resign a lover to a rival, when such resignation was proved to be necessary for the temporal interest of such lover. Hence, therefore, I conclude that this affection is in nature, though [Fielding adds] I cannot pretend to say I have ever seen an instance of it.
Besides, I find it hard to believe that Armance, as Stendhal describes her to us, would have accepted such a substitution; no more so that to the second solution he proposes: that of trickery, of makeshift. Shall I add that I greatly distrust this letter to Mérimée? It seems to me (I agree with many a Stendhalian on this point) that Stendhal affects an excessive cynicism in it which he deems to be of a nature to please his correspondent and to win that certain consideration which his writings had not seemed able to bring him up to that time.
There remains the solution of Saint Alexis: flight. Please understand me. I am not claiming that the case of Octave is like that of Alexis; I simply say that a mystical babylan would not have acted differently.
But why seek a solution? Life proposes to us a quantity of situations which are clearly without solution and which can only be untangled, at the end of long anxiety and torment, by death. I imagine Octave wedded to Armance; I imagine her first perplexed, then painfully resigned (and here I do not mean just resignation in love, but also the renunciation of maternity which follows and is probably even more permanently cruel for many women). I imagine Octave, less resigned than Armance, or rather, more deeply so, picturing to himself unceasingly all that he is depriving her of, and what is worse, depicting it to her. I imagine the vain attempts, the assurances of which love is prodigal, the doubts, then, assuming that their love has lasted, the slow purification of that love with the onset of age, the end, so dubiously attained, of which the boredom of other couples is but a parody.
But perhaps, without grieving too much, they will both acquire the wisdom of not exaggerating beyond measure the importance of what they are refused, and will convince themselves that the deepest love is not necessarily linked to the flesh. They will perhaps even come to the point of congratulating themselves that their love, pure of all carnal alliance, ignorant of the excessive ardor stirred up by the fumes of the senses, has escaped being seared, and that nature, which forbade them certain pleasures has allowed them, in compensation, to elude that Gehenna which follows pleasure: "to shun the heaven that leads men to this hell," if Shakespeare is to be believed.
For I think of the terrible remark of Tolstoy which Gorky quotes to us: "Man survives earthquakes, epidemics, the horror of illness, and all the agonies of the spirit; but throughout all generations, the tragedy that has tormented him, still torments him, and will torment him the most is—and will be—the tragedy of the alcove."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11086
SOURCE: "Stendhal's First Novel," in Art of French Fiction, New Directions, 1959, pp. 63-90.
[In the following excerpt, Turnell examines Armance to see what light it sheds on Stendhal's later work, his times, and nineteenth century psychology.]
Stendhal's first novel was not the work of a beginner. Armance was published in 1827 when he was forty-four years old and already had seven other books to his credit. It was unpopular in his lifetime, and has been criticized by Stendhalians of unimpeachable orthodoxy. It is not a masterpiece, but it is a book that only Stendhal could have written and deserves to be read for four reasons: its intrinsic merits as a novel, as a psychological study of a 'case', as a picture of French society during the Restoration, and for the light that it throws on the author's later development.
It is instructive to glance back at Stendhal's early years and at the origins of this late vocation. He arrived in Paris in 1799 where he was supposed to study at the École Polytechnique. Although he sent two of his heroes to the Polytechnique, he himself was too indolent to pass the entrance examination. He made no secret of the fact that it was simply a pretext to get away from the hated Grenoble, that his real aim in moving to Paris was to win fame as a writer and happiness through love. It cannot be said that either of these projects met with immediate success. He planned his conquests with the care and thoroughness of an eighteenth-century roué, but in practice he was a timid and bungling seducer who was constantly rebuffed by his intended victims. He announced blithely that he meant to become 'a comic bard' and the successor of Molière in the French theatre. He set to work with the same thoroughness that he planned his seductions. He went assiduously to the theatre, attended a dramatic school, and pored over Hobbes in the hope of discovering the secret of making people laugh. Although he hammered away at his plays for years, carried the manuscripts all over Europe with him—one of them actually accompanied him on the Russian campaign—and lamented the difficulty of writing alexandrines in tones which look forward to Flaubert's letters about Madame Bovary, the experiment was a failure. It was a failure because verse drama was not suited to his genius and because he had no experience of life. It would be a mistake to think that he wasted his time or that his misguided ambition prevented him from adding to the masterpieces which he left behind him. For it was during the next twenty-five years, when he was working intermittently at his plays, that he served his apprenticeship as a writer and acquired the experience which formed the staple of his novels. He did more than that. He gave an admirable demonstration of the way in which a born writer assimilates experience. The model apprenticeship explains the ease and speed with which his greatest work was written.
Stendhal's profoundest experiences were his travels and his love affairs. The discovery of Italy in 1801 gave the Chartreuse de Parme its marvellous freshness and youth; it was also responsible for the awakening of the whole man. Among the women he loved three are of particular importance. Angela Pietragrua and the Comtesse Curial provided material for the Stendhalian 'amazons', for the Duchesse Sanseverina, Mlle de la Mole and Lamiel. Mathilde Dembowska, who rebuffed him, played a major part in the creation of Armance, Clélia Conti and Mme de Chasteller.
I have never felt an unbounded admiration for De l'Amour, but it occupies a special place in Stendhal's development. It is a scrappy, untidy book which contains a good many theories and a good many anecdotes, but the view of love put forward in the first part was not the product of abstract theorizing. It was the fruit of personal experience. The idea of the book came to Stendhal at the time of the breach with Mathilde, and it was published three years later in 1822. It shows that he had almost perfected his style and was in possession of a vast store of experience, yet something was still needed to enable him to find his proper literary form and to transmute his experience into imaginative terms.
In 1824 and 1825 the Duchesse de Duras had created a considerable stir in polite society by the publication of two short novels called Ourika and Edouard. The first described the marriage of a negress to a young man of good family; the second the marriage of a commoner to a great lady. Sainte-Beuve remarked dryly that in these two books she had attempted to present 'toutes les impossibilités sociales'. The Duchess went much further in her third book and presented a still greater social impossibility. This time her subject was sexual impotence; but though she read Olivier ou Le Secret in private to her friends, it was never published.
Reports of the novel aroused the liveliest curiosity. A writer named Hyacinthe Thabaud de la Touche, who was the first editor of André Chénier and is said to have inspired some of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore's most touching poems, decided to play a joke on the public. He wrote a novel on the same theme and used the Duchess's title. Olivier appeared either at the end of 1825 or at the beginning of 1826. It was published anonymously like the Duchess's novels, but in the same style and format as Ourika and Édouard. For good measure, a foreword announced that the proceeds of the book would be given to a charitable organization.
Olivier caused an immense scandal. La Touche, who was suspected of being the author, wrote a letter to the press in which he denied the rumour, but said that he knew the author and that it was not the person who had written Ourika and Édouard. Stendhal, who frequented the literary salons and knew La Touche, evidently enjoyed the joke. In an article which he sent to The New Monthly Magazine in January 1826, he gave a long review of Olivier, which he mischievously described as 'the Duchesse de Duras' new novel', and claimed that it was a highly original work.
Stendhal's interest was not confined to reviewing the book. He seldom invented his own subjects, and he borrowed the theme of his first novel from La Touche as he was to borrow the theme of Lucien Leuwen from an unpublished novel by his friend Mme Jules Gaulthier. Armance was written with his customary speed and concentration. He began it on 30 or 31 January 1826, and worked vigorously at it until 8 February. It was then laid aside until 19 September. He finished it on 10 October, which meant that the actual work of composition had only taken thirty-one or thirty-two days. He adopted his usual practice of sending the manuscript piecemeal to the printers as each section was revised. The book was published anonymously on 18 August 1827, but in a signed preface he attributed it to a femme d'esprit and declared that he had simply corrected the style.
Stendhal was fascinated by the subject of sexual impotence. His first novel is a study of an impotent man, his last the study of a frigid woman. There is a chapter on the fiasco or temporary impotence in De l'Amour, a graphic account of a fiasco of his own in Souvenirs d'égotisme, and in one form or another it is a recurrent theme in the novels. Its significance in the novels is plain, but the choice of this particular symbol must have been motivated by something in his personal life and it remains a mystery. We know from the indiscretions of Alberthe de Rubempré and the Comtesse Curial that he himself did not suffer from it save in its temporary form, that as a performer he was indeed something of a prodigy. The most plausible theory is that it was connected with his attitude towards his mother, but whatever the reasons for his interest it throws a revealing light on his first novel.
Armance belongs to a gloomy moment in his career. In 1825 Mathilde Dembowska, his greatest love, had died, and his stormy affair with the Comtesse Curial had begun to go wrong. The breach widened until, at the end of August 1826, she dismissed him and took another lover. Her abandonment was a heavy blow. He thought of suicide, and began to draw miniature pistols in the margins of his manuscripts. He has told us in his notes that his emotional difficulties caused the break in the composition of the novel, and that he began work on it again as a 'remedy' against them. It is, however, a fair inference that these difficulties produced a deepening of experience, that personal misfortune and the pretext furnished by La Touche's Olivier combined to create the conditions which were necessary to turn Stendhal into a novelist, were in fact the occasion for which he was unconsciously waiting. Armance, as we shall see, can be interpreted in a number of different ways, but among other things it is undoubtedly a personal allegory. Stendhal used to endow his heroes with those gifts that life had refused him, and he enjoyed a vicarious satisfaction when they succeeded in enterprises in which he himself had come to grief. In Armance he resurrects Mathilde, wins her as he had failed to win her in real life, is prevented by circumstances from possessing her, and commits a symbolical suicide.
The Vicomte Octave de Malivert is a young man of great ability but uncertain humour who is haunted by a guilty secret. He dislikes society and is continually making resolutions to abandon it or to commit suicide. He falls in love with his cousin, Armance de Zohiloff, but from the outset is determined to have her for a friend and never to marry her. She on her side is equally determined not to marry him at first because she is poor; then, when an unexpected legacy makes her a parti sortable, out of a strangely conceived sense of duty or, as she puts it, because 'marriage is the tomb of love'. She is compromised through being discovered one night in the neighbourhood of Octave's bedroom, and the pair decide that they must marry to save her honour in the eyes of Octave's hostile uncle, the Commandeur de Soubirane. Octave is advised by a friend that he is bound to disclose his secret to Armance before the wedding. He decides to do so by letter. His resolution is altered by a story of a forged letter which is worthy of seventeenth-century comedy. In a letter 'planted' by the Commander, Armance is supposed to tell her intimate friend, Méry de Tersan, that she no longer loves Octave but is marrying him from a sense of duty. Octave destroys the letter containing his aveu, says nothing about his discovery to Armance, and the wedding takes place. A week later he sets sail for Greece on the pretext that he has made a vow to fight like Byron in the Greek War of Independence. He writes to Armance from the ship, enclosing the forged letter and disclosing the secret. When the vessel comes within sight of Greece he commits suicide by poisoning himself. Armance and her mother-in-law, now both widowed, take the veil at the same convent.
Stendhal not only explained the nature of Octave's malady in a famous letter written to Mérimée on 23 December 1826, but speculates in the crudest terms on the predicament of an impotent man who finds himself married. The reader, however, is never told the secret, and though there are hints which seem plain enough to us they apparently conveyed nothing to Stendhal's contemporaries. The book was barely noticed in the press. Stendhal's friends found it incomprehensible and thought poorly of it; while even the faithful Pauline, as he remarked ruefully in his quaint mixture of French and English, felt that 'son pauvre brother s'est blousé'. 'Tous mes amis le trouvent détestable', he said in a letter to his friend Sutton Sharpe in 1828; 'moi, je les trouve grossiers'. But this did not prevent him from reporting in an article, which appeared the same year in The New Monthly Magazine, that 'Armance has been severely criticized and is certainly a very faulty production'. These words were probably written in a moment of discouragement and we do not know whether he meant what he said, particularly as in later life he warmly defended the book. Whether or not he was sincere, he spoke for a good many of his readers. 'Ce roman', said Sainte-Beuve in a characteristically ungenerous article written after the novelist's death, 'ce roman, énigmatique par le fond et sans vérité dans les détails, n'annonçait nulle invention et nul génie'. In the same article he described the subject as 'impossible à raconter et peu agréable à comprendre'. Stendhal's friends have pointed out that Sainte-Beuve suffered from what is delicately called un vice de conformation and did not care to have attention drawn to such matters, but his opinion was not confined to Stendhal's enemies. Alain could see nothing in the book. Jean Prévost thought it an interesting failure, and even M. Henri Martineau has said that no book was ever more in need of a preface. It was left to Gide to declare that of all Stendhal's novels it is 'le plus joliment écrit', and to M.
Georges Blin to write a monumental defence of its psychology and style.
We are now so fully informed about Octave's 'secret' that it is difficult to decide to what extent Stendhal's reticence harms the novel. What is striking about the book is not merely the differences between Octave and the heroes of the later novels, but their resemblances. For in Armance Stendhal gives us a first sketch of the 'outsider'. Octave is separated from society by certain personal characteristics. These characteristics are partly, but only partly, explained by his sexual impotence. All Stendhal's heroes begin by experiencing an extraordinary revulsion against love, but their revulsion is not a sign of incapacity. Once it is overcome, there is no reason to assume that their performances are inferior to those of their creator. Octave's incapacity is therefore not essential to explain his revulsion against marriage. What does happen is that the mood caused by it undermines those positive qualities which potentially he shares with the other protagonists. I think we must say that the tragedy lies precisely in the destruction of his positive qualities by his incapacity, and that an awareness of it is necessary if we are to appreciate the tragedy to the full. It is also necessary in order to appreciate the peculiar brilliance of the novel as a clinical study of a case.
Armance opens with Stendhal's customary briskness and we find that in this first novel, as surely as in the later masterpieces, the essential données are contained in the first few paragraphs:
. . . Octave, who was barely twenty, had just left the École Polytechnique. His father, the Marquis de Malivert, was anxious to keep his only son in Paris. Once Octave had convinced himself that this was the constant wish of a father whom he respected and of a mother whom he loved with a sort of passion, he abandoned the idea of joining the artillery. He would have liked to spend a few years in the army, and then resign his commission until the first war which he would have been quite content to fight as a lieutenant or with the rank of colonel. This is an example of the peculiarities which made him odious to the common run of men.
The opening looks forward to Lucien Leuwen. There are certain marked resemblances between Octave and Lucien, and one very significant difference. They have both been students at the Ecole Polytechnique, but while Octave is apparently a good student who leaves on the completion of his course, Lucien is already a rebel who is expelled for taking part in a political demonstration. They are both their parents' only children. Octave respects his father as Lucien does, but like Lucien and his creator he is passionately devoted to his mother. And like Lucien he shares the novelist's admiration for the military life. It is, however, the final sentence which states one of the fundamental themes of the novel: the conflict between the Stendhalian 'outsider' and society. For what society cannot forgive Octave is his superior attitude, his indifference to advancement which has been the ruling passion of the worldlings at all times in all countries.
Octave's character is described in the next paragraph:
With plenty of brains, a tall figure, noble manners and the finest pair of black eyes in the world Octave would have had a place among the most distinguished young men in society if something sombre, which was reflected in those gentle eyes, had not moved people to pity rather than to envy him. He would have caused a sensation if he had chosen to speak; but Octave wanted nothing; nothing seemed to give him pleasure or pain. He had very often been ill as a small child, but since he had recovered his strength and his health, people noticed that he submitted without the sightest hesitation to what duty seemed to him to prescribe; but they had the impression that if duty had not raised its voice, he would have had no motive for action. Perhaps some singular principle [principe singulier] which was deeply rooted in his youthful heart and which was in contradiction with the events of real life as he saw them, drove him to take too gloomy a view of the life that lay ahead of him and his relations with his fellowmen. Whatever the cause of his profound melancholy, Octave seemed to have become misanthropic before his time.
The description of Octave's appearance has the generality of a classic novelist like Mme de La Fayette, and the whole of the interest is concentrated on what is going on inside his mind. The passage is, indeed, an excellent illustration of the skill with which Stendhal presents his hero, balances his strength against his weaknesses, and introduces the themes which will recur again and again in the novel. The conflict between Octave's good qualities and the weaknesses which undermine them and make them ineffectual is suggested by the continual use of the conditional tense and the conjunction 'but'. The reference to his health is of particular interest. It looks like a discreet allusion to the origins of his incapacity, but we must not disregard the categorical statement that he had recovered his physical health and strength, or the hint that his real difficulties are 'moral'.
What is most striking about the passage as a whole is its persuasiveness and the tentative nature of the explanations offered by the novelist. Stendhal is introducing an extraordinary person, but in order to carry us with him he places himself in the position of the ordinary reader and suggests that 'perhaps' Octave's strangeness has an ordinary explanation like 'melancholy' or a premature 'misanthropy'. It should be observed, for reasons which will become apparent later, that singulier is used in a slightly different sense from singularités in the first paragraph. It suggests not a conflict between Octave and society, but a gap between him and 'real life', hints that he is 'out of touch with reality'. The one word in the passage which seems to have a strong positive connotation is the word 'duty', but it too is hedged round with restrictions. Octave is only roused from his indifference and galvanized into action by 'the voice of duty'. This voice, however, makes no appeal to his emotions. It is arid and abstract, and appeals only to his mind. It is precisely this aridity which makes his uncle declare that he is 'frightened by his character':
'Why should I try to appear other than I am?' Octave replied coldly. 'Your nephew will always follow the line of reason.'
'But will never fall short or go beyond,' retorted the Commander with his Provençal vivacity. 'From which I conclude that if you're not the Messiah awaited by the Jews, you're Lucifer in person and have returned to this world on purpose to plague me. Who the devil are you? I can't understand you. You're duty incarnate.'
'How happy I should be never to fail in it!' said Octave. 'How I'd like to be able to surrender my soul to its Maker in the same pure state in which I received it!'
'What a miracle!' cried the Commander. That's the first wish for a year that I've heard expressed by this soul which is so pure that it's frozen!' And delighted with this sally, the Commander rushed out of the room.
This exchange follows immediately on the description of Octave's character in the second paragraph. The Commander represents 'real life', but he is also referred to somewhere as 'cette âme vulgaire', and the word must be interpreted in its literal and most unfavourable sense. He is clearly the villain of the piece, but Stendhal's symbolism is never simple. 'Real life' is represented at different levels by Mme de Malivert, Mme de Bonnivet and Mme d'Aumale. The Commander stands for 'real life' at the lowest and crudest level, but his role is functional. He is the 'real life' which by the trick of the forged letter catches the dreamer out and brings him down. There is, however, an implied criticism of Octave's loss of contact with reality. The Commander's 'Provençal vivacity' is contrasted with his apathy and his 'reason', which underlines the inhuman element in his theory—for it is a theory—of duty divorced from emotion. The issue is clinched by the Commander's parting shot. For the rest of the book is the story of the relaxation of 'duty', the conversion of 'reason' into 'sensibility' with the final reversion to duty which produces the tragedy.
Stendhal does not use the word étranger, or 'outsider', in Armance. Instead, he uses the expression un être à part:
. . . 'Certainly,' said [Madame de Malivert], 'I feel that there's something superhuman about him; he lives like a being apart, separated from other men.' Then, returning to more reasonable ideas, Madame de Malivert could not conceive why her son seemed to possess the liveliest or at any rate the most exalted feelings, and yet showed such an absence of interest in everything which is real in life.
Without so far having accomplished anything, he found that as soon as he went into society he was classed as a being apart.
It will be seen that there is a certain ambiguity about these observations, that they are partly critical and partly admiring. Octave is somehow an impressive figure, but he is a puzzle to himself and to other people. This ambiguity is characteristic, and the pattern of the novel is created by the alternation of a number of key-words. I have mentioned singulier and singularités. They recur with even greater frequency than in Le Rouge et le noir, and they have the same obsessive power. They are employed by the novelist to describe his characters as well as by the characters themselves, and their meaning varies according to the speaker. They are used to describe the qualities which turn the protagonists into 'outsiders', but they are also used in the commoner sense of 'oddity' or 'peculiarity', and express the feelings of bewilderment or discomfort that the 'outsiders' inspire in ordinary people.
. . . The doctors thought that this monomania was entirely moral—it was their own expression—and must be due not to physical causes, but to the influence of some peculiar idea.
Octave is regarded as an eccentric by the doctors and as a problem by himself:
. . . I have the misfortune to possess a singular character. I didn't make myself like that; all that I've been able to do is to get to know myself.
This is the outsider's recognition of the fact that he is different from other people. He is not clear at this stage about the precise nature of his difference, but he feels that it is a misfortune and is trying to discover what sort of man he really is.
The novelist's own comment is more radical:
. . . Moreover, in such a social position, he would not have had the opportunity of acquiring that elegance of manner which by adding polish to such a singular character turned him into a being apart, even in the society of the court.
In this context the word is used in a sense that is entirely favourable. It is deliberately linked with the expression 'being apart'. It stands for a fundamental quality of character, for something irreducible, and compared with it elegance of manners is simply an added grace. For the 'outsider', the étranger, is a person whose mode of feeling is, literally, 'foreign' or 'alien' to that of his fellows. He is 'singular' in the sense that he is 'singled out' from 'the common run of men' whom Stendhal describes collectively as 'les hommes vulgaires' or simply as 'les vulgaires', and who are to be found in all classes of society.
The subtlety and variety with which Stendhal invests the word are most apparent when it is used to describe Mme de Malivert's impressions of her son:
. . . Struck by the peculiarities that she noticed in Octave, she feared that he might be suffering from some chest ailment.
'Dear Octave, this peculiar taste is the effect of your exaggerated passion for science. Your studies make me tremble; you'll end up like Goethe's Faust.'
