Against Nature
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"Against Nature" Characters Analysis

By Joris-Karl Huysmans

fiction | 88 pages | Published in 2019

A pithy work of philosophical anthropology that explores why humans find moral orders in natural orders. Why have human beings, in many different cultures and epochs, looked to nature as a source of norms for human behavior? From ancient India and ancient Greece, medieval France and Enlightenment America, up to the latest controversies over gay marriage and cloning, natural orders have been enlisted to illustrate and buttress moral orders. Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike have appealed to nature to shore up their causes. No amount of philosophical argument or political critique deters the persistent and pervasive temptation to conflate the “is” of natural orders with the “ought” of moral orders. In this short, pithy work of philosophical anthropology, Lorraine Daston asks why we continually seek moral orders in natural orders, despite so much good counsel to the contrary. She outlines three specific forms of natural order in the Western philosophical tradition—specific natures, local natures, and universal natural laws—and describes how each of these three natural orders has been used to define and oppose a distinctive form of the unnatural. She argues that each of these forms of the unnatural triggers equally distinctive emotions: horror, terror, and wonder. Daston proposes that human reason practiced in human bodies should command the attention of philosophers, who have traditionally yearned for a transcendent reason, valid for all species, all epochs, even all planets.

ISBN_13:9780262537339
ISBN_10:0262537338

Estimated read time: 6 min read

List of Characters

Character NameRole
Jean des EsseintesProtagonist and Anti-hero
Madame de BalbecLove interest
Dr. CautrepretPhysician and confidante
Monsieur HibaudArt dealer
Father DurelConfessor
Brother CallistrateEccentric monk
Marquis de RedonAristocrat and friend

Role Identification

In Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel "Against Nature," various characters play significant roles, shaping the narrative and impacting the protagonist, Jean des Esseintes. From the enigmatic Jean to the supporting characters who surround him, each individual contributes to the exploration of themes and the portrayal of both decadence and spiritual yearning.

Character Descriptions

Jean des Esseintes

Jean des Esseintes is the central character and anti-hero of the novel. He is a wealthy and reclusive aristocrat who withdraws from society to live an artificial and aesthetic life in the French countryside. Jean is depicted as a highly sophisticated and cultured individual, with refined tastes in art, literature, and even perfumes. He possesses a sharp intellect, which he often uses to indulge in his eccentric desires and fancies.

Madame de Balbec

Madame de Balbec is a captivating love interest for Jean des Esseintes. She is a beautiful and alluring woman who embodies the ideals of sensuality and physical pleasure. While not given as much space in the narrative as Jean, she serves as a symbol of desire and temptation, provoking complex emotions within the protagonist.

Dr. Cautrepret

Dr. Cautrepret is a physician who becomes Jean des Esseintes' trusted confidante. He plays a crucial role in the narrative, as his medical expertise becomes essential in Jean's battle with his deteriorating health. Dr. Cautrepret is portrayed as a compassionate and understanding individual, offering Jean both physical and emotional support throughout his personal struggles.

Monsieur Hibaud

Monsieur Hibaud is an art dealer who becomes involved in Jean des Esseintes' quest for finding aesthetic perfection. He introduces Jean to various artists and helps him acquire rare and exquisite pieces of art. Hibaud is portrayed as a knowledgeable and resourceful character, assisting Jean in his pursuit of artistic gratification.

Father Durel

Father Durel is Jean des Esseintes' confessor and spiritual guide. He serves as a religious counterpoint to Jean's world of decadence and aestheticism. Father Durel attempts to guide Jean back towards a more traditional and virtuous life, embodying the voice of morality within the novel.

Brother Callistrate

Brother Callistrate is an eccentric monk who leaves a lasting impression on Jean des Esseintes. Through his unusual practices and unconventional lifestyle, Brother Callistrate represents a purer form of spirituality and asceticism. His appearance sparks Jean's curiosity and prompts deeper reflections on the nature of existence and the quest for inner peace.

