Les Diaboliques: Justice Manifested Via the Uncanny
The theme of justice is indeed ambiguous in the short stores Les Diaboliques by Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly. The stories are indeed graphically vivid, which take an unflinching perspective on life, love, sex, honor, lust, beauty and power — mostly from a masculine point-of-view. It is this masculine perspective which can shackle and disarm the female characters of these stories. But in each story, justice prevails on the fictional reality by allowing the females to consistently have an uncanny sense of beauty or cunning — a beauty that prevails by giving each female a bewitching or animalistic quality which endures and ends up haunting the male protagonists or disarming other female characters of the narratives. In this sense justice has fallen: while the female protagonists often don’t have the same amount of freedom or power that the male characters do, they have a strong hold on the uncanny and the bewitching and their beauty continues to haunt and bewitch time after time, regardless of whether they’re physically there or not.
Justice via Haunting in Le Rideau Cramoisi
The first instance of justice presented as an enduring, bewitching quality is in the short story, “The Crimson Curtain” (Le Rideau Cramoisi). “The story sets up a series of veils: the curtain, the table, the hand, the girl herself. Though we penetrate several layers, the mysterious reality beneath continues intact, and the girl forever remains an enigma. What is her power? What drives her?” (Pasco & Allen, 60). The girl’s power is precisely her enigmatic quality; her power resides in her ability to remain in the memory of men, despite the steady passage of time. The girl has that extreme quality of “je ne sais quoi” that the narrator sees immediately and which drives into his very soul.
“Their daughter! It was no possible for anyone to be more unlike the daughter of people like them! Not but what the prettiest girls are the daughters of all sorts of people. I have known many such, and you also doubt. Physiologically speaking, the ugliest being may produce the most beautiful. But there was a chasm of a whole race between her and them! Moreover, physiologically, if I may employ that pedantic word, which belongs to your days and not to mine, one could not help remarking her air, which was very singular in a girl as young as she was, for it was a kind of impassive air very difficult to describe. She had not about her which would make you say, ‘That is a pretty girl’, and yet you would have thought of all the pretty girls you had met by chance, and about whom you had said that and never thought more about it. But this air — which distinguished her not only from her parents, but from everyone else, amazed and petrified you; for she appeared to have neither passions nor feelings” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 39).
This quote was reproduced here in its entirety to demonstrate how much difficulty the narrator has in attempting to pinpoint just what it was exactly about the girl that so deeply troubled him and which he had such difficulty expressing in words. It’s clear that the girl he describes, Mademoiselle Alberte, is extremely beautiful and the old captain is able to convey that lucidly. However, the aspect about this girl that he struggles with and struggles with so profoundly, is that something else about her that is so challenging to pin down. However, when he does pin it down, as close as he can, he describes that aspect of her as terrifying. This reveals a tremendous amount about the girl’s power over him, even when the old captain denies that she has any. The captain describes how he barely sees the girl and how she barely speaks to him and how this all contributed to a profound indifference to her on his part. Nothing could be further from the truth; this is a case where the narrator is being unreliable. Rather, one can be assured that the old captain is continually and irrevocably disturbed by her when he says, attempting to discount her affect on him, “To me she was an image that I scarcely sawâ€¦” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 41). This line, attempts to be offhand and dismissive by the narrator, but actually succeeds in conveying just how disturbed and undone he was by the presence of this girl. This statement almost makes her seem like an indelible little ghost or specter, like a flitting image that migrates around their house.
The reader sees that Mademoiselle Alberte haunts the old captain before and after their first encounter, and that her power over him is precise and strong. In fact, one can argue that her power over him is even stronger after her death, as that is a clear example of justice manifesting with a totality of strength. The old captain has given her a most dishonorable death. This is a tremendous sin and way which can disgrace an individual’s entire life, regardless of the culture that one originates from. Every culture and religious background has specific rituals regarding one’s death that the old captain does not honor in lieu of his own cowardice. For example, “Common themes have been identified as important to the dying, regardless of cultural background. Aspects of care that are deemed highly important include: comfort and not being in pain, good communication between patient and doctors, maintaining hope, honoring spiritual beliefs, fixing relationships, making plans, and saying goodbye” (Clark & Philips, 211). Alberte is denied all of these aspects; instead, the reader is told that she dies as the result of an all-consuming orgasm given to her by her lover. This is likely a case of the old captain narrating in an unreliable fashion again; as such an explanation raises more questions about her death than it answers. Furthermore, his treatment of the corpse — slapping it, mutilating it, leaving it on a couch and then taking off in the middle of the night — further demonstrates the amount of dishonor that he leaves upon it.
Every culture in the world has precise rituals which accompany dying. All cultures treat death as something which should be done with precision and care and the proper treatment of the corpse is of the utmost priority. For example, in the Jewish tradition, “The person’s eyes are closed, the body is covered and laid on the floor and candles are lit. The body is never left alone. Eating and drinking are not allowed near the body as a sign of respect. In Jewish law, being around a dead body causes uncleanliness so often the washing of the body and preparations for burial will be carried out by a special group of volunteers from the Jewish community. This is considered a holy act” (amemorytree.co.nz). This provides a cultural example of how the proper treatment of the body of the departed is absolutely crucial when it comes to the human experience — and how such a fact is absolutely universal. This information aptly brings to light the grave dishonor that the old captain had bestowed on the Alberte, a fact which is even more scalding when one takes into consideration how intimate they had been together.
