SUTURE SELF: CONSTRUCTING FEMININITY IN EDMOND DE GONCOURT'S CHERIE.
This study evaluates Goncourt's claims of transparency and collaboration in light of the many instances of ellipsis in Cherie. The ellipses in the novel suggest the idea of writing as suture: as they visually indicate the tel quel incorporation into the narrative of Goncourt's source documents, the ellipses in the text can be seen as a kind of stitching, both metaphorically and typographically. This idea of writing as suture is based on Lucien Dallenbach's concept of reading as suture in which a "blank, gap, vacancy, ellipsis, rupture, [or] cut" in the text forces the reader to "lay bridges" over lacuna to complete meaning (196). Dallenbach's pun je lis/je lie is reimagined here as the practice by which Goncourt incorporated primary source documents into Cherie, with ellipses representing the suture-like notations for these insertions. As the punctuation mark of omission and elision, the ellipsis signals both an absence, in the intentional suppression of information, and of production, as the place of convergence of disparate texts into a unified whole.
The ellipsis thus represents the paradoxical poetics of Goncourt's project: while it marks the insertion of documents bruts--the primary sources from his female readers--into the novel, the ellipsis also signals Goncourt's authorial intervention in the artistic arrangement of those sources. Other critics have previously considered the complicated nature of Goncourt's claims to objectivity: Jean-Louis Cabanes and Philippe Hamon have noted the dizzying va-et-vient in Cherie between real documents and authorial interventions (35); Katherine Ashley likens Goncourt's method to "bricolage" and suggests that the novel ultimately "feeds into a myth of femininity" that belies the naive transparency the author claims in the preface (135). (5) My assertion here is that the ellipsis is central to the question of authenticity and artificiality in the text. While Cherie could certainly be described as "bricolage," the ellipsisas-suture metaphor is a more apt description of Goncourt's composition methods because it marries the book's formal features (the as-is incorporation of primary sources) and its thematic concerns (fashion and dressmaking). The ellipsis thus becomes a typographical symbol of both Goncourt's ambitions to write a "livre de pure analyse" and his failure to completely transcend novelistic conventions. In the end, Goncourt is more like a dress designer (like his character Gentillat) than he is an objective documentarian in this highly curated "etude de jeune fille du monde officiel sous le Second Empire" (39).
Significantly, the first row of ellipses in the book appears in the preface of Cherie: the notation signals the suture point of two different prefaces--one for Cherie, and one for the Journal, to be published twenty years after Goncourt's death in 1896. (6) This suture point not only demarcates the boundary between the two prefaces, but it also suggests the means by which material from the Journal would be included in the novel--by typographically stitching it in.
Furthermore, the initial appearance of rows of periods in the narrative itself corresponds with the first incorporation of an as-is document in Cherie. (7) The section titled Reglement de vie of chapter XXXIII is based on the childhood diary of one of Goncourt's major contributors, Pauline Zeller. (8) A table of contents lists six sections for the Reglement de vie, but only parts one, two, and six are reproduced in their entirety in the novel, with their respective titles. The elided chapters three, four, and five are represented by eight rows of ellipsis-like notations. The text excerpted here--the last sentence of the Deuxieme Partie ("RESOLUTIONS POUR LA JOURNEE") and the first sentences of the Sixieme Partie ("CE QUE JE DOIS PRATIQUER TOUTE MA VIE")--appears as follows:
Quelquefois, en m'endormant, je songerai a la mort, regardant mon lit comme mon tombeau: on se couche le soir, mais on n'est pas sur de se lever le lendemain.