'Dear Octave, it's the violence of your passions that alarms me, and above everything the inroads they're making in secret in your heart. If only I felt that you had some of the tastes of your age to distract you from these peculiar ideas, I should be less afraid.'
Since his success, she had ceased to hide from herself that his kind of merit was too unusual and too unlike the accepted pattern.
We find in these passages what must be described as a double vision. Mme de Malivert sees her son partly from the standpoint of the ordinary, humdrum, sensible upper-class woman, and partly from the standpoint of a person who in spite of herself is drawn into the 'outsider's' orbit. Her feelings are therefore mixed. She fears at first that Octave is suffering from tuberculosis. When the doctors reassure her about his health and attribute his behaviour to 'the influence of some peculiar idea', she becomes afraid that he will make a complete break with ordinary life and turn into a diabolical figure. At other times she is conscious of the need of ordinary tastes to balance the 'idées singulières'. What is more important is that like Armance she is able to recognize his merit though she is conscious that it has 'trop de singularité'.
Stendhal repeatedly tells us that Armance herself has 'un caractère singulier', but in her case the word is used in a laudatory sense without any of the qualifications that we feel with Octave. It turns her, too, into 'a being apart', but it attracts all the most distinguished women in her aunt's entourage and only makes her enemies among the mediocre. The qualities which they have in common create a bond between the 'outsiders'. For the outsider can only communicate at the deepest level with another outsider. This is strikingly expressed in the sentence:
.. . A very singular intimacy was formed between them.
There is one pronounced difference between the bond that unites Octave and Armance and the one that unites Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole:
. . . Armance possessed the supreme art of driving away the gloomy thoughts that people aroused in Octave's mind. Now that he was bold enough to admit them, she was more and more surprised by his singular character.
Armance is attracted to him as another outsider, but she is also aware that there is something wrong. For this reason she, too, has a double vision of him, feels that his chagrins are destructive, and thinks of him as 'ce singulier caractère'.
The meditations of Mme de Malivert introduce another key-word:
She constantly observed that real life, far from being a source of emotion for her son, simply had the effect of making him lose patience, as though it were a distraction which tore him away in an importunate fashion from his fond rêverie.
Once again we are aware of the double vision. In Rousseau and the Romantics rêverie is a form of day-dreaming which often has a debilitating effect. In Stendhal it stands normally for something positive. The superiority of the 'outsiders' is not merely 'moral'; it also lies in the quality of their sensibility. Mme de Malivert speaks with a certain indulgence of Octave's 'chère rêverie', but she is obscurely conscious that it is one of the signs of his superiority, and when she declares in one of her moments of insight that 'he has at any rate an original manner of feeling', the recognition becomes explicit.
The positive role of sensibility is apparent in one of Octave's comments on society:
. .. The only resource against this general degradation, he thought, would be to discover a belle âme which was not yet ruined by the supposed wisdom of the Duchesses d'Ancre, to attach oneself to it for ever, to see no one else, to live with it and uniquely for its happiness.
Belle âme is a common formula, but Stendhal contrives to extend its significance, and it gains in force from being pitted against âme vulgaire. It certainly includes sensibility, but it is used of a person who possesses all the virtues, whose wisdom is true wisdom as opposed to 'the supposed wisdom of the Duchesses d'Ancre', and whose distinction exposes the 'general degradation' and the universal mediocrity of 'real life'. It can lead to the creation of a civilized élite whose standards are compared to conventional standards which Stendhal contemptuously dismisses as modèle or copie.
The characters' aim is therefore the pursuit of happiness through personal relationships, is to create an 'intimité singulière' which will act as a bulwark against mediocrity, but they are exposed to one great temptation—the temptation to give in and withdraw from all contact with their fellow beings:
He keenly regretted the little cell at the École Polytechnique. His stay at the school had been a happy one because it offered the protection and tranquillity of a monastery. For a long time Octave had thought of retiring from the world and devoting his life to God.
I must raise an eternal barrier between Octave and myself [says Armance]. I will choose the order which provides the greatest degree of solitude, a convent lying in the middle of high mountains, with a picturesque view. There I shall never hear anyone mention his name . . .
In a moment Armance saw herself as a nun. There were times when she felt surprise at the sight of the profane ornaments which decorated her little room.
'In Stendhal', said Proust, 'a certain feeling of altitude is linked with the spiritual life.' Stendhal's ideal, as we know, was a contemplative one. The dreaminess and detachment of his characters—their 'chère rêverie'—were sometimes the prelude to the highly personal vision which Fabrice experienced as he gazed down on the world from the Tour Farnèse or from the Abbé Blanès' tower. The 'little cell' or the 'convent' may seem to prefigure Julien's prison or Fabrice's charterhouse, but there is one fundamental difference. Julien and Fabrice are both defeated, but they only retire to prison and the charterhouse at the close of an immensely active life. It is far otherwise with Octave and Armance. Their tragedy is that they never really live. Octave's ambition to devote his life to God is a negative one. What he is seeking is to escape from the world and from the experiences which shattered Julien and Fabrice. Armance's ambition is no better. She is determined to construct 'an eternal barrier' between herself and Octave. It is true that she hopes to retire to a 'convent lying in the middle of high mountains', but it is only so that she can enjoy the restfulness of 'a picturesque view' and a solitude in which she will never hear anyone pronounce the disturbing name of Octave. Her impression that she is already a religious and her surprise at still seeing the profane ornaments in her room recall Julien's dream in the library at the La Moles' house, but this is not a rêverie which carries the dreamer into a timeless world; it is hallucination. That the whole incident is a temptation is underlined by another sentence:
In a convent you only depend on the rule.
Her feeling springs from the desire to shed all responsibility, to replace the profane copie or modèle by a religious 'rule' which is absolute and against which there is no appeal.
These differences become still more apparent if we compare the conception of duty in Armance with that in Le Rouge et le noir. When Julien decides that it is his 'duty' to secure possession of Mme de Rênal's hand before the clock strikes, his aim is a positive one and duty is the active principle. The parvenu who is allowed, surreptitiously, to hold the hand of the lady of the house scores his first small success. It is a psychological success which 'boosts' morale, increases his good opinion of himself, and in this way prepares him for the realization of his other ambitions. In Armance 'duty' is associated with the characters' desire to retire from the world. The passage in which Armance thinks longingly of the convent where she will never hear Octave's name goes on:
. . . This idea is my duty, the unhappy Armance said to herself. The moment she did so, the sacrifice was as good as made . . . she was conscious of this truth: the moment that I perceived where my duty lay, not to follow it at once, blindly and unquestioningly, would be to act like a person unworthy of Octave.
The principal characters turn duty into an imaginary obstacle race, and continually evoke it as an excuse for not doing what they want to do or for not choosing the path which leads to happiness. It is undoubtedly a censor which comes into play as soon as there is any question of marriage, but it also becomes an issue in the smallest matters like Octave's study of chemistry. It is impossible to act, or even to express a wish, without first asking yourself whether it is in accordance with duty. It is the most remorseless of categorical imperatives which demands unquestioning obedience à l'instant.
Stendhal's conception of duty is sometimes compared to Corneille's. He greatly admired Corneille, and Armance's fear that by not obeying the voice of duty unquestioningly she will lose cast in Octave's eyes certainly recalls the Cornelian pride; but there is in Corneille a visionary element which is not always sufficiently stressed. When a climax is reached and the characters decide for 'duty' against 'inclination', their actions assume an intense positive significance, and the world is suddenly transfigured. When Octave and Armance hear 'the voice of duty', they too become exalted and sound an ecstatic note, but they are without the power of attack which distinguishes Corneille's characters or Julien and Mathilde. Their duty is tyrannical and destructive. If they have a vision it is an empty vision, a vision of the void.
I have suggested that the pattern of the novel is formed by the interplay of key-words which alternately blend and clash, reinforce and qualify one another. The pattern is highly complex, but it is undoubtedly dominated by the word 'duty'. The concept of 'duty' is a reflection of something rigid and unbending in the make-up of the protagonists; it is also an attempt to set up a positive standard to balance an inner weakness. Although the attempt fails, it gives the book that tense brittleness which is its distinctive note—the sense that we are watching two tightrope walkers who are always in imminent danger of a fall and who in the end come to grief.
Although the principal characters in all Stendhal's novels are extraordinary people who are cut off from the society in which they are living, it was only in his first and last novels that he created characters who are abnormal in the medical sense. There are few more difficult or more delicate tasks for the novelist than the portrayal of abnormality. He runs the constant risk of allowing his work to degenerate into a mere case-history. It was because he was able to see the abnormal in the perspective of the normal, to show that the abnormal was only one factor in Octave's make-up, that Stendhal was successful in an undertaking in which many later novelists—particularly the Realists and the Naturalists—came hopelessly to grief.
It is commonly assumed that the causes of Octave's incapacity are physical. Stendhal himself speaks in his notes of un défaut physique, and it is essential for his purpose that the incapacity shall appear absolute and permanent. Now it has to be remembered that in Stendhal's time little was known about the nature and treatment of mental illness. It seems to have been taken for granted that complete incapacity was due to physical causes. There can no longer be any doubt that this view was entirely mistaken and that many cases of psychological impotence, which today could be dealt with simply and quickly, were for practical purposes incurable. In one of the leading textbooks, Stekel has declared categorically that the causes of sexual impotence are always psychological and not physiological. There are certain obvious exceptions like mutilation and hereditary syphilis, but his view is generally accepted by psychiatrists, and it certainly illuminates Stendhal's novel. It is a significant fact that Octave shows no sign of the physical degeneration or effeminacy which we should expect to find in a man suffering from some form of organic disease. On the contrary, he is presented to us as strong, healthy, well-built and capable of violent actions. It is true that he is roused neither by Armance, Mme d'Aumale nor the prostitutes at Mme Auguste's, but this is not evidence of physical infirmity. It frequently happens that a man whose impotence is due to psychological causes is capable with some women and not with others, that he is incapable with a particular woman because she recalls a mother or a sister (bringing into play the incest taboo) or because he is in love with someone else. It also happens in many cases that partial incapacity with a particular woman or a particular type of woman ends by becoming general and complete. It therefore seems a fair inference that Octave's incapacity is psychological in origin and has something to do with his fixation on his mother, 'whom he loved with a sort of passion'.
Although Stendhal may have been mistaken about the causes of Octave's infirmity, he displays extraordinary insight in his description of the symptoms, and his findings have been confirmed by clinical observation. The first and commonest is his moodiness. A second is his violence which is illustrated by the story of the footman whom he threw out of the window. A third is his practice of haunting places of ill-repute, and competing in crudity of expression with the habitués because he cannot compete with their physical exploits. A fourth is his secretiveness and the fetish of the key. Mme de Malivert speaks of 'a depth of dissimulation which is unbelievable at his age'. He longs for a large room of his own with a tiny steel key which he would always carry on his watch-chain. The only person allowed into the room besides himself would be a servant who would dust it once a month under his supervision, so that no one could guess his thoughts from the choice of his books or his writings. He goes to see a play about a manage blanc called Le Mariage de raison, but 'the key which is surrendered in the second act . . . drove him from the theatre'. The first key is the key that locks the secret in, the second the one that lets the secret out. They reflect the workings of Octave's mind. He is secretive in matters in which there is no need for secrecy and accuses himself of imaginary crimes to Armance in order to distract attention from his real secret, and to assuage the obsessive sense of guilt which surrounds it. His description of himself as a monster is a reference to his imaginary crimes, but there is almost certainly a hidden reference to his incompleteness as a man. It is interesting, however, for another reason. It creates a fresh image of the 'outsider'. For a 'monster' is one who is cut off from society by some abnormality, and is the opposite of the genuine 'outsider' who is separated from society by positive qualities which make him superior to it. Once Octave uses the expression 'monster', there ceases to be any conflict between 'duty' and 'inclination'. It is the 'duty' of a 'monster' to remove himself from a society for which he is unfitted and to which he is a danger. It follows therefore that Octave's wish to withdraw from the world, to seek a solitude in which women will be unable to make demands on him, or to become a priest so that the vow of celibacy will offer effective protection, is no longer a temptation but a duty.
When I suggested in another place that Fabrice's visit to his chestnut tree in the Chartreuse de Parme was a phallic rite, there were immediate protests. I do not think that even those who are most sceptical about Freudian interpretations of literature can deny the phallic symbolism of Armance's purse in this book. What is more to my purpose, however, is that the two incidents are complementary, that the phallic symbolism of the purse throws light on the workings of Stendhal's unconscious mind and strengthens my interpretation of the visit to the chestnut tree:
Indeed, instead of retiring along the shortest line and gaining the shore of Lake Maggiore, where his boat was waiting for him, he made an enormous détour in order to visit his tree .. . It would be just like my brother, he said to himself, to have had the tree cut down . . . Two hours later he was shocked by what he saw; mischief-makers or a storm had broken one of the main branches of the young tree, which was hanging down withered; Fabrice cut it off reverently, using his dagger, and fashioned the cut carefully, so that the rain should not penetrate the trunk. Then, though time was very precious, he spent a good hour digging the soil which surrounded his beloved tree. When he had carried out all these acts of folly, he went rapidly on his way towards Lake Maggiore. All things considered, he was not at all sad; the tree was coming on well, was more vigorous than ever, and in five years had almost doubled in size. The branch was only an accident of no consequence; once it had been cut off, it did no further harm to the tree which indeed would grow all the better if its foliage began higher up from the ground.
(Chartreuse de Parme)
Instead of listening, Octave looked at his purse. It was a fresh source of grief; it was a present from Armance; he enjoyed the pleasure of feeling under his fingers the little steel beads which were fastened to the darkcoloured material.
As soon as the peasant had left him, Octave broke a young branch off a chestnut tree and made a hole in the earth with it; he allowed himself to kiss the purse, Armance's present, and buried it on the spot where he had fainted. That's my first virtuous action, he said to himself. Farewell, farewell for ever, dear Armance! God knows if I've loved you!
It has been pointed out that when impotence is psychological, the person suffering from it is continually saying to himself, 'I can't', when in fact he means 'I won't'. This establishes a link between Octave and the other characters who think themselves immune from love and who seem to be afflicted with the same revulsion as Octave. What really happens is that in all these cases there is a revulsion which is psychological in origin. The difference between Octave and the others is that while they overcome their revulsion and recover their equilibrium, he allows it to degenerate into a malady.
This difference of attitude is illustrated by the two passages I have quoted. Fabrice is haunted by the fear of castration. His fear seems to be confirmed by the sight of the damaged branch which is evidently a symbol of the severed member. His reaction, however, is positive. He at once sets to work to repair the damage and performs a symbolical fertility rite. When he surveys his handiwork and observes that the tree is 'coming on well', he realizes that his fears were groundless and his whole mood undergoes a change.
Octave's reactions are the reverse of Fabrice's. He has unexpectedly fainted while out alone and been discovered by a peasant whose silence he buys. The purse from which he pays him is a present from Armance. It stands, however, not merely for Armance, but for the female organ. Instead of asserting himself like Fabrice and turning ''I won't' into 'I will', Octave acquiesces in his incapacity. In place of the fertility rite which is intended to secure Fabrice's virility, Octave bids farewell to his. He performs what is partly a symbolical surgical operation which sterilizes Armance, and partly a burial rite in which the corpse is the female organ. Sexual love has been removed from the relationship, removed from their lives, turning them both into neuters.
The actions of Fabrice and Octave belong to their fantasy life, but they have immense psychological consequences. The burial rite not only prefigures Octave's suicide—it leads to it. And Octave's suicide does in fact 'sterilize' Armance—she takes the veil.
One critic has spoken disparagingly of Octave as un impuissant amoureux, and has compared him to a figure in primitive comedy. This simply obscures Stendhal's achievement. It is precisely the depth of Octave's feeling for Armance which makes him a tragic instead of a comic figure. For what is most impressive about Stendhal's study of a case is something which is constantly suggested, but never openly expressed. It is Octave's sense of his own incompleteness, his lack of any centre and any stability. The tragedy is heightened by his attempt to turn his peculiar conception of duty into a positive principle because instead of providing him with something solid on to which he can graft his feeling for Armance, duty contributes inevitably to his destruction. I think we must go on to add that Octave infects Armance psychologically. It is true that she appears better balanced than he and that she makes a determined attack on his chagrins, but he undoubtedly encourages her own cult of duty and her tendency to turn away from life. And it may well be that in her case the cult of duty is a sign of sexual frigidity.
Stendhal called his novel Armance, ou Quelques Scènes d'un Salon de Paris en 1827. The sub-title draws attention to the importance he attached to the book as a picture of contemporary society. Although it is specifically linked to the Act of Indemnity which restored the émigrés' property, it is the least political of all Stendhal's novels. A few politicians turn up in the salons and make grudging remarks about the Act which they are about to pass, but they are shadowy figures and there is nothing in the book which can be compared to the devastating picture of political life in Lucien Leuwen.
A good deal of this is true of Stendhal's picture of the social scene. French society is dull and conventional. We catch a glimpse of the husband-hunting mothers, the social climbers, Mme de Bonnivet practising a new form of Protestantism which is to replace orthodoxy—a cult that was popular at the time when Stendhal wrote—but society is seen collectively rather than individually. These people are simply les vulgaires who provide a background for the 'outsiders', and they are not etched with the brilliance and clarity of the court in the Chartreuse de Parme, or provincial society at Nancy in Lucien Leuwen.
These comments do not apply to Octave's family. The Maliverts are an essential part of Stendhal's picture of society, and it is through them that he makes his most pertinent criticisms of the contemporary scene. The best approach is to examine the description of the family mansion:
. . . Hangings of green velvet, covered with gilt ornaments, seemed to have been made on purpose to absorb all the light provided by two immense casementwindows which were fitted with sheet glass instead of panes. These windows looked out on a solitary garden which was divided into odd compartments by a border of box-wood. At the bottom of the garden there was a row of lime trees which were trimmed regularly three times a year, and their motionless forms seemed a living image of the moral life of the family. The young Viscount's bedroom, which had been built in above the drawing-room and sacrificed to the beauty of this essential room, was scarcely the height of an entresol. Octave had a horror of his room, yet twenty times in front of his parents he had praised it. He was afraid that some involuntary exclamation might betray him and show the extent to which the room and the whole house were intolerable to him.
Stendhal was one of the first novelists to use buildings—we remember M. de Rênal's 'walls'—to express what he calls here 'the moral life' of their inhabitants, and this passage is an interesting example of his personal imagery. I have spoken of Mme de Malivert's double vision of her son, and we can see that the family occupies an intermediate position between the 'outsiders' and les vulgaires. It exercises a normative influence. It is free from the worst failings of Restoration society, and its very lack of comprehension acts as a mild restraint on the extravagances of Octave. . . .
The reference to the gilt ornaments is picked up by the account of the way in which Octave's room was 'sacrificed' to the drawing-room, which is the show-piece of the house and the centre of what Stendhal calls 'the moral life' of the family. We conclude with the image of the extraordinary young man tucked away in a corner of this eminently reasonable household. It is also an image of the 'outsider' trapped in the claustrophobic society of his age, and his attempts to break out are ultimately responsible for bringing the family to an end and making his widowed mother exchange the house for a convent.
The implied criticism of the family is mild and even kindly, and the novelist displays the same moderation in his other observations. He was fond of proclaiming his republican leanings, but he had an extremely poor opinion of his fellow-republicans and an undisguised admiration for the medieval and Renaissance aristocracy. This was the class which had once displayed the heroism, the energy and the passion which seemed to Stendhal to be singularly lacking in the society of his own time or what he calls, in a very deprecatory expression he was fond of using, 'une civilisation si avancée'. We are repeatedly told that the Maliverts are one of the oldest and most aristocratic families in France. They are enormously proud of their ancestors who had taken part in the Crusades in the twelfth century, and the heroic exploits of these ancestors are the standard by which the novelist intends them to be judged.
At one point in the story Octave decides to leave France and make his way to Greece. He goes to see his father, reminds him that in 1147, when he was only the same age as himself, Enguerrand de Malivert had gone on a Crusade under Louis le Jeune. He asks to be allowed to do the same, to join in the Greek War of Independence and to return home 'perhaps a little more worthy of the great name you have handed down to me'. The old man is delighted by his son's knowledge of the family history and gives not only his blessing, but a cheque towards expenses. We remember, however, that 'he had never been very strong in the head', distrusted his son's 'book learning', had been an émigré during the Revolutionary period—Stendhal did not care for émigrés—and that the great event of his life was the passing of the Act of Indemnity. He would have preferred his son to marry, settle down and perhaps secure a portfolio in a right-wing government. Stendhal adds:
Although very brave, the Marquis did not possess the spirit of his ancestors of the time of Louis le Jeune; he was a father, and a tender nineteenth-century father. He was dumbfounded by Octave's sudden resolution; he could have very well done with a less heroic son.
The inference is plain. The Marquis represents the old aristocracy who though brave have lost the fighting spirit of their ancestors, who no longer care for adventures, but only think of the advantages of respectability and security.
The criticism is carried a stage further in Octave. Although he invokes the name of Enguerrand de Malivert with the same enthusiasm that Mathilde speaks of Boniface de la Mole, their attitudes are not the same. His real reason for wishing to leave France is to escape from Armance, and the idea of going to Greece is a mere pretext to overcome the opposition that he expects to meet from his father. In this book Greece and the 'little cell' are life and death symbols, but we cannot fail to notice how much more feeling there is behind Octave's references to the 'little cell' than there is behind his references to the heroic Greeks.
