The events of “Sylvie,” composed largely of an erratic journey the narrator makes through the Valois region of France, are of secondary importance to the memories that the places he visits evoke. The central element of the story involves the narrator’s mental and emotional travels, of which his actual physical movement gives only a limited approximation.
Contrasting social customs serve to distance the narrator from the women he loves. At first readers see the contrast of Paris with the provinces. Chapters set in Paris at the beginning and end of the story form an enclosure for the narrator’s trip, showing him as traveling away from Paris, even though he is returning to the scenes of his youth. In fact, the narrator remains an outsider in both settings.
The descriptive flashbacks in “Sylvie” go beyond mere decoration. Through them Nerval re-creates an entire past society, much as Marcel Proust later did in À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931, 1981), but with the exception that, lacking Proust’s linking device of the madeleine, Nerval’s associations remain essentially visual.
The society of late medieval France had a special importance for Nerval, who, seeing himself descended from heroes of that time, felt that he had a continuing association with them. This dual perception of himself seems to have figured in his crises of mental illness, but his...
(The entire section is 518 words.)