SIXIEME PARTIE CE QUE JE DOIS PRATIQUER TOUTE MA VIE
Ce que je crois, je veux le pratiquer hautement. Je mepriserai le respect humain. (140-41) (9)
This extensive typographical intrusion signals both authenticity and artificiality; the stitch-like notations indicate both the incorporation and partial suppression of one of Goncourt's crowdsourced contributions. Dominique Pety has argued that the meaning of Cherie is derived not from the "dynamisme de l'intrigue"--there is hardly a plot to speak of--but from a complex montage of different kinds of documents which the reader has to learn to interpret" (115). For Pety, the "points de suspension" like those included in chapter XXXIII are used to frame the boundaries of the "documents intimes" incorporated into the novel and to indicate when "un document trop long est tronque" (Cherie et le Docteur Pascal" 115, 116). The ellipses signal the document's authenticity: Zeller's diary is reproduced in Goncourt's novel in an unadulterated form. However, the irony of the ellipses is that as Goncourt underscores the integrality of Zeller's Reglement, they also give typographical proof of his modification of the document.
The textual sutures between the second and sixth part of the Reglement function much like another typographical anomaly in the text--italics. As Lola Kheyar Stibler argues, italics in Cherie signal most of all the authorial voice: "[O]n percoit le narrateur citant autant, sinon plus, que le personnage cite" (98). The filtering of female documents through a male authorial voice obscures the transparency of the livre de pure analyse Goncourt claims to have written. Cabanes and Hamon suggest that the play between inserted documents and authorial intervention paradoxically make Cherie "tout a la fois le plus objectif et le plus subjectif, le plus autoritaire et le plus impersonnel des romans ecrits par les Goncourt" (137n1). While the immediacy of his source documents lends credence to his claims of authenticity, Goncourt's elisions and emendations suggest the more contrived nature of his portrayal of femininity.
Equally significant blocks of ellipses demonstrate the play between omission and convergence in the novel. The next time rows of ellipses occur in the text is in the description of Cherie's first menstrual cycle. The chapter begins by describing the physiological indicators preceding a girl's first period, including disturbed sleep caused by "nuit[s] de fievre" (151). The description is followed by five rows of ellipses, and then by Cherie's musings on her own mortality; she thinks she is dying because of the loss of blood. As Cabanes and Hamon observe, Goncourt forewent his original naturalistic account of Cherie's period ("[...] elle se leva et vit dans sa chemise rouge le sang fluer entre les cuisses" (152n3) in favor of the more euphemistic description of "l'occulte transformation de la fillette en une creature d'amour, en une femme reglee" (150). In this instance, the punctuation indicates Goncourt's elliptical description of the physiological change. Goncourt made this choice to avoid the comparison of this scene to a similar one in Zola's La Joie de vivre (1884), but also to avoid the extremes of Zolian naturalism: "[Goncourt] a prefere l'ellipse ou plutot l'indiscrete et ostensible allusion des points de suspension" (Cabanes and Hamon 150n1, 152n3). Punctuation serves to abstract the anatomical specificities of female physiological development.
However, in Mlle Tony-Freneuse's letter to Cherie in a subsequent chapter, Goncourt uses the ellipsis to create an intimate account of another stage in the sexual development of a high society young woman--the loss of virginity. Addressed from "Compiegne. De ma couche nuptiale," her letter is littered with ellipses as she recounts her honeymoon experience. The reference to Rousseau's famous ellipsis is unmistakable: signing her letter "Juliette," Mlle Tony-Freneuse describes in detail her first sexual encounter with her new husband, her thoughts strung together through a long series of ellipses--a most ironic use of the punctuation because hardly anything is left to the imagination. She also notes that her husband tries to express his desire "avec toutes sortes de circonlocutions" (278)--a comic reprise of the elliptical language Goncourt uses to describe Cherie's menses.
