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  • Between Genders: Narrating Difference in Early French Modernism
  • Michael Lucey
Wing, Nathaniel. Between Genders: Narrating Difference in Early French Modernism. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004. Pp. 206. ISBN0-87413-845-0

Teachers of nineteenth-century French literature who are faced with talented and curious undergraduates with an interest in sexual, racial, and gender differences and in recent theory treating such topics will be especially grateful for Nathaniel Wing's elegant and clearly written book. In an introduction and five chapters, Wing analyzes five nineteenth-century texts dealing with a vexed experience of the social construction of sexed and racialized bodies and gendered desires. His choices are Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, Charles Baudelaire's La Fanfarlo, Clare de Duras's Ourika, the memoir of Herculine Barbin, and Honoré de Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or. I list the texts here in the order of Wing's treatment of them, his organization being topical rather than chronological. Wing has chosen this set of texts, he tells us, because each of them in its own way, "situates its protagonists and its narratives in a gap between a heterosexual norm, assumed implicitly or more directly, and the character's desires, fantasies, and acts" (18). Wing is particularly interested in the ways these texts, "strikingly unconventional" in various moments of their elaboration, nonetheless, in their denouements can almost always (he excepts Gautier) be relied upon to demonstrate "the reimposition of heterosexual norms" (20). The dates of publication for the texts discussed range from 1823 for Ourika to 1874 for the first posthumous publication of the text we know today (thanks to Michel Foucault's republication of it in 1978) as Herculine Barbin. For Wing, these texts are evidence of the "proliferation of attention to sex and gendered relations that was so widespread throughout the period," and they also "question the authority of the values that are coming to be attached to these historically particular bodies and desires" (23).

Wing draws carefully on the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler in order to develop his understanding of the functioning of a regulatory ideal of heterosexuality, of the various cultural practices that bring such an ideal to bear on particular bodies. In discussing Ourika he turns to thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Homi Bhabha to understand racial norms as another kind of regulatory ideal and to analyze the specificities of the racist representations that Ourika internalizes in that novella once she is forced to confront her dominated position in a racialized social order. He pays special attention to the intermixing of race and gender in the ideology to which Ourika is subjected.

Wing's readings of French texts will surely help students appreciate the complexity [End Page 174] of their ideological engagements and will also be useful introductions to some of the foundational theoretical works of our moment. The first of the three sections into which Wind divides his book is called "The Play of Gender," and includes one chapter on Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin and another on Baudelaire's La Fanfarlo. Various sequences in Mademoiselle de Maupin invite the reader "to speculate on how the text reveals the precariousness of the heterosexual norm and how it invites questioning of its legitimacy as a quasi-permanent symbolic structure" (34). La Fanfarlo is testimony to Baudelaire's awareness "of the disruptive and productive potential of multiple, fluid gender identities as they contribute to new forms of poetic sensibility and as they facilitate new forms of writing," yet its denouement represents this potential being "reabsorbed by a symbolic order that it had earlier promised to displace and reconfigure" (73).

The second section of Between Genders, "Difference and Disbarment," pairs readings of Ourika and Herculine Barbin, focusing no longer on the play of genders, but on a dynamics of inclusion in and exclusion from a given social order. "These texts represent inclusions that are temporarily viable yet brutally rejected at a point of crisis" (25). Ourika, a black woman raised in aristocratic circles in Revolutionary times, has to learn the implications of a racialized and gendered identity of which she was initially unaware precisely in the moment when...


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