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  • Taboo: Corporeal Secrets in Nineteenth-Century France by Hannah Thompson
  • Karen Humphreys
Taboo: Corporeal Secrets in Nineteenth-Century France. By Hannah Thompson. Oxford: Legenda, 2013. x + 157 pp.

This monograph is an incisive study of representations of the unspeakable taboo body in texts by George Sand, Rachilde, Émile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Octave Mirbeau, Barbey d’Aurevilly, and Victor Hugo. The author examines the ways in which these texts show what could not be articulated in the nineteenth century because of social codes and moral boundaries. She argues that ‘the taboo yearns to be spoken’ (p. 12) and that taboo bodies ‘offer a reflexive commentary on the relationship between reader and text’ (p. 7). The author balances analysis of the unspeakable body with investigation of the [End Page 403] reader’s relationship to the text and the taboos represented therein. The Introduction elucidates the author’s conceptualization of the taboo body with passages from the novels and various theoretical studies. Subsequently it clarifies the volume’s connection with earlier analyses of bodily representation in realist texts (for example, those of Henri Mitterand, Peter Brooks, Naomi Schor, and Naomi Segal); and it outlines the study’s theoretical underpinnings rooted in the ideas of Georges Bataille (eroticism and transgression), Michel Foucault (the eloquence of silence), Roland Barthes (the pleasure of the text and readerly jouissance), Judith Butler (gender as performative construct), Susan Sontag (the deployment of illness and suffering as metaphor), and Cathy Caruth (the need to tell and retell in the revelation of trauma), as opposed to Freud’s psychoanalytical paradigm in the previous studies. This careful contextualization of several specific fields of thought shows the complexity of bodily representation in the nineteenth-century novel and sheds light on the many forces and tensions surrounding it. The taboo bodies in the three chapters of Part One suggest that illness (for example, tuberculosis or syphilis) reveals social anxieties about female sexuality and sexual desire in texts by Sand, Rachilde, and Zola. In Les Soirées de Médan and La Débâcle, war — specifically the Franco-Prussian defeat — is the catalyst for a reconsideration of representations of manliness and masculinity. According to Thompson, the ‘weakened state of the French nation’ is represented by the ‘unmanning’ of the male body (p. 81). Part Two focuses on the reader’s role in the interpretation of taboo bodies. Chapter 4 explores cruelty and unspeakable pain in Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des supplices and Barbey d’Aurevilly’s L’Ensorcelée and Les Diaboliques. In the case of both authors, the reader must witness and thereby ‘validate’ (p. 88) the violence in the texts. Mirbeau avoids descriptions of corporeal violence and allows much to the reader’s imagination; Barbey conversely ‘privileges’ brutality and agony leaving the reader at the mercy of the text. Chapter 5 focuses on physical deformity and how Hugo’s textualization of the monstrous questions the reader’s values. His affirmation of the deformed body and rejection of conventional notions of the horrific destabilize the taboo. Chapter 6 reveals the necessity of broaching taboo subjects in Zola’s Vérité; even if the unspeakable is obfuscated in the text, traces of it point to its very existence. Thompson’s lucid work argues that analysis of the form and function of the taboo encourages readers to re-examine their own values and preconceived notions towards the body. This study is especially useful to scholars of nineteenth-century French literature, gender studies, and disability studies.

Karen Humphreys
Trinity College, Hartford, CT


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pp. 403-404
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