Like the Reglement de vie, Mlle Tony-Freneuse's letter is one of the few sections in the book that is narrated in a female voice. The letter is presented as another document brut incorporated into the novel: it represents a sharp shift in tone from the dialogue of the previous chapter to the third-person narrator's voice in the subsequent chapter. As Cabanes and Hamon have noted, the source material of the letter is not one of Goncourt's female readers, as is the case with the other inserted documents, but his own Journal. To craft the letter, the author spliced together different anecdotes that he had recorded in the Journal to produce what Cabanes and Hamon call "un patchwork" (276-7n2). This document exemplifies the novel's complicated claims to authenticity: though the episode is narrated in a female voice, the source documents are Goncourt's own writing. The resulting letter is not a woman reporting her own experience in her own words, but various interwoven anecdotes to produce a coherent narrative--a return of the romanesque in the artful arrangement of source material.
Five rows of ellipses mark the insertion of a second female-authored document tel quel in the narrative. Critical opinion is split on the source document, though all agree that the text is based on the writings of one of Goncourt's main contributors. (10) The narrator notes that the document titled "CAHIER DE PROBLEMES" is "ecrit au crayon et au contresens de l'ecriture des devoirs, un journal des plus riches en points d'exclamation, en phrases raturees, en lignes de points sous lesquels se dissimulent des pensees qui rougissent pudiquement de se formuler" (191). Katherine Ashley notes that here Cherie is "writing against the grain, subverting her 'devoirs,' both her homework and her duties" (132). Further underscoring the opacity of Cherie's journal is her remark about her first amourette in the June 28 entry: "Oh! oh! voila du romanesque! ... " (193). This remark complicates the interpretation of the entire novel because the romanesque is exactly what Goncourt endeavored to eliminate from Cherie.
Furthermore, Goncourt reveals another interpretive challenge when, in an effort to be pudique, Cherie redacts certain words from her journal. The potential difficulty of deciphering Cherie's diary is underscored in the parenthetical intrusion of the narrator in the July 27 entry: "Je ne sais ce que j'ai, mais je suis triste; je crois decidement que je suis ... (le mot, aussitot ecrit, avait ete une premiere fois raye d'un coup de crayon bien noir); mais de qui? de quoi?" (193-4). Similarly, as she reflects on an encounter with a young man she met at cotillion, Cherie writes on December 24: "Il m'a mis mon echarpe sur la tete, et dans ses yeux j'ai cru voir qu'il pensait a un b ... r. Moi j'y ai pense aussi!" (197). The naive narrative voice here may not seem to pose too much of an interpretive challenge for the reader, but Cherie's elliptical formulations suggest the possibility that Goncourt's older, more sophisticated collaborators may have been more successfully indirect in their submissions to the author. The lacuna in Cherie's diary thus perform a double function. The references to the "phrases raturees" and the "lignes de points" lend an air of authenticity to Goncourt's text. The redacted middle letters of "baiser" contribute to the sense that we really are reading the journal of a shy young girl who doesn't dare voice her desire. However, the gaps in Goncourt's text gesture to a larger question of transparency and interpretation about the novel's composition: given the semantic subterfuge of Cherie's diary--which, of course, is a wholesale appropriation of a source document--how can we be sure that Goncourt himself was able to interpret the contributions of his readers?
