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  • A Private Drama of Sexual Identity:Balzac’s Le Médecin de campagne 1

Balzac's novel of 1833 is structured by a hitherto unacknowledged preoccupation with sexual identity. A bond between Benassis and Genestas is created by their respective stories. The valorisation of the masculine is emphasized throughout, particularly in depictions of the male body and male physiognomies. Especially revealing are the two stories recounted by Genestas, the second of which constitutes a self-reflexive illustration of the passage from the autobiographical to the novelistic. A link with Balzac's own sexuality is tempting but elusive. The evocation of uncertain sexual identity is essentially a privileged example of the suggestive ambiguity of the Balzacian text. (mt)

Que de bourgeons nous portons en nous, [. . .] qui n'écloront jamais que dans nos livres!

– André Gide

Few Balzac novels have a more obvious private drama at their centre than Le Médecin de campagne, though it would be more correct to speak of there being two such dramas in the case of this particular novel, since, in accordance with a compositional principle familiar throughout the Comédie humaine, the core story and its protagonist Doctor Benassis are replicated, albeit with the incorporation of a subtle set of definitional oppositions, in a secondary drama of paternal devotion featuring the army officer Pierre-Joseph Genestas.2 Both stories, however, are destined to remain secret until the chance encounter between the two men and their instinctive, if gradual, realization that there exists a bond between them together provoke each protagonist to break his silence and relate the youthful experiences that have proved such a decisive influence on his subsequent life. In each case, though much separates the two men in terms of the characteristics they bring to the role, it is the unusual combination of thwarted passion3 and devotion to a son (or stepson) following the death of the latter's mother that colours the rest of their adult existence.

Much of the distinctiveness of the private dimension of the novel, as opposed to the two public realms it features (respectively Benassis's blueprint for the economic transformation of the commune and the Napoleonic campaigns in which Genestas has taken part) stems from the absence of the two mothers. (Both Agathe, mother of Benassis's child, and Judith, who on marrying Genestas on her deathbed entrusts her son to him, die young.) For although this is [End Page 235] by no means a novel in which the action in the present lacks a female cast, it centres, far more strikingly, on a masculine perspective in which the female sex has become, largely speaking, an irrelevance, a residue of the conventional novelistic plot. It will be the purpose of this article not merely to isolate the important instance of male-bonding that is at the origin of the telling of the two autobiographical stories, but to show that there is in Le Médecin de campagne a more pervasive uncertainty with regard to sexual identity than is apparent from the surface narrative.

On the surface, Le Médecin de campagne is a celebration of maternity.4 The novel is dedicated by Balzac to his mother, though, in the light of his difficult relationship with her and his conviction that he was deprived of the maternal affection lavished on her love-child, Henri, the significance of this dedication is not unproblematic. Within the story itself, the impending motherhood of Mme Vigneau is an excuse for a Balzacian exercise in the sublime, while Benassis waxes lyrical about the hypothetical maternity of his protégée, dignifying the state with italics in the process:

Oui, la pauvre fille aimerait ses enfants à en perdre la tête, et tous les sentiments qui surabondent chez elle s'épancheraient dans celui qui les comprend tous pour la femme, dans la maternité.


This too is not without its problematic dimension in that, as Benassis himself is obliged to concede, no man has been able to pass muster with her. The old foster-mother (she is 38) and her brood are the first inhabitants of the village Genestas encounters, but the theme of maternal love is ironized here not so much by the fact of a financial transaction being involved (the sum paid by the none the less enlightened commune appears inadequate to meet the costs incurred) as by the fact that la mère Martin has reluctantly to part with the children once they reach the age of six. The role of the mother within the family invites respect, but it is far from constituting an example of idealization. Notwithstanding the economic transformation the community undergoes, the majority of the women have the misfortune to survive the death of their husband. Just as there is willing submission to the husband in his lifetime (on the part of the family as a whole but practised in almost religious terms by his spouse), so widowhood brings with it penury.

For all the commendable stoicism of the female characters, Le Médecin de campagne is, in fact, overwhelmingly the novel of the Father.5 The paternal and maternal figures are only superficially balanced. Characteristically, a number of fathers are superimposed on each other, starting with God the Father.6 It is to him, "Deo optimo maximo" that the villagers pay homage on the tombstone that they erect to Benassis, who is himself commemorated, in the locally more accessible language,7 as "notre père à tous", which, the priest M. Janvier takes [End Page 236] care to point out, is the appellation that was repeated "depuis le haut de ces montagnes jusqu'à Grenoble" (602). When the man in the mountain household dies, the ceremony requires not simply the Pater with which the family in the valley are content, but a lament that is a variation on: "nous avons tous perdu notre père" (450). As the various Napoleonic reminiscences make clear (those of Goguelat and Gondrin as well as Genestas, who observes to Benassis: "nous n'avons plus notre père" [459]), the Emperor had cast himself in an identical role,8 while, as has already been observed, it is in their roles as "single parents" that Benassis and Genestas most profoundly re-enact themselves.9

