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Love in Exotic Places: Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie

In Rousseau’s philosophical novel and treatises the role of the exotic is marginal in two senses: though it grounds the argument, it is presented as incidental to it, and though it marks the boundaries of the solidly European, it is not seen as affected by the European. This marginality is significant because it shows that the exotic had become acclimated in European discourse; it was no longer so strange that it had to be given full attention when it appeared. But the exotic did not stay at the margins; it returned to the center in two of the most widely read European fictions of the turn of the nineteenth century, Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie and René de Chateaubriand’s Atala. These novels translate some of the political, ethical, and philosophical questions Rousseau addressed into the language of fiction and turn Rousseau’s dramas of the intellect into tales of passion. But this exoticism, once more revisited, had once more changed. The two novelists continued the work of synthesis which made of the exotic a language in which to couch burning contemporary questions about a “normative,” nonexotic self and society Yet these novels exemplify the process through which New World strangeness, after it had guaranteed the universality of European writing, became available to found a writing of American difference. The two novels fashion a European language with which the New World could refer to itself as both different and legible.

Like Rousseau’s works, these novels address origins and the formation of a new, counter-European society, but they displace them to exotic surroundings that function as sites of experimentation. They compress their preoccupations into terms of contact between difference, expressed in marriage plots whose weight overwhelms other plot elements; though both novels lead to an impasse, they became prototypes of the love story in their time and thus placed the exotic at the center of an important European cultural development. Both novels transplant European history into the New World and, while sounding as if they were not conditioned by history, absorb the historical events of colonization. Both are constructed as a vacation from history; both end tragically; both reveal the impossibility of leaving behind the cultural baggage that prompted the choice of their exotic settings; both Europeanize the exotic and in the same gesture make it available for American use.

Paul et Virginie and Atala use the exotic New World as a setting, but their operation naturalizes the exotic just as Rousseau had when he used examples from the New World as a familiar language about difference. Offering the familiar in the guise of the exotic, the novels were embraced with the kind of furor accompanying the modern marketing of such cultural products as Star Wars or Batman (the movies), with theme lampshades and coffee cups, with massive sales of engravings that show drowning Virginie and dead Atala, and with the appearance of a slew of novels and plays about the primitive, the naive, and the exotic, transplanted back to Europe.1

Both Chateaubriand and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre held public office; Bernardin was a scientist and director of the Paris Botanical Gardens. Their writing was as firmly in line with their official patrons’ sentiments as with those of a vast public. Their fictional discourse came to be seen as representative of their period; their characters became public models of sentiment and behavior. Tearful sentimentality and mal du siècle are shorthand for the moods of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as well as for Paul et Virginie and René or Atala. Inasmuch as these works were set in a New World yet to be fully spoken by the discourse of fiction, however, they had the dual destiny of creating language appropriate for what Europe felt about itself, and for what Europeans saw as America. In turn the strength of this European discourse of the exotic also made it into a support and a challenge for American writers in search of cultural autonomy and a definition of national consciousness. In a curious reversal, then, Paul et Virginie and Atala suddenly became, as in Edmond and Jules de Goncourt’s complaint, the epitomes of that romanticism which, like a “foreign” growth, invaded Europe,2 and in which the otherness on the farther shore of the Atlantic became part of a canonical European discourse of alienation.

Paul et Virginie is set not in the Americas but on an island in the Indian Ocean. Its exotic setting is so carefully rendered, however, that it becomes a model of the detailed description of nature that will later be recognized as characteristic of a romanticism of the exotic. The felt accuracy of this description serves as a guarantee for the truthfulness of the plot, and yet the description is transposable. Despite his attention to local detail, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Indian Ocean comes to signify a generic tropical exoticism and to stand for all “empty” ultramarine worlds, untouched by what is implicitly defined as civilization. Its factuality, at least in the popular imagination, is both demonstrated and reinforced by such phenomena as the Paul and Virginie Room in the Musée d'outre mer in Paris.3 It is extraordinary, in effect, how insistently this novel, whose announced historical content is much lower than that of any other fiction of the exotic under consideration here, is read as a history; it is as if a historical component were so necessary to such a fiction that it is added if it is not there originally.

The novel’s argument tests out the possibility of building a new society free of specific, clearly identified European evils, and part of its analysis and implied recommendations are based on ideas proposed in Rousseau’s Emile. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, however, modifies Rousseau’s proposal and makes it appear more extreme, while actually restoring it to a traditional image framework entirely acceptable even to a public distrustful of the philosopher’s innovations. Bernardin transposes the experimental garden to an island, emphasizing the theme of isolation and retreat from society which Rousseau had intended to be temporary; he also removes the tutor, so that the task of educating the two young protagonists falls to nature alone, and he transfers from plot to narration the problem raised by positing a willed interference in the organization of society. Finally, he doubles the pupil into male and female, brought up together in innocence and according to the same principles, in a direct reference to the myth of the Garden of Eden, a part of creation neither made nor chosen by human will or reason. The island setting replicates Columbus’s New World discoveries, both the island of the first landfall and the pear-shaped paradisiacal nipple afloat somewhere in the Caribbean (Diários, pp. 143–45); it appeals to the comfort of the now-familiar exotic, while taking advantage of the freedom granted by the strangeness that still defines it. Bernardin creates a new society to correct his own; the novelty he propounds, however, is at the same time guaranteed and mooted by the estrangement implicit in its setting.

