Over her dead body: tears and laughter in L’Ingénu’s final scene

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal, in Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2. (BnF/Gallica)

‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ Bloggers and other would-be beaux esprits routinely reach for Oscar Wilde when confronted with depictions of uncomfortable sentimentality, but we risk coming away empty-handed. With Nell’s death never actually depicted in The Old Curiosity Shop, Wilde’s quip seems less a skewering of Dickens’s prose and more a celebration of his own. Nevertheless Wilde – in linking pathos, humour and self-consciousness – may be on to something that can help when we come to the puzzle of Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death in L’Ingénu.

The early chapters of L’Ingénu have a forthright ‘gauloiserie’ about them, such as the bawdy allusions to the hero’s penis, anticlerical digs, and depictions of earthy rural folk. In stark contrast stands the heroine’s death. When Mlle de Saint-Yves eventually dies after several pages on her deathbed, her demise provokes widespread despair as well as a kind of madness in the hero: ‘Lorsque le moment fatal fut arrivé, tous les assistants jetèrent des larmes et des cris. L’Ingénu perdit l’usage de ses sens.’[1] As Roger Pearson asked in his splendid biography Voltaire Almighty (2005), should we take this sentimentality at face value? Is Voltaire not taking a swipe at the protracted deaths of Richardson’s Clarissa and, in particular, Rousseau’s Julie? This is in part doubtlessly true, for L’Ingénu was composed around the same time as the critical Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire au docteur Jean-Jacques Pansophe and Lettre de M. de Voltaire à M. Hume (1766-1767).

Voltaire treats his readers to more than just Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death. He presents a series of lugubrious scenes, in one of which the Ingénu entirely displaces his godmother as an object of fascination:

‘Le morne et terrible silence de l’Ingénu, ses yeux sombres, ses lèvres tremblantes, les frémissements de son corps, portaient dans l’âme de tous ceux qui le regardaient ce mélange de compassion et d’effroi qui enchaîne toutes les puissances de l’âme, qui exclut tout discours, et qui ne se manifeste que par des mots entrecoupés. L’hôtesse et sa famille étaient accourues ; on tremblait de son désespoir, on le gardait à vue, on observait tous ses mouvements. Déjà le corps glacé de la belle Saint-Yves avait été porté dans une salle basse, loin des yeux de son amant, qui semblait la chercher encore, quoiqu’il ne fût plus en état de rien voir.’

Mlle de Saint-Yves’s body comes back into view, only to be ignored; her corpse is displayed by the front door while two priests distractedly recite prayers; some passers-by lazily sprinkle holy water while others blithely walk on; and Père de La Chaise averts his eyes from the casket. The characters’ reactions proceed/decline (take your pick) from profound grief to indifference and then to rejection. Where does this leave the readers? Are we meant to weep, breeze along, or even laugh? Must one have a heart of stone to read the death of Mlle de Saint-Yves without laughing?

One way into thinking about those final pages of L’Ingénu might be suggested by the moment in chapter 18 when the heroine arrives at the Bastille:

‘Confuse et charmée, idolâtre de l’Ingénu, et se haïssant elle-même, elle arrive enfin à la porte de
… cet affreux château, palais de la vengeance,
Qui renferme souvent le crime et l’innocence.
Quand il fallut descendre du carrosse, les forces lui manquèrent; on l’aida; elle entra, le cœur palpitant, les yeux humides, le front consterné.’

Just as Wilde celebrates his own writing, so does Voltaire, who quotes here from the fourth canto of La Henriade. By moving into the literary realm, Voltaire asks his readers to be more conscious about the way fiction sets us up for particular response. Fiction, as Rita Felski so persuasively argues, can provoke and unsettle us in unexpected ways: ‘We can be taken hold of, possessed, invaded by a text in a way that we cannot fully control or explain and in a manner that fails to jibe with public postures of ironic dispassion or disciplinary detachment.’[2] And L’Ingénu does just that, inviting its readers to commiserate, weep and even laugh over the death of its heroine.

– Thomas Wynn

[1] For an English translation of this and following quotations, please see p.159-60.

[2] Rita Felski, ‘After suspicion’, Profession (2009), p.28-35 (p.33).