'How', Armance asks him, 'how can you get to know men if you only see one class? And the least energetic class because it is the furthest removed from real needs?' It is an acute statement of Octave's predicament. Mathilde de la Mole is a threat to the precarious social structure because she has inherited too much of the passion and vitality of her ancestors. It is this that turns her into an 'outsider' vainly searching for a proper outlet for her energy in a society in which there is no place for her. Octave is brave and his admiration for Enguerrand de Malivert is genuine, but though he is too much of an outsider to accept society he does not possess the strength and determination to create a new aristocracy which would be a challenge to it. His best qualities have been undermined by his incapacity; he lives on memories of his ancestors as surely as his father who spends his days poring over the family tree in his study. He is as much a social as a spiritual misfit. It could, indeed, be argued that his social position is a handicap rather than an advantage because it contributes to his isolation without offering any real compensation. It prevents him from engaging in middle-class commerce where, as he assures his family, he would have been perfectly happy; but the example of Enguerrand de Malivert is not sufficiently potent to send him on the Greek 'crusade' which might have been the solution of some at least of his problems. Instead, he listens to the voice of a phantom duty which eventually orders him to commit suicide in sight of the promised land. For Octave is a symbol as well as a case. His impotence is the impotence of the old ruling class which finds its occupation gone.
André Gide thought that Armance was 'le plus délicat et le plus joliment écrit' of all Stendhal's novels. We can see what he meant by délicat and how well Stendhal's reticence fits in with his theory of modestie, but the rest of the eulogy calls for certain reservations. The book is, perhaps, a little too well written. It does not possess the liveliness of the great masterpieces, and there are even moments when the static nature of the drama seems to give the prose a suggestion of monotony. But if Stendhal had not yet achieved the perfection of style of Le Rouge et le noir and the Chartreuse de Parme, he displays many of his most characteristic qualities.
There is the mischievous, impish irony. Octave has left home for a few days' hunting with an aristocratic family:
. . . He went off full of good advice from the Commander and the whole family; he had the honour of seeing a deer and four excellent dogs plunge into the Seine from the top of a rock a hundred feet high, and on the third day he was back in Paris.
The wedding of Octave and Armance is related in the same laconic style as Julien's execution:
. . . Octave carried out with an admirable indifference the whole of the absurd procedure which modern civilization has built up in order to spoil a happy day. The marriage took place.
The brief final sentence is a form of ironic understatement. He employs the same method in the account of the duel:
. . . 'I feel strong enough,' Octave said to M. Dolier. He fired, M. de Crêveroche fell and died two minutes later.
There is also a gentler irony which Stendhal sometimes uses on his protagonists. Octave has written a letter to Armance with his blood after the duel, and tells her to burn it as soon as she has read it:
. . . In the end, she found the courage to burn it on the marble top of her little table; she collected the ashes preciously.
The French are fond of speaking of Stendhal's raccourcis—those brief turns of speech which suggest much more than they say:
. . . His ideas were vivid, clear, and of the kind which expand as one examines them.
Stendhal was suspicious of imagery, but his occasional images stand out through their very simplicity and homeliness:
. . . His was one of those minds which a little pride places in the position of a young woman who arrives without rouge in a drawing-room where the use of rouge is general; for a few moments her pallor makes her appear sad.
France is the country of the great moralists, and it is not uncommon for French novelists to slip a maxim into their books from time to time. It is essential that this use of the maxim should be sparing and that it should fall naturally into its context, illuminating the action or the character. Constant used it with considerable effect in Adolphe. Stendhal does the same in Armance:
. . . It was one of those fleeting moments which chance sometimes grants as a compensation for so many ills, to souls made to feel energetically. Life rushes into the heart, love makes us forget everything which is not divine like it, and we live more fully in a few seconds than during long periods.
What makes misfortune so cruel for tender souls is a tiny gleam of hope which sometimes still persists.
These are maxims in the true sense. They are not abstract argument or the recital of some rule. They are a form of psychological insight, and it is the very brevity and pithiness with which the insight is expressed that makes them moving.
Stendhal identified himself less closely with Octave than with Julien or Fabrice, but there is something of him in Octave. This personal feeling gives parts of the novel an extraordinary charm, that peculiarly Stendhalian tendresse which is miraculously conveyed in a language as simple and as colourless as Racine's:
. . . Often he brought with him into society all the happiness he owed to his cousin.
All the same, such is the power of long habit: Octave was only perfectly happy when he was with his cousin. He needed her presence.
Without their planning it, they carried on in the midst of the most agreeable and the most animated company, not a private conversation, but as it were a sort of echo which, without expressing anything really directly, seemed to speak of perfect friendship and boundless sympathy.
These sentences with their absence of elaboration and ornament might fairly be described as 'Racinian'. They are Racinian, too, in their mode of operation. They somehow contrive to suggest far more than they say, to expand in the mind, to be continually sending out fresh ripples.
There are also some examples of Stendhal's personal use of the short staccato sentence—those sentences of which Gide remarked that they stand 'perpendicularly to the fact or idea':
. . . He was weak enough to take her by the hand. All his philosophy had disappeared. He saw that the tub of orange blossom protected him against the curiosity of the people at the castle; he went down on his knees beside Armance.
In this passage the abruptness and directness, the absence of subordinate clauses all contribute to the expression of a state of désarroi.
Finally we must look at the closing paragraph of the novel:
. . . A ship's boy high up in the crow's-nest shouted: Land! It was the saddle of the Greek mountains and the mountains of Morea that could be seen on the horizon. A fresh breeze carried the ship along at a good speed. The name of Greece revived Octave's courage: I salute thee, O land of heroes, he said to himself. And at midnight, on 3 March, as the moon was rising behind Mount Kalos, a mixture of opium and digitalis which he had prepared gently delivered Octave from a life which had been so agitated for him. At daybreak, they found him motionless on the deck, lying on some piles of rope. There was a smile on his lips, and his rare beauty struck even the sailors who were given the task of burying him. The nature of his death was not suspected in France except by Armance alone. Shortly afterwards, as the Marquis de Malivert was dead, Armance and Madame de Malivert took the veil at the same convent.
This passage has been greatly admired, and one critic has paid a warm tribute to its poetic qualities. Stendhal certainly strikes a muted note, and there is a commendable absence of Romantic flourishes or what he disparagingly called emphase. It is not this alone, however, which makes it impressive. Stendhal had the very difficult task of bringing his novel to a seemly close. What he achieved was a highly ingenious tour de force. When we read the passage we have the impression that there is something oddly familiar about it, that we have seen it before. In a sense we have. It is of course a pastiche of a Romantic tableau with the warrior dying on the field of battle or the captain stretched out dead on the deck of his ship, surrounded by his men. Instead of dying of wounds gained in battle, Stendhal's hero commits suicide without ever fighting or even intending to fight, and he does not escape his creator's irony. He hails Greece as 'land of heroes', but it is the prelude to his own very unheroic action. The sight of it 'revives' his courage, but this courage is only used for self-destruction. Yet the muted note, the subdued poetry, the conventional posture and the irony enable Stendhal to bring off the trick. It is brilliantly successful.
In spite of its great merits, Armance inevitably leaves us with a sense of dissatisfaction. This feeling appears to spring from two main causes. The first is the influence of Romanticism. 'C'était un être tout mystère', Stendhal said of Octave. Certain facets of his personality are revealed with astonishing clarity and insight, but he remains somehow cold, remote, impenetrable, almost inhuman. No writer is completely original or can avoid making use of the work of his predecessors. Stendhal used the Romantic outcast as a model for the 'outsider', and Octave has a number of Romantic traits. He is pale, gloomy, haughty, irritable. There is, however, one very important difference between him and the Romantic outcast. The world-weariness of the Romantic outcast was unmotivated. In providing a convincing psychological explanation of Octave's gloom Stendhal made an immense stride forward, but it is clear that he has not yet entirely found himself. It was only in the later novels that he succeeded in transforming the Romantic outcast into a new psychological type.
The second cause of dissatisfaction lies in the circumstances in which the book was written. I have suggested that the publication of La Touche's Olivier provided Stendhal with the pretext for which he was unconsciously waiting, but by a strange paradox the choice of theme proved a hindrance as well as an opportunity, delayed rather than encouraged the ripening of his genius. For Armance was written in a mood which prevented Stendhal from putting into it what was most vital in his own nature, and he chose as his protagonist a person with whom he could only identify himself to a limited extent. What we miss is the enormous zest for life that we find in Le Rouge et le noir and the Chartreuse de Parme. Armance no less than Octave is absorbed by the contemplation of a sterile moral perfection. The result is that Armance is a novel not of acceptance but of refusal, that it describes not education for life but education for death. In the later novels the emphasis falls on life symbols and impotence becomes, significantly, a minor theme. It is a sign not merely of maturity, but of something which can only be called moral recovery.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3853
SOURCE: "Stendhal, Balzac, and Merimee," in Short Fiction in France: 1800-1850, Syracuse University Press, 1964, pp. 65-134.
[In the following excerpt, George offers a survey of Stendhal's Italian-themed short fiction.]
With the exception of the Chroniques italiennes, Stendhal's ventures into short prose have received scant attention. The creator of Le Rouge et le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme has so dazzled scholars that they pass lightly over the author of the "Souvenirs d'un gentilhomme italien," "Le Coffre et le Revenant," "Le Philtre," and "Ernestine ou la Naissance de l'amour." Nowhere are they treated as representatives of a genre long practiced in the national literature.
Stendhal himself helped foster this opinion since he considered the short tale a quick solution to his constant need for money. Only seven of his shorter pieces were published during his lifetime; the rest appeared posthumously, exhumed by Romain Colomb or by inquisitive and properly respectful professors. Of these, four, including the "Abbesse de Castro," have far overshadowed the rest.
The fact remains that Beyle's brief narratives need the charity that only a convinced Stendhalian can bring them. Written primarily in two bursts of interest, between 1830-31 and 1837-38, most were conceived with the rapidity and carelessness given to the production of illegitimate children. Stendhal never pretended to understand the intricacies of the short narrative, on which he did not expect his fame to rest. Only the Chroniques earned the compliment of close attention; the others served their purpose by providing the few francs needed to steady a shaky budget.
Stendhal's first sally into short fiction came in 1826, when the "Souvenirs d'un gentilhomme italien" were published in the Revue britannique. The basic plot had been borrowed from The life and adventures of an Italian gentleman, containing his travels in Italy, Greece, France &c, which appeared in the London Magazine, October 1, 1825, through April 1, 1826. Only the first part, which concerns travel in Italy, seems to have interested Stendhal.
The "Souvenirs" consist of a series of anecdotes and portraits tied together only by the fact that they are recorded by an Italian commentator. In portraying Rome during the two French occupations between 1797 and 1814, Stendhal intended to satirize the church that had sapped the nation's strength, and to contrast with sketches of conforming, enervated believers, portraits of such energetic individuals as the free thinker, Burner, and Spatolino, the honest brigand.
"Je suis né à Rome . . . ," the gentleman began. He had received the usual education, poor Latin instruction and the threat of hellfire, but had risen to a position in the administration of the military occupation which permitted him a wide range of comment. Though inferior to most of Stendhal's work, the "Souvenirs" reveal many of his difficulties with short fiction. He unabashedly used the memoir structure for a bitter denunciation of the Church's record in Italy. Because the pseudoautobiographical form permitted him to wander as fancy dictated, he could skip from one topic to another, from religious education in the papal states to bandits, to the abduction of the Pope, and miracles. The "gentleman" served only as a reporter whose petipatetic existence allowed the loose picaresque form by which Beyle could pass from portrait to portrait without transition.
This mode of storytelling suited Beyle's temperament admirably. Because he understood his material as chronicle, a kind of "history," he contentedly followed the pattern of historical narration. Yet, even in this loose arrangement, Stendhal found it impossible to compress or direct his story. Whenever an association of ideas suggested fresh detail, he happily strayed from the plot. The detail, the portrait, or the anecdote were dearer to his heart than the production of a unified whole.
In 1830 Stendhal completed a number of tales, most of which appeared after his death, though two, "Le Coffre et le Revenant" and "Le Philtre," were published in the Revue de París that same year. The first of these has no known source, a fact unusual in the history of this genial literary bandit. Subtitled a "Spanish adventure," it pictures a Spain remarkably similar to that popular in terror novels or the industrial literature of the day. Beyle allied love and danger in the manner approved by contemporary Byronism; villains diligently pursued virgins, but here virtue did not conquer.
"Le Coffre et le Revenant" consists primarily of a portrait of one of Stendhal's favorite characters, the arrogant despot who vied with young Don Fernando for the love of the unfortunate Inès. It provided Stendhal with an unusual chance to indulge his taste for the bizarre and the macabre. In actuality a study of jealousy, more particularly the portrait of a suspicious husband, it allowed him to direct the plot toward incidents revelatory of the character of Don Bustos. The police chief had spent eight years on the galleys, had fought as a guerilla chief against the French; somber, cruel, and arrogant, he brooked no rivals. Like the powerful family heads of Renaissance Italy, this man of action held his honor dear; what he wanted, he seized. Thus Doña Inès could only bend to his will and marry him—or die; Don Fernando could only flee. From the moment the youngsters dared trifle with Don Bustos, they were doomed, since Stendhal never could force himself to contrive a popular happy ending. The husband dominated the episodes, all of which were strung together to provide a black and white portrait of an overbearing and possessive personality.
Yet the story does not lack an ironic, albeit macabre, humor. Stendhal delighted in making the young lover pop in and out of a coffer to avoid the terrible husband, with enough presence of mind to jam the lock when the police chief tried to open the chest. Even the love scene had its tongue-in-cheek moments: Inès recoiled at finding Fernando in her bedroom, but a moment later she cried "Ah! nous sommes damnés, irrémissiblement damnés, Fernando!" and fell into his arms. The sense of sin lent spice to the affair, as Stendhal commented.
However successful the portrait of Don Bustos, Stendhal found himself succumbing to a penchant for the unusual. He had to invent a bandit menace to provide reason for the coffer, and use coincidence to place Don Fernando on the scene at the right moment; complicated alibis were constantly contrived to disguise the affair. Stendhal was obviously using the wrong medium for what he had in mind as he tried to create the image of a strong personality in a short tale by juggling the plot from one emotional crisis to another. The resultant tangled web of events lacked credibility or any sense of dynamism.
He failed to solve this technical difficulty in "Le Philtre" where, once again, he borrowed the plot, a "plaisanterie," a "plagiat dont j'ai averti la Revue." Though he blithely wrote "imité de l'italien de Silvia Lalaperta," he plundered Scarron's L'Adultère innocent, the first half of which he followed closely, while the second, full of derring-do and duels, he transposed in terms of his own age.
The story is as unusual as "Le Coffre" a runaway wife who rejected her savior, Lieutenant Liéven, for the circus rider who seduced her. But the portraiture comes through less successfully because Stendhal failed to make Liéven as vivid as the jealous husband. Dazed by his adventure, the lieutenant fell in love unbelievably fast, thus contradicting Beyle's own theories. By using the framework device, Stendhal tried to tell of two fated loves that worked at cross-purposes, but he faced the impossible task of making the incredible seem likely: a naked lady falling from a doorway; beaten and robbed, she still adored her betrayer; a young officer who offered marriage to an adulterous woman he had just met. As a consequence, Liéven has tinges of caricature. He was afraid to rescue Léonor because she might be ugly. And the irrepressible Stendhal could not help repeating the incident of the returned husband. The seducer had hopped eagerly into Léonor's room only to find her spouse there. Hidden in the attic, he spent two days dodging the master of the house as he frantically tried to escape.
Fascinating because of its very incredibility, the tale is only momentarily amusing. Neither character stands out, both buried in a welter of peculiar events that prevented a plausible ending. To finish the story, Stendhal had to have Liéven make an incredible proposal and, when refused, commit suicide.
"Le Coffre" and "Le Philtre" were, for Stendhal, attempts to find a mode for describing strong personalities in action. He abandoned this type of narrative when he found a more comfortable manner of story telling in "Vanina Vanini." "Vanina" is usually printed along with the Chroniques italiennes (1837) because it resembles them in technique and subject matter but, actually, the story had been written in December, 1829, and published that same year in the Revue de Paris. Here Stendhal was moving toward the chronicle, in which, like a historian, he trusted the facts to illuminate his fictional world. He wrote of events as they happened, haphazardly, full of coincidences, cruelties, and ironies; he did not compress or direct, since life does not. As the biographer of people interesting to himself, he treated events chronologically. His characters lived out their appointed days, heroic or cowardly, as history revealed the meaning of their existence.
In "Vanina Vanini" Stendhal plunged directly into the plot, introducing immediately the main characters, with a bizarre account of a wealthy Roman girl who gave her own kind of aid and comfort to a carbonaro until he rejected her for the security of religion. The recipe was taking shape, albeit awkwardly. Though Pietro's conversion and Vanina's marriage were hastily prepared, Stendhal obviously enjoyed a form which let him introduce his characters in the simplest terms: a bored and wealthy aristocrat and a poor, simple patriot. The episodes were then arranged to provoke a reaction from the characters, particularly Vanina. In this way the portrait filled out, with the personalities summed up in a few major moments. Vanina found in Pietro a revolutionary who could release her from boredom but, paradoxically, his patriotism incited a possessive woman to betray his band in order to keep him for herself.
And when Pietro proposed a life without her, she exploded in dangerous anger.
In this second study of jealousy, events conspired to infuse a sheltered aristocrat with the violent energy of her Renaissance ancestors. Vanina became obsessed with a dream, for which she would lie, betray, and suborn. She reduced life to holding a lover who persisted in choosing his own fate. Of common clay, he acted in counterpoint to her, beginning as hero, ending as pious fraud. Here Stendhal reverted to the theme of the "Souvenirs": organized religion sapped a man's energy, perverted his drive to action. Vanina shared Beyle's worship of the unreconstructed rebel, but the more pliant Pietro could not live up to her expectations. The story was manipulated to afford the boy a choice of rejecting either Vanina or the carbonari. Hence, the plot slid from crisis to crisis, illuminating her strengths or disclosing his weaknesses until Pietro finally refused her sacrifice, when he found the price of patriotism too high. The tale forms a pendant to the "Souvenirs" as a commentary on contemporary Italy; in the one case the Church hounded a man who dared expose it, and in the other it smothered individuality in favor of conformism and abject acceptance.
When, in 1837, Stendhal felt pressed for funds, he extracted from his notes the material for the Chroniques italiennes. From a set of twelve old chronicles purchased in Italy, he drew "Vittoria Accoramboni, duchesse de Bracciano," a blood and thunder tale of Renaissance vengeance. It was published anonymously in the Revue des Deux Mondes (March 1, 1837), and earned for the author Buloz' promise to buy six or seven more stories at a thousand francs apiece. Only three others followed: "Les Cenci," July 1, 1837, signed F. de Logenevais, a pseudonym also favored by Blaze de Bury and Pontmartin; "La Duchesse de Palliano," April 15, 1838; and "L'Abbesse de Castro," February 1, and March 1, 1839. Two more, "Suora Scolastica" and "Trop de faveur tue," were begun in 1839 but never finished.
The first, "Vittoria Accoramboni," began with a warning: "Malheureusement pour moi comme pour le lecteur, ceci n'est point un roman, mais la traduction fidèle d'un récit fort grave écrit à Padoue en décembre 1585." It concerned Vittoria, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy family of Agubio who was stabbed by her relatives for going to live with the suspected murderer of her husband. Stendhal had actually transcribed the original into French as accurately as possible, with only a few minor changes, because he liked reporting incidents in chronological fashion. In Renaissance Italy he discovered personalities like Vittoria, surrounded by men like the Orsini, who knew no law but their own whim, or the killer who drove a knife into Vittoria's breast, moved the point around, and politely asked if he had touched her heart. This attitude, however barbarous, satisfied Stendhal's streak of sadism.
When he published "Les Cenci" (1837), he continued adapting more of the same extraordinary material. The story was a contemporary favorite, having been used by Shelley and Adolphe de Custine, among others. Monsters like Francesco Cenci, Stendhal wrote, could appear only during ages of hypocrisy, better than his own age of cant, which he considered too "collet monté." Cenci, an arrogant aristocrat without tenderness or trust, had tried to solve a personal problem common to the mass culture of the nineteenth century: "Comment pourrai-je me donner le plaisir si vif de me sentir différent de tout ce vulgaire?" His "solution" spawned a creature that even his own callous age rejected. Francesco Cenci, an atheist fond of esoteric sensations, had announced his intention to bury all his children, then burn the palace in celebration. As Francesco aged, he attempted to rape 14-year-old Béatrix in front of his wife. So repulsive did he become that his children hired two assassins who, whipped on by Béatrix, drove a nail into the eye of the drugged Prince. When a judge ordered the family questioned, all but Béatrix confessed under torture.
The adaptation was arranged to produce two major portraits according to the mode Stendhal had worked out in "Le Coffre" and "Vanina Vanini." In "Vittoria Accoramboni," the princes Paul and Louis Orsini stood out as gignatic Renaissance despots who bowed only to superior force. In "Les Cenci" Beyle created the figures of the strong-minded Béatrix and the self-indulgent Don Francesco. The father dominated the first part of the chronicle, but once the family decided to kill him, Béatrix grew in stature. She it was who secured her brother's permission for the murder, she who encouraged the reluctant assassins to stab a drugged man. For the execution of her mother and herself, the girl calmly ordered simple dresses. "Madame ma mère est elle bien morte?" she queried the headsman, and arranged herself skillfully for the beheading so the crowd might not see her breasts. Stendhal managed to give the impression that Béatrix directed her own fate as she instructed the executioner how to perform his function.
