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Literature: A Rebours
19th century novel by a French writer with a Dutch name, Joris-Karl Huysmans, A Rebours was first published in 1884. It has been translated into English as Against the Grain and, more recently, as Against Nature. The novel tells the story of the young dandy and aesthete, Jean, Duc des Esseintes, who becomes disgusted with the society of his day and tries to escape from it by constructing a "refined Thebaid" - a house where he lives completely alone, surrounded by the artistic objects and books that obsess him and living out his aesthetic daydreams. "Story" is perhaps pushing it a bit; this is one of the more plotless novels of its age and duels, love affairs, court cases over wills and characters who turn out to be each other's long lost relatives are pretty much absent. The real conflict is psychological, between des Esseintes and his own society, and the real question is whether he will succeed in making the life he wants independent of it. He's more or less the sole character of the book. Everyone else is seen through his eyes.

A Rebours was hugely influential on the so-called "Decadent" writers of the 1890s in France and Britain, with the critic Arthur Symons describing it as "the breviary of the Decadence". The Decadents reacted against Victorian sexual repression, rationalism and naturalistic fiction in the direction of excess, romanticism and writing exploring "forbidden" themes. Perhaps its most famous fan was Oscar Wilde, who was heavily influenced by A Rebours in writing The Picture of Dorian Gray, including in his description of the "novel without a plot" that helps lead Dorian astray.

Fun fact: In real life, Huysmans was a civil servant and worked for the French Interior Ministry, on whose stationery he wrote his novels.


Tropes include

  • Aristocrats Are Evil - The novel begins with a description of portraits of some of des Esseintes' ancestors, one of whom inhabited a Deadly Decadent Court and sounds very much like this. Des Esseintes himself is something of an aversion.
  • Bi the Way - Although des Esseintes is generally heterosexual, there is an incident in the novel where he forms a brief relationship with a young man that is apparently homosexual in nature, to judge by the mention of des Esseintes' soul being pre-conditioned "by a hereditary tendency dating from the reign of Henri III," a French king notorious for his male lovers.
  • Author Tract - Much of the novel is made up of des Esseintes' thoughts and opinions about art, culture, religion and life, many of which are also Huysmans'. It's no coincidence; he had a stong tendency to do this in all of his novels.
  • The Dandy - Who do you think? To be fair to des Esseintes, he falls at the aesthetic, "surround myself with gorgeous objects" end of the spectrum. He's not just a clothes horse. However, he certainly likes them fancy duds, to judge by some of the descriptions - "suits of white velvet with gold-laced waistcoasts," for example.
  • Death by Origin Story - By the time the main action of A Rebours has started, both his parents have died. To judge by what's said of them, they played little role in his life whilst alive.
  • Europeans Are Kinky - Apart from some major-league womanising in his younger days, which ultimately bored him and turned him towards an aesthetic lifestyle, des Esseintes at one point seduces a female circus acrobat and also a woman who turns him on by using her skills as a professional ventriloquist to pretend that her husband is about to break in on them. And that's before even considering the Ho Yay stuff mentioned above...
  • Go Mad from the Isolation - Whilst he's not all worried about this happening, des Esseintes' doctor clearly is.
  • The Hermit - Des Esseintes goes to great lengths to avoid human contact where possible. For example, his two servants (of course he has servants) live and work on a separate floor of the house to him and he usually communicates with them by ringing bells. He even has the woman wear a nun-style coif to avoid being put off by her silhouette seen through his windows.
  • Jerk Ass - Des Esseintes' misanthropy can lead him into this territory, notably when he meets a young boy whom he corrupts with visits to the best brothel in Paris, the plan being that in order to be able to afford this, the boy will inevitably become a criminal and hopefully murder someone. Des Esseintes sees this as his revenge on society. It's also unlikely PETA would be overly impressed when he buys a tortoise and has its shell gilded to set it off against his carpet. The animal dies as a result, albeit this was not the intention. And yes, there is a lengthy and clearly heavily researched part about exactly what jewels Des Esseintes will buy to encrust the shell with (see below).
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation - Des Esseintes' basic problem. He considers himself to be alienated from a materialistic modern society by his preference for intellectual and aesthetic activities.
  • Lonely Rich Kid - Des Esseintes' childhood was like this, with few friends, an invalid mother and a father who largely ignored him.
  • Mundane Made Awesome - Des Esseintes' "hobbies" (the word seems inadequate) are described by Huysmans in lavish style and as if they are of epic importance, which to the central character, they are. He spends three pages choosing the colour of his walls, an entire chapter contemplating Latin literature of the post-Augustan and early mediaeval period and another chapter making perfume. This aspect is one of those followed by Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: In the first chapter Des Esseintes redecorates his salon, seeking out interesting and unusual colors. He comes up with this combination:
    After the whole was arranged and finished, all these several tints fell into accord at night and did not clash at all; the blue of the woodwork struck a stable note that was pleasing and satisfying to the eye, supported and warmed, so to say, by the surrounding shades of orange, which for their part shone out with a pure, unsullied gorgeousness, itself backed up and in a way heightened by the near presence of the blue.
  • Purple Prose - Huysmans really lays this on with a trowel. It's the feature of his style he tends to be most remembered for in French literature, and given that there's a lot of description of lavish furnishings, art works, antique objects and so on, he gets plenty of opportunity to use it.
  • Raised Catholic - Des Esseintes was educated by Jesuits and is strongly drawn towards Catholicism as the solution to all that he despises in modern life. He surrounds himself with ecclesiastical regalia and obsesses over obscure religious writers, but is ultimately unable to bring himself to believe. In this he strongly resembles Huysmans, who eventually converted to Catholicism and spent time as a monk.
Anna Karenina 19 th Century LiteratureAround the World in Eighty Days
1940: Et si la France avait continué la guerre?French LiteratureThe Accursed Kings

alternative title(s): A Rebours
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