Taboo: Corporeal Secrets in Nineteenth-Century France

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This is the first academic monograph to bring together two important areas of literary scholarship: the nineteenth-century French novel and contemporary post-psychoanalytic theories of the body.
This book mobilises the unexplored interpretative and critical potential of the figure of the taboo to interrogate accounts of the body in nineteenth-century French fiction. French realist texts are structured and driven by representations of the body and depend on the depiction of corporeal realities for the generation of narrative intrigue. But anxieties around bodily representation undermine realism’s claims of objectivity and transparency. Aspects of bodily reality which threaten les bonnes moeurs – gender identity confusion, voracious sexual appetite, disability, torture, murder, child abuse and unexplained or physically repulsive illness – whilst present in the texts, are rarely allowed to occupy the foreground and are instead spurned or only partially alluded to by writers and critics.
The taboo is a multivalent concept meaning both ‘consecrated’ and ‘forbidden’. The term’s resonances of prohibition and restriction align the taboo with the unspeakable, yet the very ambiguity of the term demands that taboos are defined and discussed in language. The struggle between the speakable and the unspeakable encapsulated in the figure of the taboo offers a new and powerful means of interpreting the realists’ representations of the body. The taboo bodies hidden in realist texts are amongst their most articulate. They frequently reveal their own secrets in unexpected ways but also tell of other apparently unrelated elements of bodily reality. In fact the taboo body is central to the realists’ means of representation as well as to their content. Through its development of a new critical framework – the taboo - this study reads realist texts alongside modern theorists of the body to reveal that realist texts, whether knowingly or incidentally, use the mechanism of the taboo to reflexively comment on their own creative processes. As such the figure of the taboo is used to plot an alternative model of author-reader relations based on the struggle to speak the unspeakable.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
Number of pages157
ISBN (Print)978-1-907975-55-4
Publication statusPublished - 7 Jun 2013


  • taboo, body, French literature, disability

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