His mistress' voice: Language and desire in Benjamin Constant's "Adolphe"
De Ville, Chris Moore
Doctor of Philosophy
Benjamin Constant's Adolphe chronicles the unhappy love affair between the title character and his mistress, Ell enore. The aspect of the liaison which receives most of the narrator's attention is the conversations and letters, between him and his lover. These communicative exchanges constitute the most important feature of the novel because they betray the narrator's overwhelming concern with language. Although recent criticism has begun to examine this facet of the work it has not articulated a theme which completely integrates the question of language with Adolphe and Ell enore's actions. Adolphe presents a theme of linguistic domination and the conflict between two individuals involved in an effort to gain communicative mastery. The protagonist aspires to attain such control and his relationship with Ell enore represents to him the means to achieve his desire. He experiences a mediated desire, as described by Ren e Girard. Adolphe's inability to terminate the affair, his insincere communication, and the stormy conflicts between the lovers all result from the influence of this triangular desire. In fighting their linguistic battle Adolphe and Ell enore use as their weapons different forms of abnormal communication. Ell enore's frequent silences cause Adolphe to make impetuous declarations of love, while Adolphe's complicated substitution of words of friendship for words of love and vague language for specific gives Ell enore a constantly shifting message. The communication psychology of Paul Watzlawick explains the processes involved in this distortion of language and the effects on those who engage in it. Together the theories of Girard and Watzlawick give a new reading of Adolphe. The protagonist's inability to end his affair, the lovers' conflict, and the tragic outcome no longer puzzle the reader. All of these apparent mysteries find explanation when analyzed in the context of the theme of linguistic conflict and domination.