The incorporation of readers' letters in his novel is a point of pride for Goncourt; he claims a greater degree of accuracy in his portrayal of French femininity because of his composition methods. When he solicited his female readers' input, however, Goncourt stipulated that what would be of most value to him were the banalities of their intellectual and emotional development --not the eccentricities of their childhoods: "D'aventures, il est bien entendu que je n'en ai nul besoin [...]" (La Faustin iii). J.H. Rosny, aine, author of the novel's 1921 postface, member of the Academie Goncourt, and personal friend of Edmond, ratifies the originality and validity of the author's approach: "C'est une oeuvre essentiellement documentaire, pour parler le langage de cette epoque; la fiction n'y intervient que pour coordonner les faits ou pour leur donner plus de relief' (269). Goncourt claims distinction for his novel because, in its documentary-like realness, it avoids rendering his protagonist "non humain, la creature insexuelle, abstraite, mensongerement ideale" (41). As Cabanes and Hamon state, "le vraisemblable importe moins que le vrai" in Cherie--and therein lies the difference between his work and previous attempts to broach the subject (10). However, in one of her letters to Goncourt, Catherine Junges, one of the four main contributors to Goncourt's novel, underscores how difficult it is for the author to guarantee the transparency of the submissions from his readers:
Je dois vous avouer d'abord, que je suis sure que la plupart des femmes qui repondiront a votre appel--mentiront. Ce sera a vous, a votre perspicacite, a votre analyse de demeler la verite dans le mensonge. Les femmes peintes par elles-memes seront des anges au fond, leurs faiblesses seront sympathiques, le fait meme de leurs confessions les representera comme des etres exceptionnels. Si j'avais des confessions a vous faire je mentirais probablement comme les autres. (qtd. in Bayle 20)
Junges' warning about the probable dissimulation of Goncourt's contributors underscores the difficulty of the author's intended project. She appeals to Goncourt's superior perception--the same ability that he vaunts in the preface to Cherie--to encourage him to discern the true from the false in the correspondence sent by his female readers. Alidor Delzant, the first biographer of the Goncourts, similarly characterizes the submissions that the author received: "Peu de femmes, a la verite repondirent utilement a l'appel ... Les lettres envoyees contenaient surtout le recit d'aventures bizarres ou romanesques dont l'auteur avait pris soin de dire qu'il n'avait que faire" (237; emphasis added).
Because of the apparently fictional quality of many of the letters Goncourt received, they seemed designed to obstruct--not facilitate--his attempt to compose a transparent work from documents humains. The complicated dynamic between fact and fiction makes the appearance of ellipses in the novel particularly suggestive as they thematize how Goncourt mediates the intrusion of the romanesque in his livre de pure analyse. This negotiation is laid bare in the figure of Gentillat--the male designer genius who is a fictional incarnation of famed nineteenth-century couturier Emile Pingat. (11) Critics have long underscored the importance of dress as a theme and a metaphor in Cherie: Domenica de Falco posits the "enchevetrement" of clothing and writing in the novel (147); Eleonore Reverzy argues that the text's "ponctuation temporelle est soutenue par le rythme des robes" (77); Bernard Vouilloux submits that, like the text, the dresses in the novel require a "dechiffrement" (51); Mireille Dottin-Orsini observes that the white of Cherie's wardrobe is also the "couleur de la virginite, de la page non ecrite et du neant" ("Cherie, Rene, Pauline" 69). Before Cherie's first official ball, Mlle Tony-Freneuse takes her young charge to Gentillat's atelier to have her properly outfitted in one of the book's many white dresses. Mlle Tony-Freneuse explains to the designer that Cherie "aurait besoin d'une toilette ou se lise votre signature" (183). Gentillat studies Cherie carefully, and then rattles off a litany of dress details (connected in the text by ellipses) to his assistant:
--Toilette entierement en tulle ... pour une jeune fille il n'y a que le tulle ... Corsage plisse avec quatre rangs de tuyaute du decolletage ... oui, au bord de la peau, quelque chose qui ressemble a du cygne ... Pour la jupe, derriere, pans de peplum, et satin blanc avec deux glands. deux petits glands comme des oeufs de pigeon ... Maintenant, sur l'epaule, un bouquet de myositis et de violettes.c'est comme cela que je vois Mademoiselle. (183)
It is important to note that Gentillat is working with a male collaborator--"[le] peintre de la femme elegante" (182)--in deciding which colors and which lines would best suit his female clients. This collaboration for the sake of portraying femininity is unmistakably reminiscent of Edmond de Goncourt's previous work with his brother Jules. As Reverzy observes: "[...] la robe de bal est l'image meme de l'oeuvre collaborative des deux freres" (84). Furthermore, Gentillat's parting phrase--"c'est comme cela que je vois Mademoiselle"--implies a reversal of direction that is crucial to the novel's poetics: it is Cherie who conforms to Gentillat's notion of femininity; she does not dictate to him.
