Return to Equinoxes, Issue 1 : Printemps/Eté 2003
Article ©2004, Lewis C. Seifert
At the Equinoxes 2002 conference, Professor Lewis Seifert (Brown University) agreed to initiate discussion on the theme of Monstrosity by presenting the following paper, which considers the relationship between masculinity and monstrosity in a 17th century tale by Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy.
In one of the most successful conduct manuals of 17th-century France, Antoine de Courtin devotes a brief chapter to the "civilité" of the high nobility. Assuming they had an advantage over those who were not yet fully established members of the privileged elite (to whom his treatise is addressed), Courtin invokes the spectre of the monstrous to express just how unimaginable it is for them to be "incivils." "Quel monstre n'est-ce pas [...] qu'un grand seigneur qui n'a point de civilité," he says. If early modern civility aimed to differentiate the animal from the human, nature from culture, and the uncouth from the refined, the "grand seigneur" lacking in civility would be monstrous insofar as he blurred and amalgated those categories.
In "Le Prince Marcassin," however, Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, the most prolific of the late seventeenth-century writers of fairy tales, dares to imagine what for Courtin is unimaginable. Her tale recounts the adventures of a prince who is born as a pig. Against the backdrop of early modern norms of civility and masculinity, d'Aulnoy's pig prince is indeed a monster. As a prince who ought to have been born graceful in manners and bodily appearance, he is instead quite the opposite. Although attempts are made to repress his animality (by clothing and training), his base instincts cannot be so easily conjured from his body. This is clear in his ambivalent relation to the women of the tale, who play the central role prescribed by the early modern "civilizing process" (to borrow Norbert Elias' term). If his mother and his three (successive) wives all guide him along the path toward acquiring his preordained human form at the end, the pig prince is nonetheless torn between respect and disgust for them. All in all, throughout most of the tale, the pig prince inhabits a place of monstrous liminality. In what follows I will focus on how d'Aulnoy, from the doubly marginal position of a woman writing in a non-canonical genre, uses monstrosity to interrogate those very central features of early modern society that are the civilizing process and (royal) masculine subjectivity. Ultimately, as I will argue, d'Aulnoy invites us to question whether the civilizing process can indeed create impermeable boundaries between the animal and the human and between nature and culture and, further, whether "civilized" masculinity is possible at all.
Early on, d'Aulnoy's hero is exposed to the physical and intellectual rigors of a royal upbringing whose goal is to repress the degrading animal within him while enchancing his superlative human qualities. The first challenge is to efface his pig-like appearance: he is given specially-tailored clothing, he learns to walk on his two back feet, he is whipped each time he snorts, "enfin on lui ôtait autant qu'il était possible les manières marcassines" (433) and "l'on n'oubliait rien pour le rendre propre & poli" (435). He then is instructed in the more properly human arts of dance, music, horseback riding, and hunting, excelling at all of them. No matter how much training he receives, the prince remains neither fully animal nor completely human. His is an excruciatingly ambiguous state.
D'Aulnoy's play with onomastics only heightens this ambiguity. "Marcassin" is often used as a proper noun, yet the hero is also called "le marcassin" and "le Sanglier." Some designations, such as "le marcassin royal" or "son Altesse bestiole," underscore the undecidability of the hero's being: is he the royals' pig or a royal who just happens to be a pig? a beastly Highness or his Highness the beast? Furthermore, the very choice of "marcasssin" and "sanglier" rather than "cochon" or "porc" (used by Straparola and Murat) only serves to accentuate the hero's liminality. Meaning, respectively, young and adult wild boars, the terms "marcassin" and "sanglier" situate the prince's animal instincts squarely outside the domesticated and anthropomorphic realms of the "cochon" and the "porc." Lexically--but also psychologically and experientially--d'Aulnoy's hero leads an existence that is conflicted if not tortured.
In keeping with his monstrous state, Prince Marcassin expresses this conflict through aggression and violence. Ideally, the civilizing process would provide a mechanism for restraining these impulses. Such, at least, is its fundamental raison d'être. In the case of d'Aulnoy's hero, however, the situation is considerably more complicated. The civilizing process cannot be brought to completion--his penchant for aggression and violence cannot be eradicated--precisely because his animal instincts overlap with his in-born nobility. "[I]l lui venait des défenses terribles, ses soies étaient furieusement hérissées, son regard fier & de commandement absolu" (434). Linked as they are to his naturally dominating (and thus royal) appearance, the prince's animal instincts are ambiguous. What would be laudable on a hunt or in battle makes Marcassin commit what is unacceptable at court--overt aggression against his wives. He pushes his first wife, Ismène, to suicide by insisting on marrying her even though she had been promised (by his mother the queen no less!) to another man. Almost immediately thereafter, he pursues Ismène's sister, Zélonide, whom he stabs to death with his horns when she attempts to strangle him.
