Subversion in Monsieur Venus

Oh goodness, where to even start… 

Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus touches upon many of the topics we’ve discussed in our most recent classes, including domestic art as opposed to high art, and the relationships between artists and their patrons.  However, as in most every aspect of the novel, it subverts these topics from the ways we’ve seen them previously presented.

Jacques has the opportunity to arrange the flowers for Raoule’s dress, an arguably domestic art, only because his sister is ill.  We can compare his circumstances to those of the numerous female artists whose only opportunities came through their fathers’ or brothers’ craft.  Then, Raoule chooses to provide for Jacques and his pursuit of painting, a higher art, because she is physically drawn to him.  Much like Camille Claudel – or even Marie, who had to prostitute herself – Jacques receives monetary support in exchange for a sexual relationship (though he is too naive to recognize that immediately).  Marie’s role in all this is also an interesting inversion, as she is fully aware of Raoule’s physical attraction, and aims to take advantage of it at her brother’s expense.  Much like a father selling off his daughter for a bride-price, Marie essentially trades her brother’s virginity for money.  The subversion reaches its peak as Raoule claims that she is “a man in love… with a beauty” (74), thereby feminizing Jacques completely.

The novel is also described as an inversion of the Pygmalion story – referring to the myth (or perhaps the opera) as opposed to the play by George Bernard Shaw.  The myth tells the story of a sculptor, Pygmalion, who falls in love with a statue he’s made of a young woman.  The goddess Venus takes pity on him and brings the statue to life.  (In the opera, Pygmalion also has a neglected girlfriend called Cephise; a parallel could be drawn between her and Raittolbe.)  In Monsieur Venus however Raoule takes the place of Pygmalion and, as a woman of higher class, has the ability to elevate a poor man to be her lover.  Since it is the woman who is of a higher class and greater fortune, the network of relationships is essentially gender-swapped.  Raoule can empower and ‘breathe life into’ Jacques, if you will.  Jacques and Marie depend on Raoule’s fortunes, which is why the latter schemes and the former goes along with the seduction.  It may even explain the role of Raittolbe as a suitor, but I’m not sure we have enough information to fully understand that dynamic yet.  (I would love to hear anyone’s thoughts on that relationship in the comments!)  Even the title Monsieur Venus is subversive then, by masculinizing a traditionally female goddess, and referencing how Raoule is referred to as Monsieur de Venerande by both Jacques and Raittolbe.

The main tactics Rachilde employed in constructing the plot were mainly subversion, inversion, and some would even say perversion, all to undermine the status quo in as shocking and controversial a manner as possible.

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5 thoughts on “Subversion in Monsieur Venus

  1. The connection to Pygmalion seems incredibly apt here! It’s interesting to think what this means for the relationship between Raoule and Jacques. You mention that she fills the role of the artist by being his patron, but I feel like we could push that further. Her sculpting of him, perhaps, is the realization of his total physical embodiment as a sex object. I suspect we’ll be seeing more of the theme of sculpting later on…

    • That’s really interesting, and very apt! She’s sculpting him, and yes, I agree that it’s much more sexual than artistic, yet instead of bringing him to life, she’s objectifying him. She’s turning a human into this statuesque play-thing, a toy, sort of the opposite of what Venus did. (I predict we’ll see some tragic results.)

  2. I was also really interested in Raittouble’s role in this whole thing. There was one instance which really stuck out to me, when Raoule and Raittouble are talking in her room towards the end of chapter 5 and she is attempting to explain what is going on with Jacques. There are some insults thrown and both realize that they know the other fairly well, as the insults are so true that they both burst out laughing. They later sit down on the same couch and smoke cigars. It seems as if at this point, Raittouble’s role has switched from one of potential romantic and sexual partner to a platonic voice of reason; the image of Raoule and Raittouble smoking in particular signified for me that after her explanation of her relationship with Raoule, she and the baron are now considered social peers.

    • He also seems to understand that she is partly a man and accepts her friendship, however doubtful he may be of her relationship with Jacques.

    • I agree with this entirely. The relationship between Raittolbe and Raoule is fascinating, especially in the quick shift between a sexual courtship to a confidant-style friendship. I don’t know if this implies that Raittolbe’s interest was fickle in the first place, or if that friendship can still involve a sexual element.

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