“Sans doute habituée à une existence sédentaire”: des Esseintes’s Turtle and the Residue of Naturalism

This article analyzes the decorated turtle in Huysmans’s 1884 À rebours. It argues that des Esseintes’s unfortunate animal, which perishes under its heavy ornamentation, plays out the apprehensions of its owner and embodies the psychological and physical perils that await him. Turtles – fundamental to nineteenth-century discoveries in developmental biology as well as to Darwin’s theories of evolution – are at once instructive specimens and labile signifiers in competing narratives, sites and objects of theorization. The narrator’s use of this animal thus also amounts to an insertion of naturalism within the novel’s storied decadence. To make this argument, this article examines the turtle episode in the context of late nineteenth-century scientific and fictional writings about turtles, including Jules Hosch’s 1878 short story “Histoire d’une tortue et d’un étudiant.”