The initial situation of Paul et Virginie is schematic. Two young women come to a tropical island. One is wellborn and rich but has been disowned for marrying a poor commoner; to make a fortune commensurate with her name, the young husband takes to the seas, and like so many adventurers of the great European expansion, he perishes. The other woman is a poor commoner who has been seduced and abandoned by a young aristocrat. Both women are pregnant. Both had attempted to marry outside their class, and both attempts were socially nonviable. In both cases the reader’s sympathy is invoked for these marriages between unequals. For the women, the island is a refuge, the potential site of an alternative society, where “their children, happier than they, would enjoy at the same time, and far from the prejudices of Europe, the pleasures of love and the happiness that comes with equality” (p. 16). The women of Paul et Virginie escape from European power relations inscribed in class and gender codes. Their experience encourages the assumption that their new society will evolve a new code, built on a utopian impulse to demand justice, produce pleasure, invite love, and create happiness which fuels the novel and is part of its legitimating force. Another part of that force, however, is the reinscription of those codes in the new society. Both parts operate in the development of a literature of exoticism.

Slowly, Paul et Virginie frustrates its initial reformist impulse in ways that indicate ambivalence less about its viability than about its legitimacy. The consequences of that first removal of inequality, as well as its final reinstatement, attest to the difficulty of imagining a true, even a better, other to the cultural self under criticism. The society Bernardin imagines for the women on the island differs in essential ways from that which had caused their unhappiness. Their community is insulated from corrupting exchanges with the outside world, and this defensive isolation from the beginning casts doubt on the desirability of the exchanges from which the story originates. The community is also both matriarchal and asexual, eliminating, together with the males who would make acceptable mates for its ruling women, the possibility of sexual exchange even within the enclosure.4 The two women are happy, however, removed from the social scrutiny that in Emile was one important source of alienation from the authentic self: the women “did not desire to have, in the outside world, a vain reputation that intrigue could grant them and calumny could take away from them. It was enough for them to be their own witnesses and judges” (p. 40). Their isolation is said to make them “more human” rather than “more savage,” the two extremes conditioned not by social but by psychological factors (p. 42). Because on the island the women are no longer subject to the social scrutiny that enforces social rules, their transgressions cease to exist; the strictures that had unjustly defined them as deviant, are dismissed as arbitrary. In their isolation, the women and their children are subject only to nature, and the exotic, which is the nature of the island, becomes associated with fundamental, that is, natural values, opposed to the social, the oppressive, the nonnatural. But with sexuality the women also ban that element which the social order finds it most important to control. Matriarchal and classless, the community on the island is an experiment in a new form of social organization which corrects European shortcomings and excesses by restricting its semantic universe, rather than by modifying its grammar. As the consequences of these restrictions on relationship work themselves into the plot, they are shown to jeopardize the creation of the new meanings promised in the novel’s first statements purpose and, finally, to question the viability of the new society both in the present and in a projected future.

In the details of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s island garden reside those ingrained habits of thought which are taken for natural and which pierce even the most radical construction of alternatives; they indicate how this discourse of the New World arises in the interplay between new and old, in the space between model and opposition. The setting, for instance, in a natural enclosure brings into play the long tradition of gardens in the Western imagination; but the differences between Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s picture of Mauritius and the traditional representations of Eden indicate this novel’s role in the creation of an exotic, alternative world. Bernardin refers directly to Eden (pp. 66–67), but he also redefines paradisiacal innocence, and the redefinition comes to play an important role in the discourse of the exotic. When he shows the two young people conversing, “at first, like brother and sister,” he is not refiguring Genesis but prefiguring the virtue of sensibility and mal du siècle; when innocence is lost, it is not by disobedience to a father or murder of a sibling but by the presence of a perpetually deferred sexuality tinged with incest.5 His construction of paradise, as Joachim Schulze notes, echoes Milton’s, with its two numinously charged trees at the center, as well as the restored garden paradise of La nouvelle Héloïse.6 But the addition of incest and social meliorism to the ancient gardens opens them to the treatment of marriage and origin in terms of the exotic and assimilates the exotic to a tradition with legitimating powers.

With these adaptations, unexamined assumptions invade the ideal space. Though his novel society is ideal in being classless, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre does not risk charging his wellborn heroine, or even her humbler friend, with servile occupations; he assigns them a slave for the practical details of survival in nature, such as planting edible crops, channeling the waterways, terracing the mountain. When he is old enough, Paul, the former servant’s child, helps out, but only by introducing and caring for ornamental plants that carry affective meanings, such as the flowers that symbolize Virginie: “Paul had embellished what the Negro Dominique could but cultivate” (p. 42). We are thus left not only with a separation of classes and occupations but also with the “naturalization” of slavery and the reintroduction of the superfluous, which Rousseau abhorred but which Bernardin depicts as the proper sphere of the gentleman. Slowly, as we watch, the valley becomes less of an alternative to the society that writes it.

