Huysmans, Against Nature (Presentation handout)

Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

In-Class Presentation, October 17, 2012


Biographical Information:

Joris-Karl Huysmans was born as Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans on Februry 5, 1848 in Paris. His father, of Dutch origin, died when he was eight. After passing the baccalaureate, he took an administrative post in the Ministry of Interior. In 1870, he fought in the Franco-Prussian War. Following the war, he continued his work as a civil servant. He was made a chevalier in the Légion d’honneur in 1893 after 27 years as a bureaucrat.

Huysmans published Against Nature (A Rebours) in 1884 after having published several other works, which included Sac au dos, about his military service, and Marthe.  He continued to publish until his death, most notably La Cathédrale in 1898.

Huysmans died May 11, 1907. His funeral was held May 15, 1907 at Notre-Dame-des-Champs.

The Title:

The French title of the novel A Rebours does not translate. The phrase “refers to a contrary and paradoxical motion” (“Introduction” xiii). It is used in phrases such as “caresser un chat à rebours,” which means “to stroke a cat the wrong way” or “aller à rebours de la tendance générale,” which means “to run counter to the general trend.”

Miss Urania (pages 85-87):

Des Esseintes recalls a liaison with Miss Urania, an American acrobat, in Chapter 9. This coupling recalls the relationship between Jacques and Raoule in Monsieur Vénus. Masculine characteristics are attributed to Miss Urania. First comes her physical description, which includes “a sturdy body, sinewy legs, muscles of steel, and arms of cast iron,” all of which give her masculine or, more aptly, machine-like qualities.  He feels no intense lust for her but returns to the circus, “driven by a feeling that was difficult to define.” Her “feminine affectations became less and less apparent,” and “after toying with androgyny,” she becomes a man. Des Esseintes, perceiving this transition, redefines himself as the woman in their relationship. Their quick coupling ends when he resumes his “male role.” In what way does this relationship mirror that of Raoule and Jacques? What does this relationship reveal about Des Esseintes? Furthermore, how does this conversation about androgyny and reversed gender and sexual roles fit in the novels historical context?

Close reading: p. 85

Chapter 8 (pages 72-81):

In Chapter 8, Des Esseintes discusses his dislike of real flowers; he prefers artificial flowers. Flowers often serve as an example of beauty. Des Esseintes, instead, uses language associated with disease to describe flowers, transforming beauty into something grotesque. He is “dazzled” by the grotesque. Des Esseintes emphasizes the artificiality of flowers; he prefers the denial of their belonging to nature. In wanting to own flowers constructed artificially, he eliminates the fleeting beauty of flowers. Flowers become a tangible object to add to his collection for as long as he desires. How does the grotesque fit into Des Esseintes aestheticism? What role does artifice play in the novel? What do you make of the strange dream at the end of this chapter?

Close reading: p.74

Works Referenced

  • Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
  • “Joris-Karl Huysmans”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2012
  • <>.
  • White, Nicholas. Introduction. Against Nature. By Joris-Karl Huysmans. Trans. Margaret Muldoon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

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