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Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 210-225

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Desert, Desire, Dezesperance:
Space and Play in Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais

James W. Mileham

Critics haven't neglected La Duchesse de Langeais, but no one has yet fully demonstrated the importance of this novella's principal metaphor: movement through space. 1 Travel towards and away from the other, placing and overcoming obstacles, losing and finding one's way - such spatial images abound in this novella. In fact, this love story can be adequately summarized by its spatial dynamics: General Armand de Montriveau pursues Antoinette, Duchess of Langeais, while she holds him off; he kidnaps and then releases her, after which, she pursues him and he rebuffs her advances; finally, she flees and he searches for her but arrives too late.

There are two very different modes to the spatial metaphor in this story: games and rituals. Different as these two universally-human activities are, they are joined in the concept of play. 2 Both games and rituals involve movement through space, but games have to do with maneuvering for position relative to one's adversary, and they depend upon specific distances, so they are quantitative. In chess, for example, where you have deployed your pieces relative to those of your opponent determines how much power you wield. This is what you have achieved by your moves. In rituals, on the other hand, travel is metaphorical. In La Duchesse de Langeais, both Armand's real desert crossing and Antoinette's psychological one, which echoes it - her kidnapping by Armand - are undertaken on metaphorical landscapes, like those of the "carte du pays de Tendre" and the Roman de la Rose. Where the protagonists go on these psychological maps tells us less about what they have achieved than what they have become. While the meaning of space in game imagery is always relative to the position of the other, space in ritual has an absolute meaning: where you are on the metaphorical map tells what you are. [End Page 210]

First, games. The general's primary game, logically enough, is war. In accordance with the age-old metaphor, he attacks the duchess in an effort to conquer her sexually. 3 Her body is a battlefield that Armand overruns place by place: first, he wins the right to kiss her hands (959), then her forehead (964); later, we see him kiss the hem of her dress, her feet, her knees, and it is implied that he goes farther (978). The rule of this game is that, once a place is occupied by the lover (generally, as here, the male), he has permanent access to it and can then pursue his conquest of the rest of the other's body.

Armand's military seduction never succeeds, however. Antoinette's defense is supple but ultimately unyielding: "s'il la saisissait, elle voulait bien se laisser briser et tordre par lui, mais elle avait son nec plus ultra de passion; et, quand il en arrivait là, elle se fâchait toujours si, maîtrisé par sa fougue, il faisait mine d'en franchir les barrières" (966). Besides this potent but essentially passive defense of denying terrain, Antoinette uses another spatial defense, real rather than metaphorical. When under erotic pressure, she sometimes flees her boudoir, the site of passionate caresses, for the more public salon, where she expresses her passion through music rather than through the physical contact that Armand seeks (967, 972).

This military game of seduction is played out on ideological terrain also. The duchess erects moral bunkers, "redoutes," to inhibit Montriveau's advance (954), and these she deploys in a triple perimeter configuration. 4 That is to say, to reach her heart and possess her body, the general must overcome three successive objections: the duchess's obligations to her husband, to the Church, and to her class. 5 After a few months of combat, the general overcomes the first objection, only to encounter the second, then overcomes the second, but encounters the third. This apparently progressive surrender of...


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