Cover image for Reconstructing Woman: From Fiction to Reality in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel By Dorothy Kelly

Reconstructing Woman

From Fiction to Reality in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel

Dorothy Kelly


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Penn State Romance Studies

Reconstructing Woman

From Fiction to Reality in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel

Dorothy Kelly

Reconstructing Woman is a very rich study, immensely suggestive, well researched, well written, and sophisticated in its scholarly approach. Because it is so elegantly argued and so intriguing, this study has the potential to open up new avenues of research.”


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An Open Access edition of Reconstructing Woman is available through PSU Press Unlocked. To access this free electronic edition click here. Print editions are also available.

Reconstructing Woman explores a scenario common to the works of four major French novelists of the nineteenth century: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Villiers. In the texts of each author, a “new Pygmalion” (as Balzac calls one of his characters) turns away from a real woman he has loved or desired and prefers instead his artificial re-creation of her. All four authors also portray the possibility that this simulacrum, which replaces the woman, could become real. The central chapters examine this plot and its meanings in multiple texts of each author (with the exception of the chapter on Villiers, in which only “L’Eve future” is considered).

The premise is that this shared scenario stems from the discovery in the nineteenth century that humans are transformable. Because scientific innovations play a major part in this discovery, Dorothy Kelly reviews some of the contributing trends that attracted one or more of the authors: mesmerism, dissection, transformism, and evolution, new understandings of human reproduction, spontaneous generation, puericulture, the experimental method. These ideas and practices provided the novelists with a scientific context in which controlling, changing, and creating human bodies became imaginable.

At the same time, these authors explore the ways in which not only bodies but also identity can be made. In close readings, Kelly shows how these narratives reveal that linguistic and coded social structures shape human identity. Furthermore, through the representation of the power of language to do that shaping, the authors envision that their own texts would perform that function. The symbol of the reconstruction of woman thus embodies the fantasy and desire that their novels could create or transform both reality and their readers in quite literal ways. Through literary analyses, we can deduce from the texts just why this artificial creation is a woman.

Reconstructing Woman is a very rich study, immensely suggestive, well researched, well written, and sophisticated in its scholarly approach. Because it is so elegantly argued and so intriguing, this study has the potential to open up new avenues of research.”
“Noteworthy for its exemplary clarity, this is a model academic book, well written and impeccably edited. Including an exceptionally detailed index, it will serve as an invaluable guide to these authors.”
“Through her perceptive readings and her acute understanding of science, feminism, and theories of identity, Kelly offers fresh insights into the old notion of artistic creation as male birth. Her sophisticated and important book has great potential to open up new avenues of research.”

Dorothy Kelly is Professor of French at Boston University.

Introduction: The Science of Control

Mais la civilisation, dans sa tendance à diviser le travail, a toujours abouti à créer une femme artificielle, c’est-à-dire à développer certaines aptitudes en vue d’assurer la supériorité de l’office spécial, au détriment de la valeur d’ensemble. [But civilization, in its tendency to divide labor, has always led to creation of an artificial woman, that is to say, to the development of certain abilities that guarantee the superiority of a particular function, to the detriment of the quality of the whole.]

—“Femmes,” Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences médicales, 1877

Honoré de Balzac’s Raphaël de Valentin describes himself as a new Pygmalion who transforms a lovely flesh-and-blood woman into his imaginary creation. Gustave Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau ultimately prefers his ideal reveries about Madame Arnoux to a real relationship with her. Émile Zola’s Claude Lantier neglects his wife and desires instead to give life to the women he has painted on his canvas and for whom his wife has sometimes posed. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Thomas Edison replaces Alicia Clary with a perfect android woman. In all these cases, in various ways, the real woman is replaced by man’s artificial re-creation of her.

This book looks in depth at the fantasy a male being able to create a woman in these four nineteenth-century French novelists. My premise is that this shared representation stems in part from what Mark Seltzer describes as the discovery in the nineteenth-century “that bodies and persons are things that can be made.” One of the major factors contributing to this discovery is the science of the time, and throughout the readings, we will look at selected scientific trends that attracted one or more of the authors: mesmerism, dissection, transformism and evolution, new understandings of human reproduction, spontaneous generation, puériculture, and the experimental method. These ideas and practices provided the novelists with a scientific context in which controlling, changing, and creating human bodies became imaginable. In the second part of this introduction, I pull out from this science a number of themes and structures that will inform the specific readings of the literary texts that follow in the main chapters.