Two scholars of Barbey D’Aurevily have pointed out that Proust believed that his stories always have hidden at their center a ‘hidden reality revealed by a material trace’ (Pasco & Allen, 60). The hidden reality present in this story revolves around Alberte’s revenge and the exact nature of that revenge.
Yet Alberte’s revenge is certain, and it is via this revenge that justice is aptly served. Alberte’s revenge orbits around the fact that she haunts him for years to come, despite the fact that he denies that she does. As the reader knows, he’s not the most reliable narrator and the likelihood of his consistent accuracy of the retelling of any of these stories is indeed doubtful. “â€¦ but memories end by dying out. The devouring curiosity to know what had happened after my departure no longer disturbed me. I might have come back in after years to this little town — and changed as I was, I should never have been recognized — and learned what had been the end of my tragic adventure. But something, which was certainly not respect for public opinion, which I have all my life despised, but rather a disinclination to face a second time that which had given me a deadly fear, always restrained me” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 84). This excerpt is extremely revelatory in that it describes the extreme limbo that the captain is in, even up and till the present day. He claims he’s no longer curious about this woman, yet he’s terrified to return to the town. His cowardice is enveloped in a deadly fear — yet another aspect of Alberte’s revenge which signifies the implementation of the justice.
However, it’s only until the very end of the story does the reader learn firsthand just how final and lasting Alberte’s revenge has been. When the captain’s companion sees the slim outline of a woman in the crimson curtain by the window, the older captain replies, “The ghost of Alberte!’ said the captain. ‘Fortune is mocking us tonight, he added bitterly” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 85). This dynamic demonstrates the genuine thoughts and feelings of the captain. The shadow of a woman upon the curtain clearly catches him unaware and unprepared and he speaks without editing his real reactions, and those reactions demonstrate how he very explicitly feels haunted by this girl. And it is via this eternal haunting that justice has been served.
Happiness in Crime: Justice via the Uncanny and the Worthy Opponent
Justice is served in a slightly different manner in the short story, “Happiness in Crime” in that the bewitching quality of the female gets to prevail in life and not death as she does in The Crimson Curtain. Count Serlon de Savigny and Hauteclaire Stassin are able to prevail together despite their dark deeds as they remain happy in life, “They are exceptionally happy and insolently happy. I am old, and I’ve seen in my life many joys that did not last, but I’ve only seen one who was too deep, and that lasts forever!” (Barbey D’Aurevilly). Just as the saying goes, the best revenge is living well. However, in the world of Barbey D’Aurevilly, justice is truly served when the uncanny triumphs and is able to leave an indelible mark upon this physical, material world. This aspect, the success and enduring quality of the uncanny, is something which is a trend of style and content and which is one of the overall distinguishing qualities of Barbey D’Aurevilly’s reality.
The reader immediately sees that it is the uncanny at work, when the act which initiates the recollection of the story is of the bizarre. The doctor and his companion are spending time at the zoo and they see a devastatingly beautiful black panther. The panther’s beauty is so perfect, so balanced, there’s almost something uncanny about it: it’s as if it’s not of this world. “Lying gracefully with its paws stretched out in front, its head up, and its emerald eyes motionless, the panther was a splendid specimen of the savage productions of the country. Not a touch of yellow sullied its black velvet skin — of a blackness so deep and dull that the sunlight was absorbed by it as water is absorbed by a sponge. When you turned from this ideal form of supple beauty — of terrific force in repose — of silent and royal disdain — to the human creatures who were timidly gazing at it, open eyed and open mouthed, it was not the human beings who had the superiority over the animal. It was so much superior that the comparison was humiliating” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 198). However given this deep and intricate description of the panther, the attention of the doctor and his comparison is turned toward a young couple who were like panthers themselves, human panthers — they too, are not quite of this human world. The woman had “eyes that fascinated tigers” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 202).
The uncanniness of the glorious bestial quality of the couple is what provokes the recollection from the doctor, that and their profound indifference to their fellow mortals “They were both, as one could see when they passed, of those superior beings who do not even perceive that their feet touch the ground, and who pass through all the world in a cloud, like the immortals of Homer” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 203). It is this couple, this couple which is so evocative of being like the great cats, which evokes the story of Count Serlon de Savigny and his mistress Hauteclaire Stassin. This initiating fact alone gives the reader yet another taste of how justice has reigned yet again. In the reality of Barbey D’Aurevilly, that which haunts is an indicative factor of the justice at work, and the doctor is clearly haunted by the image and memory of the count and his mistress.