The unity of the story lies in the two portraits. Stendhal passed rapidly over some events, lingered lovingly on others, particularly the murder and the execution. The details which often slowed his plots now helped define the characters as he studied the anatomy of perversion. Here his love of violence served to maintain the tone of horror. By carefully delineating Francesco, he made Béatrix more plausible, and by emphasizing the arrest and execution he turned her from a poised parricide into an object of pity. As her personality began to develop, she became the complement of her victim, not so cruel, but as proud, as determined, and as courageous. And with the discovery of this manner of using incident to round out character, Stendhal's search for a satisfactory way to handle short fiction came to an end. He could now plunder history, exploit a wealth of detail, even wander, yet still hope to produce a unified tale.
He settled into this method with "La Duchesse de Palliano" (April 15, 1838), an adaptation of several manuscripts which contained Stendhal's study of Renaissance capital sins. This time he investigated aristocratic iniquity and its punishment, apologizing tongue-in-cheek for the shocking incident he was about to unfold: the strangling of the Duchess Palliano for an adultery never committed.
"La Duchesse de Palliano" contained such a complicated plot that Stendhal floundered in detail. Since the story came from several manuscripts, he did more adapting than in the other chronicles, occasionally interjecting parenthetical comments. But his faith in the revelatory power of historical fact betrayed him because the adaptation produced no portraits like those of Béatrix and her father. The necessity of following chronology left him with only two major scenes: the lover's death and the Duchess's assassination, which did not produce full characterizations. The complexity of plot, the multiplicity of incident, keep the reader's attention shifting to a series of minor characters. As a result the episodes do not cluster to reveal a single major personality and the effects are dispersed rather than centralized. The consequent lack of unity reveals the origins of the "Duchesse" in a series of records that yielded only the interest of a scandalous news story.
In view of this, Stendhal decided to add more of himself to the chronicles. When he published "L'Abbesse de Castro" (1839), he claimed the narrative came from two manuscripts. But only the first actually existed; the second was a long pastiche in which he abandoned his historian's principles long enough to change the conclusion by inventing an escape tunnel and returning the hero from exile.
Because he resented the restrictions of short fiction, Stendhal wrote this tale of frustrated love in a more leisurely way. Almost lyrically, he praised the bandits that infested Italy, in whom he saw the true Robin Hoods of the golden age of Western civilization. He admired their fierce spirit, their religion of the given word, their fine sense of honor. Though such men probably never existed, Stendhal made them the heroes of his primitivistic dream world. Along with the despots, they represented his version of the "natural" man as they indulged in ambush and dared perilous loves for a moment of happiness.
Once again Stendhal used all his favorite themes to create portraits from the raw material of history. He moved slowly, since he had learned from "La Duchesse de Palliano" that compression proved unsatisfactory, relating in detail the story of Hélène de Campireali's spectacular love affair with Jules Branciforte, a poor and passably handsome boy. Stendhal was fascinated by the destruction caused when the affections of two youngsters foundered on a local feud. After Hélène entered the convent at Castro, Jules reacted with Renaissance vigor by trying unsuccessfully to abduct her. "Nous allons, en effet, assister à la longue dégradation d'une âme noble et généreuse." For ten years Hélène lived in the convent while her mother forged letters showing Jules' progressively cooling love, simultaneously convincing the absent boy that Hélène had married. After Hélène gave herself contemptuously to the young Bishop Cittadini, she was condemned to a special convent. Her mother hired miners to tunnel into the prison but, when they reached her cell, Hélène refused to be saved. She wrote Jules of her love, then stabbed herself.
In "L'Abbesse de Castro," Stendhal proved to his own satisfaction that his forte really lay in the novel. Beyle could create strongly delineated portraits, but he had to double the size of his chronicle, multiply episode, and compound complexity to illuminate the major characters properly. Thus, Hélène appears out of a welter of detail: clever enough to check the dust on the arquebuses and, not finding any, to suspect her father's ambush; courageous enough to walk disguised as a monk right by her brother; feminine enough to love Jules for his attack on the convent; and too proud to run away after an affair with the bishop.
The minor characters benefited from the leisurely pace. The mother silently watched her daughter fall in love, but it was she who forged the letters and spread the rumor of Jules' death, who bribed the clergy to have Hélène made abbess, and who engineered the escape tunnel. Beside these women, the men pale, particularly the foppish bishop who accepted Hélène's contempt, then turned coward at the investigation. Even Jules is almost too much of a cliché; he is Stendhal's bandit ideal, courageous to the point of rashness, daring in love, and loyal, but he is always overshadowed by the giant figure of the abbess.
As usual, Stendhal counted on presenting the story as history to overcome disbelief. Since he insisted on describing the rich fullness of Renaissance life, he did not feel bound by the logic of a closed fictional world, nor required to develop the characters from a set of premises. His personages could display all the unpredictable, contradictory facets of real personalities, move as haltingly and in as complex a manner as life itself. His tale of a love that brought only suffering moved in terms of emotional decisions: Jules' refusal to seduce Hélène; his attack on the convent; and the abbess's casual abandonment of herself to the bishop. This was how Stendhal's imagination worked, for he grasped the narrative as a report rather than as an unfolding, self-generated drama.
"L'Abbesse de Castro" represents Stendhal's farewell to the short narrative. He had struggled to condense his beloved portraits, to reproduce in brief the vigor of an age that demanded full satisfaction of life, but he recognized the obstacles he faced. The chronicles might earn quick money, but for his artistic purposes he required more room than they provided. In a sense Les Chroniques italiennes were only rehearsals for La Chartreuse de Parme. As he candidly admitted to Balzac, it had not occurred to him that there were rules for art. He achieved a kind of unity from the power of his portraits, but often had difficulty making the pictorial dramatic within a short narrative and apparently never understood the advantage of a shifting point of view. Lacking a capacity for invention, he preferred to rearrange the fictions of others, although the borrowings were often inadequate for his purpose. Since monsters fascinated him, he fell victim to his own special image of the Renaissance. His "natural man" no longer existed, if he ever had, which prompted him to satirize the flabbiness of his age, repugnant in its odor of piety. He was, as Victor Jacquemont noted, "crédule au point de croire à tous les contes ridicules." Sadistic, fond of bloody scenes and complicated plots, he reveled in strong, singleminded characters but had difficulty finding other things to say. The restrictions of brief fiction hampered him so much that he abandoned the genre; in his case the novel won out over the short story.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1434
SOURCE: "Introduction," in The Pink and the Green, Followed by Mina de Vanghel, by Stendhal, New Directions, 1988, pp. vii-xi.
[In the following essay, Déon examines the character of Mina as depicted in The Pink and the Green and "Mina de Vanghel."]
The writer, too, knows the state of grace. At the start of his books, it governs his docile characters who readily believe that their author will lead them toward a "happy end." In this new world—entirely new—he creates at will certain faces, certain characters. But the state of grace cannot always persist. It is generally brief. Creatures born of the imagination rebel, difficulties accumulate, the author realizes he has followed paths that lead nowhere. At least . . . nowhere for the moment: often a little patience, a little time allow him to find the key to apparently insoluble situations.
Stendhal had no patience whatever, and his time seemed in short supply. He had waited too long before beginning to write fiction. When he undertook to dictate The Charterhouse of Parma, he certainly had the intuition that there was not a moment to lose. These were two months of astounding pressure. The words "The End" had to be written before the state of grace was dissipated. This was not always the case, as we know: Lamiel and Lucien Leuwen remain unfinished. A few marginal notes in the manuscript sketch a conclusion—scarcely credible, complicated, one that most likely would not have been adopted if Stendhal, repossessed by his first impulse, had obeyed his characters.
Stendhal is certainly the first "man in a hurry" in French literature. His biographers struggle to follow him from place to place. We think he is in Milan when he is already in Rome, after a lightninglike round trip to Paris. Yet travel was not so easy in this first part of the nineteenth century; though we see him, with a certain frenzy, using every possible means of transport. There were nonetheless long hours in coaches, and at sea. I have always thought that these hours were among the most fruitful for his imagination. Shaken up as in a salad-spinner, suffering from promiscuous exposure to other travellers, he sought escape by telling himself stories. His splendid memory permitted him to consider the advantage afforded by one of the many Italian chronicles he devoured in the libraries of Milan or of Rome. Many of these stories were published, some fell by the wayside, like "Suora Scolastica." On other occasions, he seems so eager not to lose the thread of his inspiration that the tale, though concluded, seems to us a mere summary of his intentions. If he had been able to use a dictaphone, he would have left an oeuvre as vast, as ambitious as Balzac's. But it is often in this haste of his that we find the best Stendhal, the liveliest, the most incisive. His disdain explodes, he indulges the fits and starts of his wit. He is mordant, unfair, peremptory, paradoxical, digressive, and infinitely seductive. In a word, he is alive, and we recognize ourselves in him.
During his bohemian youth, he had written for the theatre. His plays are as poorly constructed as you can imagine. The dialogue is stiff, without one touch of nature. This is because he tried to compose according to the "rules," whereas he was a man to endure no constraint. He loved only freedom, his own pleasure, and following that quasi-magic impulse of the storyteller for whom incidents matter more than plot. His failures in the theatre are piano practice—scales. The real Stendhal is not yet born. He learns, observes, ponders, judges, sifts events and characters. In his Écrits intimes we may even find him a little simpleminded, a touch boastful and frequently swaggering. He needs to ripen. For thirty years he accumulates dynamite, and then, one day, the explosion occurs. On the way, there had been sparks. "Mina de Vanghel" is one of these sparks. The tale, written in 1830, was put in a drawer. It was published only in 1853, after his death. Stendhal must have known, immediately after finishing it, that it was a skeleton, the sketch of a novel. The character of this Prussian girl was an impassioned one, but the plot remained far-fetched, and too hurried in the last pages. The characters lacked depth. How to believe in Mina's passion for the colorless Larcay, in those disguises, in that Machiavellianism of a good girl who has read nothing but eighteenth-century love stories? Stendhal was certainly aware of this, and resumed his subject seven years later, in a deepened form. In The Pink and the Green (1837), Mina loses her particle, "de," and not a little of her beauty, but the attraction of this sharp-eyed romantic girl remains tremendous. Perhaps Stendhal saw the occasion for showing Parisian society as it looked to an outsider: greedy, conspiratorial, and pretentious. It was no longer he who judged and criticized, it was Mina. Of course his touch is apparent, but unlike Flaubert with Madame Bovary, he could say: "Mina Wanghen, ce n'est pas moi!" He had such moments of discretion.
The Stendhal authority Henri Martineau decided, with good reason, that the two versions should be published in reverse chronological order. The Pink and the Green gave evidence, in its first pages, of being a huge novel. The characters are minutely described, and some are extremely interesting, such as the Abbé de Miossince, an utter scoundrel and a hypocrite as well, one of those conservatives Stendhal hated so. Young Montenotte, on the contrary, though he appears rather silly at times, is a typical example of youth's accessibility to a new society in which titles and incomes are no longer the only preoccupations in life. Finally, by removing her particle, the author placed Mina in a situation of inferiority within that Parisian society so enthralled with itself. There is no doubt that Stendhal took great pleasure in sketching this only slightly exaggerated picture. He knew from experience how warmly, how generously foreigners welcomed the French, and how meanly, how crudely the French received foreigners in Paris. Of course he was no tenderer to the Germans, but this could pass for an affirmation of Mina's personality in a world where young ladies had not yet conquered the freedom of Frenchwomen.
Unfortunately, the novel peters out. It is the moment to turn to the first sketch and to dream of what Stendhal might have written if his impulse had not been thwarted, for reasons we do not know. The end of "Mina de Vanghel" is powerful, and dreadfully cruel, but the style is dazzling in its dryness, its violence. At moments, one has the impression of reading Paul Morand—some of those venomous features which are the whole delight of Stendhal.
Thus juxtaposed, these two texts have, in addition to their novelistic interest, a quasi-technical one. We realize something of the mechanism of creation not only in Stendhal, but in all writers: a rocket explodes, followed by a lowering of tension, a sudden lack of interest after a moment of exaltation. An unfinished work tells us more about a novelist than one for which he has compelled himself to find a conclusion to satisfy his publisher, his readers. The wager has not been kept for reasons that are only too honest, and our disappointment becomes a reverie. Jacques Laurent was able to write an ending for Lamiel. One remains to be written for The Pink and the Green: Mina playing with the young duke like a cat with a mouse, making him love her and despising him when he is at her feet. She has conquered too easily and discovers the insipidity of victories won over an ill-armed adversary. Like Lamiel, like the Duchess of Sanseverina, like Mathilde de la Mole, Mina is a masculine character. Her will prevails over her heart. That heart has timidly indicated the path—the rest is warrior's work. These women behave like men, and the men they fall in love with are unworthy of them. To have anticipated and heralded this transformation of manners in the 1830s, one really had to love women, and to understand them. Did the task seem too ambitious? We shall never know. Nothing in Stendhal's Journal gives us a clue. His health was always an important element. When it broke down, he was alienated from his heroes, and turned in upon himself. Recovered, he would sketch new plans. Seldom, in the entire history of literature, have we seen an author falling in love with his heroines so easily, and detaching himself from them so painlessly.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1171
SOURCE: "Downwardly Mobile Mina," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, p. 26.
[In the following essay, Sieburth offers a favorable appraisal of The Pink and the Green and "Mina de Vanghel."]
"Many of the works of the ancients have become fragments," observed Friedrich von Schlegel. "Many of the works of the moderns are fragments at their very inception." If incompletion, as Schlegel suggests, is the crucial condition of modernity, then Stendhal must certainly stand as the most modern of 19th-century authors. He published only three novels during his lifetime—Armance (1827). The Red and the Black (1830) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839)—but left behind in various stages of gestation a litter of orphaned works that would have to await the 20th century to find their adoptive readers. Lucien Leuwen, a sprawling political novel broken off after some 600 pages, Lamiel, a brilliant but abortive venture into the female picaresque: Memoirs of Egotism and The Life of Henry Brulard, preparatory sketches for an unfinished self-portrait, and a truncated life of Napoleon.
The Pink and the Green . . . represents yet another of Stendhal's abandoned construction sites, circa 1837. The building materials of an accomplished novel are all here—a beautiful, iconoclastic heroine, a handsome, moody leading man; a plot full of intrigue and paradox set within a pungent satire of the mendacity of the July Monarchy (1830-48)—but for one reason or another, Stendhal never managed to assemble these elements into a completed fictional edifice. What we are left with, then, is a 100-page ingress to an eventual novel, more eloquent for what it augurs than for what it actually delivers. Beauty, Stendhal was fond of remarking, is a promise of happiness. The same holds true for the esthetics of his fragments: they move us by their promise, seduce us by their omissions.
The title of The Pink and the Green seems to allude paradoxically to Stendhal's earlier work, The Red and the Black. Indeed, the young heroine of this unfinished novel, the fabulously rich German heiress Mina Wanghen, is in many ways a female version of Julien Sorel. Both are outsiders, both are victims of their social origins, both decide to rewrite their destinies and identities. Julien, a plebeian from the provinces, sets out to make his fame and fortune among the Parisian aristocracy; Mina, having inherited two million talers from her banker father, travels to Paris to flee the ennui of Königsberg and, more important, to escape the rapacity of her suitors. An admirer of the French Revolution (and, like Julien Sorel, something of a crypto-Jacobin). Mina is aghast to discover that contemporary France bears little resemblance to the country of her imagination; the Paris of Louis Philippe has been reduced to a clumsy comedy of greed.
Seen through the eyes of its caustic heroine, a substantial swatch of The Pink and the Green is devoted to a spirited caricature of July Monarchy capitalism—the same Balzacian terrain previously covered in Lucien Leuwen. In the process, however, Stendhal seems to lose the thread of his plot. A handsome young duke makes his appearance halfway through the manuscript. Bored, marriage shy, disgusted with the pusillanimity of the French nobility, Leon provides a perfect foil for the headstrong Mina, the novel then trails off into jumbled notations for further chapters. Mina gives herself to Leon, but, doubting his sincerity, refuses his marriage proposal on the pretext that she has an illegitimate child. Cruelly rebuffed, the nobleman subsequently weds another woman, even though he and Mina still love each other passionately. His wife takes a lover who, it emerges, has been paid for his ardor by her German rival. To put the unselfishness of Leon's love to a further test, Mina pretends she has lost her millions; but his heart remains unswayed by her simulation of financial ruin. Judging from these notes, the remainder of Stendhal's projected novel might well have read like a chivalric romance rewritten by Laclos.
The Pink and the Green is the failed elaboration of an earlier Stendhal novella. .. . Composed in 1830 (and therefore very much an outcropping of The Red and the Black). "Mina de Vanghel" is one of Stendhal's brightest posthumous gems. Its eponymous heroine, a reader of Kant and Fichte and an admirer of Mozart, is a typically Stendhalian amalgam of intellect and passion. Modeled in part on a young woman Stendhal had courted while posted in Brunswick. Germany, during the Napoleonic wars, Mina de Vanghel in carnates those virtues idealized as German by Mme de Stael in her influential work De l'Allemagne—sincerity, spontaneity, imagination and, above all, a Wertherian genius for the transfiguring intensities of love Mina's dreamy German romanticism however, is offset by a vigorous amorality in the tradition of Defoe or the French dramatist and novelist Marivaux. But her story wittily reverses the typical rags to riches vector of the picaresque instead of tracing the curve of a social ascent from orphanhood to marital prosperity. Stendhal (in part inspired by Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer) has his heroine deliberately choose the path of downward mobility.
Rejecting both her illustrious name and fortune. Mina resolves to discover whether it is possible for a 19th-century woman to be desired not as a physical or economic object, but as an existential subject. She systematically strips herself of all the common attributes of feminine appeal—wealth, education, beauty—and adopts the disguise of a drab chambermaid in order to carry out her experiment on the older husband of one of her high-society acquaintances. The husband falls madly in love with her, and she in turn humiliates his haughty, jealous wife by bribing an accomplice to compromise her conjugal honor. The husband, unaware that he is the victim of Mina's vengeful strategems, challenges his wife's supposed lover to a duel and flees to Italy to rejoin his beloved. There, after an interlude of shared romantic bliss, the husband learns that Mina has been toying with him all the while. Furious at having been played for a fool, he decides to return to his wife. Mina shoots herself through the heart. The novella coolly concludes: "Was her life a miscalculation? Her happiness had lasted eight months. Hers was too ardent a spirit to be content with the realities of life."
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir singles out Stendhal as the only genuinely feminist male author in the French canon. Lawless though they may be in their quest for the perfection of disinterested love, the twin Minas of these tales display the willingness to gamble everything in the pursuit of happiness. Their libertine strategies ultimately fail, but in the process they acquire a freedom rare among romantic heroines—as Beauvoir puts it, "a freedom tangled in its own snares and deceptions, the most human form of freedom." In a century whose masculine fictions are rampant with female angels, demons and sphinxes, Stendhal's women stand out precisely because of their very human refusal to be mystified. One senses on every page that even to their creator they come as a constant surprise.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5570
SOURCE: "The Letter of Repression in Stendhal's Armance," in Nineteenth Century French Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1989-90, pp. 41-55.
[In the following essay, Diamond discusses Oedipal symbolism in Armance.]
Armance is a tantalizing text. Its dominant protagonist, Octave de Malivert, is tormented by some terrible secret, something "unspeakable," the nature of which he hints at and continually promises to reveal to his loving cousin Armance de Zohiloff. Finally married to Armance and on the point of death by his own hand, he writes her a letter naming what he has never dared say. However, his secret is not revealed to the reader. Armance withdraws into a cloister, and the reader is similarly closed off from any fulfilling sexual/textual resolution. It is hardly surprising, then, that the critics, confronted by the closed door of Octave's secret, should have looked for a key. One was readily at hand. Stendhal's acknowledged literary inspiration for Armance was Latouche's Olivier, the subject of which is physical impotence as an obstacle to love. Although there is no explicit evidence for such impotence in Armance, Stendhal wrote to Prosper Mérimée (23 December 1826) that Octave's secret was that he was indeed a "babylan." However, this key, as the many and divergent interpretations of the novel show, opens not one but many doors. In the most recent study of Armance, L'Auteur encombrant: Stendhal/Armance, Jean-Bellemin-Noël refreshingly suggests that Stendhal's letter yields the wrong key, that it does not fit the text. Still, his own reading of Octave as a manic-depressive trapped in a pre-Oedipal dynamic, further elaborates the parameters of an impasse, that is, of "impotence."
It has been pointed out by many critics that impotence in Armance defies reduction to any single physiological, psychological or social cause. Nevertheless, defining his novel as a chronicle of Restoration salon society, Stendhal explicitly situates his psychological portrait of Octave within a specific historical problematic. From the beginning of the novel, Octave's impotence is socially defined. An aristocrat of feudal origin, educated at the progressive École Polytechnique, he embodies the transitional and paradoxical position of his class. The son of a backwardlooking father ruined by the Revolution, he is the nephew of an uncle determined to ally himself with the powerful forces of the bourgeoisie. Incapable of resolving his social paradox, Octave is equally incapable of forming any affective relationship outside of his immediate family and expresses love only for his mother. This structure, so familiar in early nineteenth-century fiction, describes a crisis in which the eclipse of the aristocratic patriarchy brings to the fore the threat of incest to disaffiliated sons.
Most psycho/social readings of Armance, whether focusing on an Oedipal or pre-Oedipal dynamic, assume that, with the collapse of the Law-of-the Father, Octave's mother, Madame de Malivert, embodies the threat of incest, the negative force to which he succumbs. In the most extensive Lacanian analysis of the novel, Armance et l'aveu. Pierre Bayard reads Armance as the reflection of a society dominated by salons in which women endeavor to establish the priority of a discourse of transparency and selfrevelation—hence the correlative literary genre of Romantic confession. The salon, "la métonymie de la voix maternelle," is thus the social manifestation of the phallic mother with her insistent demands for full exposure. Given this premise, Bayard interprets Octave's secretiveness as a refusal to be incorporated into the boundless flux of confession. If he withholds his words, it is in the name of the eclipsed Paternal Law. His anal obsessionality, Bayard writes, represents a necessary resistance to the tyranny of the mother, to her desire to absorb distance into totalizing presence. Bayard's reading echoes the terrors that haunt confessional Romantic literature, beginning with Chateaubriand's René, in which woman is perceived as a generic threat to male integrity and creativity.
