Reconstructing Woman

From Fiction to Reality in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel

Paper or softback
Dorothy Kelly
Published 18 Jan 2008
List Price £21.95

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Reconstructing Woman is a very rich study, immensely suggestive, well researched, well written, and sophisticated in its scholarly approach. Because it is so elegantly argued and so intriguing, this study has the potential to open up new avenues of research.”

—Mary Donaldson-Evans, University of Delaware

“Noteworthy for its exemplary clarity, this is a model academic book, well written and impeccably edited. Including an exceptionally detailed index, it will serve as an invaluable guide to these authors.”

—A.M. Rea, Choice

“Kelly’s book is a fascinating look at a group of important fictional documents from the nineteenth century and their representation of womanhood.”

—Juliette Dade, South Central Review

“Kelly’s study is subtle, complex, and, at times, extremely dense, as she artfully weaves together the various threads of her analysis. It is a rich and rewarding read for anyone interested in the nineteenth-century novel or in the influence of science on literature.”

—Laurey Martin-Berg, French Review

“Through her perceptive readings and her acute understanding of science, feminism, and theories of identity, Kelly offers fresh insights into the old notion of artistic creation as male birth. Her sophisticated and important book has great potential to open up new avenues of research.”

—Julianna Starr, Nineteenth-Century French Studies

“Above all, this text . . . testifies to the power of language as a creative force which can be used to model reality. . . . Kelly’s insightful, rich and intelligent book identifies a shared concern over the nature of human identity which manifests itself in all the works she investigates.”

—Hannah Thompson, H-France Book Reviews

Reconstructing Woman explores a scenario common to the works of four major French novelists of the nineteenth century: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, and Villiers. In the texts of each author, a “new Pygmalion” (as Balzac calls one of his characters) turns away from a real woman he has loved or desired and prefers instead his artificial re-creation of her. All four authors also portray the possibility that this simulacrum, which replaces the woman, could become real. The central chapters examine this plot and its meanings in multiple texts of each author (with the exception of the chapter on Villiers, in which only “L’Eve future” is considered).

The premise is that this shared scenario stems from the discovery in the nineteenth century that humans are transformable. Because scientific innovations play a major part in this discovery, Dorothy Kelly reviews some of the contributing trends that attracted one or more of the authors: mesmerism, dissection, transformism, and evolution, new understandings of human reproduction, spontaneous generation, puericulture, the experimental method. These ideas and practices provided the novelists with a scientific context in which controlling, changing, and creating human bodies became imaginable.

At the same time, these authors explore the ways in which not only bodies but also identity can be made. In close readings, Kelly shows how these narratives reveal that linguistic and coded social structures shape human identity. Furthermore, through the representation of the power of language to do that shaping, the authors envision that their own texts would perform that function. The symbol of the reconstruction of woman thus embodies the fantasy and desire that their novels could create or transform both reality and their readers in quite literal ways. Through literary analyses, we can deduce from the texts just why this artificial creation is a woman.



Introduction: The Science of Control

1. Transformation, Creation, and Inscription: Balzac

2. Women, Language, and Reality: Flaubert

3. Rewriting Reproduction: Zola

4. Villiers and Human Inscription

Conclusion: The Power of Language



Dorothy Kelly is Professor of French at Boston University.