The four authors studied here pursue this fantasy in different ways, but each depicts the basic scenario of creating an artificial, man-made woman who would replace a real, natural woman. In Chapter 1 a study of that new Pygmalion, Raphaël, along with five other artists, authors, or scientists with mesmeric powers (Balthazar Claës, Sarrasine, Frenhofer, Louis Lambert, and, in a more limited way, Vautrin), reveals how the literal and material power of thought and language creates, writes, human identity, and particularly woman’s identity.

In Chapter 2 the crisis of the distinction between man and animal and between man and machine in Flaubert’s texts emerges as a nodal point of conflict. Analyses of his minor and major works, which include Madame Bovary, Salammbô, L’éducation sentimentale, and his correspondence, bring out a thematic subtext that locates the origin of this crisis of distinction in woman, natural reproduction, and the mechanics of social construction. The potential of science and language to control the reshaping or creation of humans (particularly women) promises the possibility of resolving this crisis. However, Flaubert’s texts show as well the dangers involved in the attempt.

In Chapter 3 the reproductive function of woman in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series is shown to be a mechanical transmission of deleterious traits passed on through heredity. This mechanical process is expressed metaphorically in Zola’s equation of woman with the troubling aspects of an increasingly mechanized society and is embodied in the symbols of giant modern constructions described as mechanical wombs. Thus the “natural” woman figures a degenerate, tainted process of mechanical reproduction that may be cured by the work of a group of heroes (Étienne Lantier, Serge Mouret, Claude Lantier, and Pascal) who at various times shy away from natural reproduction and attempt to give birth to a new woman or a new humanity.

Chapter 4 presents a reading of L’Ève future, the science-fiction tale about Thomas Edison’s invention of a female android, together with a discussion of the ideas of a French scientist who was well known during Villiers’s time: Étienne-Jules Marey. A comparison of the experiments represented and imagined in L’Ève future with those carried out by Marey (and described in La nature, a scientific journal most likely consulted by Villiers) shows how both novelist and scientist envision the body as a kind of writing that can be recorded and thus replicated and improved.

In the Conclusion, I answer the following questions: Why did these authors imagine re-creating humans? Why re-create woman in particular? To provide these answers, I draw out common aspects of this scenario in the texts of these authors and draw on current-day analyses of nineteenth-century mechanization and attempts to control nature. I end with a theoretical look at the crucial performative function of language represented by these writers.

My critical approach is thematic in its analysis of this recurring image of man’s construction or reconstruction of an artificial woman. It also draws on several types of critical theory. First, its point of view is feminist in that it questions the reasons for and the results of this male usurpation of the reproductive power of woman. Current feminist critiques of the practice of the science of the time, as well as specific feminist readings of the texts of these authors, can enrich our understanding of this collective fantasy.

Second, Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of social construction, particularly his concept of the habitus, provide a vocabulary and structure that give access to an understanding of the construction of persons represented by these authors. For Bourdieu, habitus is a structured set of dispositions and propensities that society instills in individuals, a kind of cultural programming, a “diffuse and continuous socialization.” Bourdieu emphasizes the somatic nature of the habitus because for him it is not only social but also bodily “identity” that is formed. In particular, Bourdieu’s discussion of gender construction brings out the fusion of the physical and the social: “Femininity is imposed for the most part through an unremitting discipline that concerns every part of the body and is continuously recalled through the constraints of clothing or hairstyle. The antagonistic principles of male and female identity are thus laid down in the form of permanent stances, gaits and postures which are the realization, or rather, the naturalization of an ethic” (Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, 27). Our nineteenth-century authors represent both this social and this physical construction of identity.

What is most important in Bourdieu’s conception of social construction, however, is his use of the idea of the performative, which originates in J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. The act of promising illustrates Austin’s concept of performative language: when I say “I promise,” I complete the act of promising, and I can do this only through language. Thus language acts in the social world, and Austin reviews the necessary social conditions that permit the performative to function. Bourdieu’s basic use of the concept of the performative moves out from this definition to a broader view of the power of language to create representations in the social world, to bring them into existence, and thus essentially to change the world, particularly in the political sphere:

Heretical subversion exploits the possibility of changing the social world by changing the representation of this world which contributes to its reality or, more precisely, by counterposing a paradoxical pre-vision, a utopia, a project or programme, to the ordinary vision which apprehends the social world as a natural world; the performative utterance, the political pre-vision, is in itself a pre-diction which aims to bring about what it utters. It contributes practically to the reality of what it announces by the fact of uttering it, of pre-dicting it and making it pre-dicted, of making it conceivable and above all credible and thus creating the collective representation and will which contribute to its production [. . .] Many “intellectual debates” are less unrealistic than they seem if one is aware of the degree to which one can modify social reality by modifying the agents’ representation of it.

