Mixed messages: the problematic pursuit of individuality in novels by Maupassant, the Goncourt, and Flaubert
Nineteenth-century scholars believed in the possibility of isolating hereditary and environmental factors that would explain human behavior. Not only did these deterministic theories dominate the sciences, but they also had a profound effect on nineteenth-century literary production. The nineteenth century proclaimed the value of the individual and the possibility of personal transcendence. For writers of this period—Maupassant, the Goncourt brothers, and Flaubert in particular—the pursuit of individuality translated into a commitment to originality and artistic literary production. However, these same writers felt threatened by the new pressures of capitalism and struggled against the temptation to write for the consumer rather than purely for the sake of art. This tension between the desire for individuality and the obstacles to its actualization manifested itself in several ways in the lives and works of these novelists. In the character construction of protagonists, the novels of this period expose the illusion of individuality as their narratives unfold. There is evidence of the characters being significantly shaped by the society in which they live, while at the same time, they are shown to be oblivious to this influence. In the narrative structure, one can detect hybrid or deviant forms of traditional genres within these novels as evidence of the ways in which the authors were shaped by the past and present from which they emerged. These reappropriated genres function as aesthetic resolutions of the social contradiction being worked through in the narrative, namely the valorization of individuality in a society that impeded its actualization. In Maupassant’s Une Vie and Bel-Ami, the Goncourt’s Charles Demailly and Madame Gervaisais, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and L’Éducation sentimentale, the epic, melodramatic, and tragic heroes of the past have been dispossessed of the meaning that society had formerly assigned to its members and have evolved into the problematic protagonists of the nineteenth-century novel, whose pursuit of meaning has become the quest that defines them.
School:The Ohio State University
School Location:USA - Ohio
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:maupassant goncourt flaubert individuality genre determinism
Date of Publication:01/01/2004