In George Sand's play Gabriel (1839), the eponymous hero is a woman who has been raised and educated as a boy by "his" tutor, Father Chiavari, in seventeenth-century Italy. At the opening of the play, Gabriel has a dream in which she sees the archangel Gabriel lose his wings and become a woman. The literary theme of androgyny is developed in original ways by Sand, and Gabriel's gender oscillation presents a series of questions that make this play something of a meta-reflection by Sand upon her work at large.
Sand's concern with gender instability is closely related to the generic instability of the text as it shifts from a narrative to a dramatic mode. The play's cathartic denouement in Gabriel's murder is thus attenuated by Sand's essentially narrative development of the plot. This generic instability explains Sand's revisions of Gabriel, and theatrical directors' refusals to stage the play. In her introduction, Kathleen Hart mentions that it was not until the spring of 2002 that Gilles Gleizes adapted Gabriel by adding a new character, George Sand herself, who narrates passages in the play that previously could not be staged (p. xxx).
By raising Gabriel as a boy, her grandfather sought to ensure that his wealth and title as the Prince of Bramante would pass to Gabriel rather than to Astolphe, who is the legal heir of the estate. Gabriel rebels at the imposture and plans to return the wealth to Astolphe, but her grandfather's henchman murders her before she can do so. When Gabriel and Astolphe fall in love, we think that Gabriel will revert to being a woman and marry her first cousin. What blocks Gabriel's gender reversion is Astolphe's threat to discredit her by exposing her gender masquerade. This threat would expose her grandfather to dishonor as it destroys Gabriel's romantic liaison with Astolphe. Rather than suffer these humiliations, Gabriel is prepared to kill herself.
Unlike Freud, who interprets anatomy as destiny, Sand focuses on socio-cultural forces. Although she is a woman, Gabriel is notable for her prowess on horseback and her skill as a duelist, as well as her mastery of Greek and Latin, and is thus altogether masculine in her demeanor. Gabriel's tragedy is to be neither completely masculine nor feminine; she laments, "I do not feel that my soul has a sex" (p. 17). Obviously, anatomy plays a role in Sand's play, but it is complicated by family duties and upbringing. No synthesis or reconciliation is possible between nature and culture, and Gabriel's death puts a tragic end to her complex identity crisis. The end leaves many questions unanswered.
The translation by Hart and Paul Fenouillet is excellent. Their English [End Page 230] rendering of Sand's French may make the text more adaptable to theatrical presentation. Their "Note on the Translation" is a useful tool to understand their vocabulary choices in translating Sand's complicated play. Their decision "to recover, not contain, the world of Gabriel" gives the translation its stylistic fluidity (p. xlii).
The great virtue of this translation is that it will enable readers and scholars to see how revelatory this clearly flawed work of art is, insofar as it provides an insight into the inner workings of Sand's fundamental imaginative originality and creativity. It is rare that a piece of writing as conflicted as Gabriel affords the reader a detailed perspective on such an enormous oeuvre as that of Sand.
Maryline Lukacher is Professor of French in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Northern Illinois University. She has published articles on nineteenth-century French literature and French women writers. She also wrote Maternal Fictions: Stendhal, Sand, Rachilde, and Bataille (1994) and Autobiofictions: George Sand et le Conflit de l'Écriture (2008).