Figures of degeneration in fin-de-siècle French literature
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This dissertation explores how authors used the biological metaphor of degeneration to explain and condemn the decline of France in the first decades of the Third Republic. Degeneration was originally a medical coinage used in studies of specific forms of mental illness, but progressively became a recurrent term connecting biology and cultural criticism, and allowed late-nineteenth-century authors to theorize social decay. Faith in science having been adopted as the more or less official dogma of the Third Republic, and doctors having achieved great prestige as well as political power, the medical concept of degeneration took hold as an explanatory model for countless physical, social and moral afflictions. Fin-de-siècle France offers a remarkably rich ground for observing the diffusion of such a discourse into literature. This dissertation focuses on the fantasies of decline and loss that pervade the literature of the period and draws on scholarship about degeneration in British literature, but seeks to illuminate the "Frenchness" of the corpus. Indeed, surprisingly, no systematic study of the pervasiveness of degenerative tropes in French literature of the period has been undertaken. While the authors of the texts under study (Bourget, Daudet, Zola, Verne, Bertrand, Goncourt) did not constitute a unified literary school, their shared concerns connect their fictions as diagnoses of and correctives to a collective malaise. Coalescing around three figures of degeneration--social climbers, prostitutes, and colonials--these concerns revolved around perceived threats to social order, moral values and organic health in the early Third Republic. Contemporary scientific theories offered a template for the characterization of degenerates, but these authors appropriated and reworked such discourse in their fictions to their own ends of social and political critique. Portrayed as both symptoms and causes of a larger degeneration, the protagonists are in turn censured and pitied, as these sharply individualized figures stand for a pathological and reprehensible milieu. The degenerate protagonists become the diseased norm in the Opportunist Republic, collapsing individual deviance into a collective malaise.