While recognizing the special case of the supreme Father, we may decide that we have here an implicit illustration of the belief which Balzac had expressed two years earlier in La Peau de chagrin, namely that Moses, Sulla, Louis XI, Richelieu, Robespierre and Napoleon were perhaps one and the same man, reappearing like a comet in the sky.10 More importantly, notwithstanding Waterloo and the former Emperor's failure after 1821 to justify the widespread belief that he was still alive, the father's role, unlike that of the mother, remains largely unassailed in its superiority, not least because of the implied conservative answer to the question asked by Benassis fils with regard to the Lord's Prayer: "Pourquoi pas notre mère?"(553)11

But on a more intimate level, the novel dramatizes the intimacy between Benassis and Genestas, which takes place, significantly, in the former presbytère under the eye of the former priest's gouvernante, Jacquotte. This is, to all intents and purposes, a private space from which the female sex has been excluded. The only figures who are seen to cross the threshold are male: firstly, the peasant who comes to call out the doctor to Mme Vigneau; secondly, the wily Taboureau; and, thirdly, the guests at dinner: the priest, the notaire, the deputy Mayor, and the juge de paix, though it may be deduced that La Fosseuse must have got at least as far as the garden gate or front door to deliver herself of the mushrooms and white truffles she has picked for her protector's delectation (thereby reinforcing the extent to which Benassis has subsumed the role of the original occupant).12 The only previous visitor mentioned is M. Gravier. If Benassis and Genestas are, in some respects, the forerunners of certain other Balzacian homo-social couples such as Pons and Schmucke, it is not all that surprising to find in Le Médecin a thumbnail sketch of a figure who in terms of origins and profession resembles the latter. The Tyrolian cobbler encountered by Benassis is described as: "[p]auvre musicien ambulant, un de ces Allemands industrieux qui font et l'œuvre et l'outil, la musique et l'instrument" (425).13

Furthermore, the theme of desexualization is explicit. On the occasion of their visit to La Fosseuse, Benassis confides to Genestas that he has no designs on his protégée:

Je me suis vingt fois dit qu'elle ferait une charmante femme; mais je ne saurais l'aimer [End Page 237] autrement que comme on aime sa sœur ou sa fille, mon cœur est mort.


The explanation is indeed necessary because from a conventional, one might almost say normal, perspective, his setting up of La Fosseuse in a house of her own would indeed suggest a sexual motive, whether direct or perverse. The emphasis placed on the furnishing of the house recalls certain locations that will appear subsequently in the Comédie humaine, Goriot's creation of a love-nest for his daughter or the rooms that Crevel establishes for his extra-marital activities, while the taking of a third party to meet the (kept) woman will reach its perverse apogee in Zola's Pot Bouille. Awareness of the nature of appearances leads Benassis to pre-empt Genestas's conclusions by a lengthy discourse on what prevents the inhabitants of the commune from spreading malicious gossip about the arrangement. Even so, the stereotypical assumption would still seem to be present as a residual innuendo in the officer's manner of speaking: "Ah! vous lui avez bien gentiment arrange son nid!" (483)

Genestas, whom Benassis teasingly presents to La Fosseuse as "peut-être un mari pour toi" (485), is said to be struck by the beauty of her movements (483). He professes himself to be "singulièrement ému" (483) by her. His final judgment is that "cette fille a quelque chose d'extraordinaire" (485). When he encounters her on a subsequent occasion, the suggestion is one of continued attraction, though the feelings evoked peter out in an impression of uncertainty:

Le commandant ne put s'empêcher d'envier cette simple maison et cette pelouse, il regarda la paysanne d'un air qui exprimait à la fois des espérances et des doutes; puis il reporta ses yeux sur Adrien, à qui la Fosseuse servait des œufs, en s'occupant de lui par maintien.


The precise nature of these hopes and doubts and the question of whether they apply to himself or to Adrien are left ambiguous. The fact remains that the lack of sexual confidence to which Genestas will refer in his later account of his passion for the young Jewish girl is presented to us as permanently disabling.

Moreover, for all Genestas's apparent appreciation of La Fosseuse, the narrator makes it plain that she is no natural beauty:

Sa figure n'était remarquable que par un certain aplatissement dans les traits, qui la faisait ressembler à ces figures cosaques et russes que les désastres de 1814 ont renduessi malheureusement populaires en France. La Fosseuse avait en effet, comme les gensdu Nord, le nez relevé du bout et très rentré; sa bouche était grande, son menton petit, ses mains et ses bras étaient rouges, ses pieds larges et forts comme ceux des paysannes, Quoiqu'elle éprouvât l'action du hâle, du soleil et du grand air, son teint était pâle commel'est une herbe flétrie, mais cette couleur rendait sa physionomie intéressante dès le premier aspect. (482) [End Page 238]

It is revealed that although the officer appreciates the fact that "elle avait dans ses yeux bleus une expression si douce, dans ses mouvements tant de grâce, dans sa voix tant d'âme"(482-83), he is none the less struck by the contrast between the reality and the picture that Benassis had created of her. He concludes with a recognition of her as a "créature capricieuse et maladive en proie aux souffrances d'une nature contrariée dans ses développements." (483) Benassis's anticipatory description of her had, in fact, been a moral portrait and a depiction of her temperament rather than a physical portrait.14

