The French novels Rene by Francois- Rene de Chateaubriand and A Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans are curiously related. I say curiously as they were written some eighty-two years apart, which is quite a separation for a school of literary thought to be represented. To be more accurate, there is a nominal distinction between the two. Rene is considered a more naturalist work, while A Rebours moved slightly away from that movement into the decadent style. In reality, both do share the most telling detail of the period: that of the minutely detailed elements of setting and situation.
Moreover, the greatest comparison can be made through the stories of the two main characters. Quite simply put, Rene and Jean des Esseintes could be the same character. They are distant relatives of the same situation. The two primary points of comparison between the protagonists of these works are a serious disgust with the life around them and a desire to end their own lives, although this latter point is somewhat subtle and not what immediately comes to mind when reading the phrase. Both Rene and Esseintes experience a personal disappointment with the life of society around them.
For Rene this unhappiness became part of his life from the earliest of stages, perhaps stemming from the death of his mother giving birth to him. Certainly the foreboding character of his father did not help to settle him much, either. For Esseintes, the relative melancholy began also in childhood to young adulthood. He came from a once noble family and finds himself the final member, left to carry on the name. However, this also makes for him a very lonely life, with no companionship but his thoughts and memories.
In this sense, then, it is easy to see the early similarities of the protagonists. Faced with life’s failures, the two set off to resolve their thoughts and feelings and to experience some sort of satisfaction. This they do with a striking sameness. Rene attempts to fill his life with exploration of the world. He shall, he believes, find satisfaction and even inspiration by seeing the great sights. This brings him to Greece and Rome first – but the scenes of their destructions, their ruins only bring on a greater sense of reflective loss.
He flees and escapes to Scotland, then, hoping that the bard/poet Ossian will vicariously show him greatness of society. This too, fails, as does one subsequent trip to the historical areas of Italy. He is crushed; his trying to fill his life with classic explorations only brings him down further. Esseintes, too, tries to fill the void with classical undertakings. He turns to an exploration of literature, and schools of thought. Perhaps he will be inspired to love the world, then, as the authors and philosophers did.
Reading a broad survey of both French and Latin writings, he finds himself disagreeing with the critics of the world. On and on he reads, and continues to see himself at odds with his contemporaries. This gives him little comfort, notwithstanding the small satisfactions of being different from society. Alas, this difference only isolates him more. Both desperate by this point, the two attempt to rejoin society, to give it one more chance to work its magic on them. Rene is off to France and Esseintes to London.
This is a bold and sudden experiment for each. After spending much of the stories to this point denigrating the very world around them, they find that withdrawal just did not help. In last ditch fashion, I believe that Rene and Esseintes, having filled themselves and even girded themselves with self-reflection, were convinced that they were ready for this ultimate of efforts, that of return to the populated world. Naturally, this finds a dismal conclusion. It does not take Esseintes very long to see his self-fulfilling prophecy in bloom.
It only takes the overhearing of ‘typical Londoners’ in conversation to become convinced that they are disgusting – as disgusting as he imagined they would be – and that his place in the world is not, in fact, in the world at all. Such an end to the social voyage finds Rene. He returns to France for his undertaking and like Esseintes, finds nearly immediate revulsion. Furthermore, his sister is now unexpectedly avoiding him. Rene is completely alone. He ponders the situation:
I soon found myself more isolated in my own land than I had been in a foreign country. For a while I wanted to fling myself into a world which said nothing to me and which did not understand me. My soul, not yet worn out by any passion, sought an object to which it might be attached; but I realised I was giving more than I received. (109) Finding himself at the lowest of all points thus far, Rene is about to make a most serious decision. At this culmination of the stories, de Chateaubriand and Huysmans hitch their heroes together in one final way.
Gravely shaken by their trip back into the world around them, and having withdrawn completely to personal isolation, Rene and Esseintes choose to end their lives. The authors do so in unique fashion, one more traditionally and obviously than the other, but the results are the same if read for this. Rene openly decides to kill himself. He has had enough with the disappointments of the dwellers of society. He is not pleased by their pursuits, nor by a return to classicism in the world. He plans to commit suicide, and only through the intervention of his sister changes his mind.
Esseintes actually does manage to end his life, though not by violence. As Rene, he has had enough. Even his self-imposed exile did not work for him. Eventually he is left with a choice: physical death due to lifestyle or spiritual death by returning to society. Even as he chooses to save his health, he does so by making the choice to kill his spirit through the societal miasma. His choice to return to Paris assures his slow death. In the end, an analysis of these two works of French Literature finds the same hero under different name occupying the stories’ setting and situations.
Rene and Esseintes fight the same demons, choose the same ways to attempt to escape and then reenter the social fray, and finally decide to give up, rather than to continue this isolated and depressing existence. Quite impressively, authors Francois- Rene de Chateaubriand and Joris-Karl Huysmans create startlingly similar book ends to a nearly century long period of European writing. ? Works Cited De Chateaubriand, Francois- Rene. “Rene. ” Rene and Atala. Tr. Irving Putter. Berkely: UP, 1964. 85-123. Huysmans, Joris-Karl. A Rebours. Whitefish, MT: Ke
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