“Against Nature was not the starting point but the consecration of a new literature … the novel is free at last.”
-Remy de Gourmont, in Le Livre des masques
How does the novel exemplify the style and main themes of literary Decadence?
What does the narrative and the plot seem to value, and what doesn’t it value (things, events, people)? In other words, what’s “good” and what’s “bad” in Des Esseintes’ self-created universe?
What kind of a “hero” is Des Esseintes? What’s your idea of a hero, and does he fit this or not, or does he fit it partly? Why?
What role does sensuality play in Des Esseintes’ fantasy life and in his real life, and what forms does it take? (Pick a few memorable examples.)
The tortoise has been interpreted as the perfect symbolic embodiment of the cult of artificiality and art that unites Symbolism, Aestheticism, and Decadence. How or why so, do you think?
Why do you think this novel could have been both exciting and infuriating to readers when it first came out?
Pay special attention to Des Esseintes’ fantasies of Salome (in Moreau’s paintings, which hang in Des Esseintes’ study) in Chapter five. How does the sublime get redefined in Decadent ways, in this example? It may help to do a quick online image search for the Moreau paintings—they are called “L’Apparition” and “Salome Dansant”. Also take a quick look at some Odilon Redon images online to get some idea what painting styles Huysmans is talking about in this chapter.
What role does conventional religion play in this novel? What do you make of the ending?