Such episodes reinforce our sense that Genestas contrasts strongly with the stereotypical role in which he might be thought to find himself. For as an officer who has seen the world and been part of a subjugating force and, moreover, an individual whose education is said to have been completed by his reading of Pigault-Lebrun, he might have been expected to have had extensive sexual experience, and even to be a connoisseur of female charms. Such an expectation is explicitly recalled when the narrator refers to the attempts by his fellow officers, late at night in the mess, to get Genestas to relate his love-life. At this point, there exists a certain ambiguity in the way the latter's response is related by the narrator: "il se taisait ou répondait en riant. [. . .] A ces mots: «Et vous, mon commandant?» adressés par un officier après boire, il répliquait: «Buvons, messieurs!» (388)" Yet by the time Benassis says to him: "un soldat de votre âge a vu trop de choses pour ne pas avoir plus d'une aventure à raconter"(463), it is clear that the expectation is restricted to "scènes de la vie militaire" in the narrowest of senses. It is significant that when he encourages his guest to satisfy La Fosseuse's desire to hear "quelque aventure de guerre", he stipulates: "Allons, une affaire intéressante, comme celle de votre poutre, à la Berezina" (593). It is supremely ironic, therefore, that the story Genestas tells, with characteristic brevity, casts him in the role of rescuer of a damsel (or, rather, countess) in distress, "une femme [. . .] belle comme un jour de noces, mignonne comme une jeune chatte" (594). The fact remains that the countess is placed by him on a pedestal, and arouses in him only the impossible dream of having his injured arm nursed ("pansé" et "mignoté") by her. Far from displaying him in the role of adroit sexual braggadocio, the episode ends with an evocation of absence: "Plus de comtesse, il a fallu marcher. Voilà." Although at one level it is a telling story (and we shall have occasion to return to it), it is, in an important sense, a non-story. The lack of experience would appear total, an echo of the way his response to the invitation to take part in a gambling session is said, rather less ambiguously, to take the form of looking down at his boots.

Notwithstanding Genestas's enthusiasm for the Austerlitz countess, the depiction of female physical charms in Le Médecin de campagne is, for the most part, muted. This is in spite of the way it is in terms of their attractiveness that certain female figures are ostensibly presented. In the case of Mme Vigneau it [End Page 239] might be objected that any restraint in the description, or recording of blemishes, is to be ascribed to a concern for realism. In a passage that is only vaguely focalized in terms of the new visitor, Genestas, she is first of all described by the narrator as "une jeune femme bien vêtue, ayant un joli bonnet, des bas blancs, un tablier de soie, une robe rose, mise qui rappelait un peu son ancien état de femme de chambre" (473). The description continues:

Mme Vigneau était en effet une jolie femme assez grasse, au teint basané, mais de qui la peau devait être blanche. Quoique son front gardât quelques rides, vestiges de sonancienne misère, elle avait une physionomie heureuse et avenante.

In the case of the coup de foudre experienced by Genestas at the sight of Judith and recounted by the officer himself, the terms in which the young Jewess is described might appear designed to engage our attention. She is:

une fille belle comme une juive quand elle se tient propre et qu'elle n'est pas blonde. Çaavait dix-sept ans, c'était blanc comme neige, des yeux de velours, des cils noirs commedes queues de rat, des cheveux luisants, touffus qui donnaient envie de les manier, unecréature vraiment parfaite! Enfin, monsieur, j'aperçus le premier ces singulières provi-sions, un soir que l'on me croyait couché [. . .] A force de regarder, je découvris dans lebrouillard de fumée que faisait le père avec ses bouffées de tabac, la jeune juive qui setrouvait là comme un napoléon tout neuf dans un tas de gros sous.


This might be considered an attempt to Balzac to convey the rough and ready manners of the active soldier, which is then continued in the way Genestas describes the effect on him:

lorsque je vis cette jeune fille, je compris que jusqu'alors je n'avais fait que céder à la nature; mais cette fois tout en était, la tête, le cœur et le reste. Je devins donc amoureuxde la tête aux pieds, oh ! mais rudement. [. . .] Ce fut la seule fois de ma vie que je pensaià me marier.


The récit in question, which in its consequences is the determining event of Genestas's life, and which remains concealed until virtually the end of the novel, is given to us as the explanation of the officer's retirement from the battlefield of love and this is indeed a perfectly justifiable reading of the novel insofar as it relates to le commandant Genestas. The fact remains that the erotic charge of the description is weak, subsumed in the act of silent contemplation. Genestas feels compelled to apologize here to Benassis for his lack of "oratory," but at one level his account is eloquent in that it conveys very strongly the gulf that separates the officer from the realm of erotic experience, a gulf still more unbridgeable than the Beresina that features in one of his other military anecdotes. [End Page 240]

The young Benassis's seduction by the loose morals of turn-of-the-century Paris establishes an obvious contrast between him and the diffident Genestas. But the latter's reticence with regard to erotic attraction is not without its parallel in the erstwhile libertine. Benassis's youthful attraction to two female characters (an attraction that we are led to believe continues throughout his life in the case of the second) is also notable for its comparative reticence.16 For whatever reason, there is no physical description of Agathe, despite (or because of?) her readiness to give herself to him. Instead, it is a "portrait moral" that he offers his listener, one that does little more than confirm the implications of her name (Greek αγαθοζ "good"): "Quant à elle, c'était le dévouement même, un coeur d'or, un esprit juste, une belle âme. (547)" Or to give a more faithful reflection of its genre: a hymn to Agathe's sublime devotion. In the case of Evelina, Benassis is more inclined to indulge in a physical description, in part, no doubt, in order to keep her memory alive in the long years of separation that are destined never to be brought to an end. Thus:

Sa taille souple et déliée donnait à ses mouvements une grâce que son rigorisme [theproduct of her Jansenist upbringing] ne pouvait atténuer ; la coupe de son visage avait les distinctions, et ses traits avaient la finesse d'une jeune personne appartenant à unefamille noble; son regard était à la fois doux et fier, son front était calme; puis sur satête s'élevaient des cheveux abondants, simplement nattés, qui lui servaient à son insu de parure. Enfin, capitaine, elle m'offrit le type d'une perfection que nous trouvons toujours dans la femme de qui nous sommes épris; pour l'aimer, ne faut-il pas rencon-trer en elle les caractères de cette beauté rêvée qui concorde à nos idées particulières? [. . .] Tous ces anges ont les mêmes signes auxquels le cœur les reconnaît : même dou-ceur de voix, même tendresse dans le regard, même blancheur de teint, quelque chose de joli dans les gestes.


Yet, as will have been evident from this quotation, the physical is still subordinated to the moral. The language employed remains general rather than specific: her facial characteristics merely connote nobility. As the description continues, such individuality as she was ever allowed is submerged in a tribute to the elements of sameness that designates membership of a class. As if aware of the "unacceptability" of his portrait, Benassis (and behind him Balzac) falls into the most unconvincing of clichés: "Je m'arrête, capitaine! on ne peint jamais que très imparfaitement une femme aimée; entre elle et nous il préexiste des mystères qui échappent à l'analyse (558)." Benassis is led to another hymn of adoration in justification of his claim to have experienced the most perfect love with Evelina, but his conclusion is none the less revealing: "elle était bien toujours avec moi comme une soeur est avec son frère" (561).17

A straightforward psychological reading of the novel might even so claim that the absence of an authentic note of erotic attraction is easily explained, whether by Benassis's desire to repress painful memories, by a certain pudeur [End Page 241] that haunts the two men's telling of their stories, or by Balzac's concern to have erotic love subsumed by a more general Christian ethics of love that is indissoluble from the novel's social theme. But this is to disregard not only the way in which Le Médecin de campagne is a textual space in which, more generally, the female or the feminine occupy a subordinate role, but also the contrasting way in which certain male physiognomies are depicted in the work.

An interest in the intricacies of the male physiognomy begins with Benassis himself, his facial characteristics being described in detail, as might be thought befits the apparently complex (Balzac would say "singulier") character who is, literally, the creator of the community that is described. As more than one reader has pointed out, Balzac gives his character at least one feature of which he himself was the proud possessor, namely his "nez retroussé, spirituellement fendu dans le bout" (400), thereby introducing into his work an autobiographical element that is unlikely to be purely incidental.18 In similar vein, of M. Janvier it is said: "La figure du prêtre absorba l'attention du militaire par l'expression d'une beauté morale dont les séductions étaient irrésistibles (499)." In a manner that, as will be seen, has a number of parallels in the novel, he is also given a "transsexual" characteristic: "ses mouvements avaient la pudique simplicité de ceux des jeunes filles" (499). But it is the description of the young poacher Butifer, a character for whom Benassis has an obvious soft spot – witness his injunction to him to go to Grenoble and sell the deer he has shot – that is the most sensual of all the portraits in the novel, far exceeding in this respect any of the female portraits. The portrait is presented as an amplification of the effect the poacher has on Genestas:

Habitué par les événements de la guerre, à juger de la valeur intrinsèque des hommes,le commandant admira la singulière prestesse, l'élégante sécurité des mouvements deButifer […] Le corps svelte et vigoureux du chasseur s'équilibrait avec grâce dans toutesles positions que l'escarpement du chemin l'obligeait à prendre [. . .] Butifer était unhomme jeune, de taille moyenne, mais sec, maigre et nerveux, de qui la beauté virilefrappa Genestas quand il le vit près de lui [. . .] Il avait une mâle figure, brûlée par le soleil. Ses yeux, d'un jaune clair, étincelaient comme ceux d'un aigle, avec le bec duquel son nez mince, légèrement courbé par le bout, avait beaucoup de ressemblance.Les pommettes de ses joues étaient couvertes de duvet. Sa bouche rouge, entrouverte à demi, laissait apercevoir des dents d'une étincelante blancheur. Sa barbe, ses moust-aches, ses favoris roux qu'il laissait pousser et qui frisaient naturellement rehaussaientencore la mâle et terrible expression de sa figure. En lui, tout était force. Les muscles de ses mains continuellement exercées avaient une consistance, une grosseur curieuse. Sa poitrine était large, et sur son front respirait une sauvage intelligence. [. . .] Vêtu d'une blouse déchirée par les épines, il portait à ses pieds des semelles de cuir attachéespar des peaux d'anguilles. Un pantalon de toile bleue rapiécé, déchiqueté, laissait apercevoir ses jambes rouges, fines, sèches et nerveuses comme celles d'un cerf.