It is here that Bourdieu’s representation of the performative power of language parallels that of our authors. They envision their very texts as performing this function of changing the world, of manipulating the linguistic and social construction of identities and bodies. The symbol of the construction of woman stands for the fantasy shared by these authors that the power of their very texts can act performatively to create or transform the real.

In the investigation of this fantasy of the artificial construction of woman, I ask the following questions: Why is the artificial being a woman? How does this theme relate to the writing, the creation, of the fiction itself? What are the contexts of this representation of creation? Foremost in the area of contexts is that of nineteenth-century science, which pursues questions relating to the ways in which human beings are made, questions homologous to this novelistic fantasy of creation. Science figures as a subject in its own right in these texts, but it also serves as a form of material representation and figuration for certain contemporary social problems for the authors, a way of metaphorically embodying intangible questions of identity and difference. This scientific context is, on the one hand, the familiar one of transformism, evolution, and heredity that informed the works of these authors and that has often been explored in relation to their texts. On the other hand, it is the scientific context of stranger ideas that can be fascinating, bizarre, and sometimes outrageous to our contemporary sensibilities. From the mesmeric, magnetic “fluids” sent out by Balzacian characters, to the zany experiments of Félix-Archimède Pouchet, who thought he was creating new life from ancient bones and who attracted Flaubert’s interest, these “scientific” contexts for the novelists revolve around issues of the manipulation and control of human beings and the creation and origin of life.

Science is not simply a context for literature, however; the two interact with each other in nineteenth-century France in different ways. Obviously, in the area of content, the very substance of science and its developments entered into the matter of the novel: mesmerism, hysteria, hypnotism, evolution, artificial insemination, heredity, steam engines. All four of the novelists studied here were familiar with the science of the day, and all four expressed particular interest in, often fascination with, certain issues raised there. Indeed, literary texts were themselves viewed by authors and readers as “scientific”—most obviously in the case of Zola’s self-proclaimed experimental novel. This is not to say that science dictated the interests of the novelists, but rather that some of the main scientific ideas of the day either paralleled interests of novelists or resonated with issues of importance to them. Science and literature in the nineteenth century were not entirely distinct but existed more as overlapping fields of cultural production in the general intellectual context of the time.

In the case of these authors, the overlapping of the two fields shows clearly in the personal and professional connections that they shared with the scientific world: all of them knew important scientists of their time. Balzac corresponded with Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, who read and admired Balzac’s works; Flaubert read the works of his respected friend, the elder Pouchet, and stayed in the home of Pouchet’s son, watching him admiringly as he dissected fish. Zola corresponded with scientists as he meticulously researched the backgrounds of his novels; he was even the object of a medico-psychological work by a doctor, Édouard Toulouse. Villiers was friends with Charles Cros, who was both a scientist and a poet and who invented plans for the phonograph at the same time as Edison. Thus this link between science and literature should be viewed less as a one-way direction of influence and more as a mutual nourishment of ideas and congruence of interests in social and intellectual issues.

More than this literal presence of science in the texts and lives of these authors, however, it is the development and influence at this time of what Michel Foucault has analyzed as a change in the concept of visibility in science, which had been taking place just before and during this time and which generated a new way of looking at the world and of envisaging and speaking the truth. For Foucault, the scientific gaze seemed to have the power to look into the body, read it, and discover its hidden truth, and many have noted the parallelism between this clinical gaze and realist observation. To be more specific, in these authors one particular manifestation of the clinical gaze, dissection, by its physical penetration of the body, renders possible the clinical goal of observing and analyzing the hidden and of penetrating the mystery of life in order to understand its workings. Ludmilla Jordanova summarizes the importance of dissection in nineteenth-century medicine: “Through the dominance of Paris hospital medicine, this field [pathological anatomy] endowed the act of dissection with a special status in nineteenth-century medicine. Dissection became the symbolic core of scientific medicine—the place where signs of pathology were revealed to the medical gaze.”