After the debacle of his marriage to Zélonide, however, the prince adopts his mother's advice to leave court so as to avoid any further violence. He accepts his own outward animal likeness and rejects court life--and the civility upon which it is based. Speaking to a confidant, he declares:
je veux abandonner la cour, j'irai au fond des forêts mener la vie qui convient à un sanglier de bien & d'honneur, je ne ferai plus l'homme galant, je ne trouverai point d'animaux qui me reprochent d'être plus laid qu'eux. ...Je vivrai plus tranquillement avec eux que je ne vis dans une cour destinée à m'obéir, & je n'aurai point le malheur d'épouser une laie qui se poignarde ou qui me veuille étrangler (456).
Repudiating the animalistic behavior of the (purportedly) fully human members of court, Marcassin hopes to resolve his own ambiguous state by becoming fully animal. This, however, is never quite possible. One day in the forest, he encounters Marthésie, the youngest sister of Ismène and Zélonide, immediately declares his love, and insists that he has seen the error of his past ways: "J'ai appris, depuis que je suis habitant de ces forêts, que rien au monde ne doit être plus libre que le cœur; je vois que tous les animaux sont heureux, parce qu'ils ne se contraignent point" (458). Equating freedom with happiness, Marcassin claims to offer Marthésie the choice of whether or not to marry him. But this proposal is simultaneously a rejection of the constraints inherent in the civilizing process. Animals are happy, so he claims [in Rousseauean fashion], "because they are not bound by constraints." Free from the demands of civility, he too can strive for happiness.
In the brief courtship that ensues, Marthésie defends an opposing perspective on civility. Shocked to find the prince "dans un état si peu convenable à [sa] naissance" (458), she implores him to return to court. And initially, it is on this condition that she agrees to marry him, expressing disgust at the idea of having only lizards and snails for company and leaving behind all her clothes, ribbons, lace, and jewelry. Marcassin, to the contrary, sees no benefit in sociability and rejects cultivated appearances, asserting: "Quand on a de l'esprit & de la raison, ne peut-on pas se mettre au-dessus de ces petits ajustements? Croyez-moi, Marthésie, ils n'ajouteront rien à votre beauté & je suis certain qu'ils en terniront l'éclat" (460). Having renounced the pleasures of outward appearances, Marcassin is content to live on esprit and raison.
Marthésie, however, is not, and continues to insist that they return to court. When the prince then protests that she is driven not by love but by ambition, she diagnoses what she takes to be the cause of his rejection of court (and, at least implicitly, civility), declaring: "Vous avez une disposition naturelle...à juger mal de tout notre sexe" (461). Misapprehending women, Marcassin cannot hope to form a happy marriage. Even further, through Marthésie, the text insinuates that if he were to accept women's judgment--as the civilizing process requires--he would see the value of court life and his own place within it. When, of her own free will, Marthésie returns to see Marcassin a second time, he seems to have taken her advice to heart, displaying "naturally" refined behavior: "Dès qu'il l'aperçut, il courut au-devant d'elle &, s'humiliant à ses pieds il lui fit connaître que les sangliers ont, quand ils veulent, des manières de saluer fort galantes" (461). As early modern civility prescribes, politeness flows effortlessly from Marcassin when he submits to a woman, and especially to a woman whom he loves. When he does, even the animal within him can be human-like, so the narrator comically suggests. In this instant, the prince's perspective on civility begins to shift: from isolating, solipsistic authenticity he gradually, almost imperceptibly, progresses to intersubjective and sociable sincerity.
Yet, just as Marcassin's demetamorphosis comes into view--just as he seems to dominate his violent impulses once and for all--d'Aulnoy's tale introduces an element of scepticism about the consequences of women's civilizing influence on men. At the crucial moment when Marthésie must choose whether or not to marry him, Marcassin, unlike either Straparola's or Murat's heroes, commits one final act of aggression. Reneging on his promise to allow her to choose freely, he holds her captive against her will. After protesting loudly, though, Marthésie inexplicably relents: "Elle redoubla ses pleurs & ses prières, il n'en fut point touché, &, après avoir encore contesté longtemps, elle consentit à le recevoir pour époux & l'assura qu'elle l'aimerait aussi chèrement que s'il était le plus aimable prince du monde" (463; emphasis added). Represented with the incongruous conjunction "&," Marthésie's change of heart in this scene is all the more jarring since, up until this point, she has proven to be a fiercely independent and distinctly unsubmissive heroine. What this incongruity suggests, I would argue, is a certain distance from the time-honored topos of women's civilizing influence. Men's violence may not be completely eliminated by contact with women, who may actually suffer when they take on the task of civilizing men.