However, in order for the uncanny to fully prevail in this reality, it’s vital that the uncanny woman, the woman who has an ethereal, otherworldly quality to her — must prevail. This would indicate that within the world of Barbey D’Aurevilly, the superior woman has won the man. This apparently is one of the laws of Barbey D’Aurevilly’s universe, and a law which believes that the woman who claims the heart of the man and gets to keep him has to be the one who is better, finer, and often — more bewitching. “In Hauteclaire, it was the animal which was paramount. No other woman had that same kind of beauty. Men — who say everything when alone together — had often remarked it. At V — when she gave her fencing lessons, the men used to call her Mademoiselle Esau. The devil teaches women what they are — or they would teach it to the devil if they did not know” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 253).This description more than adequately describes how Hauteclaire is not quite of this world. Combined with her split-second fencing skill, the woman is like a dangerous weapon, and one which is so staggeringly beautiful that she becomes impossible to resist, as the count had complete difficulty in resisting her.
More importantly, these elements about her not only establish Hauteclaire’s uncanniness, but her superiority over the Count’s young wife. It is not merely a question of her being more beautiful than his wife, but it’s also an issue of her being cleverer, a fact which adds to her superiority, and which, in the realm of Barbey D’Aurevilly, justifies Hauteclaire murdering the count’s wife and taking her husband. One could argue that the count’s wife should have been completely suspicious and resistant to this beautiful girl taking such a menial position in her home, a position which allowed the calculating girl a great deal of power. For the count’s wife to allow such a thing to occur indicates that she was not aware of this uncanny quality the girl had, how she was both haunting and dangerous, like a bejeweled dagger. The count’s wife has essentially allowed a wolf in sheep’s clothing into her home and thus, as justice dictates, she practically deserves to get eaten by the wolf as she made no effort to stop it from entering her home.
For example, during the incident where the count’s wife is served the poison by Hauteclaire, the reader is told, “Her eyes were cast down and she looked beautiful, reserved and dignified, which only proves that those vipers of women can do whatever they like with their confounded bodies whenever it is in their pleasure to do so. Having recovered myself, like a man who bites his lips to prevent a cry of surprise from escaping him, I had a desire to show this impudent woman that I recognized her, and whilst the Comtesse drank her potion, and her face was hidden by the bowl, I fixed my eyes on Eulalie’s eyes, but hers — as mild as a fawns that evening — were firmer than that of the panther she had just stared down” (Barbey D’Aurevilly, 231).
While in the morality of the real world it’s wrong to kill others, in the reality of Barbey D’Aurevilly, it’s a failure of the human senses to not recognize a worthy opponent. The count’s wife completely fails in this respect on all accounts and it is the equivalent of turning one’s back on one’s fencing opponent so that they’ll have a full opportunity to stab one in the back. While such actions on behalf of Hauteclaire and the count might seem treacherous and immoral, what they really add up to is a superior amount of cunning, and this cunning is what dictates their success and their success is just.
Thus, the reality forged by Barbey D’Aurevilly is completely distinct from the manmade reality that his readers are acquainted with and the notion of justice is an all together different animal. In the world of Barbey D’Aurevilly, justice prevails when the uncanny has as well. In the story “The Crimson Curtain” this was achieved via the indelible mark that the girl left on the old captain. She has haunted him throughout time, regardless of whether or not he admits it to be true. Her haunting him represents a triumph of the strange and the ethereal, but also acts as a revenge for his wronging her in death, and that furthers the process of justice even more. In fact, the mere telling of the story by the captain is proof enough that he continues to be sufficiently haunted by the girl and that her memory continues to deeply trouble him. This is an undeniable piece of evidence of the uncanny at work.
Furthermore, justice is validated in the short story “Happiness in Crime” via the triumph of the uncanny through the taking of the Countess’s husband via the murder of his wife. The reasons for that are twofold: Hauteclaire, the woman who murders, represents a living representation of the uncanny via her devilish stare, otherworldly beauty and her dagger-like reflexes. The Gothic laws of Barbey D’Aurevilly’s universe are best served via the realization that the mysterious and supernatural triumphs all and that if mortals are to even think to usurp it, they need to be stronger and cleverer, which the count’s young wife is not. Justice is served in this story in that the worthier opponent, the savage cat, the more attractive woman prevails (Hauteclaire) — she kills her prey and takes what she wants. Regardless, it is via the act of haunting and being haunted, the unearthly, un-human and animal-likeness of women that the uncanny prevails in the precise world of Barbey D’Aurevilly and in which justice reigns.
Amemorytree.co.nz, . “Customs and Religious Protocols.” N.p.. Web. 12 Dec 2012.
Barbey D’Aurevilly, Jules. Weird woman: being a literal translation of “Les diaboliques.
1&2. London: Lutetian Bibliophiles Society, 1900. Print.
Eisenberg, D.L. The figure of the dandy in Barbey d’Aurevill’ys “Le bonheur dans le crime.” Bern: P. Lang, 1996. Print.
Rogers, B.G. The Novels and Stories of Barbey D’Aurevilly. Geneva: Libraire Droz,
Pasco, A.H., and P.H. Allan. Allusion: A Literary Graft. Toronto: University of Toronto
Press, 2002. Print.
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