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Reading: Journeys around Maupassant: Destination and Designation in French Naturalist Fiction


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Research article

Journeys around Maupassant: Destination and Designation in French Naturalist Fiction


Nicholas White

Royal Holloway, University of London, GB
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Nicholas White’s article leads the reader into the ambiguities of metaphorical spaces. When looking at texts by male authors (including Maupassant, Zola, Huysmans, Flaubert) and their complex notions of travel, White sees travel writing as dramatising ‘the challenge to imaginative writing to take the readers where they have not been’.

Challenging an alleged ‘lack of alterity’ in local journeys (Tzvetan Todorov), White considers ‘the very charm of alterity’ in nineteenth century writing. Maupassant’s story En voyage (1882) serves as an example of rising doubts about the ‘feasibility of travel writing in general’. White argues that the matter of writing is more important than the journey itself, both when looking at this text, which suggests that the process of telling is more significant than the story told, and when looking at Bel-Ami, in which male adventures are brought to the reader by a female voice. However, following Todorov, White argues, that ideological self-awareness in literary analysis should aim at avoiding the temptations of metaphoricity which conflate journeys and writings. At the same time, the etymology of the term ‘metaphor’ in which concepts of displacement and reference collapse renders the ‘resistance to the metaphorical potential of travel’ ambiguous.

The paper shows how concepts of ‘fictionalised journeys’ or ‘travel writing’ infiltrated each other in the nineteenth century. Zola’s images of Paris in L’Assommoir, for instance, make the very alterity of a geographically and socially segregated city visible. Here journeys beyond the tourist trail confront the travellers with the unfamiliar realm of alangue du peuple and undermine any possibility of a panoramic authority. Realist as well as naturalist narratives which aim to guide through a ‘novelistic universe’ set out to see everything, like contemporary guidebooks; both share, as White argues, an ‘epistemological fantasy of total knowledge’. Decadent aesthetics, in contrast, purveying pleasure through words and their connotations, undercut such referential functions. Thus their evocation of exoticism should not be conflated with the fetishization of maps, found in realist and naturalist accounts, when, for instance, Emma Bovary’s journeys on the map are represented as a ‘delirium of desire’. Here, White argues, it is the ‘tyranny of metaphor’, which cuts the woman off from the ‘realm of male adventure’. White presents Hennique’s L’Accident de Monsieur Hébert(Monsieur Hébert's Accident) as another journey through the mind, in which map reading comes close to madness. Questions about the ‘ways in which language maps’ are raised by Zola’s tale Pot-Bouille (Pot Luck).

Reflections on the ‘interplay of private and public scenarios’ conclude the paper. A comparative reading of different scenarios in nineteenth-century carriages follows the gaze of, amongst others, Flaubert, Maupassant and Zola. However, confronted with Maupassant’s ‘reworking’ of a ‘set sex scene’, the reader might wonder how ‘fantasies of knowledge’ can overcome scepticism about referentiality as well as doubts about the feasibility of ‘seducing readers who are not party to the events’. Here the very interplay between forms of ‘bourgeois imagination about the dangers of travel’ and ‘set’ generic conventions of representation, triggers off the question, does Maupassant’s carriage really take us somewhere we have not been before?

How to Cite: White, N. “Journeys around Maupassant: Destination and Designation in French Naturalist Fiction”. New Readings, vol. 5, 2000, pp. [66–80]. DOI:
Published on 01 Jan 2000.
Peer Reviewed


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