However, of all nineteenth-century male writers, confessional or otherwise, Stendhal proves particularly resistant to this dominant Western paradigm. As Simone de Beauvoir writes, in Le Deuxième sexe, his refusal to reduce women to a negative alterity is exceptional in a century that intensifies the established dualisms between man and woman, culture and nature. And in Armance, he makes a clear distinction between the women who preside over salon life and Madame de Malivert and Armance. Hardly in opposition to patriarchal interests, the salon queens primarily function as what one might call "middle women," arranging marriages that perpetuate power through the acquisition of status and property. They facilitate the transition between the old aristocracy and the new bourgeoisie. Madame de Malivert and Armance, on the other hand, are prototypical victims of repressive authority and the new speculative order and prefigure the female characters who, throughout Stendhal's work, elicit his strongest sympathies. To read such women as the anti-symbolic trap of female discourse goes against his subversive grain and leads to an idealization of Octave's secretiveness and obsessionality. Nevertheless, with its explicit focus on the dynamics of linguistic impotence and the repression of desire, Armance is the first, and in many ways the most revealing, of Stendhal's fictional explorations of the relation of symbolic expression to Oedipal inhibition.
From the beginning, Octave is defined in terms of his asociality and his inability to incorporate conventional linguistic codes. However, he is prone to fits of madness and violent explosions that break through his habitual alienation. In such states, he gives expression to a psychic configuration the meaning of which threatens to irrupt into consciousness. He was first called mad when, in an episode that precedes the narrative time of the novel, he threw his mother's lackey out of a window. Although this act, as it is evoked, seems random and unmotivated, Stendhal situates it in a context that points to its repressed Oedipal structure. Octave attacked the lackey, whom he encountered running from his mother's room, because he thought he was deliberately getting in his way. After the violent defenestration, he repentantly humiliated himself and insisted upon becoming the lackey's lackey. This embarrassing and socially anomalous situation ended only when the servant was dismissed with sufficient money to insure his silence. The salient elements of this episode—the encounter with a male obstacle to access to a woman and the violent response and selfpunishment in the name of the object of the violence—contain in nuce the plot of the novel. In assuming the identity of the lackey, not only the figure of an Oedipal inhibitor but of a potential enemy of his class, Octave expresses his psychosocial ambivalence. He punishes himself for his Oedipal transgression while at the same time undermining the established hierarchy.
Another violent crisis, the attack on three soldiers, is as apparently random as the defenestration of the lackey and similarly structured. It follows a ball where Octave is unusually successful among the women. When one of them becomes overtly seductive, his bizarre reaction is to flee from the ballroom into the street. He comes upon some soldiers who, he fancies, are mocking him, attacks them, is predictably overwhelmed, and receives three sabre wounds. The patter of flight from desire followed by a self-defeating attack on the representatives of patriarchal authority is here explicit. Such fits of madness bring into view the psychic dynamic of the novel and explain Octave's complex relation to Armance, his evasive journey towards the recognition of desire and the ensuing violence and suicide.
From the beginning, only Armance, Octave's orphaned, exiled and impoverished cousin, seems capable of counteracting his madness. Madame de Malivert knows that Armance loves her son and, hoping to cure him—medical experts can find no physical cause for his strange attacks and bizarre behavior—encourages their marriage to each other which, for reasons of status and money, is socially unacceptable. The strongest opponent to such a marriage is le comte de Soubirane, Octave's uncle, who would use his nephew to further his own social and financial ambitions.
At first, Octave's own lack of fortune and Armance's near poverty and social impotence erect formidable protective barriers to any expression of desire and maintain their relation within the comfortable bounds of friendship. However, this stasis is broken when the laws of indemnity restore Madame de Malivert's fortune and make Octave the coveted object of mothers with marriageable daughters. His change of fortune changes his relation with Armance who hides her jealousy under a professed distaste for his apparent absorption into the trivia of salon life, and scrupulously avoids his presence. The ensuing game of hide-and-seek and misunderstandings postpone any confession of desire and constitute the peripeteia of the novel. Within this structure, secrets function as the most effective device of seduction/evasion. Thus, in order to gain access to the secluded Armance, Octave plays on the mystic inclinations of her protectress, Madame de Bonnivet, by pretending to reveal to her his deepest secret, namely, that he has no conscience or instinctive sense of the divine. The ruse works, and, on the pretext of saving his soul, Madame de Bonnivet opens her house (and heart) to him. This strategic use of the confession of a secret is mirrored by Armance who, in order to veil her troubled desire for her cousin, pretends that she is troubled by a secret betrothal.
Armance reveals her "secret" to Octave on a walk to Père Lachaise to visit the tomb of Héloise and Abelard. This reference to the famous medieval lovers is commonplace in Romantic literature. The story of passion, castration and the cloister gave the title to Rousseau's paradigmatic La Nouvelle Héloise and is a major intertext of Stendhal's fiction. In De l'amour he cites Héloise and Abelard, along with the num of the Lettres portugaises, as examples of the highest kind of love, "l'amour passion." The reference to their tomb invites a comparison between the dead and living lovers. Their story highlights the dynamics of Armance, including the destructive role of the figure of the uncle. In contrast to the apotheosis of passion in the medieval lovers, the lovers of the Restoration expend their energy in the evasion of desire.
Because of social inhibitions, Armance must disguise her love. Octave, however, successfully represses his desire until it is named by a third person, Madame d'Aumale. The scene of recognition, a tête-à-tête in the exquisite gardens of a country château, follows Octave's efforts to dispel a misunderstanding. In a witty and playful exchange with Armance aimed at dissolving any reason for jealousy, he finds himself carried away into ecstatic pleasure—"le comble de bonheur"—by her beauty and proximity. However, Madame d'Aumale, the object of Armance's jealousy, interrupts the idyllic scene, takes Octave aside and names what she has seen: "Vous êtes amoureux de cette belle cousine, ne vous en défendez pas, je m'y connais." Forced into recognition of his desire, Octave collapses into the most extreme despair, and takes flight.
The explicit reason he gives for his extraordinary reaction is that, at the age of sixteen, he made a vow never to love. He thus condemns himself for his weakness and for his failure to keep his word. Octave's vow, an empty remnant of the feudal code, represents his fidelity to the word of the father. Such vows play a crucial role in Stendhal's novels. As in the case of Clélia in La Chartreuse de Parme, they are made in the name of the father and the censorship of desire. To use his own metaphor, Octave's vow erects a wall of diamond between himself and the world (the female other). So disturbing is the recognition of a desire previously barred from consciousness that Octave contemplates suicide. Comparing himself to a man about to be guillotined—a reprise of the revolutionary implications of overthrowing the father—he reaches the conclusion that he must leave Armance and, at an appropriate time, when the act cannot be connected to her, kill himself. At which point he falls into a faint. His denial of Armance and his own projected death does not give him access to the symbolic (the resistance, in Bayard's paradigm, against the "imaginary" represented by the mother) but, barring the door of the unconscious and occluding the expression of desire, effectively denies it. The expression of desire unleashes an annihilating rage he cannot control except through his own annihilation. Thus, he attempts to bury his recently surfaced desire by burying, in a ritual "acting out," a purse given to him by Armance. After fondling and kissing it, he buries it at the exact spot where he fainted and celebrates this metonymie destruction of Armance and his own desire as his first truly virtuous act.
Octave's rejection of his cousin is determined not by fear of her engulfing him—the virginal and modest Armance is the least likely figure for a femme fatale—but by fear of engulfment by the father. Stendhal makes it clear in Armance that the denial of woman in the name of patriarchal authority is equivalent not to symbolic transcendence but to suicide and murder. In the name of that authority he is compelled to metaphorically kill Armance. He thus tells her he does not love her and is leaving on a long journey. Thereupon, she falls into a faint (at the foot of the orange tree, the crucial site of the substitution of the fatal counterfeit letter), but the effect of this pseudo death—in which the will of the father is satisfied, permits his passion to reemerge without guilt. Octave gazes lovingly at the contours of Armance's unconscious body, covers her hands with kisses and murmurs that he has never loved her so much. When she regains consciousness, he flees to his father and receives permission to make a journey to Greece, to perpetuate the tradition of his crusading ancestors.
However, Octave's efforts to repress desire are not successful. It continually erupts into consciousness, producing an overwhelming sense of anxiety and what might be called, to use Stendhal's own vocabulary, a negative crystallization. In Paris to make preparations for his "crusade," he everywhere encounters signs of the loss of Armance. Prefiguring the surrealists' absorption of the topography of Paris into the structures of the unconscious, the initials of her name, AZ, expressive of her totalizing effect, seem to detach themselves from the shop signs and refer him constantly back to her. One of the pistols he picks out to take to Greece bears an inscription that she had fired it on such and such a date. He unfolds a map of Greece and a pin she had used falls out. Ever encountering his desire and its phallic threat, he finds himself in a nightmarish state that approximates psychosis.
The epigraph that heads Chapter XX, which describes Octave's flight from Paris, is taken from Othello: "A fine woman, a fair woman, a sweet woman./ Nay, you must forget that,/ O the world has not a sweeter creature." And it is at a performance of Othello that he provokes the fatal duel with the comte de Crèveroche. His decision to see Othello is determined by a series of random associations. Coming across a poster advertising the play, he recalls that Madame d'Aumale has a box at the theater and that he should give her some uncompromising explanation for his sudden departure, that is, he must erase the trace of his desire in its only witness. Stendhal's use of the theater as the occasion for Octave's most violent crisis recalls a previous reference to a performance of Scribe's Le Mariage de Raison when he fled from the theater during the second act: "La clef que l'on rend dans le second acte du Manage de Raison le chassa du spectacle." The key referred to in the play is the key to a matrimonial bedroom, the repressed key to his unconscious fantasy. And, of all Shakespeare's plays, Othello most explicitly enacts a murderous rage against a woman because of her (imagined) sexual infidelity. As if turning his back on this representation of his own unconscious scenario, Octave turns his back on the stage and engages in a loud and socially offensive conversation with Madame d'Aumale, drowning out the voices of the performers and driving the comte de Crèveroche out of his companion's box. This outrageous performance prompts an insulting note from the count and the stage is set for the duel. The duel provides Octave with an ideal occasion for a murder/suicide. Even when both he and the count are wounded, he refuses to stop until the count is killed and he himself is near death. Only at this critical point—when his violence against the prohibiting paternal figure has exacted the appropriate penalty, can he write to Armance and finally acknowledge his love for her.
Correlative to Octave's repression of desire is his secret writing, a writing like that of Julien Sorel, which he jealously guards from all eyes. His plans for an ideal writing scenario, a private mirrored room, graphically reveal its narcissistic, imaginary character. Not even the servants would have access to the key to this room so that no one might discover "ce que j'écris pour guider mon âme dans ses moments de folie." He even writes down his plans for the imaginary room in cryptic notes in Greek that he locks in his desk. Firmly barring access to any reader, his secret writing parallels his oath never to love. Thus, his decision to write to Armance is a drastic one. It becomes possible only on the precondition of his imminent, literal death. Instead of ink he uses his own blood. His writing is sinister (because of his wound, he has to use his left hand), embodying an Oedipally structured murder and suicide. Describing his love for Armance in terms of that of a father for a daughter, he mirrors the repressed incestuous scenario of the love of a son for his mother. A literal expression (written in blood) of the connection between death and writing, between the naming of desire and castration, Octave's letter only counterfeits the symbolic.
Confronted by the imminence of his death, Octave writes a second letter to Armance in which he leaves her all his wealth in anticipation of the care she will give his mother. This bequest highlights the function of money in his Oedipal dynamic. His money, a gift in the name of desire, came from his mother. To bequeath it to Armance, on the precondition of his death, is to refuse the gift. Denying desire, he nevertheless thwarts (the correlative of the rage against the father) the ambitions of his uncle who would use his nephew's restored wealth for capital speculation and investment in the new order. The two letters to Armance spell out once again the equation that desire equals murder and suicide. Their very expression is ghostly and fragile. He asks her to burn the confession as soon as she has read it, and is aware that his bequest, since it is written in blood, may be inconsequential. However, he does not die, and the no-man's land of his sick bed offers an illusory reprieve.
Protected by the constrictions of his illness and her poverty, Octave and Armance experience a pseudo freedom in which, without consequence, they can give voice to their passion. Having, as it were, paid the price for his desire—he experiences his convalescence as a postponed dying—Octave goes so far as to absolve himself from his vow never to love. Armance, however, erects her own vow never to marry in its place. Even when she becomes wealthy through the inheritance of an uncle, she makes every effort to sustain the vow. She is still shamed by the possibility of social censure. When Octave's convalescence ends, the two lovers once again engage in a protective strategy of evasion and misunderstanding. It breaks down only when Armance's reputation is threatened.
Jealously lingering late at night near Octave's room, Armance is caught by the comte de Soubirane who makes a snickering allusion to the nature of her relation with his nephew. In a state of crisis, she has recourse to Madame de Malivert—always a counterforce to the count—who brings the two lovers together, dispels their misunderstandings and clears the way for the betrothal that will protect the reputation of Armance. In effect, Octave agrees to marry out of honor rather than desire. When his uncle persists in making an insulting reference to the compromising encounter, Octave threatens to throw him out of the window, reevoking the violent defenestration that had originally marked him as mad, responding with rage to the configuration of the male inhibitor and the female seductress. However, the count is no lackey. He is a powerful adversary, jealous for sole possession of his nephew in order to control the family fortune and enhance the family name. Armance uneasily knows that Octave's honorable gesture of marriage, a remnant of his feudal sense of duty, is no match for the power-hungry patriarch.
After the betrothal, Octave attempts to postpone marriage by a predictable strategy of evasion. He resorts to the device of suggesting to Armance that he has some monstrous secret too terrible to be revealed. Under pressure, he confesses to a childhood kleptomania—a peccadillo, as far as his fiancée is concerned, but a screen for a far more troubling Oedipal theft. He continues to hint at some hidden horror and, alternating between disclosure and withdrawal, cruelly tantalizes Armance. Stendhal was always fascinated by veiled and evasive language, and his remarks, in De l'amour, on pudeur and female coquetry, throw light on Octave's indirect and teasing discourse. Stendhal ascribes the coquettish and deceptive mode of female communication with men to the fact that women cannot, under the threat of censure, give voice to their desire. They are permitted only oblique signs and gestures. He illustrates such cryptic language with the example of a Roman count—"who had stolen his talent from women—" who made up stories with disconnected words, suggesting everything and saying nothing. Stendhal interprets this female discourse as a justified reaction against male tyranny: "Cette friponnerie est une représaille cruelle mais juste de la tyrannie des hommes." Thus, Octave's secret and coded messages to himself, and Stendhal's cryptic journal notations can be read as strategies for veiling desire in the name of male tyranny. However, whereas the female coquette furthers her desire by her use of indirection, the male tease, inhibited by a more catastrophic paternal interdiction, must negate his desire for the female, and his rage against his censor is consistently transformed into rage against his own desire. Thus, Octave teases and tantalizes Armance not in the name of increasing her desire for him but of killing it. Significantly, when he finally dares to communicate his secret to Armance, he falls into the obvious and transparent trap his uncle sets for him.
To escape the prying and intrusive eyes of society so as to speak to each other with more ease, Octave and Armance engage in a written correspondence, leaving their letters for each other at a secret hiding place, the orange tree. On the verge of entering symbolic discourse, of speaking to another not himself, Octave decides to reveal his secret. He writes Armance a letter that he leaves at the assigned place. But, the count, who has been spying on the lovers, has forged a letter supposedly from Armance to her confidante. It expresses her weariness of Octave, her loss of love and reluctance to be married. Octave discovers the letter and, too ready to believe in this proof of feminine duplicity, inconstancy and betrayal, tears his own "symbolic" letter into fragments. He accepts the counterfeit letter in its place.
Of all the obstacles Stendhal contrives to keep his lovers apart, the counterfeit letter is the least plausible. In La Folie dans l'oeuvre romanesque de Stendhal, Shoshana Felman points out the blatant absurdity that Armance would plant her letter exactly where Octave, not her confidante, would be bound to find it. But, Octave's acceptance of the counterfeit as a true letter is logically consistent with his psychic trajectory. He negates desire and yields to the father. The counterfeit letter permits him to activate his vow, postponed by the ambiguous outcome of the duel, to abandon Armance and kill himself. To spare her the social shame, he goes through what for him is now the meaningless ritual of marriage. It is negated by his intended departure for Greece and suicide.
In order to leave Armance, whose joy and love for him are transparent, he constantly reminds himself of the damning evidence in the counterfeit letter. He cannot escape the conviction that the penalty for expressed desire is death. Thus, he journeys to Greece to fulfill his self-destructive destiny. Stendhal implicitly contrasts this fate with that of the Romantic hero Byron, who died for the liberation of Greece, and of Napoleon, the Revolutionary hero whom Octave recalls as his ship rounds Corsica. Romantic and revolutionary ideals have been eclipsed by the Restoration. Octave is a failed hero, neither revolutionary nor poet. He takes the poison even before he reaches the Greek shore. Before dying, however, he engages in a last ecstasy of writing. He writes his will in which he leaves everything to Armance, with the proviso that she remarry within eighteen months, failing which, his wealth would revert to his mother. This bequest effectively resituates the two women within the established order. Then, over several days, he reconstructs and elaborates his confession to Armance that he had torn up on discovery of the counterfeit letter. Never, Stendhal emphasizes, had he been so much under the spell of love. Thus, he can fully give himself to its pleasures only when he has abandoned Armance, in the name of a misconception, and has determined his own death. In not disclosing Octave's letter to the reader, Stendhal frames it within the closed circuit of his solipsism. And even though Octave sends it to Armance, he includes with it the counterfeit letter, a statement of his belief in the incompatibility of their communication. Despite his intoxication with the language of love, Octave's message to Armance is that she is an unworthy reader of his secret language, and that his suicide is justified. His writing, to the end, mirrors his narcissism.
In accepting his uncle's counterfeit letter as the truth of Armance, Octave yields to the paradigmatic myth of the destructive female and represses his desire. His suicide silences not only himself but his mother and widow. They retreat into a cloister which, unlike the cloister of René that Chateaubriand projects as an alternative to the fear of incest, is the sign of pure negation, the death of language and desire. Stendhal, however, reveals that the patriarchal story of woman is a lie, perpetuated in the name of jealous power. Octave's father, reduced to the empty name of his feudal power, and his uncle, caught up in capitalist expansion, reflect the imaginary order of ideology, to use Althusser's revision of Lacan, rather than the cultural order of the symbolic.
In his A Future for Astyanax, Leo Bersani notes that, given the hatefulness of fathers in his fiction, Stendhal's profound intention is to eliminate the Oedipal stage and to retreat from society into a blissful intimacy with the mother. But, within the dominant Western paradigm, Bersani equates this dream of happiness with the engulfing ecstasy that signifies the death of writing. He bases creativity, consequently, on the transformed figure of the negative patriarch, based on Freud's model of homosexual procreation and the fantasy that to be sexually attacked by the father would be to give birth to the child/self. To write, according to Bersani, Stendhal gives birth to kind fathers and ideal sons: "As he writes, the novelist, through the voice of a paternal narrator, gives birth to the young hero of his story. The novelist creates both father and son; an ideally sympathetic father has been impregnated with a particularly appealing and glamorous son. . . . Thus, the hated father of Stendhal's Oedipal plots reemerges as the guarantee of fictional discourse, of the symbolic in opposition to the ecstasy constituted by the mother." Thus, by the radical transformation of the negative father, Bersani circumvents the possibility of a female role in creativity. Even her reproductive function is usurped and metaphorically applied to this homosexual paradigm.
Armance suggests an alternate possibility to this apotheosis of phallocentrism. It establishes the configuration, elaborated in Stendhal's later fiction, in which the father is the author of a counterfeit letter that represses desire, language and creativity. Inhibited by established conventions, Madame de Malivert and Armance are reticent, marginal and ineffectual. Despite her restored wealth, Madame de Malivert has little power and is dying of consumption; despite her contempt for social hypocrisy and materialism, Armance remains submissive to a code that demands her effacement. Nevertheless, in the name of desire, Madame de Malivert bends her husband's will to the extent of furthering a misalliance, a marriage that even she acknowledges could survive only in a solitude á deux. Given the generic repression of the symbolic in societies dominated by ideology (the order of the imaginary), such retreats from society are not merely regressions in the name of of undifferentiated symbiotic bliss. Like the religious retreats that house Stendhal's celibate and loving fathers of the church (Chélan, Pirard, Blanés, etc.), like the prisons that permit the exchanges between Julien and Madame de Rênal, between Fabrice and Clélia, they constitute a space for a more authentic discourse. Madame de Malivert fails in her efforts to bring Octave and Armance together. And Octave's suicide, which signifies the eclipse of symbolic language and desire, signifies, at the same time, the negation of Madame de Malivert and Armance.
