The fame of Volupté is the result, in part, of its transposition of real events to the fictional plane. The relationship between Amaury and Madame de Couaën depicts some elements of the affair between Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve and Victor Hugo’s wife, Adèle. In the novel, however, their relationship is purely platonic. The admiration, friendship, and subsequent enmity of Sainte-Beuve and Hugo appear in the relationship of Amaury and the Marquis de Couaën. The fictional characters reconcile; however, Sainte-Beuve and Hugo did not reconcile. Sainte-Beuve’s childhood in Picardy becomes Amaury’s in the poetically appropriate Brittany, a land of strong religious traditions, a mythic aura, and a history of royalist conspiracies. Although Sainte-Beuve made his novel credible by basing it on actual events, the themes generated from the story are larger in scope. Through the interaction of spiritual, erotic, and political intrigue, Sainte-Beuve explores the various nuances of memory, the struggle between the spirit and the flesh, divine and human love, the role of the great individual in history, and the conflict between fame and obscurity.
The main plotline traces Amaury’s moral disarray and spiritual strivings and, generally, the moral duality of all people. Amaury’s spirit is dominated by volupté, or a combination of indolence, apathy, self-indulgence, and indecisiveness. Amaury seeks sensual gratification, and he repudiates his responsibilities as a member of the community. The cult of sensuality reveals itself as a stage in the development of every generation. In youth, desire is confused with sacred love. Later, sublime love separates from sensual pleasure. With age, humans realize that without love for the soul or the intellect, beauty and pleasure are impermanent. Without this realization, sensual diversion replaces moral solicitude and intellectual lucidity. Amaury takes pride in his own fall, out of a sense of revolt against God. When he realizes that he sacrificed the happiness of others in the process of his own spiritual disintegration, he turns inward and replaces idle dreaming with prayer. Since Amaury examines his own emotional and intellectual states with such exhaustiveness and subtlety, and since he takes pleasure in recalling his debauchery, his conversion seems incomplete.
Most of the major characters are presented as mysteries. Madame R. personifies passionate love....
(The entire section is 995 words.)