(493-94) [End Page 242]

Both qualitatively and quantitatively, this portrait provides a striking contrast with the female portraits we have considered. One recognizes the Balzacian compulsion for the physical manifestation of intelligence, while the extended comparison with the eagle is doubtless in part attributable to the Napoleonic theme that permeates the work to such an extent that Le Médecin de campagne might be regarded as constituting the swansong of Balzac's Bonapartism. That said, the particularity of the detail and the crescendo effect of the description as a whole gives the character of Butifer a magnetic attraction that sets him apart.19

Balzac's novel again introduces the theme of sexual uncertainty through the inclusion of a feature that is the opposite of Butifer's incarnation of virile beauty, and that is the presence in certain males, notably, but not exclusively, the adolescents, of an element of effeminate beauty. M. Janvier's feminine body movements have already been mentioned. It remains only to remark that they are far from implying any kind of lack or inappropriateness. Renard, the maréchal des logis whose good looks allow him to walk off with Judith, is nonetheless described as possessing "une figure de jeune fille" (580).20 As for one of Benassis's young patients, the tubercular Jacques Colas, who is evoked immediately after Genestas has been taken to see La Fosseuse, he is introduced by means of the not easily categorized sound of his singing voice: "est-ce une femme ou un homme, est-ce un oiseau? demanda tout bas le commandant." (489) The extraordinary quality of his voice, as well as being attributed to his illness and characterized pathetically by Benassis as his "chant du cygne", is related to the ambiguity inherent in the pubescent state of his development. He is described as "un garçon de quinze ans, faible comme une femme, blond, mais ayant peu de cheveux, et coloré comme s'il eût mis du rouge" (490). His counterpart is the "false poitrinaire", the sixteen-year-old Adrien Genestas (who is himself the counterpart of the son Benassis has lost and of the latter's substitute, La Fosseuse). Adrien, when he is brought to the doctor, is first of all described by the narrator as the image of his mother:

L'enfant, le vivant portrait de sa mère, tenait d'elle un teint olivâtre et de beaux yeux noirs, spirituellement mélancoliques. Tous les caractères de la beauté juive polonaise setrouvaient dans cette tête chevelue, trop forte pour le corps frêle auquel elle appartenait.


He blushes and holds out "des mains molles et blanches, veinées de bleu comme celles d'une femme" (585).

Such examples of an incipient androgyny that will shortly surface more explicitly or more fully in such diverse texts as La Fille aux yeux d'or and Séraphîta are joined by a number of statements by the characters that, however innocent they may seem, continue to highlight this suggestion of equivocal sexuality.21 [End Page 243] Thus Genestas, in his best soldierly idiom, says to Jacquotte, "Parbleu! la belle, vous aviez fait le lit comme pour une mariée" (443). Of Goguelat's relationship to the ex-pontonnier, Benassis says: "Il est en quelque sorte la femme de ménage de Gondrin" (457). In his letter to Evelina, he prefaces his central observation (on his understanding of the phrase "je t'aime") with the words: "Quoique je ne sois pas femme . . . " (568). To Adrien, whose bed will be placed alongside his own (to Jacquotte's inordinate surprise), the doctor says "nous vivrons ensemble comme deux camarades, mon garçon!" (585) Each of these statements, when it is not simply a banal turn of phrase, has a perfectly legitimate justification. In the case of Adrien's bed, it may be assumed that Benassis is concerned to discourage the masturbatory practices that he covertly presents as being the real reason for the boy's sickliness and arrested development.

But there is a level at which this story does not engage the justifications of the surface narrative. And that is where it can be seen to reveal, without the alibis furnished by the explicit dimensions of the plot, certain recurrent desires or anxieties. What is fascinating about Le Médecin de campagne is that it provides an intermediate example of this phenomenon within the text itself, in the form of Genestas's final récit, the anecdote from his Austerlitz campaign that features him saving a beautiful countess from the fate of armed rape by his maréchal des logis.22 It is significant that the story is produced with some reluctance and only after he has insisted: "je n'ai jamais pu être le héros d'aucune histoire" (593). An examination of the story reveals that its apparently anecdotal status is called into question by the overly tight relationship of its contents to those of the autobiographical récit he had recounted to Benassis earlier in the chapter. Indeed, insofar as it provides us with the most succinct and powerful expression of Genestas's own self-image, it demands to be read not as the simple recalling of an isolated contingent event, but as an invented story that obeys imperatives located deep within the character's own personality. For it is so obviously a projection and development of the sexual diffidence exhibited previously in his relation of his loss of Judith to Renard.

The link between the two stories that makes it impossible for them to be read as separate, 'innocent' narratives consists of the initiatory role played by the two NCOs. But in this "re-writing" of the earlier story,23 the maréchal des logis, far from having the "figure de jeune fille" of Renard, has an ugliness that Genestas has clearly transferred from himself, albeit exaggerating it in the process:

J'arrive au salon au moment où mon maréchal des logis couchait en joue la comtesse, et lui demandait brutalement ce que cette femme ne pouvait certes lui donner, il était trop laid.