Armance writes the story of repression and simultaneously disentangles the knotted Oedipal text. As Octave's failure demonstrates, it is an arduous task. Nor are Madame de Malivert and Armance equal to the struggle. Unlike the vibrant dyads Madame de Rênal and Mathilde, Gina del Dongo and Clélia, they are overwhelmed by patriarchal interdictions. But Madame de Malivert's generosity and Armance's capacity for passionate play represent a counterforce to repressive authority and to the language of secrecy and coquetry. They prefigure the elaborate discourse of desire that culminates in the extraordinary invented alphabet that links Fabrice to Clélia in her father's prison in La Chartreuse de Parme. Indeed, Stendhal's fascination with the playful and creative exchange between men and women within a destructively patriarchal structure prefigures contemporary revisions of Freudian, and even Lacanian, theories of the constitution of symbolic language.
For example, in a brief article, "On échoue toujours á parler de ce qu'on aime," Roland Barthes, applying the insights of W. D. Winnicott to his reading of Stendhal's De l'Italie, compares the dialectic between extreme love and difficult expression to the language of the child who uses transitional objects to both link and separate itself from the mother. Barthes traces creativity to this as yet formless interplay between mother and child: "L'espace qui sépare et lie en même temps la mère et son bébé est l'espace même du jeu de l'enfant et du contre jeu de la mère: l'espace encore informe de l'imagination et de la création." He compares De l'Italie, with its squiggles and stutterings, to such a transitional object in Stendhal's development as a writer. This pre-Oedipal model for creativity as proto-symbolic play in a space generally confined, in patriarchal society, to the interaction between women and children, seems especially appropriate to the fictions of Stendhal. In his disentangling of the Oedipal plot, however, such festive and playful exchanges are marginal and come into being only in the interstices of the dominant discourse. They achieve social and symbolic existence only in the creation of the literary work as such, what one might call the ultimate transitional object, the fullest social elaboration of the linguistic play of distance and proximity.
Given the sempiternal appeal of poets to a female muse, Stendhal's focus on the figure of the mother in the play of creativity, despite her erasure by the Phallus as the civilized signifier of the symbolic, should not be particularly surprising. Inserting himself in an ecstatic tradition, he describes writing, in his literary autobiography, La Vie de Henri Brulard, as the source of a pleasure that comes close to madness, and relates it to his joyous interaction with his mother before her death. He recalls that his best memory following that trauma, which inaugurated the regressive regime of his father and aunt, was when he occupied her room to which he alone held the key. There he set up his writing desk. Whereas Octave metaphorically locks himself out of his mother's room, and, so to speak, throws away the key, Stendhal situates himself within the maternal space to write, and through his fictions reconstitutes the play of desire over the abyss of loss. His many mistresses regenerate this original paradigm and mediate the creative process. He thus records the initials of all the women he has loved and concludes: "Elles ont à la lettre occupé toute ma vie. A elles ont succédé tous mes ouvrages." Octave denies the symbolic order by accepting as truth the patriarchal counterfeit letter. One might say that Stendhal, in contrast, constitutes the symbolic by combining the scattered letters of the name of the mother.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5528
SOURCE: "Tales of Action," in Stendhal Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 109-22.
[In the following excerpt, Talbot examines characteristic themes in Stendhal's short fiction.]
While Stendhal is better known as a novelist than as a writer of short stories, his interest in short fiction was considerable and can be traced to the earliest stages of his career. Practically all his nonfiction contains anecdotes that, though often only a few lines long, are embryonic short stories. His first published work, The Lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio, contains, for example, an anecdote about a seventeenth-century singer and his mistress that is then retold in a more developed fashion in The Life of Rossini. A few of these anecdotes are long enough to stand as short stories in their own right. An example would be the story of Ernestine, which Stendhal wrote for an anticipated second edition of On Love. Written in 1822 and 1825, it is Stendhal's first piece of short fiction. While its purpose is didactic (to illustrate the stages of crystallization), it is a complete short story that details the growth of the love of a young woman for an older man.
Stendhal began writing short stories as such around 1829-30, when the genre was beginning to affirm itself in France. Printing improvements had led to the expansion of newspapers, which, bolstered by advertising, were in a position to pay relatively decent prices for fiction. Stendhal was certainly in need of money and may also have been influenced in this direction by his younger friend, Prosper Mérimée, who was in the process of building a reputation for himself as a short-story writer. In any case, writing short fiction seems a natural outlet for someone who for years had been fascinated by anecdotes.
Most of Stendhal's energies and his best accomplishments in this domain deal with Italian subject matter, but a few pieces of short fiction with a non-Italian subject matter, all written around 1830, merit some attention. Appearing in La Revue de Paris in 1830, "Le Coffre et le Revenant" (The Chest and the Ghost) is a story of passion and murder and the only one of Stendhal's narratives set in Spain. The powerful head of the police, Don Blas Bustos, falls in love with Dona Ines and forces her to marry him by having her fiancé, Fernando, jailed and by threatening further harm to him unless she abides by his wishes. Through a contrived plot that includes his being smuggled into her room in a chest, Fernando does eventually succeed in making contact with Ines, but this leads only to her murder by the jealous Don Blas. A character who has been cruelly treated and who enjoys mistreating others, Don Blas is also an ugly man fascinated by the physical beauty of others, which he must either repress (he has Don Fernando jailed) or possess (he forcibly marries Ines). Ines is one of those female characters for whom Stendhal has a particular affection: she is a woman with deep religious faith who loves even when she believes that this love will lose her soul.
Also appearing in La Revue de Paris the same year was a tale based on a seventeenth-century story by Paul Scarron that Stendhal entitled "Le Philtre" (The Potion). It too is a tale of passion, this time leading to suicide. Léonore leaves her husband for a circus horseback rider whom she knows to be unreliable but whom she continues to love even after he has stolen her money and used that money to run off with another woman and to pay another man to sleep with her. Although her husband, though older and somewhat jealous, loves her and treats her well, Léonore continues to love the circus rider—an infatuation she attributes to his having made her drink a love potion. Yet Liéven, the young lieutenant to whom she tells this tale, becomes as passionately in love with her as she with her horseman, although he knows she loves another and could never love him. There is, then, no need of a potion to explain inexplicable love, for the rules of passion defy those of rationality. Liéven cannot face not being loved by Léonore and commits suicide in her arms. The only way she can respond is to enter a convent. The abrupt ending, typical of much of Stendhal's fiction, is his own invention, not Scarron's.
Around this same time Stendhal wrote another story, "Mina de Vanghel," which he did not publish. He had given some thought to expanding this story into a novel, but the text we have can stand on its own as a complete short story. It centers on a young German woman named Mina de Vanghel who, after her father's death, goes to live in France. There she falls in love with a married man, Monsieur de Larçay, and proceeds through various stratagems to convince him to leave his wife. When she later admits to him that she had staged the event that had convinced him that his wife was cheating on him, he leaves her in disgust. She in turn commits suicide for, the narrator tells us, "her soul was too filled with fire for her to be content with the reality of life."
This young woman's resourcefulness, cunning, and singlemindedness of purpose are striking to be sure. She is capable of manipulating others, as she does when she shamelessly gets Count Ruppert to court Madame de Larçay by promising to marry him within the year. That Ruppert could have been killed in this process (he was, in fact, wounded in a duel with Larçay) does not concern her much, for in her eyes he is but a fop whom she intends to buy off when she no longer needs him. Like a number of other female characters in Stendhal's fiction, Mina is stronger than the men she encounters. His courage, like Mathilde's, is sustained and inspired by her ancestors, whom she addresses directly at one difficult point: "Spirits of my ancestors . . . like you I have courage. .. . I will be faithful to honor. That secret flame of honor and heroism that you have transmitted to me finds nothing worthy of itself in this prosaic century where destiny has left me." Her affinity for the life of her ancestors reemerges a few pages later: "My ancestors left their magnificent castle at Königsberg to go to the Holy Land; a few years later, they returned alone, facing innumerable dangers, disguised as I am. The courage which sustained them places me in the midsts of the only dangers which remain, in this puerile, boring, and vulgar century, for someone of my sex." Like a number of other Stendhalian characters, Mina has constructed for herself a morality built on her own understanding of what constitutes personal greatness. Stendhal was clearly fascinated by this story and several years later, in 1837, he worked on a longer version, Le Rose et le Vert (The Pink and the Green), but never completed it.
All Stendhal's nonfiction relating to Italy includes anecdotes dealing with Italian life and mores, usually emphasizing individual energy and passion. His Life of Rossini contains such stories; Rome, Naples, and Florence incorporates even more, especially in the second edition of 1826; and Walks in Rome contains an even larger number. In 1829, one year after the publication of Walks in Rome, Stendhal published "Vanina Vanini," his first independent story on an Italian theme. Appearing in La Revue de Paris, it is based on a political situation then attracting considerable attention—namely, the revolutionary activity being carried out in Italy. The story's first sentence draws attention to the fact that the action takes place in the 1820s, and the subtitle, "Details of the Last Vente of Carbonari Discovered in the Papal States" (a vente was a revolutionary cell), situates it in a contemporary context.
The story begins with the description of a ball held by a wealthy banker who is also a duke. The newness of his palace indicates a current prosperity—a fact confirmed by his being able to put on a ball that no European king would be able to match. What is striking in the first two pages or so, however, is the contrast of events. At the same time the duke-banker is giving an expensive ball and his wealthy and noble guests are preoccupied with determining who is the most beautiful woman present, a carbonaro is escaping from Sant' Angelo prison. The power structure of contemporary Italy is under attack and may be vulnerable, since its prisons seem incapable of holding those who contest it. Indeed, the nobility itself may be losing its coherence. There are, to be sure, nobles such as Livio Savelli who are superficial, do not like to read, and are completely disinterested in politics. Others, however—like Countess Vittelleschi, who initially saves the carbonaro, Missirilli, and Don Asdrubal, Vanina's father, who harbors Missirilli in his home for four months—while not renouncing their class (Don Asdrubal, for one, is quite keen that his daughter marry within her class), come to the aid of revolutionaries for reasons that are unstated but that might be presumed to be patriotic.
Vanina Vanini, who gives her name to the title, is one of a number of strong women in Stendhal's work. Like Mathilde de la Mole, she denounces the vanity of the men of her class and prefers men of action. Whereas Mathilde had proclaimed that being condemned to death alone was meritorious, Vanina, when asked by Livio Savelli who could possibly please her, answers, "That young carbonaro who has just escaped; at least he has done something other than be born." She falls in love with a commoner, the political revolutionary Missirilli. As with Mathilde, Vanina's love for such a man allows her to take refuge in historical myths, at one point saying to Missirilli, "You are a great man like the ancient Romans." Like Mathilde, she is the one who makes the first declaration of love, and it is she who offers herself in marriage to Missirilli. Finally, she is quite willing to dishonor herself for the man she loves: "My lot from now on is to dare everything. .. . I'll lose myself for you, but no matter. Will you be able to love a woman so dishonored?" Her love is marked by a cerebral quality, by a calculation that Missirilli owes her his love because of what she has done for him. Thus she is able to betray his group, thinking thereby to save him for herself. Her miscalculation on this score leads to her being rejected by the man she loves and returned to the class that is her own but that she disdains.
Though considerably less developed, Missirilli is in many ways, a Cornelian character, torn between the conflicting demands of love and duty. In realizing his duty to his country, he can be spontaneous and impulsive, but his revolutionary activity is also a thoughtful, reasoned decision. The freedom for which he is fighting and for which he is willing to lay down his life is more important to him than the love of the most desirable woman of Rome—even when he is certain that this woman also loves him passionately. It is this ultimate commitment that Vanina fails to comprehend.
The story's ending is an unusual one for Stendhal. While the precipitous closure is hardly surprising in a Stendhalian text, one would have expected Vanina to either enter a convent or commit suicide. It is, of course, possible to interpret her marriage to Livio Savelli as a kind of suicide, but an alternative reading might interpret her continued life in the world as a sign that hers was not a true passionate love. She and Mathilde de la Mole are the only two of Stendhal's lovers who neither die nor enter a convent when they find themselves prevented from pursuing their love. Significantly, Stendhal reports the marriage in one terse, concluding sentence without any clue to the heroine's sentiments.
In 1833, while Stendhal was French consul at Civitavecchia, the Caetani family placed at his disposition numerous manuscripts conserved at its residence in Rome. These manuscripts, which probably date from the seventeenth century, purport to relate true stories of the Italian Renaissance, a period that had long piqued Stendhal's curiosity. He took a keen interest in them and had a number copied for his future use. In the fall of 1834 he conceived the idea of publishing some of them in a volume to be entitled Histoirettes romaines (Little Roman Stories). Nothing came of this project, but in 1836, while he was on leave in Paris, he began transcribing and adapting some of these tales for publication in La Revue des Deux Mondes. He realized that his position as French consul at Civitavecchia precluded his using some of the materials, which would be too compromising for families now important in the Papal States, but he did have a number of manuscripts from which to choose. Those he selected might have minor political liabilities, and it is perhaps for this reason that he published them either anonymously or under the pseudonym Lagenevais. These have become known as the Chroniques italiennes (Italian Chronicles), a title chosen by Romain Colomb, Stendhal's cousin and literary executor, who published them under that title in 1855 as part of Stendhal's collected works.
The first of these, "Vittoria Accoramboni," appeared in 1837. Of all the Italian chronicles it adheres most closely to the Italian text, even to the point of occasionally imitating its flowery style. This is a tale devoid of unity that leaves unanswered many questions raised by the plot. Vittoria Accoramboni's husband has been murdered, but we are never told who committed the crime. Rumors are reported, but none are confirmed. Vittoria's remarriage to Prince Orsini lends suspicion to his involvement, but no proof is ever brought forth. The role of Cardinal Montalto, later to become Pope Sixtus V, is never revealed. Much space is given to the manner in which Montalto reacts to the murder of his nephew, with the narrator clearly in admiration of his self-control and powers of dissimulation, but he then drops out of the narrative for good. Vittoria Accoramboni is later cruelly murdered without the identity of her attackers being clearly revealed. The indications are that she was killed by Orsini's brother with the agreement of Orsini's son by a previous marriage, but then another man is executed for the crime. This narrative might be read as a subverted detective story, for while crimes are committed, clues abound, and suspects are identified, none of the puzzles is fully explained at the end.
It is clear that in telling this story Stendhal was interested in neither a well-constructed plot nor a probing analysis of character; rather, he wished to create a climate of vengeance, violence, and crime. He considered the more passionate and instinctual mores of the Italian Renaissance to be a healthy antidote to the effete social habits of his own time. Seeking to put his readers in touch with another kind of humanity, Stendhal is at pains in the first few paragraphs to recall the otherness of Italian life in 1585 as he stresses the lack of affectation and vanity in that culture. By depicting mores that are vastly different but that in their time and place appear completely normal, he is raising the question of the relativity of morals, with which he had dealt a number of times in his essays.
"Les Cenci" ("The Cenci"), also published in La Revue des Deux Mondes, relates a story that had long interested Stendhal—that of the 16-year-old Béatrice Cenci, who, after repeated sexual assaults by her father, participates in his murder. The story maintains the atmosphere of the previous tale, giving Stendhal once again the opportunity to present mores that were altogether different from those of nineteenth-century France. The characters in this story, much like those of the previous one, are quite ready to affirm their individual selves. François Cenci, who cruelly abuses his wife and forces his daughter into incest as well as other "unspeakable loves" (which the Italian manuscript identifies as sodomy), does whatever he pleases regardless of the consequences. While not admiring these sins and crimes, Stendhal seems to be fascinated with the strength of personality and the strangeness of character that lie behind them.
The description of Cenci, which is totally of Stendhal's invention, mentions that he is "too thin," that his upper eyelids "drooped a bit too much," and that his nose was "too long and too big." This quadruple use of too signals the larger-than-life character of Cenci and may also, as one Italian critic has suggested, be a way of stressing difference and deviance. Though but a teenager, Béatrice reveals exceptional inner strength. When the two outlaws she and her mother have hired to kill her father declare themselves incapable of accomplishing the deed, she reveals her disdain for them, announcing that she will do the job herself. Likewise, she is steadfast under police torture and goes to her death serenely and with dignity. It seems appropriate that she should be buried beneath Raphael's painting of the Transfiguration (a detail added by Stendhal). She too must be listed among the women of strong character who people Stendhal's fiction.
Stendhal's interest in depicting a society in which more primal urges rise to the surface does not entail a willingness to relate all their consequences in detail. Although he describes the horrible manner in which Cenci is murdered (by pounding nails into his eyes and throat), he deliberately censors some information, mainly relating to sexuality, contained in the Italian manuscript. He is quite open about this self-censorship, using parenthetical material to alert his readers: "Here, it becomes absolutely impossible to follow the Roman narrator in the highly obscure relation of the strange things by which François sought to shock his contemporaries. His wife and his unfortunate daughter were, according to all evidence, victims of his abominable ideas." The Italian text is less chaste and specifies that Cenci put boys gathered in the street in his wife's bed and kept prostitutes in his palace. The same kind of censorship occurs later in relation to the execution of Beatrice's mother: "The details which follow are tolerable for the Italian public, which wants to know everything to the last detail; let it suffice for the French reader to know that this poor woman's chastity caused her to be wounded in the chest; the butcher showed the head to the people and then wrapped it in the black taffeta veil." The Italian text elaborates that her breasts were wounded and that, once cut, her head continued to agitate for some time. Shortly afterwards, in recounting Béatrice's execution, Stendhal suppresses without announcing that he is doing so the detail that as Béatrice's head was cut, her leg leapt upwards uncovering her body almost to her head. Although some of these details could not have been published in La Revue des Deux Mondes in any case, this censoring reminds us that while strong erotic drives are present in Stendhal's texts, his writings remain descriptively chaste.
Since love does not constitute the dominant force in the narrative, "Vittoria Accoramboni" and "Les Cenci" differ from the other Italian chronicles and from most of Stendhal's fiction. As Hans Boll-Johansen has shown, plots such as these in which action is preponderant are very rare in Stendhal's fiction. In those texts Stendhal conceived mainly on his own, the evolution of the characters' sentiments is essential, while these two tales in particular and the Italian Chronicles generally stress the train of events in which they are involved. In addition, these two stories contain features that will reoccur in the others and that are characteristic of detective novels: crimes, suspects, clues, and police investigations.
In 1838 Stendhal published another story, "The Duchess of Palliano," that follows the Italian text less closely than the two previous ones. He had three different manuscript sources at his disposal and combined elements from them as well as material of his own invention. In his preface he stresses the idea, quite current at the time, that mores and hence morals are relative to time and place. What moral values can be found in this tale relate to the mastery over self—something for which Stendhal had a deep admiration. The Duchess, her husband, and her brother-in-law the Cardinal all show such mastery when each is separately put to death. The Cardinal, the narrator tells us, was superior to his brother "because he used fewer words; words are always a force which one seeks outside of oneself." When he learned of his condemnation to death "he made his confession; he recited the seven psalms of penance, then sat on a chair and said to the butcher: 'Do it. ' The executioner strangled him with a silk rope which broke. It took him two more attempts. The cardinal looked at the executioner without deigning to say a word." These texts remind us that impulsive energy is not the only ethical norm Stendhal admires; the ethic of self-control is equally important to him. In this case as in others, self-control is frequently expressed at the level of language. There is in Stendhal a silence that can be termed heroic, and laconism is frequently a sign of strength.
As in the other stories, the characters are left undeveloped. Even the Duchess, who gives her name to the story, remains in the background and has little influence on the action. Although this is a love story, the reader does not witness the growth of love between the two characters. The narrator simply states that love exists, and there is no attempt to probe the depths of the psychology of love as is the case in the novels. The plot clearly stresses actions and events and, as in the previous chronicles, does not shy away from scenes of horror. In this story three characters are hung on ropes, the duke bites Marcel on the cheek, Palliano cuts off Diane's head, and the Duchess is strangled with a rope. The text seems bent on exterminating the characters one at a time—a procedure that operates in practically all of the Chronicles.
This story, like the others, is not without a political message, for it is a stinging commentary on the government of the popes. Even the occasional honest pope—Paul IV in this story—is unable to control the corruption in his administration. In these tales filled with phony trials, papal justice is represented as capricious and deriving from personal or political motivations. Publishing these texts was a political act, for they are reminders of the seamy political past of the Holy See, then threatened by the Carbonari.
The last and most substantial story Stendhal published based on the chronicles is "L'Abbesse de Castro" ("The Abbess of Castro"). It appeared in 1839 in two installments in La Revue des Deux Mondes. The concept of the Italian chronicle has now considerably evolved, for Stendhal draws from the Italian text but a small part—roughly one-sixth—of this tale. The Italian manuscript relates only the the affair between the abbess and the bishop and has nothing to say about the love between Hélène de Campireali, the abbess of the title, and Jules Branciforte, which provides the major thrust of the story.
The result is a much longer narrative—it occupies nearly 100 pages in most editions—that is more attentive to situation and character development and has a different ending from the Italian manuscript.
The story involves Hélène, a young woman from a wealthy family who falls in love with Jules, the son of a nowdeceased but once-prominent member of a private, illegal, armed group. Hélène's family is much opposed to this relationship, and, to make matters worse, Jules is obliged, while participating in maneuvers with the private army, to kill Hélène's brother in self-defense. At that point the family locks up Hélène in a convent (ironically named the convent of the Visitation), which Jules unsuccessfully attempts to take by storm. The leader of the outlaws then sends him off to fight in Spain. Hélène's mother sees to it that forged letters purporting to be from Jules and revealing the gradual waning of his love reach Hélène. After a while Hélène's mother falsifies the news that he has died. Hélène thereafter is seduced by the local bishop, by whom she has a child. This relationship is discovered, the bishop is jailed, and Hélène is confined to a dungeon room in another convent. Jules then returns to Italy. On learning that he is still alive, Hélène, filled with remorse at having betrayed him, commits suicide.
