Färnlöf on Heyraud and Reverzy, eds (2020)

Heyraud, Violaine, and Reverzy, Éléonore, editors. La morale en action. Apologues, paraboles et récits exemplaires au XIXe siècle. Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2020, pp. 290, ISBN: 978-2-37906-055-7

The question of ethics has informed the study of literature since the very early debates on the danger (Plato) or value (Aristotle) of mimetic representation and its consequences for the reception of a work of art. Having dominated Western discussions of literature broadly speaking until the text-centered turn of the twentieth century (with its different formalist, structuralist, and poststructuralist approaches), the moral dimension of literatureand indeed of any fictional or non-fictional representation of reality or historynow emerges as one of its core values and as a valuable element of any thematic, poetic, or ideological approach. It is thus of immediate interest to reflect upon the morality confined in or attributed to the literary text. Such was the ambition of the conference La morale en action (Paris, October 2018), the proceedings of which have now been published by Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle.

The book sets out to contextualize and analyze different forms of the rhetoric exemplum in nineteenth-century French literature (with a complementary paper on early twentieth-century theater). In their informative introduction, the editors reflect on this topic against various historical backgrounds, such as the common knowledge of rhetorics from general education, the weakened moral authority of the Church, the call for models of everyday virtue, and even the strong interest in didactic genres in the nineteenth century (apologues, proverbs, fables, etc.). With the title of the book, they also highlight the pragmatic aspect of all kinds of exempla as well as their historic relevance in the studied period (through different nineteenth-century manuals that urged students and pupils to uphold the official, “proper” morals in their actions).

As a complement to this historical introduction, the excellent opening essay by Paolo Tortonese provides a critical survey of important theoretical trends, and thus functions as an epistemological foundation for the essays to follow. Tortonese discusses insightfully the aporias of poststructuralist deconstruction, Foucault’s undermining of the conscientious individual, and the urge to find, despite these postures, a moral stance in the inevitably differed text, approached by the subjective reader. In opposition to his standpoint (a position represented mainly by J. Hillis Miller), the neo-Aristotelian school (Cleanth Brooks, Martha Nussbaum) insists on ethics in literature. It seems important to embrace a theoretical perspective in order to fully examine the question of morality in literature. While some other contributions do make reference to theory, the majority of the essays are more firmly set on individual authors in a somewhat more traditional historical and thematic approach.

Contributors to this volume study the question of morality in literature in the work of important authors of the romantic and realist canon and beyond (Chateaubriand, Hugo, Vigny, Musset, Balzac, Stendhal, Labiche, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Zola, Maupassant, Mirbeau, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck, etc). The reader will appreciate the inclusion of less well-known authors (such as de Lorde) as well as more marginal genres (such as vaudeville). Despite the wide-ranging content, the volume does not create any impression of discontinuity. The proceedings convincingly establish a strong coherence among both the subject matter and the studied period. The essays are overall of excellent academic quality, written by renowned researches in France alongside some rising scholars.

It is of course impossible to do justice to all the excellent contributions in the limited space available here. However, essays that merit special mention include the study of animals in Labiche’s drama, a motif that indirectly informs the spectator of the valorization of the bourgeoisie (Ramos-Gay); the discussion of the aim to shock and seduce the audience in combination with the possible lessons learned from the performance and the spectacular in de Lorde (Heyraud); the fine remarks on the “modern” ironical postures, especially intertextual and indeterminate, and their consequences for the interpretation of the text (Vaillant); the dynamics between the classic showing and telling, as well as between specified temporality and timelessness in Zola (Reverzy). Marie Parmentier’s brilliant essay on Stendhal’s poetics is also noteworthy. Taking more or less the counterpoint of the traditional relationship whereby the moral is meant to be implemented by the narrative, Parmentier shows how Stendhal uses exempla as a device to justify the composition. This perspective draws on Russian formalism’s ground-breaking way of treating the text as form, and thus complements the approaches presented by Tortonese.

The scrupulously edited volume is most readable, with agreeable layout and well-proportioned essays, subdivisions, and even paragraphs. Just a slight regret: a complete bibliography of the references would have been very helpful for further studies, as well as an index of names and themes. Additionally, the structural choice of dividing the work into six sections (ethics, theatre, poetics, history, instable morals, and illustrated works) does not really hold up against scrutiny, as ethics are constantly present in the valuable contributions that constitute the ensemble, as are poetics and to a lesser extent the instability of the moral to be found, implied or read in the studied work. However, this is but a minor note: one might well argue that the topic of the conference was too intricate to be articulated in discreet categories.

To conclude, this volume surveys a most current topic, while confining its subject to a limited period as well as to a cultural area, and embraces theory, poetics, and history all together. This allows for a dynamic presentation of the topic which permits the reader to develop and deepen his or her own reflection on morality in literature. The general focus of the volume also makes it possible to establish numerous connections between the authors, genres, and periods treated. One could thus tentatively suggest that the moral of this review is that it is a worthy action, especially for nineteenth-century French scholars, to consult this book and the essential subject matter it examines.