Practitioners of dissection had a known influence on the writers studied here. Balzac mentions several times the work of Bichat, who had a “passionate engagement with dissection” (Jordanova, Sexual Visions, 57). As a child, Flaubert watched his father dissect cadavers, and again, he enjoyed watching Pouchet dissect fish. The work of Zola’s scientific mentor, Claude Bernard, can be viewed generally as one that is “surgical” in its philosophical bent, as John E. Lesch states: “Bernard’s experimental work, like Magendie’s, displayed a strikingly surgical character” (Magendie is also mentioned by Balzac).

As is well known, this metaphor of dissection appears in descriptions of realist style by writers of the time. The careful observation of reality, which is carved and laid out bit by bit by the realist description and which claims objectivity and seeks truth, seemed to be a cutting up of reality and a penetration of it by the author’s gaze. Critics frequently claimed that Balzac’s descriptions tended to “dissect like an anatomist.” This metaphor also occurs in the works of the novelists themselves. Observation cuts to the heart of life in order to arrive at the truth in its depths, as Flaubert states: “Le relief vient d’une vue profonde, d’une pénétration, de l’objectif.” [Depth comes from a deep gaze, from a penetration, of the lens.] Indeed, this penetrating gaze of Flaubert’s writer connects metonymically with literal dissection, because a mere eight sentences before this analysis of penetrating observation Flaubert describes his memory of watching his father dissect cadavers: “Je vois encore mon père levant la tête de dessus sa dissection et nous disant de nous en aller” (Correspondance, 2:376). [I still see my father raising his head from his dissection and telling us to go away.] Thus the tools of the anatomist and the novelist are the knife and the eye, and one could add that, for writers, the pen was like the knife, as Sainte-Beuve claimed of Flaubert: “Son and brother of distinguished doctors, Mr. Gustave Flaubert holds his pen the way others hold the scalpel.”

In Zola, dissection becomes a metaphor for his very text, the study of the life of a family, when Doctor Pascal’s investigation of his family’s heredity (which is a figure of the Rougon-Macquart series itself) begins with the dissection of corpses and moves on to a metaphoric dissection of living subjects: “Il ne s’en tenait pas aux cadavres, il élargissait ses dissections sur l’humanité vivante, frappé de certains faits constants parmi sa clientèle, mettant surtout en observation sa propre famille, qui était devenue son principal champ d’expérience, tellement les cas s’y présentait précis et complets.” [He did not limit himself to cadavers, he expanded his dissections to living humanity, because he was struck by certain constants among his clientele, and he observed above all his own family, which had become his principal experimental domain, because so many precise and concise cases came up there.] Villiers titles a chapter of his work “Dissection,” and both the theme and the method of the chapter are described by that word.

Dissection, then, has always been linked to the works of these authors, but what is most significant about the common interest in dissection on the part of scientists and novelists is its philosophic aim. Jordanova provides an intriguing interpretation of this aim in the realm of science: “Penetrating inside organisms was a way of approaching the origins of life” (Jordanova, Sexual Visions, 57). This interest in life’s origin took place in science on the one hand at the microscopic level, because improvements in the microscope over the course of the nineteenth century enabled scientists to view reproduction, to see life forming and developing (Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, 22–23). The demystification of the process of reproduction, and the possibility of understanding generation, took the origin of life out of religious speculation and placed it in the physical world. Thus the origin of individual human life could be viewed, understood, and possibly controlled. Flaubert, Zola, and Villiers explicitly depict scientific aspects of the origin of life in their works.

On the macroscopic level, on the other hand, interest in origins is the interest in the origin of the human species, and here the familiar contexts of transformism, evolution, and heredity appear. Lamarck, with his theory of the transformation of organic forms developed at the turn of the nineteenth century, depicted man as a part of nature and subject to its transformist laws. Jordanova summarizes Lamarck’s understanding of transformism as follows: “Nothing in nature is constant; organic forms develop gradually from each other and were not created all at once in their present form; all the natural sciences must recognize that nature has a history; and the laws governing living things have produced increasingly complex forms over immense periods of time.” There developed, then, a new understanding of nature and man as having been made, formed, over time.

