- Reconstructing Woman: From Fiction to Reality in the Nineteenth Century French Novel
The reader expecting a purely feminist reading of nineteenth-century French novels, based on the title of Dorothy Kelly’s Reconstructing Woman: From Fiction to Reality in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel, will discover a more complex, intriguing exploration of the implications of nineteenth-century science and technology and of the anxieties produced by the discovery that human beings are transformable, before reaching a section addressing the male fantasies of creating a more perfect woman. Kelly examines the works of Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, and Philippe de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam in order to show the crisis in the understanding of human identity, what she calls the crisis of distinction, a need to differentiate humans from animals and humans from machines. This crisis was a result of the concepts of transformism, evolution, and heredity that were developed at the time. In a mix of the Pygmalion and Frankenstein myths, man dreams of creating and controlling an artificial woman through the practices of mesmerism, hypnotism, artificial insemination, and dissection, essentially appropriating the act of creation from woman in order to negotiate these ambiguities of identity.
The four middle chapters explore in detail Balzac’s La peau de chagrin, Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale, Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, and Villiers’s L’Eve future. Kelly expertly traces the progression from Balzac’s Raphaël who dreams of forming a new woman by influencing her demeanor through social codes to Villiers’s Thomas Edison creating an actual cyborg-like female, complete with artificial movement, a mechanical voice and a “soul.” Kelly also follows the aforementioned crisis of distinction from Balzac’s apprehension of the animal nature of humans and of the influence of the environment on a human being, through Flaubert’s misgivings on the substitutability of one human being for another, for a machine, or for an animal, Zola’s fear of the “mechanical nature of organic man” (92), and finally Villiers’s exploitation of the ambiguities that exist as part of the crisis.
Instead of limiting her analysis to these texts, Kelly superimposes examples from several other works by each author such as Le colonel Chabert, Sarrasine, Le père Goriot, Madame Bovary, “Quidquid volueris,” Salammbô, Claire Lenoir, Madeleine Férat, as well as several texts from the Rougon-Macquart cycle such as Germinal, La bête humaine, Le ventre de Paris, Au bonheur des dames, and Le docteur Pascal, creating a wider and more complete view of the authors’ recurrent themes. This is a very useful technique that supplements Kelly’s argument about the science and anxiety that led to the desire to recreate [End Page 218] women. Although the jumps from text to text are often a bit sudden and occur so quickly that it is sometimes difficult to follow which text is being discussed at the moment, Kelly’s argument would not be as effective without these extra examples, and her analyses of the texts are both sophisticated and precise.
The conclusion promises an answer to the following question: why is there this need to create artificial women? A common theme among the four authors’ works is the disgust with the natural woman and with her reproductive body. Kelly adds that along with the crisis of distinction from animal and machine, there also exists a crisis of class and gender distinctions, which one finds in combination in the works of later authors, “the illness of crass bourgeois society in women” (155). While the reproductive woman is natural, the female is already an artificial creation of society and would thus be easily malleable. The need to recreate women would then be a mix of the male fantasy of procreation and the production of a “future Eve,” the production of a new and better race. Kelly describes the role of authors and of their words in creating something new they thought was better than social reality, the use of their texts as...