Boundaries of Acceptability: Flaubert, Maupassant, Cezanne, and Cassatt (review)
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Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 380-382



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Johnson, Sharon P. Boundaries of Acceptability: Flaubert, Maupassant, Cézanne, and Cassatt. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Pp. 249. ISBN 0-8204-3851-0

Modern French cultural studies grounded in literature invite the interdisciplinary approach taken by Sharon Johnson to analyze with feminist sensibility competing artistic and literary representations of female bourgeois protagonists in the second half of nineteenth-century France. Boundaries of Acceptability: Flaubert, Maupassant, Cézanne, and Cassatt demonstrates how the blurring of spatial borders, intended to [End Page 380] maintain separate public and private spheres for the sexes, works against the binary grain of nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology. Informed by the social construction of knowledge, or new historicism, this study draws on the fields of art history, philosophy, sociology, and history "to show how these discourses participate in reinforcing, and/or subverting traditional representations of gender and class" (1). Johnson teases out from a range of literary and artistic texts discrepancies between various nineteenth-century definitions of the feminine that also put into question "male sexual roles" (2) to prepare future readings of late nineteenth-century liter-ature and art as representations, if not agents, of women's social liberation.

Part One, divided into three chapters, treats the gendering of public (masculine) and private (feminine) spaces in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Chapter 1, drawing on the work of Bonnie Smith (Ladies of the Leisure Class), Johnson argues that during the age of industrialization "what resulted in French bourgeois society was an economic and social system based on male privilege and a more enhanced division between the public and the private. Feminine space evolved into the domain of the 'residential, reproductive and human,' while masculine space became the domain of the 'industrial, productive, and mechanical' (12). Feminist movements of fin-de-siècle France, too, asserts Johnson, "glorified the home as the natural site for its bourgeois women" (13-14), albeit with a different political agenda. The iconographical example of the Siege and the Commune, however, which Johnson gleans from "two collections of well over one thousand prints, paintings, photographs, lithographs, and caricatures" (16), shows that these moments of social crisis had a direct influence on the blurred functioning of gendered spaces (17). Circulating anonymously in the public sphere were both the bourgeois and proletariat women involved in charitable acts (15, 25, 28), and the Pétroleuses and the Amazones de la Seine. While the latter were vilified in artistic and literary representations for treading aggressively on masculine territory (15-22), the former were portrayed as legitimately upholding domestic ideology (18).

Chapter 2 (29-53) shifts to the analysis of artistic and literary treatments of the intermediary spaces of the theater box, the garden, the carriage, and the window that imagine female agency, which women did not actually enjoy in late nineteenth-century France. Johnson filters the subversive construction of a female gaze, a female subject, and a female flâneur by Cassatt (In the Loge), Flaubert (Madame Bovary), and Maupassant ("Le Signe"), respectively, through the theoretical lens of Baudelairean and Habermasian modernity (29). Chapter 3 considers aspects of modernity (i.e., "the contingent" and the "unknown") in provincial settings textually staged by Flaubert and Maupassant; first, the famous carriage excursion in Madame Bovary, "where Flaubert constructs a fascinating scene of transgression, employing contrastive irony and oppositional ideologies" (58); second, two Maupassantian tales that "stage shocking confrontations and new awarenesses that define the essence of modernity" (61).

Other contradictory representations in art, literature, and history come to the fore in Part Two, where Johnson examines different portrayals of the home and the [End Page 381] convent (71). Disparate treatments of "the feminine hierarchical structure" of bourgeois domesticity by female and male artists (Cassatt, Morisot, Degas) in Chapter 4 mirror the lack of uniformity disclosed in constructions of private and public spaces at the outset of the study (73, 77, 79). This overarching blurring of boundaries of acceptability in nineteenth-century French culture reinforces the view Johnson takes from Foucault that "contradictory discourses...


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