Illusive spaces: women and the cliché of the natural in Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant
Yost, Matthew Joshua
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One of the more pervasive clichés regarding women in late nineteenth-century French literature is the commonplace that treats social spaces as metaphors for the women who inhabit them. An idea inherited from older traditions that trace their roots back to the Middle Ages, this commonplace often appears as a parallel drawn between women and the social spaces (often a garden or other “natural” setting) ascribed to them. Émile Zola and Guy de Maupassant both make extensive use of this commonplace. While some recent research, Heidi Brevik-Zender’s book Fashioning Spaces: Mode and Modernity in late Nineteenth Century France (2015) for instance, has examined the phenomenon of women and social spaces, thus far the focus has been on Paris and the urban setting. Less work has been done on women and their “natural” spaces. This dissertation examines Émile Zola’s La Faute de l’abbé Mouret (1875), where the garden of the Paradou becomes an explicit metaphor for the body of the novel’s central female character, Albine. In Zola, the garden functions as an “other” space that at first appears to underscore woman’s difference from man. Zola, meanwhile, undermines this insistence on difference. Guy de Maupassant, in his short stories Miss Harriet and “Première neige” and in his first novel, Une Vie (all published for the first time in 1883) represents the notions of separate male and female space as entirely illusory constructs that disguise the male domination that obtains nearly everywhere. While Maupassant’s short fiction shows a pessimistic outlook on correcting this “problem,” his novel, Une Vie, proposes a radical solution, based in non-traditional family structures and female homosociality. I conclude this study by looking more broadly at the pervasiveness of the femino-spatial cliché with reference to examples from contemporary culture.