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  • Des filles sans joie: le roman de la prostituée dans la seconde moitié du xixe siècle par Marjorie Rousseau-Minier
  • Eliza Jane Smith
Des filles sans joie: le roman de la prostituée dans la seconde moitié du xixe siècle. Par Marjorie Rousseau-Minier. (Histoire des idées et critique littéraire, 493.) Genève: Droz, 2018. 496 pp.

Marjorie Rousseau-Minier’s analysis of the literary subgenre known as ‘roman de fille’ positions itself as a seminal work on the prostitute in French, Russian, and Spanish literature. Her comparative study focuses on selected novels by Dostoevsky, Huysmans, Zola, Edmond de Goncourt, Benito Pérez Galdós, and Eduardo Loópez Bago, and builds on the vast corpus of work dedicated to this taboo literary figure. By studying the prostitute from a point of ‘lack’ or ‘non-identity’, Rousseau-Minier argues that she functions as a character of ‘revendication existentielle, spirituelle ou esthétique’ (p. 26), rather than of negation. Part One provides an overview of the polemics of prostitution in literary, medico-social, and administrative discourses. In conjunction with a study of femininity, the author reveals the ways in which the prostitute functions as an exaggerated form of the feminine, which contributes to the prostitute’s redoubled othering. Her medicalization, animalistic impulsions, childlike naivety, and sexuality highlight her overwhelming lack that ultimately creates a literary space serving as ‘le vecteur d’un discours sur la sexualité masculine, plus que féminine’ (p. 57). Rousseau-Minier highlights the ways in which literary representations of the prostitute diverged from medical and criminal theories through their emphasis on determinism and pathology, establishing an experimental character that broke from the image of the virtuous prostitute and created a new romanesque aesthetic. Part Two focuses on the prostitute as a figure of loss, de-individuation, dispossession, marginalization, and renouncement. The initial freedom that prostitution promises results in each character’s isolation from family and the social world. Her repetitive lifestyle of excess equates to a metaphorical death — one that is a slow, conscious process — that posits the roman de fille as a novel on the loss of the self, rather than on seduction. Part Three explores the ways in which this subgenre provides a reflection on masculine identity through the literary construction of the prostitute. As an object of mass consumption, the prostitute’s role in society is akin to that of the writer. Her sterility and engagement in taboo sexual practices allow for a masculine perspective on sexuality to emerge, one that remains unrelated to procreation and could thus threaten the male role within society. Rousseau-Minier reveals the ways in which the aforementioned writers constructed a new literary character marked by biological determinism and sexual disorder which reflected back to the writer his own fears surrounding the disappearance of masculine identity. Although she is a literary object, the loss and renouncement of the self grants the prostitute a creative power that asserts her affirmation as a subject. To conclude, the author argues that the prostitute’s lack transforms itself into an existential reversal through creation and/or religious values. This masterful work on the roman de fille dissects an impressive number of novels and provides a break from typical feminist approaches by focusing on the prostitute’s loss of identity and characterization as a ‘morte-vivante’ (p. 229). Finally, Rousseau-Minier’s analysis proves to be as complex and [End Page 473] multifaceted as the women characters she studies, and makes a major contribution to nineteenth-century French, Russian, and Spanish studies.

Eliza Jane Smith
University of Colorado Boulder


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pp. 473-474
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