Death as a symbol of loss and principle of regeneration in the works of Villiers de L'Isle-Adam

Rankin, Lesley Anne (2004) Death as a symbol of loss and principle of regeneration in the works of Villiers de L'Isle-Adam. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

Death imagery in literature and art enjoyed a major revival of interest in late-nineteenth-century France, as it did elsewhere in Europe and America. It is a central theme in the writings of Villiers de L'Isle-Adam (1838-89), from his first poetry collection, the Premieres Poesies, to Axel, his final drama. This thesis traces the development of the death theme in Villiers's work, and demonstrates that while it is very much associated with loss, it can also be viewed in an entirely positive light, and can even be seen as a gateway into new life in his later publications. It is indicative not only of the changing thought of the writer, but is also a gauge of the literary and spiritual climate of the time. By way of introduction to the topic, death is exposed and contextualized as it has been represented in artistic form throughout the ages. I problematize mankind's understanding of the phenomenon of death, before examining its place in literature. Villiers's own writings are also situated in a historical and cultural context, in order to widen the reader's grasp of the factors affecting the work in its time. The first chapter examines Villiers's first major publication, the Premieres Poesies, and shows how the theme of death operates in it as a symbol of loss. Three main areas of loss in the mid-to-late nineteenth century are specifically highlighted, and their effects on the poet are noted. The focus of the next chapter shifts to the figure of the bourgeois, mainly with reference to Villiers's short stories. These much-maligned figures are emblematic of the losses outlined in Chapter 1. Moreover, they are so inculcated with an atmosphere of death that they affect, and infect, those around them. However, not all succumb to the stultifying influence of the bourgeois class, but rather seek to resist it. These literary characters are the objects of scrutiny in Chapter 3 of this thesis, where the two main means of resistance to death are identified as being hedonism and claustration. Chapter 4 investigates the products of this resistance, the fin-de-siecle femme fatale and homme fatal. The principal defining features of these two types in Villiers's work are outlined, and their often morbid relationship with each other is explored. The final two chapters in this thesis are concerned with Villiers's two most important works. The elements that make up these pieces of writing are discussed, this time with the theme of regeneration through death in mind. Chapter 5 follows the desire for this in Villiers's novel L'eve future, and notes its ultimate failure, while Chapter 6 examines and questions its success in the drama Axel. This is a field of research not yet widely discussed in Villierian studies. While there have been individual examinations of the theme of death in Villiers's work, focusing on particular texts, this is the first critical analysis of the topos as it appears throughout his corpus as a whole. This in-depth investigation opens up a fresh understanding of Villiers's work, both as a solitary corpus and in the context of the fin-de-siecle period. The death theme is a unifying agent, holding the key to important thematic patterns. Whilst allowing for evolution and development within the work, this investigation demonstrates how different strands of Villiers's literary personality remain constant. This new understanding also plays a crucial role in terms of situating this enigmatic writer in the context and culture of his time.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Adviser: Charles Forsdick
Keywords: French literature
Date of Award: 2004
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2004-74063
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 23 Sep 2019 15:33
Last Modified: 23 Sep 2019 15:33
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/74063

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