Marcel Proust, Emile Zola, and the sexual politics of the Dreyfus Affair: mocking the tradition of melodramatic epic
Appreciation of the significant comical quality of A la recherche du temps perdu grows with each passing decade. Likewise, understanding of this novel’s rich network of references to diverse literary and artistic works also grows steadily. Leading scholars have described the Recherche as a modern mock epic, and works as varied as Homer’s Odyssey and the Thousand and One Nights have been proposed as the primary intertext for the novel’s mock-epic dynamic. Such an intertext would provide structure not only for the Recherche’s abundant comedy, but also for many other aspects of this novel in which the comic vision is so pervasive. The present study suggests a different primary intertext for the Recherche. It proposes that an epic tradition born out of the French Revolution fulfills this important role in Proust’s novel. Usually called humanitarian or Romantic epic, this post-revolutionary epic tradition envisions a restoration of the religious hegemony that was permanently lost when Catholicism was violently disestablished at the height of the Revolution. Melodrama is another literary form that scholars agree was born out of the French Revolution’s religious conflict. The chief characteristics of this literary mode have been well documented over the past three decades. Yet the many similarities between melodrama and post-revolutionary epic have hardly been noticed. This study claims that humanitarian, post-revolutionary epic is melodrama’s true epic form. The sexual politics of this literary genre, renamed here “melodramatic epic,” is typically extreme; and the sexual ethic that it promotes is always highly conservative. The extreme sexual conservatism of melodramatic epic makes it the perfect comic foil for the Recherche’s exploration of sexual diversity. Ongoing nineteenth-century religious conflict in France provided a constantly renewed catalyst for the production of melodramatic epic. Such conflict peaked during the anticlerical campaign that terminated the Dreyfus Affair. This campaign produced Emile Zola’s Evangile novels, which are best viewed as melodramatic epics, and which play a vital intertextual role in Proust’s Recherche. Melodramatic epic as a genre is the primary intertext of the Recherche, thus reinforcing the view of Proust’s novel as a sophisticated modern mock epic.
School:The Ohio State University
School Location:USA - Ohio
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:marcel proust emile zola a la recherche du temps perdu evangiles verite travail fecondite comic mock epic religious conflict melodrama melodramatic romantic humanitarian dreyfus affair french revoluti
Date of Publication:01/01/2005