His subsequent act of laying the maréchal out cold demands to be seen as [End Page 244] a symbolic re-killing of Renard.24 The re-enactment of the scene obviously suggests itself so that it might this time offer a conclusion that contrasts with that of the earlier récit, which had ended with Judith falling for the superior charms of Renard. The removal of the rival leaves the way open for an alternative ending, just as his own lesser degree of physical disadvantage, taken with the countess's reason to feel grateful, might be regarded as leaving him in with a chance. The eloquence of the scene consists, however, in its confirmation of his sexual disfavour. He comes away with a handkerchief as a souvenir, the memory of a dinner à deux, and a promise that he will always find a sanctuary on the countess's estate and in her "une soeur et une amie dévouée." (594) Whereas the story was set up to place him in opposition to his maréchal, he ends up in essentially the same position as the latter: a figure to whom the countess cannot give what he seeks. Though "amoureux fou", he is obliged to recast her in the imaginary role of his nurse dressing the arm he hopes will be injured in battle. The logic of the fiction, its very raison d'être, dictates, of course, that he will emerge from the battlefield without so much as a scratch. In other words, in the autobiographical stories he is compelled to tell (or invent), Genestas imprisons himself in a masochistic formula that is designed to exclude the possibility of the sexual fulfilment he allegedly seeks.

The finality of the "Austerlitz" récit may also be regarded as closing off once and for all the idealist conclusion that would have Genestas marry La Fosseuse.25 Introduced by Benassis in jest, such an outcome would nonetheless have had the merit of constituting a more or less permanent commemoration of the departed Benassis.26 It is a tribute to the subtlety of Balzac's art of the novel that there is no need for this to be evoked, still less discussed, for the reader to sense, even before he is able to understand, that such an outcome would be profoundly at odds with the underlying logic of the composition.

This is where it becomes necessary to re-establish contact with the suggestions of sexual indeterminacy that are present in the novel as a whole. It has been seen that in the context of characters and "plot" all the instances of a transgression of the gender divide can easily be given an "innocent" explanation. But, as the example of Genestas has shown, the significance of the fiction does not reside on the surface but in the imperatives that it obeys in assuming the form it does. Thus, the insistence on a sexual problematics is not explored as such in a series of separate case studies, but is allowed to build up through a recurring (and often understated) emphasis to a point at which it is revealed as underlying (though obviously not to the exclusion of other profound concerns such as history and politics) the composition as a whole.

Genestas's final story therefore provides a suggestion of how the text as a whole might, in part, be read, that is to say apprehending it at a level where it can be seen to obey a compositional logic that relates back to the author's inner self, rather than to an external reality that is independent of him, though [End Page 245] it is important here to view the author not simplemindedly as the putative origin of the fiction, but as, in equal measure, its creator and its creature.

The circumstances in which Le Médecin de campagne was written, namely the thwarting of Balzac's desire to engage Madame de Castries in a sexual relationship, have often been recalled and related to both La Duchesse de Langeais and one of the Contes drolatiques as well as to the "scène de la vie de campagne" under examination here. Moreover, it was at this time, as Mme Hanska was concerned to discover and as Balzac's most recent biographer has duly stressed, that rumours circulated about homosexual attachments the novelist had formed to both his secretary, Jules Sandeau and his pretty boy groom.27 In Le Médecin, the (sometimes trivial or humorous) displacement from its central position of the heterosexual bond, together with Benassis's statement "Je comprenais l'amour conjugal autrement que ne le comprend la plupart des hommes" (555) and the undoubted delight taken by the Balzacian narrator in the physical description of a good-looking young man, might therefore be seen to constitute a disguised authorial confession parallel to those of Benassis and Genestas. Certainly, the autobiographical dimension of some of the most significant male characters in the Comédie humaine has been powerfully reasserted in modern times by Pierre Citron in his study Dans Balzac. Still more importantly, a number of Balzac's fictions following Le Médecin de campagne, as has been much emphasized by critics working within the context of gender studies and queer studies, will place examples of male-bonding and homosexual desire rather more explicitly at their heart. And while it is obviously questionable to see a novel such as Le Médecin as straightforwardly autobiographical, whether in origin or at the level of representation (since this would be to ignore the extent to which, in Barthesian terms, the text writes the author), the paradoxical combination of insistence and coyness that characterizes the workings of this composition with regard to sexual desire and sexual identity irresistibly evokes, nevertheless, the existence of a significant, if elusive, relationship of the writing to the authorial self.

Yet if Le Médecin de campagne can be shown to display, at the level of the writing itself, an instinctive sensitivity to ways in which an uncertain sexual identity can manifest itself obliquely, my concern has been not so much with the question of sexual identity per se as with the way certain thinly disguised (but previously overlooked) scenarios and descriptions that show a disturbance of conventional heterosexual expectations lead to (and are a product of) writing that is peculiarly suggestive by virtue of its tantalizing union of revelation and concealment and thereby serve to create the illusion of an ultimately inaccessible depth behind the seemingly transparent surface narrative. At the same time, these scenarios and descriptions provide a clear illustration of the way in which the Balzacian composition, for all its inclusiveness, invariably grows out of a restricted number of insistent ideas or sentiments [End Page 246] that are replicated wholly or in part (negatively as well as positively) with the introduction of each new scene or character, to the extent that they constitute not merely its backbone but its inner logic, a logic that emerges as a more or less obsessive reflection upon itself. Objectified in this way, Le Médecin de campagne goes well beyond the point at which there is any question of the author, or for that matter Genestas or Benassis, exposing himself as a particular case study. By the same token, it provides a further illustration, if one is needed, of the way the Comédie humaine attains something of that universality which the novelist-philosopher sought constantly to identify beyond the contingent particularities of an individual's daily life.

