Disenchanted Narcissus: Adolphe

Constant's novel Adolphe occupies a distinguished position in a literary tradition in which the French excel, the novel treating in concise form a difficult problem of psychology and ethics. Many interpretations of this clear yet intractably ambiguous work have appeared, some of the best of them in recent years. The bibliography that surrounds its five-score pages is now so wide, so specialized and so probing that it seems that there could be nothing more to say about the book. Adolphe, at once narrator and protagonist, has been explained in a dozen different ways: he is an egoist, hard and selfish; he is a weakling who brings disaster to others by his hesitations; he is indifferent to women; a cryptohomosexual; the victim of an Oedipus complex; unstable; contradictory; a man of emotion and not of principle, and so forth. In the face of all these interpretations I shall advance another, one that seems to me correct de toute évidence, as Constant himself might have said in his dry, laconic way. I shall try to prove, that is, that Adolphe is a narcissist, which is to say that he is many of the things he has been called, but in fact none of them. (RJN)

Niess, Robert J
Volume 1982-1983 Falll-Winter; 11(1-2): 16-22.