Sexual violence is the oppression and violation of women and the rhetoric through which men establish their masculine identity. Balzca’s Adieu is a text laden with sexual violence and phallocentricism palpable to a feminist reading. In this essay, I will be looking at the sexism of language and the model of the woman-beast used habitually in the text. I will also be exploring the consistent silencing of women in the text and how male narcissism actively oppresses and, ultimately, sexually violates women.
To own language is to own the reflection of reality. According to Gannett, our language is the language of men. It is comprised solely of the dominant (man as a humankind), the muted (the woman to the man), and the silenced (the hysterical and irrelevant – the animal and the child) (Gannett 1992, p.53). The dominant voice is of men – the authors and speakers of discourse and meaning; they are who creates our reality (Gannet 1992, p.53). The muted is of women – the voices must adhere to the dominant discourse (Gannet 1992, p.53). Voices outside of the dominant dialogue are left unheard, belonging only to the mad and hysterical and the inhuman (Gannet 1992, p.53). In Adieu, the language of men is evident.
Men as the writers of reality have time and again used the woman-beast comparison (though rather than a comparison it is more so a metaphorical relation and bestialisation). It is evident that it has its roots in the phallocentric binary of the rationality of man and the irrationality (hysteria) of women (Desblache 2005, p.381). Women, like animals, are creatures under men’s rule – even in Genesis, when God gives men the animals to tame, protect, and ultimately use. Animals are mute, without souls, unable to communicate like men do.
From the introduction of Stephanie in Adieu, Balzac offers us the first of many descriptions that adhere to the prevailing model of the woman-beast (prescribing to the language of the man – the dominant discourse): “At that moment,” Balzac writes, “the two huntsmen heard a cry that was something like that of a mouse caught in a trap” (2014, p.12). Then there is a description of the house where Stephanie resides. It is dilapidated, run down, with fruit rotting on the ground – emblematic of Stephanie’s mind (since no human woman would live in such disorder). A cow and goat greet the huntsmen as they approach the door, and already we are given a zoological image where Stephanie is simply another of the animals grazing in front of the house. When Stephanie appears again, she is described as unintelligible and vacant, her teeth “as white as those of a dog” (Balzac 2014, p.13). There are only women-beasts in Adieu (sometimes described as a child – who fall into the muted group), a text that places women as subservient and secondary, even when not succumbed to madness. They are only silenced in madness because they do not adhere to the dominant discourse of language.
It is not only the narration that silences women in Adieu. According to Felman, the literary suppression of the female voice is also evident in the concept of women as the ‘unreal’ opposed to men as the ‘real’. Literary critics like Gascar and Berthier choose to focus on the war represented in the text (here we see the erasure of women in a more immediate and alarming form, especially within the academic circles) – chapter two being the focus of men and the other two chapters bringing Stephanie more so into the forefront of the story (though even then, she is more so a prop than an agent) (Felman 1993, pp.27-29). Adieu, according to Gascar and Berthier, is a story about the realistic heroism of soldiers (the ‘real protagonists’) and that Stephanie’s narrative is simply a supernatural streak within the text – unrealistic and ‘marvellous’ (Felman 1993, pp.28-30). Supernatural, Felman notes, is something not adhering to rationality, something to be dismissed, and “does not call for thought” (1993, p.30). Thus, women are reduced to a fictional status, a fairy tale – Stephanie is no longer a woman, or even an animal; she is Sleeping Beauty.
In regards to the woman-beast model, it is a simple yet illuminating reflection of a phallocentric reality. Stephanie’s journey in Adieu is one of dependence, objectification, and dehumanisation. From being rescued by Philippe during the war to being consistently hunted and captured by men (whether they had good or bad intentions), she is only independent outside of man’s grasp and in turn, their rationality. This desire to own, to have their female ‘Other’, is what drives the dominant discourse. For an example, Philippe attempts over a period of time to bring back Stephanie’s sanity (insanity marking the loss of femininity) by ‘taming’ her with sugar lumps and attempting to hear her utter his name. Felman notes that this is an effort to re-establish his own masculinity – since Stephanie as a woman-beast (something not human since the loss of femininity) is, to Philippe, a failure as a man (1993, pp.35-36). Stephanie, Felman argues, is Philippe’s Other; she is how he measures himself; she is his validator and establisher; without her recognition and lucidity, he is losing himself as she is to him (1993, pp.35-36). Man’s desire to own woman, to measure himself by her, is the aggressively ego-centric foundation to a hegemonic paradigm.