This transformist concept helped to shape Balzac’s fictional project, as exemplified in the well-known description of Madame Vauquer and her pension, where her nature both is explained by and explains the environment in which she lives. Later, Darwinian evolution entered into the notes, letters, and texts of Flaubert and Zola. For them, man seemed to be, in a sense, fabricated by heredity and environment. Our writers aim to understand that fabrication: Balzac through his idea of the influence of the environment, Flaubert in his study of the fatal textual formation of Emma Bovary, Zola in his view of man as a product of hereditary and environmental factors, and Villiers in his philosophical discussions of man as artificially created. For these authors, man’s body and identity seemed, then, to be malleable, changeable, and not given once and for all at birth or at the point of origin of mankind.

As the scientific gaze began to penetrate the mystery of man’s origins, it also uprooted traditional understandings of man’s place in the world and emphasized his physical, animal nature by placing him closer to the animal kingdom. Lamarck, for example, placed man with other animals in a new, less important place in the structure of things and “refused to draw an absolute distinction between man and animal” (Jordanova, Lamarck, 90). The act of lessening the distance between man and the animal world problematizes the distinction of man from animal, a problem that, with many others, participates in a general crisis of distinction that follows the Revolution. Many critics have discussed the social crisis of distinction at the time, such as Christopher Prendergast, who succinctly describes the panic “in which the basic categories of social distinction go into a kind of vertiginous spin.” Ross Chambers delineates the attempt of post-1848 French writers to distinguish their discourse from the bourgeois “discourse of the tribe,” to establish their difference from cliché, and in doing so they express what he calls “the anxiety of difference: ‘difference’ is simultaneously that which distinguishes one from the crowd and—because there can be no difference without similarity—that which integrates one into the crowd.” In another context, Naomi Schor links René Girard’s idea of the literary structure of the sacrificial crisis to a crisis of the distinction between the sexes.

Indeed, the panic and ambiguity created by the increasingly concrete idea of man the animal, formed over time by various forces, appears as an anxiety-producing element in the texts of our authors. This particular crisis of distinction, as we shall see, combines with social states in transformation: class and, most particularly for us here, gender. Bourdieu’s analysis of the various strategies of distinction, among which he includes that of man from animal (Bourdieu, Distinction, 93, 196), will inform our readings of these representations of anxieties of distancing, particularly in terms of gender. In the texts studied here, ambiguities about man’s identity, his distinction from all “others,” play a large role in the fantasy of constructing and controlling that “other” in the figure of the artificial woman.

The newfound closeness of the connection between man and animal adds new intensity to the French tradition of thinking of man as an animal machine. The understanding of the human body as a machine, which established itself firmly with Descartes and La Mettrie, “forcefully reentered physiology toward 1840” (Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, 121). For all our authors, the way in which man is formed by various physiological and environmental processes makes it seem as if man is “programmed” mechanically by inner and outer material reality. This metaphor of mechanical man adds to the understanding of man’s nature as having been “constructed” rather than created from nothing.

This two-part crisis of distinguishing man from animal and man from machine also belongs to a more general system of cultural metaphors that seek to negotiate the changing understanding of the natural and the technological and its relationship to man, of what is produced by nature (man the animal) and what is made by man (man the maker of the artificial), that marks both scientific and literary texts of this time. Natural reproduction and artificial production, the organic and the mechanical, interact, overlap, and conflict with one another in scientific and literary attempts at understanding and defining man and his origin. The shifting boundaries of the organic and the artificial haunt the texts we shall be studying.

The programmed nature of man, the animal-machine, appears in all the literary texts studied here and serves to represent what one might call the “mechanics” of the reproduction of human beings as well as the more symbolic reproduction of such social forms as gender difference and class structure, the reproduction of culture itself. It is at the intersection of the natural and the artificial in the struggle to define the nature of man where woman comes in. Woman, the natural creator, is herself re-created artificially by man in these texts, and this creation in its various forms is one strategy employed in the attempt to negotiate the crisis of distinction.