The history of the valley and its small society is told at two removes; the narrator tells the story he heard from an old man after the valley had already been destroyed and its inhabitants were dead or dispersed. The narrator, who keeps silent after the initial question that elicits the tale, represents a decadent Europe, and he has much to learn from the old man, an inhabitant of the island, who knows that paradise was destroyed because it could not absorb the intrusion of history and civilization (Vasanti Heerallal, “Ouverture et cloture,” p. 88). The reader knows from the initial description of two ruined huts that the attempted paradise did not survive and that only the power of writing can bring it to life, that it exists only at the moment of reading, as an imaginary—or a theoretical—construct. We know, then, from the beginning that the enclosure where Paul and Virginie grew up in innocence was breached. Innocence and enclosure play on images of the New World as paradise, existing in pure time before it too was propelled into history. But two modifications of the pattern are significant: first, that its inhabitants are refugees from Europe whose innocence is not original but recovered and, second, in an odd displacement of responsibility, that a fugitive slave is the first intruder. When the children leave the enclosure to take the slave back to the plantation she had fled (their “natural” upbringing prompting them to respect property rights), they become aware of the injustices of colonization in other parts of their island, the cruelty of the exploitation of land and person upon which it is based, and the historical face of their own garden. Outside the valley, in the world of colonization, it is symbolically appropriate that the two children of nature are no longer fed and sheltered unproblematically by the land itself. Hungry and thirsty only a few feet from a fruit tree and a spring, they have to be rescued by a sortie from the valley. And thus ends their first contact with the rest of the world.

A visit from the governor of the island to inspect their settlement breaches their enclosure in a different way, indicating that their paradise can exist only insofar as it is sanctioned by the customary authorities. Though the novel treats these contacts as marginal to the argument, absorbed like a stone by a lake, it implies that the continuation of the idyllic life of the valley depends on the tolerance—or protection—of an external power aligned with the authority of history, not nature. On the margins of the tale, these contacts draw the boundaries of the two women’s experiment and redraw cultural limits they had set out to exceed. The intrusions underscore, in addition to the valley’s isolation, its fragility, on sufferance from other forms of colonization and finally at the mercy of the society around it.

But the problematic nature of the alternative society in the valley is clearest and its frailty in concept and execution is most evident when the absence that grounds it, rather than the authority that surrounds it, begins to insist on representation. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre can permit sexuality in his paradise only in characters who are excluded as carriers of culture, such as the slave and his wife, or he can allow carriers of culture to fulfill the function culturally ascribed to the sexuality of women—which is to produce and nurture children—while barring them from sexual expression. Just as the visits from the authorities draw the boundaries of the experiment from the outside, sexuality recalls the participants from inside the physical confines of the valley. Rousseau makes explicit provision for Emile’s sexual development, offering information, exercise, and a wife at the appropriate times and acknowledging the role that controlled sexuality plays in the organization and preservation of societies (book 4); but Bernardin de Saint-Pierre tries to suppress the sexual, deflecting it into the perception of the landscape or the intensity of the relationship between Paul and Virginie.7

The crisis in the novel arrives when the sexual development of the two children reestablishes an explosive relation between time and history, held in abeyance during their childhood. The valley had attempted, almost successfully, to exist outside history, but the tale cannot evade time, since its argument is the development of two children who eventually must leave childhood, seen as asexual and therefore timeless, and come to the age when they can contribute to the physical succession of generations. At that moment the valley opens up to both culture and history, which ideally it had existed to oppose.

In particular, Virginie’s maturation marks not only the beginning of her individuation but also the end of the paradisiacal state. It is presented as a dramatic event that shakes up the moral and causal presuppositions till then grounding the action. Full of vague fears and longings, uncomfortable in her skin, the adolescent Virginie goes to her mother, who, instead of enlightening her about what Rousseau might have recognized as the “natural” development of her body, recommends prayer.8 Still restless, the girl goes to bathe in “her” fountain. As the cool water soothes her hot limbs, a fearful storm breaks over the valley, mixing earth and waters, tearing up trees, destroying terraces, sweeping away the work done in the time of the children’s innocence, and returning the valley to a pre-Edenic state of chaos.9