Michael Tilby
Selwyn College


1. All parenthetical page references in the text and notes will be to volume 9 of The Castex Pléiade edition of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine.

2. If the two characters are contrasted by means of a number of evident oppositions (intelligence/limited understanding; fluency, not to say garrulity/hesitant or apologetic speech that nonetheless has as its complement brief uncontrolled bursts of enthusiasm; preference for tea/preference for Hermitage), there are, as Genestas proclaims at an early stage, obvious spiritual affinities between them which lead ultimately to his declaring an intention to imitate Benassis’s example. It should be noted that Benassis also identifies with La Fosseuse: "Sa destinée ressemble à la mienne [...] parler de la Fosseuse, c’est parler de moi" (476-77). The principle of "self-division" indeed presides over the political, military and economic thematics of the novel. Thus of Napoleon, Genestas says: "Il se subdivisionnait comme les cinq pains de l’Evangile" (522), while Benassis says of Vigneau: "il paraissait se multiplier" (472). The discussion that follows will be concerned to show that this is also true in the case of the more discreet theme of sexual identity.

3. Balzac’s ability to ring telling changes on a stereotype is already visible here in the different ways in which the passion of each of the two protagonists is thwarted. In the case of Genestas, it is quite simply that Judith prefers the better-looking maréchal des logis, Renard. Benassis’s passion for Evelina, on the other hand, is thwarted by her parents’ discovery that he has fathered an illegitimate child. Illustrating the familiar Balzacian phenomenon of proliferation or reduplication, his subsequent discovery that he is genuinely in love with Agathe is duly thwarted by her death, an event that re-establishes the parallel with the situation in which Genestas finds himself.

4. Rose Fortassier rightly observes: "il n’est guère de pages où n’apparaisse le sentiment [End Page 247] maternel, ou l’amour paternel avec lequel il se confond partiellement" (Balzac, Comédie, 9: 377). While perhaps overlooking the example of Genestas, the same critic convincingly sees Le Médecin as presenting an opposition with Le Père Goriot: "le sentiment paternel est là dans toute sa grandeur, et Benassis y fait déjà figure de « Christ de la Paternité »" (378).

5. That Balzac was, in part, inspired by Rétif de la Bretonne’s La Vie de mon père has long been recognized.

6. Through a shared concern with the story of Beresina (of which Genestas is a veteran), it is with the short story Adieu (1830) that Le Médecin de campagne is most explicitly linked in the Comédie humaine. But just as the more humble conte gives way to the more ambitious novel, so the banal word that constitutes the former’s title (for all its dramatic effect in the narrative) splits into (or resurrects) the ultimate dedication featured in the novel.

7. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Balzac, Médecin 7) nonetheless points out Balzac’s apparent ignorance of the linguistic reality of the region in which his novel is set.

8. The centrality of the father-son relationship in the novel is prefigured in Goguelat’s evocation of Napoleon "que le pape l’appelait son fils, et le cousin de Mahomet son cher père" (524), as well as in the same character’s insistence (522) on the Emperor’s resemblance to "le fils de Dieu."

9. Any idealisation of the maternal and paternal functions is, in a fashion, characteristic of Balzac, held in check by the ironic foregrounding of celibate status. To all intents and purposes, both Benassis and Genestas are bachelors, while, notwithstanding Benassis’s future plans for La Fosseuse, which remain vague, or the introduction of the (much younger) Adrien to her, there is much to suggest that she is constitutionally unsuited to marriage. The joking introduction of Genestas to her as "peut-être un mari pour toi" introduces the subject of marriage in a way that simultaneously closes it down. As Paulson has observed: "The symbolic narratives strive towards a paternity that remains outside them, that exists only in the idealized relations of Benassis to his villagers and in the possibility [...] that Genestas will take his place. The limits of the imaginary narrative, meanwhile, are marked by the symbolic text, which demonstrates time and again that idealized paternity and fulfilled desire have no place in [...] the modern reality of 19th-century France" (Paulson 31). For a very different reading of the novel, see Thesen.

10. See Balzac, Comédie, 10: 99.

11. Benassis recalls the determining effect his son’s words "mon père" have on Agathe: "Un jour, ayant entendu son fils disant: «Mon père!» mots qu’elle ne lui avait pas appris, elle me pardonna mon crime" (551).

12. If La Fosseuese accompanies Genestas, Adrien and Benassis to the latter’s house after dinner in chapter 5, textually speaking she vanishes into thin air following Genestas’s Austerlitz anecdote. In the paragraph that begins with the statement "Ils étaient arrivés chez Benassis" (594), all three male characters are referred to, but there is no mention [End Page 248] of her.

13. Patrick Berthier (Balzac, Médecin 422) rightly notes that this is an "esquisse, encore timide, et qui sera modifiée, du musicien allemand Schmücke [sic]."

14. Fortassier sees in La Fosseuse a spiritual sister of Louis Lambert: "intuitive comme lui, sensible à de mystérieux messages, elle voit au-delà du monde réel" (Balzac, Comédie 9: 382). While recognizing that Genestas’s response to the unusual is always likely to remain incomplete, such an interpretation would seem to risk assigning too significant a role to a sketchy figure who, for all her "difference," remains firmly rooted in the world.

