Friday, August 12, 2016

Madeleine Férat by Emile Zola

Uncharacteristically prudish of Zola
Emile Zola originally wrote the story of Madeleine Férat as a play, simply entitled Madeleine, but its lack of theatrical success inspired him to rework the drama as a prose narrative. The novel Madeleine Férat was originally published in the pages of the magazine L’Evenement in 1868. It was later released in book form in 1882. This was the last novel Zola wrote before embarking on his masterful 20-novel series known as the Rougon-Macquart cycle, and it does bear some stylistic resemblance to those later, greater works of literary naturalism. In terms of quality, however, this feels like an early, half-baked work by an author still trying to find his mature literary voice.

Madeleine Férat is one of the darkest love stories you’ll ever read. The title character is orphaned at a young age. When she reaches womanhood, she escapes the sexual advances of her guardian. Soon thereafter, she meets a young gentleman who takes her in as his mistress. Madeleine loves this man, but he sees her mainly as a plaything. Eventually he abandons her, and she finds herself alone once again. She then becomes the mistress of a second lover, named William. Unlike her first partner, William is a kinder, gentler sort of gentleman who truly falls in love with Madeleine. Despite warnings to never marry his mistress, he makes her his wife. William is a wealthy man, and for a time the two young lovers enjoy a comfortable life of newly wedded bliss. Reminders of Madeleine’s former life as a party girl and “kept woman” keep coming back to haunt them, however, putting a strain on the relationship between husband and wife. The fact that Madeleine once found happiness in another man’s bed may be too much for William to handle.

Nowadays, it’s hard to take seriously the idea that a woman is only allowed to sleep with one man during her lifetime, and if she breaks this rule, she must face a punishment of disgrace, ostracism, or crippling guilt. While in Zola’s time, obviously, sexual mores were stricter, he seems an unlikely spokesperson for this sort of socially enforced chastity. In his other works, Zola often treats premarital or extra-marital sex bluntly as a fact of life that must be accepted, so why the drastically different attitude here? In this novel, Zola advances the theory that once a woman loses her virginity she is essentially a physical and psychological prisoner to her first lover, who has left his mark of ownership upon her. Zola, who so often fought for social reform, seems here to be endorsing the moral code of a puritanical society. While he does illustrate how such an unrealistic double standard oppresses womankind, he doesn’t say much to refute it.

Zola was often accused of concentrating on the seamier side of life in order to deliberately shock and offend (and thus titillate) his audience. This is evident in some of his earlier works, and seems to be the case here. The love triangle in this book is not unlike that in Zola’s better novel Thérèse Raquin, but here the crime that binds the three main characters together is not murder but sexual promiscuity. Madeleine Férat is a relentless catalog of misery, loaded with as much imagery equating sex with death as Zola could dream up. The fact that the book is way too long only magnifies the unpleasantness. Each hour-long chapter ruminates the same dismal themes over and over again like the beating of so many dead horses. It’s hard to believe this was ever a play, because I don’t know who would want to sit through it. Madeleine Férat can be seen as a failed experiment by a great author, skillfully crafted in authentic detail but ultimately suffering from too many errors in judgment.
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