Since the death of the heroine is known from the beginning, the interest does not lie in what her ultimate fate will be but rather in the events that will bring that fate about. The narrator, who purports to be but a translator, frequently refers to the two manuscripts he claims to be using, sometimes using quotation marks to indicate direct quotation, sometimes pretending to skip over details of lesser interest. This clever subterfuge aimed at creating an air of authenticity for his story also permits Stendhal to adopt a proleptic mode to his storytelling as he drops hints of what is to come.
Although mostly of Stendhal's invention, the story has much in common with the other tales. As usual in these narratives, the times and the mores explain behavior. In a first chapter devoted exclusively to background, the narrator is careful to situate his story in a sociopolitical and historical context. The role of the bandits, he maintains, is one that has been glossed over by historians. His explanation of that role exalts their bravery and energy and reveals his own fascination for people who operate outside the mainstream of society. In the context of tyrannical regimes, the bandits emerge as a counter-power to governments, more as rebels than outlaws. This type of society, which the narrator is quick to contrast with French society, is one that produces great art and great passions. "In those days," he states almost nostalgically, "one saw passion."
Religion, which does not figure prominently in the background chapter, emerges in the story proper mainly as superstition (e.g., Jules says his rosary before attacking the convent), but it is nevertheless very important in this story in which piety and eroticism are conjoined. An example can be found in the episode in which Hélène, on the verge of yielding to Jules sexually, hears the sound of the "Ave Maria" and asks him to forgo their intimacy in honor of the Madonna. He readily agrees on condition that she swear on a Cross that she will be his whenever he asks her to—something he later reminds her of when he wants her to yield to him: "And you swore on this cross . . . and on your eternal damnation, that in whatever place you might be, and whatever might happen, the moment that I would give you the word, you would place yourself at my entire disposition, as you were at that very moment when the Ave Maria from Mount Cavi reached your ears. Then we devoutly recited two Aves and two Paters." The very piety that had protected Hélène's virginity is now demanding that she yield to her lover. It is a peculiarity of Italian Catholicism, in Stendhal's depiction, that piety and morality do not interfere with each other. This is a Catholicism without moralism, without morality even, which contrasts sharply with the very moralistic Catholicism of the French Restoration.
The story's length allows for greater attention to character than is the case in the other Italian tales. Hélène is caught in the Cornelian dilemma of having to choose between competing allegiances—between fidelity to her lover and fidelity to her family. She is faithful to her lover, but her hesitations permit her mother's schemes to bring about her downfall. Having lost Jules, Hélène degenerates into a haughty, vain, and ambitious woman whose final act of suicide is an effort to redeem herself. Her mother, a strong and willful woman, is first presented as a sympathetic character who very much loves her daughter. After her son dies at Jules's hand, however, she emerges as cunning and ultimately malicious. This does not detract from her considerable ability to manage situations. The manner in which she negotiates with the Cardinal, for example, is quite admirable and recalls Duchess Sanseverina in The Charterhouse of Parma. Jules, who is in the foreground during the first five chapters, remains in the background during the last two. He is nevertheless a solidly delineated character who is very much a part of the society Stendhal was at pains to describe in the first chapter. He comes closer to the heroes of Stendhal's novels than does any other male protagonist in the Italian chronicles. Significantly, like the novelistic heroes, he judges himself, believing himself at one point to be but a fool. Even such minor characters as Jules's mentor, Fabrice Colonna, have an unusual consistency for secondary characters in Stendhal.
This tale differs from Stendhal's novels by its paucity of dialogue. Communication is sometimes effected by things (a bouquet of flowers) or sounds (the "Ave Maria"). More frequently, it is done by the written word. The first communication between the lovers is a letter from Jules to Hélène; the last is a letter from Hélène to Jules. These two letters frame a text in which signs are show to be dangerous. In considering a response to Jules's letter, Hélène "didn't know what sign she could permit herself." Indeed, the fear of revealing too much too directly is at the root of the problems between the lovers. They exchange notes and letters, yet when they communicate face to face, each holds back. When Hélène does talk it is to the wrong person—namely, her mother, who uses these confidences to further control her daughter. Trusting written communication, however, leaves open the possibility that it will be intercepted and destroyed, which is what Fabrice Colonna does to Jules's letters to Hélène. More seriously still, it allows for forgeries such as those concocted by Hélène's mother. The tragedy of this story, finally, is one of miscommunication. Indeed, the world of the Italian Chronicles is always one in which communication is difficult, if not impossible.
The claustration of the woman loved occupies the thematic center of this story in which immurement in a convent signals the inaccessibility and impossibility of love. The desired woman is surrounded by thick, black walls that, according to the narrator, make the convent look like a fortress. Sets of walls inside these walls form a kind of "Piranesian labyrinth" with metal locks, doors, and grills at every corner. Jules tries but cannot penetrate all these walls; only the bishop succeeds, but he is disdained by the woman he loves, and the relationship is judged illicit. There are other symbolic walls in this story, such as those that divide the Campirealis from the Brancifortis and the Colonnas from the Orsinis. In Stendhal's universe passionate love necessarily collides with obstacles.
There are several other uncompleted texts drawn from the Italian manuscripts, all containing a number of features common to the other tales. One of these, "Suora Scolastica," although it takes place in the eighteenth rather than the sixteenth century, bears a resemblance to "The Abbess of Castro," and its composition seems to have proceeded in the same manner. Stendhal took a brief Italian text about a woman in a convent being pursued by a lover on the outside and wrote a narrative that led to this situation. This story, on which he was working at the time of his death, reveals that he still had a mastery of good storytelling techniques, that he was still adept at depicting the body language of passion, and, especially, that he was still fascinated by the idea of a lover being held in a convent. Since Stendhal died before he could finish the story, it is uncertain how he would have ended it, and he seems to have been working with at least three possible endings. Another unfinished tale, also written the year of Stendhal's death, "Trop de faveur tue" (Too Much Favor Kills), stays very close to the Italian original but once again shows Stendhal's interest in the subject of desire inside convent walls. In this case such confinement leads to murders and poisonings.
In all these tales the psychological forces are more static but the passions more violent and the sanctions against passion more severe than in the novels. In contrast to the novels, the Chronicles emphasize external plot, focusing on the characters' actions rather than their feelings and sentiments. Moreover, external time (signaled by the frequency of historical dates) takes precedence over internal time.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7636
SOURCE: "Taking the Woman's Part: Stendhal's Armance" in The Male Malady: Fictions of Impotence in the French Romantic Novel, Rutgers University Press, 1993, pp. 114-35.
[In the following excerpt, Waller analyzes Armance as a male writer's reworking of the traditionally femaleauthored sentimental novel.]
By the 1820s, the mal du siècle was no longer primarily a phenomenon to which a certain number of writers alluded in the prefaces to their novels. The male malady, a literary commonplace, had become a recognized social phenomenon. In the salons of Restoration France, young noblemen had begun to bear their aristocratic privilege as a burden and wear their melancholic dissatisfaction as a badge of honor, which, for some observers, such as the bourgeois and liberal Stendhal, made them an object of ridicule. Writing from Paris as a correspondent for several English magazines in 1825, Stendhal attributed the "vague, melancholic feelings, which many rich young men of our time share" to their "idleness." Under Napoleon, he notes in another article, "these young people worked, they gained at an early age some personal experience, and they became Men. . . . Now they don't know what to do with themselves: they read novels, or sentimental philosophy and fall rapidly into a complete disgust with everything; in a word, they have spleen." These well-off young men, he scoffs, "don't have enough strength of character, nor enough good sense to get themselves hired in a business or set sail for America. they prefer reading or writing bad verse in Paris."
When, just two years later, Stendhal, still living and writing in Paris, sought a subject for his first novel, which he finally called Armance, or Scenes from a Parisian Salon in 1827, he chose the aristocracy of Restoration France and a young man subject to its emasculating idleness. Unlike Chateaubriand and Constant, who used their own privileged but unhappy lives as a prime source for their fiction, the bourgeois Stendhal chose the son of a marquis as his novel's hero, and rejected the first-person confessional form common to his predecessors' works. While Stendhal's narrator distances the hero from the reader with amused irony—an unprecedented phenomenon in the humorless mal du siècle tradition—the primary targets of his genuinely satiric barbs are the hypocrites, prudes, and social climbers in the hero's aristocratic milieu who exhibit none of the refined sentiments, fierce pride, or scorn for material wealth that make Octave de Malivert an oldfashioned yet fundamentally admirable embodiment of ageold noble ideals in a degraded, increasingly bourgeois era.
Like its hero and despite its very modern irony and anti-aristocratic bias, the novel itself harks back to an earlier, aristocratic golden age. According to Stendhal in the selfjustificatory notes he wrote after the novel's publication, "the only works to which [Armance] bears resemblance are those that were in fashion a very long time ago, [Madame de Lafayette's] Princess of Clèves and the novels of Madame de Tencin." Indeed, in the author's view, Armance' s classical style and its refined depiction of noble sentiment put it in league with Lafayette's seventeenth-century novel, the work he judges to be the "summit" of novelistic achievement. His own novel, he declares not once but twice and with obvious self-satisfaction, "seems to me delicate like The Princess of Clèves." Thus, in sharp contrast with the silence Chateaubriand observes on the women writers who paved the way for his own novel with their attention to sentiment over plot, Stendhal openly (although privately) states his admiration for earlier women's writing and acknowledges his work's indebtedness to the feminocentric sentimental tradition. Indeed, in his version of the mal du siècle novel, Stendhal moderates Chateaubriand and Constant's blatant androcentrism by naming his novel after the heroine and by offering, albeit within the framework of the hero's story, a sympathetic portrayal of Armance, who appears as a subject in her own right, not merely as the hero's object and victim.
While Stendhal gave explicit and implicit homage in his novel to women writers long gone, his attitude toward the female authors who were his contemporaries and rivals was problematic at best. Nowhere is Stendhal's ambivalence more apparent than in the comments he made about Claire de Kersaint, the duchess of Duras, in his chronicles of contemporary Parisian life and culture in the English press. Though appreciative of Duras's talents, Stendhal resented the success and social privilege that made her, rather than himself, the heir apparent to Lafayette's literary mantle. Indeed, and as we shall see, when he wrote his first novel, Stendhal stole from Duras the premise of Armance and sought to make his own name as a novelist by capitalizing on her fame.
Throughout his multifaceted writing career, Henri Beyle (who adopted the pseudonym Stendhal a decade or so before penning Armance) was, by his own account, an author in search of a genre and an audience. When, in his mid-forties, this bourgeois of modest means began to write his first novel, he had already tried his hand at a wide variety of prose genres. His biography of Rossini had enjoyed some topical success just a few years before, in 1823, and the two versions of his pamphlet on Romanticism, Racine et Shakespeare (1823 and 1825), had recently gained him a certain notoriety. But De l'amour (1822) had been a dismal failure and, most important, he had given up on the idea of writing comedies for the stage. Beyle, who had always dreamed of becoming the modern-day Molière, was coming to the conclusion that the secret to earlier dramatists' triumph—the audience's shared sense of who and what should be subjected to ridicule—no longer obtained in the divided postrevolutionary age. Instead, the genre that seemed most suited to social critique in modern times and therefore most appropriate for a man of Beyle's literary ambition and political persuasion was the novel, where the writer need reach only one reader at a time.
Meanwhile, it was as a novelist that Duras was making a name for herself during this same period. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of her friends for her work, Duras had her novel about a freed black slave's unrequited love for her white benefactor's son printed in a very limited, deluxe edition for private circulation in 1824. Those who were present at the readings of Ourika in Duras's influential salon, or who were privy to one of these private copies, lauded it. Succumbing to the increasing demand, Duras then had her novel published anonymously (though her identity was generally known) and sold publicly. One year later, her next work, Edouard, a novel of love thwarted by class difference, was made public in a similar fashion. Both novels enjoyed considerable success and garnered high praise. Beyle, too, joined in the acclaim—but not without serious reservations.
In need of income to supplement his military pension, Beyle had begun in the 1820s to contribute regularly to several English periodicals. Writing for this foreign audience, he set himself up—anonymously—as an arbiter of French literary taste and a watchdog of aristocratic advantage. Even though Duras herself, unlike most of her class, shared some of the liberal beliefs that he himself professed, Beyle always tempered his praise of her work and of her social role with criticism. While his articles praised the delicacy and modesty of her work, for example, he noted its silly novelistic conventions, and warned that her stilted style "betrayed her caste," just as its subject revealed her aristocratic prejudices.
Neither an aristocrat nor a bourgeois industrialist during a time of aristocratic rule and expanding capitalism, Beyle saw himself as an outsider, one of a marginalized minority of bourgeois liberals whom he dubbed the "thinking class." For Beyle, Duras represented the elite whose rights and privileges could and often did impinge upon the increasingly tenuous prerogatives of such bourgeois literary men as himself. In one of his articles in the English press, for example, Beyle accused Duras of "abusing her power" and influence as wife of the "premier gentilhomme" of Louis XVIII by having a successful melodrama she found offensive censured, thus ruining the career of the playwright. Moreover, for Stendhal, Duras was both agent and symptom of a worrisome new trend. He claimed, for example, that bourgeois liberals had been so decisively co-opted by the mid-1820s that they no longer criticized the nobility, for fear of being thought déclassé. Instead, they were drawn to the salons of the enemy camp by the talents of noble-women such as Duras, where they sought to make a sensation in order to further their careers.
Although Beyle admitted that Duras had talent, her status as exception merely proved for him a sex- and class-stereotyped rule. He drew the line at taking most other aristocratic women's literary production seriously. "Here's another work of vanity, disguised as a novel and inspired by the success of Ourika," he writes in one of many articles on the numerous novels produced by noblewomen following Duras's example. "What a waste of paper, pens, ink, and time—the duchess of Duras is responsible!" While he treats few of Duras's successors as serious rivals, his comments suggest that their number and social advantages threaten to tip the literary balance of power decisively in their favor at a time when bourgeois literary men, such as himself, were attempting to make the genre their own. Women writers' long held (but always tenuous) dominance of the novel and their recent successes made a woman's signature an asset to be coveted in the mid-1820s and set the stage for the circumstances that led Beyle to write his first novel.
In 1825, Duras again read her unpublished work aloud. Although Olivier, ou le secret was thoroughly decorous, its audacious premise—the hero's impotence—was cause for scandal in Restoration society, which was known for its ostentatious sexual propriety and religious piety. The nature of Olivier's secret circulated by word of mouth to those outside Duras's inner circle. One of those outsiders, Henri de Latouche, a friend of Beyle, had already made a name for himself with several literary spoofs and decided to capitalize on the interest generated in Duras's unpublished novel. In 1826 he published his own Olivier and passed it off as hers by adopting the features that had become a kind of signature for Duras's previous published work: anonymity, luxurious paper, elegant typography, an epigraph from Byron, and even the notice, which was false in his case, that all profits from the sale of the work would be contributed to charity. Beyle, who was in on the hoax, and other critics, fueled public interest in the new novel with articles that attributed Latouche's novel to Duras.
The scandal that Latouche orchestrated around the publication of his Olivier not only ensured his success, it also silenced Duras. Rhymed verse ridiculing her talent and criticizing her pretentions to literary seriousness had already been making the rounds in Paris circles after the publication of her two previous works. Once she read aloud her third novel, Olivier, however, factors such as Latouche's appropriation of her name and fame, and Beyle's imputations against her in his journalistic writing, seemed to have made the stakes of publication too high for a woman already very modest about her literary talents and uncertain about whether she should act on any kind of ambitious wish. Duras never published Olivier, nor did she ever publish anything again. Thus did two male writers help eliminate their literary competition, making Duras's fate an admonitory example, perhaps, for other wouldbe women writers.
It was in this context that Beyle wrote Armance, his own variation on the Olivier theme of male impotence, which he published, a year after Latouche's, in 1827. Like Latouche, he chose to cloak his fiction in the guise of female authorship. Unlike his predecessor, however, his anonymity was not total, nor was his female disguise complete.
Instead, Beyle splits the sexual difference into two roles: in his foreword to the novel, he identifies himself, under his pseudonym, Stendhal, as the novel's editor and announces that the text's anonymous author is a woman. In his portrait of the artist as a woman, Stendhal creates a contemporary woman author as he would like to see her—one who is more like himself and who, unlike Duras, poses neither a literary nor a social threat.
Though Stendhal calls the female author of this text "a woman of intelligence," he claims that she has "no very fixed ideas upon literary merit." What she is missing, the editor states with tongue in cheek, is the good literary sense to know that he, the "unworthy" man whom she has asked to correct her style, does not have what it takes. Stendhal thus hides his authorship behind female skirts only to pull them off and expose the fictive female author's lack as he facetiously reveals his own. Rather than assert categorically his own authority, he engages instead in a form of double talk reminiscent of Constant in his prefaces to Adolphe and the three male writers who figure in Constant's novel. Stendhal's duplicity, however, is far more elaborate and effective, for it makes him a moving target, very difficult to pin down.
Splitting himself in two—as a female author and a male editor—allows Stendhal to make claims as one persona only to retract them as the other. Stendhal announces that as the editor he has corrected the novel's style, for example, but then denies responsibility for it by leaving untouched certain of the author's "naivetés of expression." In this, the editor cedes authority to the "author" and "quotes" her reasoning: "Too much striving after noble turns of phrase in the end leads to deference and to dryness: they encourage the reading of a page with pleasure, but such dulcet preciosity makes people shut the book at the end of a chapter, and we want [readers] to read goodness knows how many chapters'." Thus, Stendhal uses the female author as the spokesperson for his own views. "She" finds fault with the stilted quality that he had mocked in his own criticism of Duras's prose, and she derides the "Germanic, Romantic grandiloquence'," typical of Stendhal's mal du siècle predecessors, Chateaubriand and Staël, which Stendhal had criticized elsewhere. "Allow me,'" Stendhal's female author concludes, "'my rustic or bourgeois simplicity'."
Unlike Duras, Stendhal's fictional woman writer is not part of the reigning aristocracy, nor does she follow the lead of the bourgeois men of letters Stendhal had criticized in the English press, whose ignoble lust for advancement has them plotting in "the Ministers' antechambers for a position as the head of some office, or any other lucrative job." Instead, she recalls Stendhal's own presentation of self as one of the few writers who can still claim his integrity. "The author has not since 1814 been up to the first floor of the Palais des Tuileries," he writes, "she has such pride that she does not even know the names of those persons who no doubt attract notice in certain circles."
Stendhal states in the foreword that he shares with the author a distaste for romans à clef, since they are based on an envy of those in power. He goes on, however, to claim that her novel makes a satire of "manufacturers and members of the privileged class." Moreover, it is on the question of politics that Stendhal underscores from the first the author's sole responsibility for the text's content: "I am far from sharing certain political views which seem to run through the narrative; this is what I wanted to tell the reader." In a move characteristic of the entire foreword, and of the novel itself, Stendhal's ambiguous disclaimer never states its own claims. His writing nevertheless betrays his prejudices.
Despite his earlier expression of disdain for romans à clef, the editor's parting shot plays up the fiction of a mysterious, "real" female author whose identity cannot be revealed. According to him, the woman as author must, at all costs, remain anonymous: "There is an infinity of proud spirit in that heart of hers. It is the heart of a woman who would think herself older by ten years if her name were known. Besides, a subject such as this .. . !" Clichés of female vanity and prudishness combine to raise the stakes of publication to a fate presumably worse than death, aging. Hence, the fictitious woman author's name is silenced and elided. Only the male "editor" 's (pseudo)name—Stendhal—remains.
Stendhal's facetious use of female anonymity as a figure of derision and a mask for his own authorship not only allows him to pretend to write as a woman in the novel, it also permits him to speak through her in order to supplant her in the foreword. Like the mal du siècle hero of earlier works, Stendhal takes the woman's part in order to have it both ways. In his first novel, Armance, his hero does the same. Like Stendhal, who found himself focusing his literary ambition in the novel—women's genre—Octave is required to channel his ambitious wish exclusively within the private sphere, which was associated with women. As in the foreword, however, Stendhal's novel uses those restrictions to further male advantage. Within the confining realm of salon and family, Octave reigns supreme.
Stendhal's novel, like Constant's Adolphe, introduces Octave as a young man who, having finished his education, is poised to make his debut in the world. Although he had wanted to enter the military, the hero's first act in the novel is to bow to his parents' wishes that he remain at home. The narrator explains that although he is "master of himself and of his fortune" and has not only the rights but the means to do whatever he will, Octave "always devoted himself unhesitatingly to what he considered the dictates of duty." On the threshold of a masculine coming of age, and despite his liberal values and bourgeois ambitiousness, the aristocratic hero, caught in the anachronistic customs of his class, is thus tethered to woman's place—the home. Despite these feminizing circumstances, or perhaps precisely because of them, the text, like Octave himself, emphasizes his masculinity and asserts his power over himself and others.
Determined to embody absolute self-control, Octave fashions himself as the product of cold reason and "inexorable logic." The hero exaggerates these traditionally masculine attributes to such an extent that he seems to have neither desires nor emotions. "If he had felt a desire to talk," the narrator states, "he would have made a great sensation, but Octave had no desires; nothing seemed to cause him either pain or pleasure." Although condemned to impotent reverie and forced to keep the company of people he despises, Octave is a figure of power, reminiscent of the Byronic homme fatal, who frightens and disturbs those around him. The Commandeur de Soubirane claims to be afraid of his nephew, calling him "the very incarnation of duty." He adds, "If you are not the Messiah awaited by the Hebrews you must be Lucifer in person. . . . What the devil are you?" While the Commandeur's tendency toward hyperbole might account for this apparently excessive claim, even Octave's level-headed mother notes "something superhuman" in her son. "Everything about him, even his noble features, alarmed his mother; his beautiful, gentle eyes inspired her with terror. Sometimes they seemed to scan the heavens and to reflect the happiness they saw there. A moment later they were filled with the torment of hell" (emphasis added). She wonders whether her son's eccentricity is due to some physical malady, but the doctors she consults insist that Octave's problem is all in his mind. Echoing Stendhal's own mocking remarks in his journalism, these "intelligent men" dismiss Octave's extraordinary malady as a contemporary commonplace. They "told Mme de Malivert that her son was suffering from no other disease than that kind of dissatisfied and censorious sadness characteristic of the young men of his time and rank." The mother already knows, however, that her son's problem only appears to be an absence of emotion. His affection for her, like hers for him, knows no bounds.