Fjelkestam, in her paper Gendering Cultural Memory, explores the erasure of Stephanie’s past traumas by Philippe and the suppression of sexual violence by the dominant voice. She quotes Hirsch and Smith on the gender perspective of historical and cultural memory: “what a culture remembers and what it chooses to forget are intricately bound up with issues of power and hegemony, and thus with gender” (cited in Fjelkestam 2013, p.240). Fjelkestam postulates that “what society chooses to remember becomes ‘the truth’”, which in this case the validity of memory and history falls upon the dominant voice (the authors), which was aforementioned (2013, p.245). Balzac, who writes under the dominant discourse as a male author, is an agent in this ‘selective remembering’. There is a detailed exploration of war and men but very little female representation. There is Stephanie, the only woman mentioned in Chapter Two of the text, and she is like a ghost (here, perhaps, is a supernatural element to her presence), half asleep and in a dream state, dumbly following Philippe. Her traumas following the river crossing is only mentioned in passing (within one or two sentences) and only serves to push the plot – to explain her insanity. The full extent of her trauma is dismissed and pushed into the background – suppressed and silenced, which is common when it comes to women and sexual abuse. Fjelkestam argues that Philippe’s refusal to acknowledge Stephanie’s trauma is what causes her to die (which in turn serves as his own death sentence) (2013, p.247). To elaborate, when Philippe attempts to recreate his own memory of the war (remembering as a man), Stephanie’s trauma is ultimately erased from the past – because Philippe refuses to acknowledge the distinction between past and present (Fjelkestam 2013, p.247). Thus, she dies because when her trauma is erased, she too is erased – in that her voice, her experiences, her memories and history are taken from her.
Ofcourse, though this is an exploration of a story from 19th Century France, a feminist reading of it is still critical to present day literature and society. Sexual violence is not only the literal abuse and rape of women, but also the metaphorical, the conceptual – the active oppression and silencing of women. We can see this, at the core, in the dominant/muted/silenced discourse in language, which is hardly noticed or challenged (which makes it dangerous); the dominant, hegemonic discourse by which all literary oppression of women conforms to. This distinction and subjugation of the man/woman opposition is also evident in the dehumanisation of women and the woman-beast model. By turning women into something other than human, they become easier to control and own – whether as an animal or a supernatural entity (unreal and marvellous). The obvious omission of the female experience in cultural memory and history, especially in relation to sexual violence and abuse, is not only harmful but possibly the worst violence one can inflict upon women. Balzac, whether intentional or not, has dismissed sexual violence, reducing it to a mere tool to explain Stephanie’s madness (as if a man can as easily take away a woman’s identity and femininity as he can control it). To look at the status of sexual violence in Balzac’s Adieu is to look at the state of male narcissism and ego-centrism. To take away a woman’s voice, her identity, and her experiences, is to metaphorically rape her and make her nothing. Though men may look at women as reflections of themselves, I think they must first look at themselves; and as women, we must unfailingly challenge this phallocentric reality and speak.
©Yuki Iwama, 2015
Balzac, HD 2014, Adieu, trans. KP Wormley, Ingram.
Desblache, L 2005, ‘Beauties and Beasts: contrasting visions of animal representation in women’s contemporary fiction’, Comparative Critical Studies, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 381-395.
Gannet, C 1992, Gender and the Journal: diaries and academic discourse, SUNY Press, Albany.
Felman, S 1993, Women and Madness: the critical phallacy, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Fjelkestam, K 2013, ‘Gendering Cultural Memory: Balzac’ Adieu’, Culture Unbound, vol. 5, pp. 239-249.