This, however, is hardly d'Aulnoy's final word on the matter. During the improvised ceremony and, especially, the wedding bed scene, d'Aulnoy's tale seems to adopt the misogynist "lesson" of the animal-groom tale-types formulated by Bettelheim, according to whom it teaches "it is mainly the female who needs to change her attitude about sex from rejecting to embracing it, because as long as sex appears to her as ugly and animal-like, it remains animalistic in the male; i.e. he is not disenchanted" (286). Once Mathésie consents to stay, Marcassin shows nothing but devoted affection for his bride-to-be. And, putting aside her misgivings, she returns the favor: after a pastoral wedding feast, she makes a bed of moss, grass, and flowers. As they lie down, "elle eut grand soin de lui demander s'il voulait avoir la tête haute ou basse, s'il avait assez de place, de quel côté il dormait le mieux" (464). Erotically allusive, Marthésie's affection for her groom is one more instance in which she submits to Marcassin--even if the topos of women's civilizing influence would seem to suggest the contrary. In accordance with the classic structure of the animal-groom tale-types, though, Marthésie reaps the rewards for her submission. In the middle of the night, when she awakes, she finds not a boar, but a handsome young man.
However, d'Aulnoy's tale offers another, less misogynist and more critical perspective on the wedding bed scene. At the same time that it depicts Marthésie's assumption of heterosexuality, it also represents the resolution of the bride's and the groom's opposing conceptions of civility. Marthésie recognizes that the court is not the essential sine qua non for sociable pleasures. For his part, Marcassin seems finally to have acquired the art of pleasing women with his intuitive esprit. Marthésie has learned that refinement is not exclusively bound to space (the court), and Marcassin has demonstrated he possesses that quality so necessary to please others, notably at court. More precisely--and paradoxically--by relinquishing her attachment to the court, Marthésie lays the groundwork for the flowering of Marcassin's esprit and paves the way for his return to court. Together, then, the couple constructs an ideal of courtly masculinity that eschews flattery and self-deception and lays claim instead to the refinement of the "natural" and the "authentic." They retreat to the pastoral idyl of the forest and the cave all the better to return to the court having reinvented royal masculinity. But they do so, the tale is careful to point out, at considerable cost to Marthésie, who must endure six months of marriage to the royal boar, isolation in his cave, and separation from her mother. Even in a fairy tale, women's civilizing influence is hardly magical. Instead, it exacts a toll on the very agents who exert it.
Adding one final twist to an already complicated plot, the end of this tale develops further still this ambivalence toward civility. Rather than clearly resolve the tensions between being and appearances, rather than definitively transform nature into culture and animal into human, d'Aulnoy's dénouement and final moral are inconclusive. Marcassin's final demetamorphosis is, in fact, more of a triumph for the fairies and their magic than for the hero. Absent during most of the tale, the prince's fairy godmothers reappear just before he marries Marthésie in order to explain that he will now be able to remove his pigskin at night, but that he must conceal this from her until further notice. When, six months after their wedding, Marthésie happens upon the pigskin in the middle of the night, he reveals the fairies' secret to her. He then attempts to don the pigskin, only to discover that it has shrunk so much that he can no longer wear it. As he despairs, six distaffs--three black and three white--come crashing through the ceiling of the cave. A mysterious voice then tells the couple that they will be happy if they are able to interpret what the distaffs represent. Marcassin guesses, correctly, that the three white distaffs are the three fairies, and Marthésie that the three black ones are her two sisters and Corydon (the fiancé who committed suicide along with Ismène). At that very instant, the three while distaffs become the three fairies, and the three black ones transform into Ismène, Corydon, and Zélonide. When Marcassin expresses his surprise at this mass resurrection, the fairies explain that they were were not dead at all and that:
...vos yeux ont été la dupe de nos soins. Tous les jours, ces sortes d'aventures arrivent. Tel croit sa femme au bal, quand elle est endormie dans son lit, tel croit avoir une belle maîtresse, qui n'a qu'une guenuche, & tel croit avoir tué son ennemi, qui se porte bien dans un autre pays. --Vous m'allez jeter dans d'étranges doutes, dit le prince Marcassin: il semble à vous entendre qu'il ne faut pas même croire ce qu'on voit. --La règle n'est pas toujours générale, répliquèrent les fées, mais il est indubitable que l'on doit suspendre son jugement sur bien des choses, & penser qu'il peut entrer quelque dose de féerie dans ce qui nous paraît de plus certain (470).
