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  • L'Héroïne goncourtienne: entre hystérie et dissidence
  • Michael R. Finn
L'Héroïne goncourtienne: entre hystérie et dissidence. By Barbara Giraud. (Le Romantisme et après en France, 16). Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009. x + 227 pp. Pb €35.50; £32.00; $55.95.

Edmond de Goncourt once observed that the entire Goncourt fictional oeuvre was based on nervous maladies, that many of the brothers' observations were drawn from their own nervous conditions, and that this focus probably represented their [End Page 494] originality. Edmond also wondered if the great clinician of nervosité, Charcot, who had apparently jeered the stage version Germinie Lacerteux, was not jealous of their appropriation of medical discourse (24 décembre 1888, in Journal, iii, 885). In a sense, it is this 'dissidence', this gap between the Goncourts' apparently wholehearted embrace of medical theory and language and their mistrust of medical sagacity that Barbara Giraud is out to capture. Her study is a thorough sifting of the medical texture of seven Goncourt novels, each focused on a central, damaged female figure. The novels are seen as subversive because the medical judgements in the fiction are used, perhaps unconsciously, to express the novelists' sense that females are oppressed by the hegemonic medical discourse of the day. An initial chapter explores the convergence of Foucault's theories with the Goncourts' ideas on the debilitating impact of medical discourse. (Indeed, Foucault is cited so approvingly throughout that the reader yearns for a bit of subversion.) Chapter 2, on the penetration of science into literary discourse, is less satisfying because it attempts to analyse, in twenty-five short pages and six subsections, which personalities, media, groups, and social networks provided the transmission lines for such penetration. Chapters 3 and 4 take the novels in pairs, the former (two pairs) examining the lower classes (Sœur Philomène, Germinie Lacerteux; La Fille Élisa, La Faustin), and the latter (a single pair) the bourgeoisie (Renée Mauperin, Madame Gervaisais); the final chapter looks at the aristocracy (Chérie). A discussion of Briquet's Traité clinique et thérapeutique de l'hystérie (pp. 70-75) illuminates our understanding of Germinie and the onset of her hysteria/nymphomania. Giraud notes that the profusion of medical references in La Faustin represents a medical discourse slipping into hyperbole, even caricature. The discourse thus subverts itself, and she sees the novel's study of hysterical theatricality as subtly aping Charcot's theatricality at La Salpêtrière. The chapter on Chérie is most interesting, showing the development of her dreamy adolescent mindset out of medical texts by C. Panckoucke, J. J. Virey and A. Voisin (pp. 181-90). The Conclusion expands on Giraud's theory that the subversion of medical discourse is part of a largely unconscious comparison between the marginalized artist and women marginalized because they do not conform to bourgeois society's expectations (p. 211). Overall, this study would have benefited from a more careful edit and proofread: omissions create troubled syntax or opaque meanings, while typos or spelling mistakes include La Fautin, 'se sont des perversités' (p. 82), 'l'ambigüité' (p. 95), 'lettres' for 'lettrés' (p. 101), 'dessiner' for 'dessiné' (p. 185), 'de part' for 'de par' (p. 14), 'nous nous sommes demandés' (p. 13), and La Maladie de la volonté for Ribot's Les Maladies de la volonté (p. 146).

Michael R. Finn
Ryerson University, Toronto


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