Rousseau had correlated corrupting civilization with early puberty (Emile, book 4), and while praising the innocent ignorance that allows even physically mature rustic youths to play familiarly together without thought of sex, he is quite conscious that the capacity to generate children introduces a child into the social world from which an educational garden could insulate him. Consequently, unlike the adult characters in Paul et Virginie, Rousseau provides for the onset of puberty in his pupil, determining that he be told the details of the “facts of life” by the age of nine (and if not, that they be kept from him until he is precisely sixteen). The tutor does not, as has been pointed out, try to make of Emile a pure child of nature (now in another sense of pure) but only to make sure that, prepared for life in civil society, he would not be deprived by a faulty, alienating upbringing of the advantages and virtues that had been enjoyed by humans in the hypothetical time, described in the Discours sur l'inégalité, before they banded together in a society that would regulate their impulses, including their sexuality.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre modifies his master’s scheme in two important ways: he posits the valley as the realm of nature rather than a controlled environment where the elements of civilization are introduced in a rational sequence for a certain end, and he adds the theme of fraternal love between the children. They nurse from both mothers, as if either could have given birth to either child; they sleep in the same bed, innocent as puppies. This very stress on their innocence, however, prepares the introduction of the incest motif, defined simply by contiguity, since the children are not in any way consanguineous; incest, then, overlies the theme of class exogamy of which they are the products and whose value and legitimacy their marriage would confirm. Thus Bernardin de Saint-Pierre endows their story with a double dose of prurience which is allowed fullest course and made even spicier by the continuous insistence of the text on the purity of the two young people, that is, their ignorance of both the sexual and the social taboo. Hinrich Hudde attributes a good part of the novel’s popularity to an almost willful misreading, which concentrates on the “topos of an innocent, naive love, conditioned solely by nature,” while it is perfectly aware of the “clear erotic representation of sexuality wrapped in the garments of a love between children” (p. 227).10 One can note also that Virginie’s “difficulties,” as Schulze discreetly puts it (p. 132), marking the point where the perpetuation of the society in the valley becomes biologically possible, foreground the sexual, which had remained implicit between the children or been excluded for the mothers, and directly link the sexual and the social. It is when the children, whose existence and whose presence in the valley are a consequence of the social evaluation of their mothers’ choices of partner, come themselves to the point of possible choice that the valley is revealed as representing not nature but the establishment of culture. This redefinition changes the import of the first part of the tale, which now appears to deny sexuality itself rather than the taboos that an unjust society places on it or the arbitrary directions into which that society tries to force it.

Trapped between the denial imposed on the mothers and the immaturity to which it is condemned in their children, charged like the original inhabitants of the New World with representing the natural, an innocent sexuality appears as an obstacle to the establishment of the ideal society, rather than its vivifying principle. Moreover, insofar as “the natural” is identified with the New World, with its physical as well as its human landscape, the very promise of radical reconstruction of European society which is its principal ideological attraction is invalidated, hollowed out when the work of culture is obliterated as soon as it has to confront the forces from which it derives its redemptive charge, when the natural is revealed not as the redeemer but as the opponent of the cultural.

Incest appears under two guises in Paul et Virginie. In the first part, it is one of the possibilities of sexual combination in a presocial world where it could not yet have become taboo and culture forming; at the close, it is a sign of the decadence of a culture, of the end of a civilization (Hudde, p. 223). But the theme of incest in Paul et Virginie also stands in opposition to the socially exogamous marriages of the two mothers, their difficult attempt to wed difference. Such an oscillation between the poles of extreme endogamy and extreme exogamy, with their respective promises and perils, is one of the important legacies of Paul et Virginie to the New World literature of national consciousness. The positions taken regarding these perils and promises are often characteristic elements in the different literatures, correlating with ideologically important premises about the relation between colonizers and colony or colonized, between nature and culture, myth and history. They determine the definition of difference from the metropoles and play semantic games with the socially based notion of legitimacy.

The coincidence between the havoc in the elements and the sexual maturity of the two young people has further implications. The children do not quite know what is happening to them, but their mothers do. For Virginie’s mother the change in the children produces a change in attitude: she who had tried to flee the bonds of class and property becomes, as she is of the higher class, the guardian of female virtue by which class and property are preserved and transmitted.11 Previously, she has been content to do without money, status, and manners (defined as an artificial overlay on natural acts), the value-laden markers of distance from the natural immediately invoked in any discussion of social woman’s (or man's) principled flight from the state of society. Suddenly, however, when Virginie reaches puberty, she decides that her daughter cannot marry the companion of her childhood because, of a 11 things, he would not have enough money to keep her. The moral sanction for this strange preoccupation with money, than which nothing would have seemed less necessary in the enchanted valley, materializes with the arrival of a missionary carrying news of Virginie’s inheritance: “God be praised! You are now rich” (p. 87). So it is determined that Virginie will be educated in the ways of the world at its center, Paris, and off she sails to claim her “place.” That place is not the island refuge of the women and children who had been made unhappy in society but that same society, to be conquered by learning the languages of money, manners, and history.

The destruction of the valley makes it seem as if the world of nature itself were expelling Virginie. Like the writers of the first accounts of the New World, Bernardine de Saint-Pierre cannot conceive of the sexual as natural. The sexual must express itself in culture; it is a necessity that becomes indisputable, whose denial is unimaginable, if it is presented in terms of the sexuality of women. Thus it is Virginie who must leave the island. The novel, however, unwilling to abandon the dream of a new beginning, remains there. And as it continues to write the unlettered island, it makes Virginie introduce into the plot both the control of sexuality and the theme of writing in the form of letters from civilization. One of these offers, among expression of the girl’s unhappiness, the trope of the inversion of values by which Paris becomes a “land of savages” (p. 97) and even a sketch of the recurrent theme of classical comedy, the unsuccessful wooing of the young heroine by an old suitor. The two themes identify Virginie, on one hand, with the clear-eyed New World critic of the decadent Old World and, on the other, with an even more traditional character in a characteristic Old World genre of social criticism.

