The Wanderer

by Henri-Alban Fournier

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Critical Evaluation

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“The novel that I have carried in my head for three years,” Alain-Fournier wrote in 1905, “was at first only me, me, and me, but it has gradually been depersonalized and enlarged and is no longer the novel that everybody plans at eighteen.” That novel, The Wanderer, written and revised over a period of six more years, is the major work of the author, who fell in battle at Saint-Remy in 1914. Although The Wanderer is surely more than a romantic autobiography, aspects of the author appear in the three important male characters: the meditative, passive François Seurel, the adventurer Augustin Meaulnes, and the despairing lover Frantz de Galais. Like each of them, Alain-Fournier was a romantic idealist, a dreamer, a child-man not entirely able to come to terms with adult responsibilities. Precisely for this reason, his childlike vision of reality gives the story a psychological dimension beyond its trappings of sentimental fantasy.

Seurel, the narrator, is the most timorous of the three heroes; he experiences life vicariously through the more intense activities of the others. When he must act to assist his beloved friend Meaulnes, however, he does so decisively. “Admiral” Meaulnes is bold in dreams but indecisive when he needs to act, and his will is paralyzed by guilt. While living in Paris, he betrays Valentine Blondeau (as in real life Alain-Fournier deceived Jeanne B.), and for that reason—and because he has betrayed Yvonne’s brother, who truly loves Valentine—he cannot accept the pure love of Yvonne de Galais. Toward the end of the novel, after reconciling Frantz with Valentine, Meaulnes partly eases his own guilt feelings and becomes free to accept the love of his young daughter. It is questionable, however, whether there is happiness in store for Frantz, the most idealistic and shadowy of the three hero-wanderers, for he is pursued by a child’s dream of perfection that he cannot possibly realize. For Seurel, the passive sympathizer, love is a dream that only other, stronger souls can hope to attain; for Meaulnes, the adventurer, love is a quest, never a conquest; for Frantz, the hopeless searcher, love may be the final tragic deception.

As for Yvonne and Valentine, they are merely projections of the idealized dreams, or guilty passions, of the male child-heroes. Apart from their lovers, they have no lives of their own. Indeed, it is the heroes’ peculiar childlike fantasy concerning women and love that unifies the novel and provides its psychological insights. The three male heroes are drawn to one another in a friendship so devoted that it resembles a ritual of brotherhood: protective, empathetic, nearly mystical. At the same time, they are half-maddened by love for “pure” women. This love is overpoweringly sudden, threatening (even when the object is as frail and delicate as Yvonne), and absolute. Once they have fallen in love, the child-heroes are victims of their fate: Their bond of brotherhood is shattered, their lives fragmented.

To express this story of a child’s fascination with, and fear of, love and sexuality, Alain-Fournier effectively uses a Symbolist-impressionist style. Like Maurice Maeterlinck, he is a master of pauses and sudden breaks in the narrative that underscore the sense of tension and menace. He subtly shifts between scenes of realistic detail presented with perfect clarity (the wedding feast, for example) and scenes of haunting, ambiguous, hallucinatory mystery (Meaulnes’s meeting with Yvonne). At his best, Alain-Fournier writes passages of touching simplicity. At other times, he loses artistic restraint and allows his characters to declaim romantically bombastic speeches. Some of his symbolic passages, too, tend to be murky, the prose childish instead of childlike. Such lapses are rare, however. Alain-Fournier is justified in saying of his one great novel, “If I have been childish and weak and foolish, at least I have, at moments, had the strength in this infamous city to create my life, like a marvelous fairy-tale.”

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