In order to create woman, man must understand how creation itself works. Here, once again, the rich metaphor of dissection provides a clue. If, as we saw Jordanova claim, dissection allowed access to the place of man’s origin, what better way of approaching these origins than by cutting open the woman’s body to see the place in which human life originates? Jordanova links the aim of looking deeply into the female body with the quest to understand origins and to master and control them:

By the end of the eighteenth century, then, there were a number of ways in which the idea of organic depth manifested itself, through changing practices, ideas and metaphors. This interest in depth was especially significant for the construction of femininity in two distinct although related ways. The first was by promoting the actual unveiling of women’s bodies to render visible the emblematic core of their sex in the organs of generation. The second was by giving expression to a model of knowledge, based on looking deeply into and thereby intellectually mastering nature—a model infused with assumptions about gender. (Jordanova, Sexual Visions, 57–58)

Thus the dissection of women’s bodies was linked specifically to learning how the organs of generation worked, how life originated, and to the continued aim of dominating nature (and woman). Mark Seltzer claims that realism itself is a kind of gaze at the inside of the body that is obstetric in nature: “The requirement of embodiment, of turning the body inside out for inspection, takes on a virtually obstetrical form in realist discourse” (Seltzer, Bodies and Machines, 96).

This relationship of medicine and surgery to the fantasy of penetrating to the core of woman is one we find in each of our four authors. In Balzac’s La peau de chagrin, Raphaël believes that Foedora is “un sujet précieux pour l’observation médicale” [a valuable subject for medical observation], and she in turn feels that she has been placed on display (referring to dissection) “sur un amphithéâtre” (Balzac, La peau de chagrin, 10:158) [in an amphitheater]. In the 1831 version of this text, Émile’s mocking questioning of Raphaël makes the following link between mothers (the origin of life) and dissection: “As-tu, comme cet étudiant de Padoue, disséqué, sans le savoir, une mère que tu adorais?” (10:1272 note b). [Have you, like the student from Padua, dissected, without knowing it, a mother you adored?] The inventory of Emma Bovary’s things seems to be an autopsy: “Ils examinèrent ses robes, le linge, le cabinet de toilette; et son existence, jusque dans ses recoins les plus intimes, fut, comme un cadavre que l’on autopsie, étalée tout du long aux regards de ces trois hommes.” [They examined her dresses, the linen, the dressing room; and her existence, into its most intimate recesses, was, like a cadaver being autopsied, spread out under the gaze of these three men.] Pascal, in Zola’s text, gains knowledge about human reproduction by dissecting the corpses of dead pregnant women. And finally, Villiers’s Edison shows us the internal workings of his female android, Hadaly, who is compared to a corpse being autopsied. Indeed, Villiers makes mention there of the famous engraving by Vesalius in which a woman’s body is opened up before a number of male onlookers.

The aim of dissection, the understanding of origins, participates in a final theme that is shared by these literary texts and the science of the time: experimentation. It is generally accepted that scientific research at the end of the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century shifted emphasis from speculation toward observation, and later in the century toward experimentation and practice. Indeed, the development of science and medicine over the course of the nineteenth century, in the change from a science of observation to a science of experiment and intervention, has been viewed by some as a move from passivity to a stance of active involvement. As François Jacob describes it, the goal is to reproduce what nature brings about (through disease).

Balzac’s fantastic if mocking representation of animal hybridization, Flaubert’s enthusiastic description of Pouchet’s experiments in spontaneous generation, Zola’s activist promotion of Bernard’s experimental method, and Villiers’s representations of Edison’s experiments and inventions demonstrate on the thematic level their attention to scientific experimental possibilities. Realist and naturalist texts were themselves viewed, as we have seen, as a kind of experiment in the dissection of the real.

However, it is the aim of experimentation that is of philosophical importance to both literary authors and scientists:

Experiment, whatever else it may mean or be, must guarantee control over the appearance and variability of the phenomena under investigation. Whether one proceeds as vivisectionist, relying on surgical intervention in the affairs of the organism, or exploits narrowly the concepts and instruments of the physical sciences, physiologists could agree that mastery of vital phenomena was their achievable goal. These convictions were at the heart of both the experimentalists’ practice and Bernard’s well-considered reflections on the methods of his science. They depend on a firm belief in the regularity of natural processes and derive as well from an inverse reading of the time-honored conviction that knowledge is power—to control is to know. (Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, 159; emphasis added)

If dissection reveals the origins of human life to be mechanistic processes of the body, if the human body is a machine that follows predictable natural laws, the possibility of our being able to control this machine arises.