Meanwhile, under the guidance of our narrator’s informant, Paul too is forcibly educated into civilization. While Virginie writes, he is advised to read. Reading, writing, history had been banned from the valley: “Never had useless sciences caused their tears to flow; never had the lessons of a sad morality filled them with boredom” (pp. 18–19). Now, however, Paul must read history and geography, which disgust him; fashionable novels, whose morality horrifies him; and also Fénélon’s Télémaque and novels about the states of the soul, where he finds a model for behavior and the means to express the consciousness of self newly imposed on him by the shattering of his childhood world. Unlike Emile, whose book learning comes at a point when all his other abilities and experiences have prepared him to establish a critical distance beteen himself and the society of which they speak, Paul is made unhappy by these newly acquired lights, with which he prepares himself to be worthy of a finished and polished Virginie (p. 116).

But the intrusion of European civilized values is not limited just to the sudden necessity for literacy, history, and intellectual unhappiness on the island. With her letters, Virginie sends packets of French seeds and invades the very realm of nature. The flowers she sends are full of the meanings of European gardens and do not thrive in the valley, despite Paul’s care. They languish, but they also displace the original flora and daub the valley with the worst of both worlds. Thus, reading and gardening, Paul prepares himself for the return of a sophisticated Virginie for whom the simplicity of their upbringing, initially presented to him and to the readers as sufficient for the renewal of society, is no longer enough. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre forces Paul to participate in the artificiality of Virginie’s cruel and alienating Parisian education, as if he were not convinced, finally, that a truly human life is possible without Paris. And the reading, which takes too much of Paul’s time and makes him miserable but with which he turns himself into a fit companion for the new Virginie, keeps him from the work that would assure their subsistence in the garden. In short, this part of the novel buries the arcadian vision of the New World and invalidates its image as Eden, as a place where the curse on work does not apply—a remission naturalized overtly by all the early reports on the bounty the New World awards to those who seek it and covertly by the slaves who produce that bounty, also noted in early reports of New World settlements.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre handles the categories of nature and culture deftly, successively estranging and refamiliarizing emotions and activities in one or the other of them. Thus he rescues from the alienation Rousseau had diagnosed and decried the European project of domesticating the part of the world it had assigned to the realm of nature. The pleasure of shaping a garden, that innocent place between nature and culture, “naturalizes” the transformation of nature into culture. In other matters, however, the attempt to reconcile nature and culture runs into its own internal contradictions, evident in the choices and exclusions it must effect. The language in which the events are told is necessarily that of a culture, but the various relays through which they reach us veil the cultural foundation through translation, first from pure event into ordered narrative, operated by the old man who tells the story to the novel’s narrator, and then from oral to written narrative, as the narrator transforms the tale into the novel we hold. The relays distance the audience from the event, but the chosen language neutralizes the distance, erasing the boundary between myth and history. First Bernardin refers us to a myth of origin sufficiently familiar not to call attention to itself, whose timeless terms are the circular garden, the innocence of two children, the bounty of trees and rain, the waters that make it fertile. At the same time, he writes the language of history, as in his recreation of origins, of the point in the development of societies when an error—not a sin—crept in and skewed what should have been progress and enlightenment. The story thus blurs any distinctions between its references to myth and to history as it locates the origin of that error in a New World that occupied in European consciousness the place where nature, myth, culture, history—and fiction—separated themselves into distinct entities from a seeming unity.

Though criticism can point out these opposing terms of myth and history, culture and nature, work and pleasure, error and innocence as they appear in the creation of the island garden and in the development of its inhabitants, however, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre attempts to force the reading of his island as an instance of harmony and purity by avoiding the articulation of such terms as the Fall, sensuality, money, or redemption, whose presence denies island innocence but also mediates between that innocence and readerly experience. Silencing these oppositions still present in the text seems a costless way to avoid the perception of conflict and disharmony in a society invented to escape them. In effect, however, as with the silence on slavery, this absence makes it impossible to imagine survival in the terms in which the story is organized.

For instance, part of the novel’s charm lies in its successful combination of myth and science—that emerging modern discourse of power over nature—embodied in the careful, precise botanical account of the Garden of Eden, with the implied promise to actualize in a geographically identifiable locality the delights thought lost in an irrecoverable past. But another part lies in the guarantee of nonactualization, which is also a guarantee against disproof, introduced by the author with the fault he places in the system: Virginie’s puberty. Nature beckons with a promise of abolishing alienating social rules, but the biological fact of puberty carries along with it all the rules governing the exchange of sexual partners and, implicitly, the transmission of culture. Up to that point the myth of paradise is sufficient for the continuity and interest of the tale, masking, because it is a structure so habitual, the mediating role it plays between culture and nature. But that story, too, breaks up at the irruption of sexuality, at the introduction, with the notion of successive generations, of historical time. When the myth of paradise explodes, the need for mediators, previously denied in the interest of wholeness, becomes inescapable. At precisely that point money appears in the valley, with Virginie’s inheritance, perceived as good not only by the governor of the island but also by Virginie’s mother, Mme de la Tour. Then books make their appearance too, presenting the continuity of human culture in the form of history and the codification of human social behavior in the form of manners.12

