The French Review 61.2 (1987): 294-295.
DONALDSON-EVANS, MARY. A Woman's Revenge. The Chronology of Dispossession in Maupassant's Fiction. FRFM 64. Lexington, KY: French Forum, 1986. Pp. 159. $12.50.
[Reprinted with the permission of The French Review]
The various elements of this detailed work demand scrutiny for an understanding of the 'revenge' and the forms of 'chronology' and 'dispossession' that occur in Mary Donaldson-Evans's analysis of Maupassant's fiction. Developing simultaneously the diachronic and synchronic axes of Maupassant's work, Donaldson-Evans focuses on four thematic codes linked to sexuality and on the characters' ominous tumble from an active to a passive state' as a means both to explain this oeuvre's phantasmic nature and to nuance the diachronic outline of Maupassant's relationship with women. Thus, in chapter I ('La Femme naturelle'), Donaldson-Evans discusses water imagery in Maupassant's work as a first aspect of the elemental code, revealing the transformation of this imagery from clarity (and purity) to the murky and poisonous penetration of the later heroes through their contact with women. This physical invasion relates directly to the second chapter's study of the nutritional code and to the dual transformation of women from mère nourricière into femme fatale and of the hero from capricious woman-hunter into suffering paranoiac 'who imagines he is being eaten from within and from without,' consumed by women, madness and Time (80). This concept of 'hero-as-food' further suggests the Eucharistic sacrifice and thereby the religious code (chapter III, 'Woman and Religion'), the Woman-Divinity rapport evolving from the early works' association of women as the source of nature and of biological production to their later inimical status in opposition to creation. And the maleficent role of women relates directly to her infernal nature and thus to the second aspect of the elemental code in chapter IV's analysis of fire imagery in Maupassant's works ('The Infernal Female').
It is in the two final chapters that the importance of the structuring element of 'dispossession' becomes particularly evident, and my sole criticism is that the author understates the central role of this leitmotif. For, in the early chapters, 'dispossession' emerges implicitly as the heroes yield their control over the elements, food and religion due to woman's growing force of penetration, contamination and cruelty. Furthermore, sexual 'dispossession' is later personified bv each woman depicted as an isolated microcosm, basically unpossessable, sufficient unto herself, vain and egotistical (117), whose 'cold fire' is emitted toward men while a 'burning' passion is reserved for women themselves (122). And if Georges Duroy of Bel-Ami is 'an individualization of this portrait' of the contradictory homme-fille (123), Donaldson-Evans demonstrates that analysis of the novel's mirrors, both literal and figurative, betrays the fragility of his identity as a self-determining male' (126). By exploring this fissure of masculine integrity in the final chapter ('Le or La: Gender and Identity in Maupassant's Works'), Donaldson-Evans reveals the synthesis that occurs in Le Horla of the preceding elements of woman's role; earlier themes there combine with the narrator's alienation from himself and obsession with an Other whose ambivalent sexuality suggests an 'alternative etymology for the title, 'le Horla' designating 'either the horrible anxiety of castration, the fear of impotence and of a waning sexual identity (le or la?), on the one hand, or the impossible conjunction of the sexes, on the other: le hors la, the phallus, masculine article forever doomed to remain outside l'article féminin' (138).
Thus, the 'woman's revenge' refers to the subversive place of woman in Maupassant's work, revealed by his 'progressive gynophobia, and the paradoxical dangers woman incarnates' (139) as signs of the 'dispossession' of male potency and identity by female aggressors, and thus of the growing 'vengeance' that this Other sex wreaks on the heroes throughout this oeuvre. But fortunately, there is no concomitant 'critical revenge' wreaked on the unwary reader of Prof. Donaldson-Evans's study for the author's incisive analyses only increase in strength with her choice of accessible prose. Indeed, not only does her study constitute an essential contribution to future Maupassant research, but it will also serve literature professors at graduate and advanced undergraduate levels alike as a model of economical and thorough scholarly endeavor.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University