Marquis de Redon

Marquis de Redon is an aristocratic friend of Jean des Esseintes. The Marquis shares Jean's taste for the unusual and exotic, often partaking in Jean's elaborate and eccentric experiments in aesthetics. He offers companionship and intellectual stimulation, further shaping Jean's quest for individuality and self-fulfillment.

Character Traits

Jean des Esseintes

  • Sophisticated
  • Eccentric
  • Cultured
  • Aesthetic
  • Intellectually curious

Madame de Balbec

  • Alluring
  • Sensual
  • Seductive
  • Tempting

Dr. Cautrepret

  • Compassionate
  • Supportive
  • Trustworthy
  • Knowledgeable

Monsieur Hibaud

  • Resourceful
  • Artistic
  • Well-connected
  • Enthusiastic

Father Durel

  • Pious
  • Moral
  • Spiritual
  • Conscientious

Brother Callistrate

  • Enigmatic
  • Mystical
  • Ascetic
  • Thought-provoking

Marquis de Redon

  • Aristocratic
  • Exotic
  • Adventurous
  • Kinship-seeking

Character Background

Jean des Esseintes

Jean des Esseintes comes from an aristocratic background and inherits wealth and property. Disillusioned with contemporary society, he withdraws to Fontenay-aux-Roses to live an isolated existence and pursue his obsession with aesthetics.

Madame de Balbec

Madame de Balbec is a woman of high social standing. Not much is revealed about her background, except that she is married. She becomes the object of Jean des Esseintes' desire, representing sensuality and pleasure.

Dr. Cautrepret

Dr. Cautrepret is a reputable physician who is knowledgeable about Jean's conditions and personal struggles. He establishes a bond with Jean, becoming one of his few trusted companions.

Monsieur Hibaud

Monsieur Hibaud is an art dealer who connects Jean des Esseintes with various artists and facilitates his art acquisitions. His passion for art and aestheticism aligns with Jean's desires.

Father Durel

Father Durel is a dedicated clergyman and confessor chosen by Jean des Esseintes. He represents the voice of moral guidance and conventional religious values, offering a counterpoint to Jean's unconventional and decadent lifestyle.

Brother Callistrate

Brother Callistrate is a monk who lives an eccentric and austere life. His mysterious background adds an air of mysticism to his character, challenging Jean des Esseintes' notions of spirituality.

Marquis de Redon

Marquis de Redon is an aristocratic friend of Jean des Esseintes, sharing similar tastes and desires for the unusual. His background is intertwined with the upper class, providing a connection to Jean's past and social circles.

Character Arcs

Jean des Esseintes, the central character, experiences various character arcs throughout "Against Nature." Initially, he is disillusioned with society and seeks refuge in his aesthetic retreat. As the narrative progresses, Jean's artificial lifestyle begins to take a toll on his well-being, prompting him to confront his philosophical and existential dilemmas. He embarks on a spiritual journey by seeking the guidance of Father Durel and interacting with Brother Callistrate. Ultimately, Jean's character arc leads him towards a realization of the limitations and futility of his decadent lifestyle, urging him to reconsider his choices and seek a more balanced existence.

Relationships

Jean des Esseintes' relationships with the other characters significantly impact his personal journey. Madame de Balbec represents his desire for physical pleasure and sensuality but also serves as a catalyst for self-reflection. Dr. Cautrepret provides him with medical assistance and emotional support in his moments of despair, becoming a trusted ally. Monsieur Hibaud acts as a conduit for Jean's exploration of aestheticism and art. Father Durel, in contrast, challenges Jean's beliefs and offers a moral compass, while Brother Callistrate introduces him to a different form of spirituality. The Marquis de Redon offers companionship and intellectual stimulation, shaping Jean's journey towards individuality and self-realization.

In Joris-Karl Huysmans' "Against Nature," the diverse cast of characters enhances the exploration of themes such as decadence, spirituality, and the pursuit of individuality. Each character contributes to the narrative arc of Jean des Esseintes, adding depth and complexity to the story.