An element that stuck out to me throughout my reading of Monsieur Vénus was the image of Venus (whether manifested through Raoule or Jacques, or even sometimes both at the same time) as a statue. Perhaps I was particularly sensitive to the image because we’d discussed the statue concept before in class, in our close readings of the poetry of Baudelaire. At that time, we’d referenced the myth of Pygmalion, in which the sculptor falls in love with the sculpture, dreaming after the woman he has created in his own image. It is obvious that this myth directly relates to Rachilde’s novel- in fact, the back of the edition we have calls it an “inversion of the Pygmalion story.” And in keeping with the subtitle of materialism, Rachilde alludes to the myth not only in creating a protagonist who falls in love with her creation, but in literally describing the statue-esque nature of both main characters.
It seems that, between Raoule and Jacques, the portrayal of a statue correlates directly to characterization of either character as a Venus. Initially it is Venus who is the admired beauty: “when [Raoule] embraced her it seemed to him that a body made of marble slid between the sheets”- a marked difference from the conventions of a warm body in bed that we might expect Jacques to encounter. But then, as Jacques becomes more and more feminine and more and more idealized as a Beauty, it is he who becomes the statue. In one instance, “his rounded arm.. lay exposed, like a piece of marble.” Later, he’s described as “unselfconscious as an antique marble”, and Raoule laughs at the idea of him having “a drop of blood in [his] veins.” It is in these moments, these endless references to hardness and bloodlessness, when I am struck by the obvious contrast between that which is beautiful (i.e. Venus) and that which is lifeless (marble statues and idols). In our more recent discussion, when we passed around a picture of Venus de Milo, I found myself further contemplating the combination of these two seemingly opposing concepts. The Venus statue is dead, but she is not inanimate or sterile. She emanates the suggestion of life- just how Jacques emanates a suggestion of femininity- but ultimately she is just a carved piece of marble. Furthermore, it is the Venus’s modesty that forces us to consider her sexuality, for the cloth around her waist seems to be fashioned precisely to hint at what lies directly beneath. This is alluded to throughout the wedding scene- Jacques is rendered as a sort of Venus de Milo as his “supple and marvelously well-shaped torso [shines]”, for we as readers appreciate the endless references to his upper half in order to be led by association to his lower half, which of course brings up the issue of his inescapable masculinity. The ultimate realization of Jacques’s true gender- and of Raoule’s- is similar to how we ultimately must come to terms with the Venus de Milo’s artificiality- admiring onlookers will never see what is beneath her cloth, just as Raoule “just can’t be a man.”
All of these connections- the tangles between Raoule and Venus, or Jacques and Venus, or all three of them together, continue to puzzle me as I reflect on the novel. Rachilde is so incessant in her references to the elements of marble- could this also reflect an element of infertility or sterility, which serves as a parallel for the terminal, unnatural quality of Raoule and Jacque’s relationship? Venus too, as we mentioned in class, is the product of an infertile love, born of sea foam rather than of a sexual encounter between her godly parents. And who is more the “Venus” among the two main characters? While Jacques is fashioned to be the feminine beauty, it is Raoule who receives the title’s name of “Monsieur Venus,” and similarly it is Raoule who behaves as Venus mythologically did- for while Venus the goddess preyed on lowly mortals, Raoule the rich and privileged noblewoman preys on the poor and talentless Jacques. While of course both of them can represent Venus in different ways, I wonder if we can say that, at the end, one of them triumphs as the ultimate Venus of the novel?
I’ve obviously put forth many complex issues and questions all in a very short post, but I would love to continue a dialogue on this elements within the novel, as I find them very interesting.