In Paris hospitals, a discovery of another role of dissection was its usefulness in determining the source of illness in patients, and illness will play a significant role in our texts: “Toward 1800 physicians in the Paris hospitals effected a revolution in medicine. Their essential contribution was to combine postmortem physical examination of the cadaver with a clinical description of the patient’s affliction” (Coleman, Biology in the Nineteenth Century, 20). As numerous recent studies show, the nineteenth century tended generally to pathologize woman, and thus the link among dissection, malady, and women seems well motivated in the culture of the time and is a prime motivating factor in the literary texts. Our nineteenth-century authors take on the role of pathological anatomists who fantasize a cure for the illness of their contemporary society in the rewriting of woman.

As the century progressed, this lure of controlling the human machine became the lure of the possibility of improving on nature itself and of engineering a new nature:

“A new kind of interest in control of life arose in the late nineteenth century [. . .] A number of biologists began to think of themselves and their work within the framework of engineering. They argued that the fundamental purpose of their science ought to be the control of organisms. They envisioned manipulation, transformation, and creation of all the phenomena subsumed under the word ‘life.’” Jordanova, in fact, specifically links the interest in the dissection of the human body not simply with the quest for knowledge but also with the desire to create life: “Once you think about pulling the body apart in order to build up skeletons for study or to examine its constituent parts, you are close to the enormous transgression of Frankenstein” (Jordanova, Sexual Visions, 108). The understanding that life was not given in its final form but was transformable; that the living body was a kind of machine that could be manipulated, engineered; that life might be created artificially, without sexual reproduction, in the laboratory; that the inheritance of acquired characteristics could allow us to improve man’s lot; that man could make creations superior to those of nature—all these ideas, which developed at different times in the nineteenth century, provided for the novelists that scientific context in which creating ideal human beings entered the realm of possibility. And replacing natural reproduction with man’s superior creation is there symbolized by man’s artificially creating the natural reproducer, woman. We shall see how, for our nineteenth-century authors, their dissecting writing practices, which aimed at the understanding of the maladies of nature and woman, led them to fantasize and posit a new, improved model of woman and creation.

The final guiding principle in our examination of the new, scientific twist to the myth of Pygmalion is the legibility of the human body. In the scientific realm, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and beyond) the human body was viewed as a sign that could be decoded, “read”: “During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was taken for granted that the human body was legible, even if there was not consensus on exactly how it could and should be ‘read’ [. . .] The principle of legibility was [. . .] important because it sanctioned a particular form of inferential thinking, that moved from visible indicators on a surface (either the body itself or clothes) to invisible traits inside the body” (Jordanova, Sexual Visions, 51–52). As Foucault describes it, this legibility seemed to exist already in the world itself, a world that is always already a kind of language: “The gaze implies an open field, and its essential activity is of the successive order of reading; it records and totalizes; it gradually reconstitutes immanent organizations; it spreads out over a world that is already the world of language, and that is why it is spontaneously related to hearing and speech” (Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, 121). Our nineteenth-century novelists clearly represented such a possibility of reading the real and the “writing” on the body in their texts: one need think only of Balzac and phrenology, Flaubert’s more abstract level of the social inscription of codes, Zola’s legible traces of hereditary tares, and Villiers’s reinscription or rerecording of the body’s language in such inventions as the phonograph. The body seemed to be a kind of code that one could crack, a text to be read, and novelists explored this obvious relay between their writing and the decoding of the world around them. Here Bourdieu’s understanding of the materialization of social signs on the body and their inscription on an individual’s dispositions, signs that are also related to gender, will help us to understand the social construction explored by these authors.

What becomes ever more crucial to these authors, however, is the specific importance of human language in the definition—indeed, construction—of human identity. In the scientific realm, with the understanding of evolutionary forces, language was the main factor that distinguished man from animals; it was what defined human nature. Thus in a general sense it is the technical tool of language that makes man what he is—a kind of product of his own tools and technology—and the line between nature and artifice grows ever more tenuous.

But as we shall see, our authors take this understanding of the role of language in human identity one step further when each of them explores the literal ways in which the social codes lodged in language define and construct human identity. The most obvious case is that of Flaubert and the bêtise of our imprisonment in cliché. Customs, codes, clichés, and myths shape the way man acts, the way he thinks, the way he views the world; they mold him and his choices. Social codes, embodied in language, make man, write him, embody themselves in him, as Bourdieu would say. If language inscribes identity on the human being, language takes on a performative function and acts. Thus in our conclusions we shall explore the way in which these authors fantasize that their own texts, the novels and stories that we read, will be the linguistic code that will create, performatively, the new woman.

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