Though written in the third person, Armance reads like a son's Oedipal fantasy come true. The mother, for example, merits nothing but praise from the "objective" narrator who declares that she had an "extremely original and piquant mind . . . [and] was untouched by affectation." Almost fifty, Mme de Malivert had nevertheless "stayed young" and was "still beautiful." The mother's identification with her son is so strong that it is she who bears the physical symptoms of his psychological malady. The doctors warn the mother, who suspects a pulmonary illness in her son, "that she herself should take the greatest care of her chest." The father, by contrast, is shown as an inane albeit well-intentioned third wheel to the mother-son dyad: "Thoroughly dunder-headed and very rich before the Revolution, the Marquis de Malivert had returned to France only in 1814 in the wake of the king, to find his fortunes reduced by confiscation to twenty or thirty thousand francs a year. He considered himself a beggar." The narrator's derogatory portrait of the father figure is just a mild version of a pattern that is even more striking in later Stendhalian texts. As Leo Bersani argues in Balzac to Beckett, there is only one good father in Stendhal's texts: the narrator. In Armance the narrative voice is also that of a son. Although the narrator underscores his class difference from his protagonist and his ironic distance, he also identifies strongly with the young hero in whom he has a high emotional investment.
In this respect, Stendhal's Armance strikingly recalls Freud's analysis of the wish-fulfilling fantasies that are the basis for creativity, not in "the writers most highly esteemed by the critics, but the less pretentious authors of novels, romances and short stories." Each of these "egocentric stories" has a hero, he writes, "His Majesty the Ego," "who is the centre of interest, [and] for whom the writer tries to win our sympathy by every possible means." In Armance, as in these works, all the male characters who might rival the hero for the narrator's attention or the reader's affection are portrayed as figures of derision—whether they are benevolent but ludicrous, such as M. de Malivert, or malevolently villainous, such as the Commandeur de Soubirane and Octave's nemesis, the Chevalier de Bonnivet. The only characters portrayed sympathetically are the ones who truly love Octave, that is, his mother and Armance.
While the hero and his female admirers should by all rights inhabit the "paradisical world of mothers and children" typical of Stendhal's fiction, Armance shows trouble even in this would-be paradise. Although Octave remains at home and by his mother's side, the son bridles under his own self-imposed restraint, zealously guarding his unspeakable secret.
The hero adheres to such a narrow definition of filial responsibility that his self-denial goes far beyond the call of duty. When his mother sacrifices two of her family diamonds to buy him a horse, Octave refuses this symbol of aristocratic prestige and masculine mobility. Instead, he insists on staying by her side. "In vain she had urged him to venture into society, or at least to the theatre. 'I stay where I am happiest,' said Octave." The hero's facility at dissimulation makes all his statements suspect, but the fact remains that this male protagonist chooses to stay at home, within the narrow confines of the living death that characterizes the maison paternelle. In the garden, "stood a row of lime-trees, regularly trimmed thrice a year, whose motionless shapes seemed a living symbol of the way the family lived."
Whereas in Constant's Adolphe, the hero's frustration with the ties that bind him takes a passive form of aggression, Octave is fully capable of "extraordinary malevolence" and explodes at several moments in blind fury. Octave's violent encounters with other men occur, his mother notes, "exactly at those moments when he seemed most forgetful of the sombre reverie which she habitually read in his expression." Thus, in Stendhal's novel, the melancholy docility and feminine passivity typical of the mal du siècle hero merely disguises what it cannot completely repress, the violent masculine contentiousness that stems from deep-seated rage.
Octave's frustration is due in large part to his elevated social station, for the privilege of his birth puts a severe constraint on his actions. Instead of delighting in his privileged position as one of the masters, Octave would like to be (or at least play) the servant. He tells Armance the fanciful plans that would allow him to leave home, family, and Paris itself to enjoy the physical and social mobility that his noble parentage does not allow: "I should take the name of Pierre Gerlat, and, starting off in Geneva or Lyon I should arrange to become the manservant of some young man destined to play more or less the same role as myself in the world." In Stendhal's version, the Restoration aristocrat's family romance is thus not to imagine himself the son and heir of a nobleman, which he already is, but to fantasize, for example, a life as "the son of the senior foreman at M. de Liancourt's carding factory."
If Octave dreams about becoming downwardly mobile, it is because in Restoration society, the bourgeois, unlike the nobleman, has a part to play in France's future and in its increasingly industrialized means of production. For Octave, nobility itself is a moribund anachronism in the contemporary era. "Since the steam engine became queen of the world, a title has been an absurdity," Octave states, "but when all's said and done, here am I all tricked out in that absurdity." Indeed, early in the novel an outside event from the pages of history forces the fictional hero to abandon his dreams of production and face up to the sole remaining duty his aristocratic title still requires, that is, reproduction.
At the beginning of the second chapter, the Malivert household is abruptly shaken out of its moribund inertia with the news that the law of indemnity, which would compensate aristocrats for the losses they had suffered when their property was confiscated during the Revolution, will soon be passed. For M. de Malivert, this promise of financial restitution represents his family's regeneration. "I can now seek a suitable match for you without having to beg for it," he tells Octave and weeps at the thought of seeing his future grandchildren.
Much like a heroine whose primary function is to be married off, Octave's new wealth forces him into circulation as a commodity on the marriage market. "He was treated in an entirely new way, especially by very great ladies who could regard him as a potential husband for their daughters." Although traditionally women are the objects in this economy of exchange, in Armance the noble and handsome Octave becomes the means to women's ambitious ends: "This mania of the mothers in this century to be for ever husband-hunting shocked Octave almost beyond words." Although Octave hypocritically plays along with this new audience of admirers, that his newfound wealth has made him the object of sudden interest merely reinforces the hero's misanthropy and his scorn for the "'envy, malice, and the abject veneration of rank and wealth'" that the members of his class show. Octave remarks that the only person who "was not a party to the redoubling of attentions which he owed to the money," is his cousin Armance de Zolihoff. "She alone there had some nobility of soul." With her high ideals, devotion to duty, fierce pride, and noble disdain for money, Armance is not only Octave's counterpart, she is his equal.
Despite Octave's solemn vow that he will not fall in love, he succumbs to the charms of his soul sister and, with the introduction of the heroine as love interest, the mal du siècle text shifts, once again, from the atemporal thematics of repetition to the traditional exigencies of plot. Having learned that Armance believes that his restituted fortune has turned his head, Octave and his life take on "new purpose" as he seeks to regain the heroine's esteem. The heroine, meanwhile, strives to retain Octave's respect by pretending not to love him, for fear he or others will think that her interest in him is due to his wealth.
For the heroine, and even for the other aristocratic women in his company, it is not just Octave's fortune that makes him so desirable. In Armance, Stendhal endows his "impotent" hero with all kinds of power, including a "remarkable beauty," which exerts a special fascination over women. One of the keys to his ability to attract the opposite sex is the way the feminine qualities of his looks and his character soften his obvious masculinity. The narrator notes that "the set of his features . . . were strong and gentle, and not at all strong and hard as is the case among the common run of men handsome enough to attract notice" (emphasis added). Despite the cold masculine exterior he cultivates, Armance senses underneath a feminine gentleness: "Octave's eyes expressed so great a possibility of love, and sometimes they were so tender!" The loving heroine forgives Octave his flagrant egotism because his vulnerability interests her. "She felt, without being really clear about it, that Octave was the victim of that kind of irrational sensibility which makes men unhappy and worthy to be loved" (emphasis added). Thus, despite his exacerbated feminine sensibility and his exaggerated selfcenteredness, the hero gets his reward, the admiration of women in general and of the woman he loves in particular. Indeed, the given in Armance, as in all the mal du siècle novels, with the exception of Sand's Lélia, is the heroine's unconditional love for the hero.
Through the love of the heroine, Stendhal's Armance reveals Octave's mal du siècle as an exacerbated but not incurable case of egocentrism. Armance's affection and friendship have a calming, domesticating influence on the hero, which tames his masculine aggressivity and makes him increasingly capable of social assimilation and personal happiness. "My pride sets a wall of diamond between me and the rest of mankind [les autres hommes]," he tells her. "Your presence, my dear cousin, causes this diamond wall to vanish." Because of Armance, Octave believes he will no longer be subject to those "crises of fury," which used to make her fear for his sanity. He begins to see his misanthropy as a form of egotism, realizing "at last that this world, which in his extravagant pride he had believed to be arranged in a manner hostile to him, was merely arranged badly." Armance's influence even succeeds in "reforming" Octave morally. He vows never to return to the houses of gambling and prostitution he used to frequent. Abandoning that "inexorable logic, harsh and glorying in its harshness, which had directed all his actions in earlier youth," Octave suddenly finds himself, for the first time, and in the presence of Armance, swept away by tender emotion; "he felt himself carried away, he was no longer thinking, he was utterly happy."
Although it seems for a time as though Octave will be cured of his mal du siècle, in the end, he succeeds in unlearning all the lessons he has learned. In the name of his fatal secret and the mysterious vow he had made to himself when he was young, he reverts, though not without some regret, to his former egocentric blindness. The text arranges a series of events to confirm the hero in his belief that he cannot love and in his suspicion that he is not loved, even as it proves the contrary to the reader.
Octave's uncle, the Commandeur de Soubirane, and the Chevalier de Bonnivet forge a letter from Armance to her confidant, Méry de Tersan, in which she professes to have fallen out of love with Octave. As a result of his enemies' trickery, Octave believes the fiction of Armance's fickleness and believes himself abandoned by her. A series of implausibly contrived coincidences nevertheless forces Octave to marry Armance so as to protect her name and, to Octave's surprise, their week on honeymoon is euphoric. The narrator underscores the heroine's sexual fulfillment: "Armance [was] intoxicated with happiness and swoon[ed] in his arms." There were even moments "in which Armance's perfect bliss finished by making [Octave] happy." What the presumably impotent hero appears to learn, writes Katharine Jensen, is that "contrary to popular belief, desire exists beyond the phallus; passion is not centered on an organ and therefore it doesn't matter whether you 'have one' or you don't." Nevertheless, Octave suppresses and represses that subversive knowledge by convincing himself that Armance is only feigning happiness for his benefit. His egocentrism leads him to consider his "lack" more important than her sexual fulfillment or their emotional plenitude. Overprivileging the phallus allows Octave to remain the center of his own attention and to fashion for himself a script that will refigure his self-centeredness as selfless martyrdom.
"My life is ended" the hero announces to himself, as he quotes Virgil's Dido abandoned by Aeneas, "' Vixi et quern dederat sortem fortuna peregi,'" a remark Stendhal glosses in a footnote—"As she dies, abandoned by Aeneas, Dido cries out: I have lived, and that destiny which fate has marked out for me, I have followed." Thus, the male protagonist actively takes up a woman's fate as his own, rewriting the classic script of the abandoned woman as a man. In order to play Dido, however, he must first take his cue from Aeneas. Like Virgil's hero, he abandons the heroine and sets sail to obey what he pretends to be a heroic, military calling—joining the fight for Greek independence—while in fact he surreptitiously chooses Dido's destiny, suicide.
Octave's suicide resembles a play in which he is both the star and his own most appreciative audience. Melodramatizing his own death scene, he pretends to suffer from a grave illness and gathers around him the ship's crewmen to witness his enactment of the rituals of death. Octave repeatedly defers the final act of his drama the better to enjoy the thrill of speaking the truth in extremis. "Except for the manner of his dying, he granted himself the happiness of telling everything to his Armance" in a series of letters. Octave revels in the idea of his noble self-sacrifice, which will free his true love from her vows to him; in his will he goes so far as to provide for Armance only if she marries another.
Juliet Flower MacCannell notes that when the subject of desire is male in Stendhal, its object—woman—is seen as only a "degraded substitute" or a "delaying obstacle" on the way toward an unattainable transcendental ideal. The hero of Armance achieves that state of plenitude by dying, a deed the text exposes as self-destructive narcissism while glamorizing and romanticizing both the act and its results. Octave's death from self-administered poison comes under a moonlit night as a gentle transition from this life to the next. When he is found the next day, "there was a smile on his lips, and his rare beauty struck even the sailors who were ordered to bury him."
Although Armance's name gives the text its title, Octave's death perfunctorily ends the story. The fate of Dido is not an option open to the women who loved Octave since enobling suicide in this novel is a male prerogative. Nevertheless, it would appear that a life without Octave calls for a death from the world. For Armance and Mme de Malivert, self-immolation in the convent is the only (re)solution. In the end, the reader knows what Armance can only suspect—that Octave's death was a suicide. On the other hand, having presumably received the letters from Octave in which he tells her "everything," Armance knows but the narrator does not reveal what the reader can only guess—the nature of Octave's fatal secret.
Since the very first review of Stendhal's novel, critics have called attention to the novel's remarkable ellipsis. To supply what Stendhal failed to provide, modern editors of Armance almost invariably include the author's infamous letter to Prosper Mérimée in which he unabashedly indentifies the hero's malady as sexual impotence. Paradoxically, whereas Stendhal's contemporaries, who were for the most part not privy to this information, considered its absence one of the novel's failings, modern critics, fully aware of the letter to Mérimée, tend to hail Armance's enigmatic silence about its hero's secret as a sign of its prescient modernity and thus the text's strength. In the letter itself, Stendhal too describes his decision not to be explicit about his hero's sexual impotence as a calculated strategy to guarantee his own authorial power.
Whereas in the foreword Stendhal uses a woman the better to speak as a man and in his notes to himself he values his work for its resemblance to women's fiction, Stendhal's correspondence with Mérimée reveals the ulterior motive behind this flirtation with the feminine. In his letter of 23 December 1826, Stendhal speaks man to man in a discourse in which feminine delicacy has no place. The writer adopts instead an exaggerated posture of worldly rakishness and manly cynicism to deflect the charge that his novel is too sentimental. He thus reveals what the novel's discreet ellipsis of the hero's sexual malady serves to disguise—the sexual politics that is not fit for mixed company or for print, but that informs Stendhal's strategy for seducing his imagined reader, that is, a woman alone.
In his defensive response to Mérimée reading of his manuscript, Stendhal insists that his concern was to make the hero's impotence clear to the reader without making it explicit. Thus he explains that he decided to call his hero and his text Olivier because Duras's novel and Latouche's imitation of it had made the name synonymous with impotence. Nevertheless, on Mérimée's advice, Stendhal rechristened the hero for publication. In the change from Olivier to Octave the author seems, then, to opt for obscurity over clarity, discreet periphrasis over indecent exposure, which offers the additional advantage, perhaps, of obscuring his debt to both Duras and Latouche. On the other hand, in retaining the initial letter O from the original name, the hero's new baptism represents only a slight displacement on the paradigmatic axis. The O in Octave's name continues to connote lack as Stendhal's protagonist joins the other stories of O in the mal du siècle lineage: Senancour's Obermann, Staël's Oswald, Latouche's Olivier, Duras's Olivier, and even Duras's female twist on the tradition, Ourika.
In contrast with his sexually inadequate hero, Stendhal presents himself to his male addressee as a man among men, which is to say experienced in the ways of women: "My experience has taught me that a modest girl much prefers to put her letters in a hiding-place than to hand them to her lover in person." His expertise allows him the satisfaction of generalizations, such as the following: "Olivier, like all Babilans [impotent men], is quite an expert on the auxiliary methods in which le Président glories. A deft hand and an officious tongue would have given Armance keen sensations of pleasure." But if the hero's expertise more than compensates for his inadequacy, it is only because of the heroine's ignorance: "I am sure many girls have no precise notion what physical marriage consists of" (emphasis added). In this way, lack, which had been associated with the male, is suddenly shifted to the female. During their period of apprenticeship to the "true" joy of sex, women do not even miss what the impotent male assumes is essential since "the consummation of the marriage is repulsive to them for three or four years, particularly when they are tall, pale, slim, and blessed with a fashionable waistline." Male impotence is thus not a lack, it is an advantage that, temporarily at least, ensures his lover's happiness.
Stendhal's strategy as author borrows from this insight. He cultivates the appearance of a lack, in this case, of erudition, in order to please the reader through his own "auxiliary means" which he calls "warmth." Stendhal worries that his novel is "too erudito, too learned. Has it enough warmth to keep a pretty French Marquise awake until two in the morning? That is the question." The reader who counts is thus not the real (male) reader, Mérimée, but instead the ideal reader of the yet-to-bepublished text, who is fantasized as noble, pretty, French—and female. To succeed, the novel must seduce this presumably solitary reader with the pleasure of Stendhal's text. "Would a young woman take an interest in Olivier?" Stendhal continues. In order to guarantee her sympathy for the hero, Stendhal explicitly rejects the culture's comedic script for the impotent male, which would make him the subject of derision or a character out of farce. Unlike the cuckold, Stendhal's hero must and will remain both desirable and desired, for that is the key to success not only for the novel but also for the author. Stendhal therefore insists on making his impotent hero a tragic figure and justifies the suicide that ends his text: "The genuine Babilan must kill himself in order to avoid the embarrassment of making a confession."
Yet what is tragedy for the literary hero would be comedy for the author. Stendhal goes so far as to imagine himself suffering from a similar incapacitation only to laugh off the comic consequences and offer a titillating scenario of prostitution for his male addressee. "As for me (but at the age of forty-three years eleven months), I should make a beautiful confession, and I should be told: What of it? I should take my wife to Rome. There a handsome countryman, at a cost of one sequin, would pay her three compliments in one night." Given the era's standards of decency and the author's choice of readers, the private story of the virile substitute cannot be told in public, he writes. Therefore Stendhal's periphrasis is a necessary strategy for modestly telling what is, in essence, an immodest story: "Giving ecstasies with your hand—what an excellent euphemism to avoid the dirty word fr*g! .. . It is necessary you should know that he spent his youth frequenting wantons; it is this that I have tried modestly to convey." The author's success as a novelist thus depends on a very different rhetorical posture from the cool, flippant tone he adopts in corresponding with Mérimée. He must modestly disguise the flagrantly sexual so that his novel can be published and does not shock. If it is to keep his woman reader warm and awake at night, it must, however, continue to titillate by promising more than it delivers.
For contemporary readers, Armance did not deliver enough. The novel was a critical and commercial flop. In his notes to himself on the text's failure, Stendhal blames the "vulgar public": "Given the way times have changed, vulgar men at the feet of [Duras's] Ourika can hardly even see the summit of The Princess of Clèves" (the novel Stendhal considers most like his own). Even so, there are still readers, Stendhal notes, who seek in novels a clear, accurate depiction of the human heart written in a fine, classical style. Unfortunately, the aristocrats among them would be hard pressed to favor a novel like Armance that satirizes noble salon society. The only group that could accept the novel's political persuasion while appreciating its style is the small number of men such as Stendhal himself who comprise the "thinking class."
Unfortunately for Stendhal, these "happy few" generally do not have the leisure time to read fiction. Instead, the audience for novels is primarily those whose confining, domestic existence gives them the need for escape and consolation, women. According to Stendhal, provincial women in particular, both aristocratic and bourgeois, were increasingly drawn away from the classic romans d'analyse to the kind of fiction known as "chambermaid novels." These stock stories of "noble and generous heroes, thwarted love, innocent victims hounded by villains, disguised identities, crimes, frenzy, madness, death, etc.," which provide emotional thrills couched in a grandiloquent prose, are anathema to Stendhal. He blames the Romantics for the proliferation of this fiction and claims no interest in catering to these tastes. The women readers he has in mind are instead Parisians who find insipid the "always perfect hero, the unhappy, innocent and persecuted women" of chambermaid novels. Nevertheless, given the general decline in taste, which Stendhal saw everywhere, the two social categories of women readers are not nearly so distinct. "The principal fear I had writing this novel," Stendhal declares, "was being read by chambermaids and the marquises who resemble them."
Refusing to cater to the degraded literary tastes of provincial women and chambermaids on the one hand, but satirizing his other probable readers, Parisian salon women, on the other, Stendhal thus found himself writing for such men as himself who did not have the leisure to read fiction and against the women who did. Thus, when Stendhal first entered the literary scene as a male author pretending to be a woman's editor, he did so as a writer alienated from his readership. Just seven years later, Aurore Dudevant, writing as George Sand, offered her own very different variation on the theme of gender identity and authorial alienation. Abandoning her own name in favor of a male pseudonym, for quite different reasons than Stendhal, she created in Lélia a text that ostentatiously resists the conventional expectations of its implied reader as it offers instead, and for the first time, a portrait of a woman afflicted with a very different version of the male malady.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115
Pearson, R. A. G. "Stendhal's Armance: The Comedy of 'Une Chasse au Malheur." Forum for Modern Language Studies 19, No. 3 (July 1983): 236-48.
Questions whether or not Armance should be read as a tragedy.
Rosa, George M. "Sailing to Mount Kalos: The Poetical Dénouement of Armance." Forum for Modern Language Studies 23, No. 1 (January 1987): 21-37.
Traces the influence of Lord Byron on the depiction of the protagonist of Armance.
Additional coverage of Stendhal's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Novelists Module; Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 23, 46; and World Literature Criticism.