But what does this mean for Goncourt's female collaborators? Is he really just the documentarian he claims in the preface to be, or is he authoring notions of femininity through the artistic arrangement of primary sources? The continued description of Cherie's encounter with Gentillat provides the answer: the couturier sends the young girl first to the corsagere and then to the jupiere, who do the manual labor of creating the dress' form. Goncourt describes further this gendered division of labor:
Eh! bien a l'heure presente, dans ces ateliers de modiste masculin, chez ce petit monde ouvrier de femmes aux legeres mains associees aux imaginations du patron, c'est la maintenant qu'il faut chercher la fievreuse emulation du petit chef-d'oeuvre. (185)
This description corresponds to the historical phenomenon of men's annexation of what had traditionally been the ken of women (that is, the designing and production of fashion), but here Goncourt also reveals the dynamic between him and his female readers--they provide the materials and the manual labor, but he produces the masterful design.
This characterization of Goncourt as couturier is underscored upon Gentillat's inspection of his employees' work. Unsatisfied, he exclaims, "Non, ce n'est pas cela!" (186) and starts to modify the design by repinning portions of the garment. Goncourt describes Gentillat's task as "[u]n travail de juxtaposition sur les rondeurs et les rentrants de ce corps" (186), and, "ne cachant rien, ne voilant rien, ne masquant rien" (186), the designer reshapes the clumsily executed lines made by his female employees.
Puis sur l'assemblage des devants, des petits cotes, du dos, qu'on aurait cru parfait, definitif, les deux pouces de Gentillat se prominent a plat de chaque cote des coutures, les soudant petit a petit, ne laissant entre elles que la suture invisible existant parmi des morceaux de papier colles bout a bout,--et il reepingle, reepingle, reepingle. (186)
The modus operandi of Gentillat as the dress designer provides the perfect metaphor for Goncourt as the author of Cherie: he is the male genius who reshapes the labor of his female collaborators, pinning disparate papers together to create a work of art. Could we not then see the book's many ellipses as the result of this kind of stitching together of myriad narratives? Are they not the seams of a well-wrought work? I contend that Goncourt's composition process did not produce an "effet involontaire de patchwork," as Dottin-Orsini calls it ("Cherie, femme ou jeune fille" 68), but that the patchwork construction is the very essence of his project. Like so many stitches, ellipses make possible the suturing of disparate documents into a novel. Yet within the possibilities of the ellipsis, there is also the menace of omission and the threat to the transparency that Goncourt vaunts so proudly in his preface. All considered, what remains in Cherie is not a documentary portrayal of French femininity, but a highly contrived construct imprinted with Goncourt's signature style.
Ashley, Katherine. Edmond de Goncourt and the Novel: Naturalism and Decadence. Rodopi, 2005.
Bayle, Marie-Claude. Cherie d'Edmond Goncourt. Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1983.
Cabanes, Jean-Louis and Philippe Hamon. Preface. Cherie, by Edmond de Goncourt, La Chasse au Snark, 2002, pp. 7-37.
Dallenbach, Lucien. "Reading as Suture (Problems of Reception of the Fragmentary Text: Balzac and Claude Simon)." Translated by Susan H. Leger, Style, vol. 18, no. 2, 1984, pp. 196-206.
De Falco, Domenica. La Femme et les personnages feminins chez les Goncourt. Honore Champion, 2012.
De Goncourt, Edouard. Cherie. Ernest Flammarion, 1921.
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Dottin-Orsini, Mireille. "Cherie, Renee, Pauline et les autres ... ," Cahiers Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, no. 16, 2009, pp. 59-71.
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Kheyar Stibler, Lola. "L'enfant et sa parole dans Cherie d'Edmond de Goncourt." Cahiers Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, no. 20, 2013, pp. 93-103.
Pety, Dominique. "Cherie et Le Docteur Pascal: filiation et transmission des heritages." Cahiers Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, no. 20, 2013, pp. 105-117.
