Meyer on Bernard (2013)


Bernard, Claudie. Le Jeu des familles dans le roman du XIXe siècle. Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, 2013. Pp. 324. ISBN: 978-2-86272-645-8

E. Nicole Meyer, Augusta University

Le Jeu des familles supplements the themes and readings present in Claudie Bernard’s previous work, Penser la famille au XIXe siècle 1789–1970 (2007), through an impressive series of close readings of novels by authors including Honoré de Balzac (Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées, Ursule Mirouët), Paul Bourget (L’Étape), Jules and Edmond de Goncourt (Renée Mauperin), Edmond de Goncourt (Les Frères Zemganno), Émile Zola (Le Docteur Pascal), George Sand (Le Compagnon du Tour de France), Eugène Sue (Le Juif errant), among others. After introducing the crucial metaphor underpinning her readings (the French card game le jeu des familles) and the ways it plays out in the representations of family in the nineteenth-century French novel, Bernard divides her work into four large sections examining hotly contested topics in the political imagination of the time: patriarchal nostalgia, paternal misunderstandings, fraternity, and decadence. Each part is itself composed of two to three chapters featuring close readings of individual texts. Her intriguing analysis of the texts adds rich dimensions to the nineteenth-century imagining of identity, especially in relation to family.

Bernard develops the evolving concepts of filiation, alliance, and authority (e.g., paternal vs. parental, and in relation to gender and society). For instance, in her discussion of the Goncourts’ Renée Mauperin, Bernard examines their presentation of the bourgeoisie. In contrast to that of the laborious, virtuous bourgeoisie of the Ancien Régime and the Post-Revolutionary dynamics seen in Balzac, Sand, or Sue, the Goncourts reveal a bourgeoisie defined by its leisure activities. Indeed, the jeu de familles plays out in fascinating ways in this work. Henri Mauperin de Villacourt confronts the conventions of marriage as he beds a mother, perhaps as a game or bluff, to entrap her daughter. Bernard explores the incestuous implications of this “game,” and opposes the depiction of the mother’s behavior to that of differently devoted maternal bourgeois figures featured in Sand, Zola, Maupassant, and Balzac. The title character’s opportunities are limited, moreover, according to this subtle and well-substantiated reading. Renée illustrates “lés déviances inhérentes au sentimentalisme mal entendu” of contemporary bourgeois families (125) and the self-destruction by its young members who, rather than assuring the family’s perpetuation, reveal the destructive forces that challenge its replenishment. Here, and throughout her work, Bernard relates her analyses both to social context and to many other contemporary works, thus situating them within ideological discourses of the time. Her accounts of the Goncourts’ work, Balzac’s Mémoires, and Sue’s Le Juif errant are extremely insightful. Her careful attention to language and to etymology helps Bernard to further elucidate the texts she examines.

The conclusion of Bernard’s work ties together what precedes, and, more interestingly, brings the literary treatment of the family to the present, linking the crisis of the family with that of the novel (crisis of legitimacy, origins, values, structure, etc.) in a fascinating way useful to scholars of present-day novels. In addition, her bibliography serves as a wonderful resource to anyone interested in the works she discusses, as well as to the broader social context.

Le Jeu des familles’s rich and insightful readings of the individual works, all featuring a deftly detailed analysis of language, reminds this reader of the never out-of-style delights of close reading.