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Literature / A Rebours

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Defecting to decadence.

A 19th century novel by a French writer of Dutch descent, Joris Karl Huysmans (real name Charles-Marie-Georges 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 focuses on the young dandy and aesthete, Duc Jean Floressas 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. It is largely plotless, and largely chronicles his aesthetic tastes, musings on literature, religion, paintings, and hyperaesthetic sensory experiences.

A Rebours was hugely influential on the writers of the Decadent movement in France and Britain, during the late 1800s, with the British writer and critic Arthur Symons, who was a contemporary, describing it as "the breviary of the Decadence". The Decadent movement, so called because the word literally means a process of ‘falling away’ or decline, signalled a set of interlinked qualities. These included the notion of intense refinement; the valuing of artificiality over nature; a position of ennui or boredom rather than of moral earnestness or the valuing of hard work; an interest in perversity and paradox, and in transgressive modes of sexuality. It essentially aspired to separate literature and art from the materialistic preoccupations of industrialized society, and morals being of secondary concern, if at all, led to the depiction of such depravities, and A Rebours was one of those books. One of the writers closely associated with the movement is 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 in this work include:

  • Aristocrats Are Evil: The novel begins with a description of portraits of some of des Esseintes' ancestors, one of whom inhabited a Decadent Court and sounds very much like this. Des Esseintes himself is something of an aversion.
  • 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 strong tendency to do this in all of his novels.
  • Culturally Religious: Des Esseintes had a Catholic upbringing and was instructed by the Jesuits, but at some point he abandoned the faith and turned to the philosophical ideas of the German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. In spite of this, des Esseintes still owns some Latin works by the early Catholic authors, and he could not help but connect Schopenhauer's pessimistic outlook with the resignation from the Imitation of Christ.
  • 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.
  • Evil Stole My Faith: Courtesy of the pessimism of Schopenhauer, des Esseintes rejects belief in God for this reason, proclaiming: "If a God has made this world, I would not like to be that God, for the misery of the world would break my heart." Huysmans would later retract this statement in a preface reflecting on the book twenty years after its publication.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass: 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
  • No Plot? No Problem!: Nearly the entire novel consists of des Esseintes' musings on art, literature, and religion.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Des Esseintes is an atheist who was influenced by Schopenhauer. He notes that Schopenhauer and the Catholic faith both agree on the sufferings of the world and the wretchedness of life, but he rejects belief in God on that basis. Huysmans, who was also an atheist when he wrote A Rebours, would later return to the Catholic faith and retract this in his preface reflecting on its contents twenty years after its publication. While affirming that the misery of the world is common ground that Schopenhauer and the Catholic faith share, Huysmans points out that the Catholic faith, unlike Schopenhauer, shows the causes, points out its consequences, and offers remedies. He concludes that Schopenhauer's pessimism is no different from that in Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job, and the Imitation of Christ, the last one which sums up his philosophy in a single sentence: "Truly, it is a wretched thing to live on this earth!"
  • 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.