Reverzy, Eleonore. "Raconter le Second Empire: Cherie," Cahiers Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, no. 22, 2015, pp. 73-84.
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Brigham Young University
(1) In a note in his introduction to the 2018 critical edition of Cherie, Dominique Pety writes that Philippe Hamon's presentation on the novel "avait tout l'air d'une exhumation!" (7n1). Also, unless stated otherwise, all quotations in this essay come from the 2002 edition of Cherie.
(2) Philippe Hamon pointed out in 1996 that Cherie was "un texte introuvable, non reedite" as it even failed to show up in the entry on Goncourt's works in Laffon-Bompiani's Dictionnaire des auteurs (1980). Hamon and Jean-Louis Cabanes' 2002 edition of the novel is the first reedited edition since its initial publication in 1884.
(3) Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Cherie are from the 2002 edition.
(4) Goncourt's younger brother, ame soeur, and first collaborator Jules had died twelve years earlier on June 20, 1870 - also the date of Cherie's death.
(5) Cabanes and Hamon write that "la juxtaposition de documents bruts pourrait sans doute apparaitre contradictoire avec les intrusions d'auteur, avec l'interventionnisme permanent d'Edmond (apartes, souvenirs personnels, commentaires, addresses au lecteur, interrogations rhetoriques, rappels de notations precedentes, etc.) [...]" (35).
(6) Cabanes explains that several volumes of selections from the Journal were published during Edmond de Goncourt's lifetime, though the entirety of the Journal--eleven cahiers in total was not published until 1956. Cf, Journal des Goncourt, Tome I, Champion, 2005, 1-9.
(7) It should be noted that ellipses and rows of dots are a typographical tell of the Goncourt brothers' writing. For example, rows of ellipses punctuate: Chapters XXIX and XXX in Charles Demailly (1860); Chapter LII in Germinie Lacerteux (1865); Chapters XII, XLVIII, XLIX in Madame Gervaisais (1869). Ellipses also dominate much of the dialogue of the Goncourts' work. The distinction I'm arguing for here is based on their resemblance to sutures as the idea of sewing resonates with both Goncourt's assemblage of his source documents and the importance of fashion as a theme in the novel.
(8) As Marie-Claude Bayle explains, there were four major contributors to Goncourt's novel: Pauline Zeller, "fille d'un professeur d'histoire que Sainte-Beuve avait place aupres de la Princesse" (14); Catherine Junges, a niece of Leo Tolstoy; Julia Allard, Alphonse Daudet's wife who had corresponded with Goncourt about her book L'Enfance d'une Parisienne; and Marie Abbatucci, "demoiselle d'honneur de la princesse qui lui donna le point de depart de Cherie" (11). Katherine Ashley has pointed out that though Abbatucci's privileged upbringing inspired the novel, it doesn't appear that she contributed any materials to Goncourt's archive of documents humains (130).
(9) I have reproduced here the appearance of the points de suspension as they appear in every edition of Cherie. All of the editions have eight rows of ellipsis-like notations at this point in the novel, though the number of dots varies from edition to edition: there are 15 dots in each row in the columns of Gil Blas, where the novel was originally serialized between March 10 and April 17, 1884; 16 dots in each row in the original 1884 book edition; 24 dots in the 1900 edition; 51 dots in the 2002 edition; and 41 dots in the ARTFL edition. Though the number of dots varies, what is common to all the editions of the novel is that the ellipses span the width of the page, leaving a block of stitch-like notations in the middle of Goncourt's text.
(10) Marie-Claude Bayle, Jean-Louis Cabanes, and Philippe Hamon identify the contributor as Pauline Zeller, whereas Katherine Ashley contends that this section is based Catherine Junges' contributions.
(11) Cabanes and Hamon identify an anecdote listed in the Goncourts' Journal on the February 18, 1877 entry as the inspiration for this scene (182n1).
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