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  • Sick Heroes. French Society and Literature in the Romantic Age, 1750–1850
  • Mary Anne O’Neil
Sick Heroes. French Society and Literature in the Romantic Age, 1750–1850, by Allan Pasco; xvii & 250 pp. Exeter: University of Exeter Press (distributed by Northwestern University Press), 1997, $75.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

In Sick Heroes. French Society and Literature in the Romantic Age, 1750–1850, Allan Pasco takes on the formidable task of re-evaluating French Romanticism. He rejects the traditional view, formulated in large measure by such Romantic authors as Chateaubriand and Musset, that the distinctively emotional, solitary, morbid and passive characters who populate the nineteenth-century French novel appear only after 1800. Pasco finds similar characters in fiction written from the Enlightenment to the Second Empire, that is, from 1750 to 1850, a century that witnessed the breakdown of the Old Regime and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, prolonged events that maintained France in a constant state of political, social and religious turmoil. Rather than considering the Romantic protagonist as the creation and reflection of a disillusioned aristocracy, Pasco suggests that these “sick heroes” actually expressed the popular psyche. He bases this belief on his readings of over two hundred novels published between 1750 and 1850—some still acknowledged as masterpieces, others long forgotten—all of which feature these bizarre, sometimes offensive, yet strangely appealing characters. Because after 1750 “successful writers depended upon mass markets of people” (p. 5) and “Bankruptcy awaited those who could not successfully predict reading tastes and, so to speak, take the public pulse”(p. 5), novels necessarily began to mirror the dreams and fears of the entire French society. They also fed these obsessions by keeping them before the public eye.

Essentially, Pasco proposes to take a fresh look at French history of the Romantic period. Unlike traditional historians who study the great events of the past or even the material facts of everyday life, he is interested in the emotional condition of real men and women living a century and a half ago, and his book attempts to shed new light on the fears, hopes and obsessions of the general reading public. Using the popular novels and paintings of the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries as case studies, and bringing to bear on these works of art insights derived from twentieth-century writings in psychology, sociology and anthropology, he diagnoses French Romanticism as a generalized depression: “. . . a sense of insecurity, both widespread and profound, that grows from a tumultuous personal, public, and natural world, marked by acute awareness of reality, extreme self-consciousness, and a desire to escape”(p. 12).

Each of the book’s seven chapters probes a specific cause of this Romantic malady. Chapter one, “Moving,”suggests that a widespread sense of insecurity resulted as France changed from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Vast numbers of the rural population were forced by poverty and war to migrate to the cities, only to find squalor and solitude there. Paintings such as Boilly’s [End Page 253] Moving House evoke the hardships of displacement, while Balzac’s novels Lost Illusions and Old Goriot dramatize the difficulties faced by young provincial men seeking their fortunes in Paris. For them, the sludge of the city streets symbolized the ever-present danger of failure. “The Unrocked Cradle” explains that the solitary nature and sense of abandonment that characterize the Romantic hero were the result of maternal deprivation. Demographic studies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries indicate that, as wet-nursing spread from the nobility to the middle class, ever increasing numbers of children lost the opportunity to bond with their mothers during infancy. In turn, more and more readers were attracted to books like Chateaubriand’s René or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, in which there appear unloving mothers or where the protagonist feels deserted by the maternal parent. “Doddering Paternities” examines the other side of the familial coin, namely the disappearance of the father from the novel or the concentration upon selfish and abusive fathers in works such as The Red and the Black. Pasco attributes this negative conception of the father to the breakdown of marriages through war and divorce...

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pp. 253-255
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