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Dice, Cards, Wheels

A Different History of French Culture

By Thomas M. Kavanagh

Publication Year: 2013

Gambling has been a practice central to many cultures throughout history. In Dice, Cards, Wheels, Thomas M. Kavanagh scrutinizes the changing face of the gambler in France over a period of eight centuries, using gambling and its representations in literature as a lens through which to observe French culture. Kavanagh argues that the way people gamble tells us something otherwise unrecognized about the values, conflicts, and cultures that define a period or class. To gamble is to enter a world traced out by the rules and protocols of the game the gambler plays. That world may be an alternative to the established order, but the shape and structure of the game reveal indirectly hidden tensions, fears, and prohibitions.

Drawing on literature from the Middle Ages to the present, Kavanagh reconstructs the figure of the gambler and his evolving personae. He examines, among other examples, Bodel's dicing in a twelfth-century tavern for the conversion of the Muslim world; Pascal's post-Reformation redefinition of salvation as the gambler's prize; the aristocratic libertine's celebration of the bluff; and Balzac's, Barbey d'Aurevilly's, and Bourget's nineteenth-century revisions of the gambler.

Dice, Cards, Wheels embraces the tremendous breadth of French history and emerges as a broad-ranging study of the different forms of gambling, from the dice games of the Middle Ages to the digital slot machines of the twenty-first century, and what those games tell us about French culture and history.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Critical Authors and Issues


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4


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p. 5-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This study of gambling in France over the last eight centuries has two interlocking ambitions. At one level, it sets out to draw in broad strokes what could be called a cultural history of gambling as a social practice. Examining the varied and ever-changing array of games at which people played, it shows how different periods...

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pp. 1-6

Gambling, in terms of cultural significance, is as invisible as it is ubiquitous. Most often dismissed as one of the little things of life, it is assumed to be unimportant and unchanging. The studies that do address it tend to fly in wildly divergent directions: moral diatribes against a perceived social evil, biographies of famous gamblers...

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1. Toward a Cultural History of Gambling

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pp. 7-30

WHY, THE QUESTION MUST BE ASI{ED, is there no cultural history of gambling? At the level of fact, of the actual social practices through which men and women interact with one another, gambling has existed and continues to exist in all societies from the primitive to the most advanced, from the most temporally...

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2. Dicing with the Saints: Jehan Bodel's Jeu de saint Nicolas

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pp. 31-48

WHY SHOULD DICING AND DRINKING, all the boisterous vitality of tavern life, provide the setting for a conversion to the Christian faith not only of the King of Africa but of the entire Muslim world? This is one of the questions posed by Jehan Bodel's Le Jeu de saint Nicolas. As a cultural document, this play...

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3. Getting God's Edge: Pascal's Gambler as Paraclete

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pp. 49-67

THE GAMBLING SCENES in Bodel's Jeu de saint Nicolas are part of that work's broad canvas of medieval society. Its tavern scenes may underline a tension between sacrificial religiosity and vibrant carnality, but the play's explicit conflict is that between Crusaders and pagans. Bodel's dice games point...

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4. The Libertine's Bluff

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pp. 68-84

IF ANY ONE PERIOD STANDS AS the heyday of gambling in France, it is the century and a third separating the rise to power of Louis XIV from the storming of the Bastille and the coming of the Revolution. The years between 1660 and 1789 represent an interlude, a proliferation of new ideas that involved...

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5. Gambling High and Low: Casanova's Story of My Life

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pp. 85-109

IT SOMETIMES HAPPENS THAT A single life, recreated as autobiography and allowing its vicarious reliving by reader as well as author, brings together within its variegated fabric the full range of the diverse and conflicting characteristics defining an age. As concerns gambling and its role within the culture of the Enlightenment...

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6. Staging the Gambler: Sex, Sentiment, and Family Values

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pp. 110-131

PLAYS, MORE THAN ANY OTHER literary or historical genre, reveal a society's changing attitudes toward an activity like gambling. For a comedy or tragedy to work, it must express both the playwright's individual vision and the audience's more widespread assumptions and prejudices. When the specificity...

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7. Gambling on the Anvil of History: Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin

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pp. 132-149

FRANCE'S EXPERIENCE OF THE REVOLUTION and its aftermath, a culmination of the values emerging in Saurin's play, but also a lesson in the unpredictability of an ideal's consequences, set the stage for a new vision of the gambler both as real figure and as metaphor. The nineteenth century's understanding of the gambler...

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8. Whist, or the Aristocracy of Mystery: Barbey d'Aurevilly's "Beneath the Cards in a Game of Whist"

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pp. 150-167

WHEN BARBEY D'AuREVILLY BEGAN WRITING "Beneath the Cards in a Game of Whist" in 1849, several questions may have occurred to him involving that game. Was it true, as many claimed, that Charles X had spent the entire three days of the Paris uprising that forced him into exile so engrossed...

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9. Betting Against Your Self: Paul Bourget's "A Gambler"

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pp. 168-186

IN 1889, THE THIRTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Paul Bourget, very much influenced by Barbey d'Aurevilly's esthetics of mystery, published what remains his best-known work, The Disciple. That indictment of positivism made him one of the leading voices in the reaction against the reigning literary orthodoxy...

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10. Dreaming the Casino: Demy's Baie des anges and Melville's Bob le flambeur

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pp. 187-214

WITH BALZAC AND BOURGET, we have seen two of the three different locales associated with gambling in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. Balzac's Palais Royal, in addition to its restaurants and brothels, offered a variety of gambling dens or tripots. Minimally furnished, open to all but catering especially...

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pp. 215-221

THIS STUDY HAS SCRUTINIZED THE changing face of the gambler in French culture over the last eight centuries. I have argued that the ways people gambled tell us something otherwise unrecognized about the values, fears, and conviviality that defined a period or a group. Juxtaposing specific games with cultural documents that highlight...

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Appendix: "A Gambler"

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pp. 223-231

I had gone to the club after leaving the theater and was waiting there near the baccarat table. I watched the play while perched on one of those high stools used by players who cannot get near the green cloth and by curious onlookers like myself. It was, in the language of the club, a good game. The player with the bank, a handsome young man...


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pp. 233-245


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pp. 247-251

E-ISBN-13: 9780812202458
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812238600

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Critical Authors and Issues