At this juncture in the progress of the love between the two young people the tale shows again how difficult it is to write a human society according to rules different from those that make the writing possible, even if, according to the system of values expressed in the narration, those rules are destructive. The attempt to imagine a “natural” coupling abuts against two limit situations: either it brings to light the ultimate meaning of absorption into nature, which is the loss of what makes the characters human, and also implies the loss of identity and consciousness with which to tell the tale of a return to nature; or it leads not to the absence of culture but to the rupture of necessary constraints, to its destruction in the breach of the incest taboo, the brother-sister relationship between Paul and Virginie having been instituted as fundamental to the establishment of a paradise on the tropical island.

Virginie’s return to marry Paul and to replicate on the island the fundamental rules of the society from which it was to be a refuge threatens the validity of the definition of paradise established in the first part of the tale as well as the fundamental rule against incest on which social life is based. Rather than allow that, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre sacrifices his protagonists. As Virginie’s ship approaches the island, a terrible storm arises. In her long white dress, she stands on deck and looks up to heaven for help, refusing a sailor’s offer to swim with her to shore if only she will disencumber herself of some of her garments. She'd rather die than dive naked into the elements, than divest herself of the dress that, by covering them, signifies taboo areas of the body and sanctions its division into public and private, social and natural. Virginie’s refusal just to take off her dress and be saved like a sensible girl may seem overwrought,13 but her shame signals the introduction of the social into nature, the consciousness of the eyes of the other upon the self, the need for the rupture that is a sign of the human.

This revelation of a deadly contradiction within the exotic troubles the novel’s otherwise more cheerful approach to exoticism, its specific intention to create a fictional language capable of doing justice to the reality of unknown landscapes. In Voyage à l’Ile de France, Bernardin criticizes other travelers (I might mention Columbus) for their ineptitude at describing landscapes: they are too general; their mountains have nothing but foot, sides, and summit; there is no word about the specific shapes of those sides, their caves, their slopes, their rounded forms.14 These foot-sides-summit descriptions are enough, of course, to recall mountains already known to the reader through a literary tradition in which the sketchiest indications suffice to evoke the appropriate images and meanings, but the mountains of Bernardin’s tropical islands are as yet meaningless, and his rivals are simply preempting the emergence of a system of significations when they write in conventional signs, while the New World, a potentiality crying for actualization, needs these new systems. Bernardin’s strategy, befitting a naturalist, is to use his botanical observations of the natural world of the tropics to create a general but precisely denotative vocabulary, which carries the sign of scientific truth and accuracy while documenting the unknown. His descriptions thus become a way of making the unfamiliar familiar while impressing readers with the accuracy and authenticity of his discourse on the unknown, so that critics can praise the fidelity with which he describes something they have never seen. Thus he contributes to making the exotic into one of the available categories of common discourse.

But Paul et Virginie also functions as a modern novel of sensibility; it uses exoticism to express a contemporary, entirely nonexotic cultural condition. With delightful and tearful pathos the novel reaffirms social rules and reassures readers with its unacknowledged punishment for an unmentioned transgression. The delicacy of Virginie, her long, white, flowing robes, her birds and flowers, her semifraternal relationship with Paul—innocence veined with passion, the iridescence of incest offering forbidden fruit in the purest language—and finally the deaths at the end of the novel follow and modify European literary fashion and serve European needs. The incest theme, for instance, allows for a peculiar negation of sexuality: games between siblings must not be sensual, which means that they are not, in fact, sensual; the desire for innocence becomes a denial of sensuality which, in turn, opposes the ruleless sensuality of natural man, that which would be found at the end of the constant search for origins in which the century engaged.

The play on the limits of incest (forbidden endogamy) and marriage with the alien humanity that inhabits the other shore of the Atlantic (feared exogamy, which promises both conquest and dissolution) appeared first in the literature about the New World and then in the literatures of the New World as questions about the definition and valuation of the newly constituted nations as hybrid or alien. More immediately, however, the attention to botanical detail and the doomed love plot of the novel ground the exotic in scientific observation and wrap it in fictional cliche, containing it and limiting it on all sides like the liqueur in a bonbon. In the process, the tropical landscape becomes more than just decoration. An integral part of the meaning, it refers to the search for renewal which is an important element in the culture where the novel originates, and it brings into a fictional discourse received as attuned to the demands of the time, the possibilities opened for it in the New World. But it also shows the limits of the imagination confronted with a new world to be spoken in realistic terms. The scientific description of fauna, flora, and geology places these novels of the New World between the purely imaginary utopias to which the discoveries had given rise and the travel literature that, at least officially, concerned itself with the truth about the new lands.

