Theses Doctoral

The Fate of Invention in Late 19th Century French Literature

Oancea, Ana Ilinica

This dissertation reads the novels of Jules Verne, Albert Robida, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Emile Zola, investigating the representation of inventors who specialize in electricity. The figure appears as the intersection of divergent literary movements: Zola, the father of Naturalism and leading proponent of a `scientific' approach to literature, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, decadent playwright and novelist, Robida, leading caricaturist and amateur historian, and Verne, prominent figure in the emerging genre of anticipation, all develop the inventor character as one who succeeds in realizing key technological aspirations of the 19th century. The authors, however, take a dim view of his activity.
Studying the figure of the inventor allows us to gain insight into fundamental 19th century French anxieties over the nation's progress in science and technology, its national identity, and international standing. The corpus casts science as a pillar of French culture and a modern expression of human creativity, but suggests that social control over how progress is achieved is more important than pure advancement, no matter the price of attaining control. There is a great desire for progress in this period, but as society's dependence on scientific advancement is becoming apparent, so is its being ignorant of the means through which to achieve it. In fiction exploring this subject, the inventor appears as an intercessor, standing at the articulation of cultural aspirations in science and cultural fear over their timely, socially-constructive realization.
Chapter 1 focuses on the works of Jules Verne, elaborating a portrait of the inventor as he appears in the series of the Voyages Extraordinaires. The character returns with remarkable preponderance in subsequent installments of the series, with Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870), L'Ile mystérieuse (1874-1875), Les Cinq cents millions de la Bégum (1879), Robur-le-conquérant (1886), Le Château des Carpathes (1892), Face au drapeau (1896) and Maitre du monde (1904) all showing him as best poised to advance French science. Emphasis is placed on his private, reclusive pursuit of the discipline, which is contrasted by the author through the development of characters representing official science, such as professors and engineers. This distinction is read in the context of Verne's educational mission, which supports the official scientists and emphasizes service to the community and the growth of their respective disciplines.
Chapter 2 analyzes Albert Robida's key satirical futuristic novel La Vie électrique (1892). Unlike Verne, Robida illustrates perversions of progress, offering a world in which the rhythm of life is sped up to an untenable pace by inventors. Set in the 20th century, in this version of France technology is fully integrated in everyday life, the inventor is a popular idol and successful businessman. Despite this great departure from the model proposed in Chapter 1, the figure of the inventor is defined through the same seclusion and dedication to research, disdain for education and oversight of his activities. The author thereby succeeds in simultaneously illustrating the realization of France's hopes and fears about its technological development at the turn of the century. Whereas Verne gives voice to the dominant ideological perspective on science, Robida's position as satirist enables him to critique it while retaining a degree of hope, not only through aspects of the plot but also his copious illustrations.
Chapter 3 focuses on the figure of Thomas Edison as the protagonist of Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's L'Eve future. Borrowing the electrical inventor from anticipation, the novel finds its other main source in the topoi of the decadent movement. The inventor's real-life persona is offered as guarantee of the extraordinary achievement of his fictional counterpart, in contrast to Verne's conveying realism through scientific detail. The inventor cynically markets his work to a decadent audience, but Villiers also relies on the repertoire of this tradition to condemn him. The author merely plays at integrating Edison into the line one would imagine for him. Prometheus and Frankenstein are the mythological and literary standards against which the new figure is compared, but are quickly dismissed. Villiers then suggests Goethe's Faust as the most reliable model, only to reveal in a final, negative assessment of the Edison that he is, in fact, Mephistopheles. The novel thus constructs a modern legend of the inventor as a fusion of contemporary journalism and older literary archetypes.
Chapter 4 reads Zola's Travail (1901) as a utopian re-writing of Germinal (1885). It argues that Travail realizes Germinal's closing warning that `new men' would eventually emerge, though it is not to avenge tragedy. These `new men' are the same 19th century workers of Germinal, whose violence and lack of education Zola had described as infantilizing, but this time, they are the children of better fathers, who prepare them to adapt and evolve. The transformation of the working-class community depicted in the Evangile is possible through the work of a Vernian inventor, Jordan. Zola repeats many of the topoi of the character's representation in our other authors, which are again associated with singular success in the domain of electricity. Through Jordan, Zola moves away from his Naturalist of heredity, where the efforts or ambitions of the individual were thwarted by the manifestation of an ancestral tare. Travail uses the inventor figure to propose a new model, one which allows for the transmission of acquired characteristics, and in which positive change is possible.



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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Ladenson, Elisabeth A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 5, 2014