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Reconstructing Woman

From Fiction to Reality in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel

By Dorothy Kelly

Publication Year: 2007

Reconstructing Woman explores a scenario common to the works of four major French novelists of the nineteenth century: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Villiers. In the texts of each author, a “new Pygmalion” (as Balzac calls one of his characters) turns away from a real woman he has loved or desired and prefers instead his artificial re-creation of her. All four authors also portray the possibility that this simulacrum, which replaces the woman, could become real. The central chapters examine this plot and its meanings in multiple texts of each author (with the exception of the chapter on Villiers, in which only “L’Eve future” is considered). The premise is that this shared scenario stems from the discovery in the nineteenth century that humans are transformable. Because scientific innovations play a major part in this discovery, Dorothy Kelly reviews some of the contributing trends that attracted one or more of the authors: mesmerism, dissection, transformism and evolution, new understandings of human reproduction, spontaneous generation, puericulture, the experimental method. These ideas and practices provided the novelists with a scientific context in which controlling, changing, and creating human bodies became imaginable. At the same time, these authors explore the ways in which not only bodies but also identity can be made. In close readings, Kelly shows how these narratives reveal that linguistic and coded social structures shape human identity. Furthermore, through the representation of the power of language to do that shaping, the authors envision that their own texts would perform that function. The symbol of the reconstruction of woman thus embodies the fantasy and desire that their novels could create or transform both reality and their readers in quite literal ways. Through literary analyses, we can deduce from the texts just why this artificial creation is a woman.

Published by: Penn State University Press

Series: Penn State Romance Studies


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pp. vii

I would like to thank my Boston University colleagues Odile Cazenave and Aline Livni for their assistance with certain thorny translations from the French. My gratitude also goes to Mary Donaldson-Evans and Doris Kadish, who gave me useful suggestions for improvement and revision, and to Lesley Yoder for her help in proofreading. As always, the annual Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium provided the opportunity to present nascent ideas and receive valuable suggestions from colleagues. I send many thanks to all those who have given their time to organize these colloquia, and to the many colleagues who have contributed to this work through their comments...

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Introduction: The Science of Control

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pp. 1-17

Honoré de Balzac’s Raphaël de Valentin describes himself as a new Pygmalion who transforms a lovely flesh-and-blood woman into his imaginary creation. Gustave Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau ultimately prefers his ideal reveries about Madame Arnoux to a real relationship with her. Émile Zola’s Claude Lantier neglects his wife and desires instead to give life to the women he has painted on his canvas and for whom his wife has sometimes posed. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Thomas Edison replaces Alicia Clary with a perfect android woman. In all these cases, in various ways, the real woman is replaced by man’s artificial re-creation of her...

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1 Transformation, Creation, and Inscription: Balzac

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pp. 19-48

Raphaël de Valentin, the main character of Balzac’s La peau de chagrin, lives in an apartment rented from a kind, poor woman and her pure, beautiful daughter, Pauline. The situation is ripe for romance, but Balzac does not meet our expectations in the way we imagine he will, because Raphaël is not interested in this impoverished Pauline, who cannot afford the feminine trappings he desires....

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2 Women, Language, and Reality: Flaubert

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pp. 49-87

IN GUSTAVE FLAUBERT’S TEXTS, man’s animal and mechanical nature, and the surgical attempt to improve on that nature, appear together in one of the most famous operations in French literature, retold here with a deliberately exaggerated emphasis on those elements. A human being cheerfully gallops around like a deer on a malformed foot as wide as that of a horse: ‘‘Mais, avec cet équin, large en effet comme un pied de cheval, à peau rugueuse, à tendons secs, à gros orteils, et où les ongles noirs figuraient les clous d’un fer, le stréphopode, depuis le matin jusqu’à la nuit, galopait comme un cerf ’’ (Madame Bovary, 1:634)...

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3 Rewriting Reproduction: Zola

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pp. 89-124

It seems ironic that Émile Zola’s novels, which Zola proclaims to be highly scientific and experimental, abound with the richest and most complicated network of metaphors of the four authors studied here, almost as if the reassuring controlled surface of a scientific and epistemological intent permitted the wild circulation of underground images. The corpus of his works is like a vast body (or thermodynamic machine, as Serres would say) connected by the arteries of metaphors that flow freely from one text to the next, giving life to a kind of subtextual circulatory system...

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4 Villiers and Human Inscription

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pp. 125-151

If the writers we have examined thus far use the fantasy of the artificial woman in different ways, their representations are similar because the creation of woman is not realized in a literal way in the narratives: there is no character who actually creates a real artificial woman. The fantasy appears rather in themes and structures scattered throughout their works that form a kind of subtext that figures the possibility of constructing a woman, social or physical...

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Conclusion: The Power of Language

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pp. 153-164

Why dream of creating an artificial woman? Beyond the common mythic image of Pygmalion or of the literary trope that equates writing with giving birth, what underpins this fantasy shared by these four authors? In our literary texts we have found certain anxieties caused by a crisis in the understanding of human identity, what we have analyzed as a crisis of distinction...


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pp. 165-170


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pp. 171-178

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780271022246
E-ISBN-10: 0271022248
Print-ISBN-13: 9780271032665
Print-ISBN-10: 0271032669

Page Count: 184
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Penn State Romance Studies