15. One is left to wonder what experiences, if any, are concealed by the declaration, "Jusqu’alors je n’avais fait que céder à la nature."

16. It is worthy of note that Benassis is an example of a phenomenon that recurs, albeit with variations, in Balzac’s fiction in this period: "l’homme à deux femmes." See, for example, La Peau de chagrin, where Raphaël is polarized between his desire for Foedora and his love for Pauline, an opposition that in the terms employed by Benassis equates to "passion" and "coeur" and which might be taken to imply a problematic response towards "eros".

17. Such an observation in a Balzac text should not, however, necessarily be regarded as one-dimensional, given the existence in his work of relationships that suggest that incest (particularly between brother and sister) was a recurring authorial phantasm.

18. See, for example, Citron 167.

19. As if in recognition of the imbalance caused by the enormity of this male pin-up, Balzac revealingly has the heterosexual norm re-established through Benassis asking Butifer the simple question: "Et Louise?" (495). It is a matter for some reflection that the question, for all its rhetorical content, goes unanswered ("Butier resta pensif") and that when Butifer does himself make a reference to his girlfriend, he hints at a gulf that separates them in relation to town and country ("J’étouffe quand je suis dans une ville. Je ne peux pas durer plus d’une journée à Grenoble quand j’y mène Louise" [496]). Although in any strict sense the homosexual nature of Genestas’s attraction to Butifer is limited, and the account is justifiable in terms of the explicit link between his appreciation of the poacher’s physique and his own professional calling as an army officer, his enthusiastic exclamation "Voilà ce que j’appelle un homme" (496) is nonetheless felt by Balzac to require a degree of deflation by Benassis, who replies "Un homme en mauvais chemin."

20. Genestas says of his presumed friend: "Pendant la retraite je fus plus d’une fois sauvé par les soins d’un maréchal des logis nommé Renard, qui fit pour moi de ces choses après lesquelles deux hommes doivent être frères" (578). Had Genestas been more widely read, Balzac might well have inserted here one of his favourite references to Piero and Jafier in Otway’s play Venice Preserv’d.

21. In the manuscript of one of Balzac’s earliest fragments is to be found the following description: "Corsino [avait une belle figure deleted], sans avoir la beauté féminine [End Page 249] dont se parent certains [hommes deleted] androgènes, était parfaitement homme, son visage mâle et fier en imposait, et ses regards étaient terribles, ses formes nerveuses quoiqu’il fût petit." Farrant relates this description to Falthurne, Sarrasine, La Fille aux yeux d’or and Louis Lambert, though not to Le Médecin de campagne, where the strain in question is, admittedly, less emphatic (see Farrant 21).

22. For a complementary discussion, see Tilby.

23. From a purely historical perspective, the order in which the two anecdotes occur is the reverse of the order in which Genestas relates them: the encounter with Judith occurs after the retreat from Moscow in 1812, whereas the incident involving the countess is said to have taken place in 1805. From the point of view of the logic of the fiction, however, there is no doubting the climactic nature of the Austerlitz story, which is what removes the possibility of regarding it as being rewritten by the Judith episode. In other words, what Le Médecin de campagne illustrates very clearly is the lesson that the logic of fiction and the logic of History are of a quite different order from each other.

24. Although there is no indication that the maréchal actually dies from the blow, there is, perhaps surprisingly at the level of the anecdotal sequence, no further reference to him. At the level of the writing, which is here the only one to concern us, his existence is over from the moment he is felled.

25. The difference in age between them, even if it might recall the marital disharmony of Balzac’s own parents, is not, in the early nineteenth-century context, reason alone for such an idealist conclusion being considered ironic. As for the age-gap between Adrien and La Fosseuse, while no serious attempt is made to expunge the notion of it as a barrier, it inevitably recalls the young Balzac’s attraction to older women.

26. The thinly veiled onomastic significance of his name may be found in the formula with which la mère Martin thanks Genestas for his alms: "Que le ciel vous bénisse!" (599)

27. See Robb 258-60. An aura of sexual ambiguity surrounds the evocation of Godefroid’s groom (Paddy-Joby-Toby) in La Maison de Nucingen, a figure whom Pierre Citron (Balzac, Comédie 6: 1265) also relates to Caroline Marbouty, who, in 1836, accompanied Balzac to Turin disguised as a pageboy.

Works Cited

Balzac, Honoré de. La Comédie humaine. Ed. Pierre-Georges Castex et al. Paris: Gallimard Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. 12 vols. 1976-1982.
Balzac, Honoré de. Le Médecin de campagne. Ed. Patrick Berthier; preface by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Paris: Folio classique. 1974.
Citron, Pierre. Dans Balzac. Paris: Seuil. 1986.
Farrant, Tim. Balzac’s Shorter Fictions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002.
Paulson, William. "Preceptors, fathers and ideology: the strange narrative of Balzac’s Le Médecin de campagne," French Forum, 9.1 (January 1984): 19-32. [End Page 250]
Robb, Graham. Balzac. London: Picador. 1994.
Thesen, Doreen, The Function of Gift Exchange in Stendhal and Balzac. New York and Oxford: Peter Lang. 2000.
Tilby, Michael, "Le Médecin de campagne et le statut du récit," L’Année balzacienne (2003): 7-24. [End Page 251]

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