Like the philosophical discourse of Rousseau, these fictions about the New World naturalized its otherness. They made the exotic familiar and created a necessary language in which to speak of it, but at the same time, they robbed the new of the unfamiliarity that till then had been part of its attraction and its meaning. On their exotic island, Paul and Virginie promise that upon such as they a new society can be built. In their new world the ills of the old, its class divisions, its use of and devotion to money and possessions, and its education that distorts children for life in a distorted world can be corrected. At the same time, however, the exoticism of the island shades over into a primitivism that, through the incest theme, casts doubt on whether a new society built on these premises can be an alternative form of culture at all or simply the negation of culture. The determination of the plot by the irruptions into the valley of sexuality, class, money, and reading indicates that the specific forms of resource distribution in a society—its kinship systems, its social structure, its manners and morals—draw the limits of their members’ imagination, of what is speakable and thinkable within it, at least within discourse sufficiently disseminable to be able to modify its forms of thinking and speaking. It is a paradox expressed when eighteenth-century morality destroys the valley that promises it moral regeneration: however else, in decency, could a young woman have behaved?

Paul et Virginie is a European elegy for the possibility of establishing a renewed culture in an empty New World. Unfolding, as one critic has put it, from the suggestion of a pastoral at the beginning, it “modulates slowly into a triumphal funeral march celebrating the removal of the inevitable human corruption from a clean, green world” (Cherpak, p. 254). In this respect, it comes to express precisely the opposite mood from that which the New World deems appropriate to its own writing, while it also legitimates a literature about the not yet civilized. It is, in fact, this legitimation of the primitive as a proper subject for mainstream literature that becomes the heritage of the novel. As Hudde shows, its successors are set wherever the primitive is thought to be found—in the wilds of Scotland or in the inaccessible mountains of Switzerland (pp. 167, 105). In other words, though the novel makes it appropriate to value the primitive and to write of it and thus becomes a precursor of novels where the primitive is home rather than the exotic, it also demands that novels which are at home in the exotic operate a transvaluation; their task is to convince readers that the clean, green world can blossom into societies existing on their own terms and not in need of a Parisian education to cleanse their riches. Theirs is also the task of grafting onto new institutions the Lumières that had saddened Paul and, conversely, to introduce their writing into the history books whose accounts had made Paul unhappy. They could not, nevertheless, without cutting themselves off from their public, dismiss the happy valleys or invent another language of the plants and animals to be found there, for fear those strange shapes, colors, and sizes of the natural world would immediately overwhelm the senses and frustrate the public’s imagination.

Once again, Marmontel’s Incas offers an instructive contrast to the text under study, for it focuses directly on the work of Europe in the New World. Paul et Virginie is simply set on a tropical island; the valley is essentially a tabula rasa, where any form of social organization could in principle be set up and which in fact abuts on other, negatively valued new settlements. Les Incas however, by acknowledging the presence of the other in the conquered land, can deal with the moral problems of settlement. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre posits a new form of social and moral organization but is incapable of imagining one that does not either include or just directly oppose what he and his public know as the particular civilization of a decadent Europe in need of rehabilitation, which they take for granted as signifying civilization in general. But in Les Incas the civilization of Europe is given another chance on its own terms. Amerindians are assimilated to figures of a European past defined as politically, ethically, and socially—but not technically and religiously—superior to that of contemporary Europe. Yet for Marmontel the peopling of America is strictly a chapter in the moral and political history of Europe, and if he sees the new lands as offering redemption, he is under no illusion about the frailty of the chance, nor is he desirous of making that opportunity into a flight from European history or a negation of European civilization. He thus writes a political and historical drama to serve as a tool of reason in its war against fanaticism and against the darkening of the intellect by the subordination of religion to greed and to the lust for power. His appeal did not go unheard. Both Rousseau and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre mention Les Incas as a moral benchmark. But their own writings take an entirely different road, and theirs, not Marmontel’s writings, became seminal in the formation of a discourse of the New World by the New World. Their probes of the “states of the soul,” as in the books that Paul finally learned to enjoy, became dominant. Set in the New World, their works legitimated the use of the New World and made it possible for American successors to appropriate these “states of the soul” for a national exotic self. They presented American writers with the double challenge of reconquering the territory they had covered, recreating the people they had turned into exempla, and reshaping the language in which their lands had been spoken.


1 Hinrich Hudde tracks the progeny of Paul et Virginie both in Europe and in the United States, mentioning, among the better-known followers of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Chateaubriand, Balzac, Flaubert, both Dumases, and Poe (Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, pp. 167–90). Jean-Marie Goulemot sketches out the publishing history of the novel, noting that even if the number of editions was not exceptional (twenty-one between 1788 and 1795), its diffusion was: there were not only Parisian but also many provincial editions, a number of foreign editions, expensive illustrated editions and cheap popular ones, expurgated editions for the use of children, and special Catholic editions ("L'histoire littéraire en question,” pp. 208–9). He also mentions the appearance of Virginie haircuts and of dinner plates and fire screens decorated with scenes from the novel. Like Cooper’s novels, Paul et Virginie was eventually consigned to the shelves of children’s literature.

