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The 'Perfect' Hero
by Attreyee Roy Chowdhury Bookmark and Share

... in Stendhal's novel La Chartreuse de Parme

Fabrice, the protagonist in La Chartreuse de Parme, is unlike Stendhal's other heroes. Whereas Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir spends most of his short life energetically pursuing false ambitions and is in a state of delusion about the path that will lead to happiness, Fabrice never has to be put right. This perfection makes him a most unusual fictional hero, and La Chartreuse de Parme a most unusual novel. Not only is it hard to say what Fabrice's character consists of, but he and the novel's heroine, Clélia, are strikingly impercipient about both themselves and each other, and continue in this state of blindness even after they have fallen in love, thus breaking a cardinal rule of nineteenth century fiction, namely that love and marriage depend entirely on the mutual understanding of the partners involved.

The rare remarks that the author actually makes about Fabrice's character tend also to be more or less contentless in that he seems more concerned to establish Fabrice's otherness or singularity than to describe any qualities that make him singular in the first place. The drift of these rather nonchalant and unemphatic remarks portrays Fabrice as a passionate person, who has no interest in the imitation of others. This uniqueness poses a certain difficulty for the reader, since it means that Fabrice cannot be related or compared to any known models or examples. As a result, it is extremely difficult to make sense of him as a character, and on occasion he is apt to appear highly improbable. Where a character has no maxim or example in mind, the reader is likely to find it that much harder to assign to the character in question and make interpretation possible. Fabrice is perfect precisely because the novel manages to prevent its readers from saying what his perfection consists of.

What compounds Fabrice's singularity in the novel is his and his author's singular lack of interest in that unique character trait. Neither Fabrice nor Stendhal seem to regard Fabrice's personality as being of the least interest either to itself or to the novel in which it figures. The only time that Fabrice seems to come anywhere near to such an interest is during his fight with Giletti: at the thought that Giletti might have disfigured him, Fabrice is enraged and his fury inspires him to deliver the fatal wound to his opponent. But on his bizarre request for a mirror, Fabrice submits himself to purely physical scrutiny, expressing relief that his eyes and his teeth have remained intact. Unlike Emma Bovary, who also had immediate recourse to a mirror after a major event in her life, in order to see reflected in it her new self as adulteress, Fabrice shows not the least curiosity about what the mirror reveals about his self: nothing is said as to whether the mirror reflects the face of a murderer, a dandy, or a hero.

Most of the attempts to characterise Fabrice are not made by the author, and still less by himself, but by the other characters in the book. The political principles of court life give Fabrice's enemies a vested interest in keeping him characterised within the bounds of a certain sense of plausibility. However, for the majority of the other characters the perception of Fabrice's qualities are inseparable from the effects that those qualities have on them. If Gina considers her nephew to be a beautiful boy, in addition to being singular and spiritual with a serious disposition, this is part and parcel of the fact that she simply adores Fabrice. To the amorous gaze singularity is not a challenge to the power-seeking discourses of the plausible, but an incitement to passion. Fabrice is quite unlike the standard characters of realist fiction, whose characters are held to be responsible for the form that their lives take.

Love itself is not the fruit of perspicacity; and Clélia's feelings for Fabrice exist despite the fact that she believes him to be superficial man, showing a lack of depth of understanding or character. Fabrice in turn loves her for her singularity, and she resembles Fabrice himself in that her most striking feature is the impact she has on others and on Fabrice in particular. She too exists as effect rather than essence, and Fabrice is by turn dazzled by her celestial beauty. She also shares with him the quality of inimitable perfection, a quality that makes each of them adorable to the other and at the same time preserves the authenticity of the text as mimesis by placing them just beyond the grasp of the plausible.

The difference between Fabrice in La Chartreuse de Parme and Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir hinges on the difference in attitude that each of them has to the idea of a model, and the figure of Napoleon in each of the novels is particularly revealing on the score. Napoleon is of central importance to both heroes, but his significance as a figure is quite different for each of them. For Fabrice, Napoleon represents neither a model nor an ideal. His interest in Napoleon is profoundly at odds with his decidedly unrepublican political beliefs, and his decision to leave for Waterloo seems quite premeditated in the sense that nothing has been said in the preceding pages of the novel to suggest that Napoleon has any special significance for him. Fabrice does not so much want to be like Napoleon as to demonstrate his liking for him. The explanation that he gives to Gina for offering his services to Napoleon is the fact that he (Napoleon) held her husband in high regard, as if his intention were simply to reward friendship in kind. His dearest wish is not to copy Napoleon, but simply to talk to him; and he interprets Napoleon's proclamation of war as an invitation to love rather than an incitement to conform to a given model. Fabrice's concept of a hero is not that of an ideal which one should aim to match; rather, heroism represents above all a promise of generous and sublime friendship, as manifested by the heroes during the liberation of Jerusalem.

Stendhal's treatment of Fabrice is the means he uses for turning the novel from a mirror reflection into the bow that plays upon the violin of the reader's soul. The dangers of specular contemplation are thus averted, for there is a risk that if the reader were to gaze too long into the mirror of the novel, he might find himself trying to match the image of the hero with his own. It is therefore by making Fabrice unrepresentable within the framework of a conventional novelistic reflection of reality that Stendhal manages to ensure that truth can never be supplanted by the imitations of readerly vanity.

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