The advice the fairies give in this dénouement is, if anything, ambiguous. Ostensibly demonstrating that the six distaffs, not unlike the prince's former likeness as a boar, were but deceptive appearances, their "rule" can also be applied to Marcassin's newly found human form. Neither the animal nor the human are all they seem at face value. But the fairies go further and advocate an exegesis of implausibility, an interpretive outlook based not on the plausible, the real, and the human, but their opposites, a perspective that admits the "dose of fairy magic" in even the most "certain" of things. To illustrate their point, the fairies cite examples of men deceived by appearances. Without the aid of the transcendent feminine power of fairy magic, so the tale jokingly tells us, masculine knowledge--particularly about women (wives and mistresses)--stands on shaky epistemological gound. Ultimately, the fairies seem to invite us to ask whether Marcassin too is one of these men and whether what we think we know about him is indeed the case.
What is implicit in the fairies' pronouncement is made explicit in the final moral:
Le plus grand effort de courage,
Lorsque l'on est bien amoureux,
Est de pouvoir cacher à l'objet de ses vœux
Ce qu'à dissimuler le devoir nous engage:
Marcassin sut par là mériter l'avantage
De rentrer triomphant dans une auguste cour.
Qu'on blâme, j'y consens, sa trop faible tendresse,
Il vaut mieux manquer à l'amour,
Que de manquer à la sagesse (471).
What at first sight is a gesture to generalize from Marcassin's example--a movement away from his particularity--is simultaneously a return to and an interrogation of it. The beginning of the moral announces an abstract lesson about the traditional dichotomy of love versus duty and lauds the hero's supposed courage. It transforms the prince into a self-sufficient hero and obscures the fairies', his mother's, and his wife's role in his demetamorphosis. Yet, the moral also invites a critical reflection on this ostensible lesson. The reference to the prince's dissimulation has comical erotic overtones: although he hides his pigskin from Marthésie, he certainly doesn't hide his human form from her at night in bed! An allusion to courage and duty appear to be even more off the mark when the moral admits that Marcassin's "tendresse" was "trop faible." To describe his violent treatment of the first two sisters as "tenderness" is, of course, blatantly ironic. Using a term from the 17th-century amorous lexicon only encourages readers to reconsider the prince's uncourtly conduct all the more. By respecting the bienséances and, thus, distancing itself from the hero's physical reality, the moral, paradoxically, accentuates his monstrous animality all the more.
In the end, the moral only reinforces the scepticism of the entire tale toward the civilizing process. The prospects for masculine acculturation remain uncertain at best. D'Aulnoy deploys a dystopic humor that undercuts civility's faith in appearances and, even further, the late seventeenth-century valorization of sincerity for individuals and groups alike. Since d'Aulnoy's tale implies that Marcassin's superlative human state can never be verified, it even invites readers to question the exemplarity of royal masculinity and, if only implicitly, nobles' purported advantage in the civilizing process. The intervention of fairies, the queen, and Marthésie notwithstanding, the pig coexists with the prince, and nothing, seemingly, will ever be able to suppress it completely. Perhaps the tale could almost be summed up with a contemporary aphorism: "men are pigs."
To conclude, I would like to highlight just a couple of questions that might serve for a general discussion of the monster, the theme for next year's Equinoxes. I begin with some of the questions that are implicit in the reading of "Le Prince Marcassin" that I've just presented. First, what is a monster? My take on Marcassin considers him as a condensation of doubleness, a hybrid that defies "natural" order. What other definitions are there? And is it possible or even desirable to attempt to settle on a universally valid definition? Second, what does the monster do, culturally speaking? In a highly suggestive essay, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen lists seven "theses" for cultural analysis of the monster. Among these is the notion that the "monster polices borders of the possible [... it] demarcate[s] the bonds that hold together that system of relations we call culture, [it] call[s] attention to the borders that cannot--must not--be crossed" (12-13). In my reading, of course, Marcassin delineates the boundaries between the animal and the human, nature and culture, the "uncivilized" and the "civilized." But I've argued as well that Marcassin not only "polices" these borders, but that he is also used to interrogate them.
Other questions about the monster are beyond the scope of what I've been able to present here. An obvious one concerns how--or if--meanings of archetypal monsters change over time. Thus, for example, several feminist critics have questioned whether the beastly animal groom has really changed fundamentally since its first literary incarnations. In a witty commentary on Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Susan Bordo concludes that "popular culture admires the man who won't take no for an answer" (244). And then why are we so fascinated with monsters anyway? Is it fear? Is it desire? Or perhaps both? The ambiguity of this fascination reminds me of another animal-groom example. There's a wonderful scene at the very end of Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête when, after witnessing the Beast's transformation, Beauty (Josette Day) gazes lovingly into the Beast's (Jean Gabin's) eyes and says "J'aime avoir peur...avec vous." Finally, but certainly not least, is it possible to do without monsters? Or are they integral to the ways that national, ethnic, gender, and sexual identities are constructed? These and other questions will not make monster disappear from out midst, like a magically shrinking pigskin. Perhaps, though, they will render them in some small way less powerful.
1 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)," in Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, editor.
Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.