2 See Hudde, pp. 109–12 for a discussion of the exotic component of French romanticism. Affonso Arinos de Mello Franco mounts an extended argument to show the effect of information about Brazilian Indians not only on Rousseau’s theories but also on the political ideas and historical events of the French Revolution (O Indio brasileiro e a Revolução francesa). His book belongs in a long line of works that affirm the validity of American civilization by showing cultural influences crossing the Atlantic in both directions. American efforts to assert this mutuality are as characteristic as European denial of or hostility to the idea.

3 For a description of this room, see Hudde, p. 108. Many of the essays Jean-Michel Racault has collected in Etudes sur “Paul et Virginie" take it as given that the novel accurately represents the island of Mauritius and makes the island known and valued in “world literature.” Raymond Hein researches all the facts about the sinking of the actual ship on which Virginie was traveling back to her island home (he naufrage du St. Géran).

4 Marie-Claire Vallois reads the novel entirely in relation to contemporary French politics and culture and thus as part of a concerted effort to contain the power of women unleashed during the French Revolution. She discusses what happens to Virginie as an exotic and feminine other, restrained and contained through the novel by the force of a male self, just as the women of the Revolution were restrained by the Napoleonic Code ("Exotic Femininity and the Rights of Man,” pp. 183–86). She does not quite fold into her argument the restraining role of Virginie’s mother or the fate of Paul; she implies that the women were in fact among savages (p. 182). But in showing how tightly the text is interwoven with French culture, Vallois also indirectly indicates how carefully an adaptation to the former colonies’ aims would have to navigate among its implications.

5 Jean-Michel Racault fits the novel into the popular eighteenth-century genre of the pastoral, noting its similarities to Marmontel’s Annette et Lubin, which tells of the innocent love between a shepherd and a shepherdess who are cousins; she gets pregnant and cannot understand why everyone is so shocked and why the church prohibits their excessively consanguineous marriage; in the end they are granted a dispensation and live happily ever after ("Pastorale et roman dans Paul et Virginie,” in Etudes, ed. Racault, pp. 180–81). The differences, however, some of which Racault mentions, are important also: they show that on the formal level the fiction of the exotic adapts popular genres to its own purposes and that on the thematic level it treats matters too problematic for easy resolution by decree from a recognized authority.

6 Joachim Schulze, “Das Paradies auf dem Berge,” p. 126. Schulze (p. 130) notes that Paul and Virginie are compared to Adam and Eve before the Fall (Paul et Virginie, p. 80) and also calls attention to Pierre Trahard’s edition of the novel, which makes reference to the garden in La nouvelle Héloïse (pt. 4, letters 11 and 17), as well as to Les jardins, a didactic poem by Jacques Delille.

7 Hudde speaks of the “uterus- . . . like character of the space” the women occupy on the island (p. 41). Though his main argument tends in a different direction, Clifton Cherpak notes that the two women, “especially Mme de la Tour . . . prevent Paul and Virginie from living a natural life of work and sexuality,” without, however, considering the cultural component of all definitions of what is “natural” ("Paul et Virginie and the Myths of Death,” p. 251).

8 Despite Rousseau’s open references to and pedagogical interest in the sexual maturation of Emile, however, no parallel care is taken with the development of his assigned ideal mate, Sophie, who is left to sort out the vicissitudes of her maturation by means of an ethicoliterary infatuation with Fénélon’s Télémaque.

9 In all gardens, of course, including that of Eden, nature has already undergone at least one instance of mediation by culture; the reference to any garden as “natural” is by definition self-contradictory. Ingrid Kislink notes that the Elysée, Julie’s garden in La nouvelle Héloïse, “represents nature as reconstructed by a rational being” (p. 330); it does not institute an opposition between nature and culture but is “a place where nature and culture . . . unite to form a harmonious whole” (p. 354).

10 Hudde also calls attention to various bowdlerizations of Paul et Virginie, indirect proof that the public is quite aware of the novel’s erotic, even “decadent” content (pp. 228–29).

11 Ingrid Kislink remarks on the change in Mme de la Tour and its importance for the continuity of the valley community but describes it in moral terms as a “lack of sincerity” (p. 366).

12 Vallois shows that the irruption of letters is more literal still, inscriptions being engraved directly on the natural world (p. 193). I shall return to this motif in the next chapter.

13 Madelyn Gutwirth is not the only one to call that “apogee” of Virginie’s life “ludicrous.” She sees its uncritical presentation and enthusiastic reception as indications that it responds to some otherwise unspoken but fundamental bases of common belief, specifically, that female power must be contained ("The Engulfed Beloved,” pp. 215, 216).

14 See Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’Ile de France, p. 254, cited by Wilhelm Lusch, in Chateaubriand in seinem Verhältnis zu Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, p. 153.

Additional Information

ISBN
9781501726057
Related ISBN
9781501726064
MARC Record
OCLC
1057688720
Pages
101-120
Launched on MUSE
2018-04-06
Language
English
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-ND
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