Against Nature
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"Against Nature" Summary

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.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A decadent aristocrat seeks to escape the banality of society by indulging in eccentric and perverse pleasures in this controversial novel.


In the classic novel "Against Nature" (French: "À rebours"), author Joris-Karl Huysmans takes readers on a captivating journey through the eccentric world of the protagonist, Jean des Esseintes. Published in 1884, this decadent novel explores themes of aestheticism, individuality, and the pursuit of a highly artificial and detached existence. By delving into the intricate details of des Esseintes' life, Huysmans offers readers a glimpse into the mind of a man who rejects societal norms and seeks refuge in a world of his own creation.

Brief Synopsis

Set in late 19th-century France, "Against Nature" follows the life of Jean des Esseintes, an aristocratic aesthete who withdraws from society and retreats to his country residence. Isolated from the world, des Esseintes immerses himself in an artificial existence, surrounded by his collection of rare books, exotic plants, and art objects. With no desire for social interaction or traditional forms of pleasure, he creates a universe tailored to his highly refined and idiosyncratic tastes.

Throughout the novel, Huysmans introduces readers to des Esseintes' elaborate and meticulously curated lifestyle. From his preference for exotic perfumes to his obsession with rare and extravagant jewels, every aspect of des Esseintes' existence is a deliberate departure from societal norms. As he dwells deeper into his secluded life, des Esseintes begins to question the very nature of humanity and the purpose of his own existence.

Main Characters

Jean des EsseintesThe protagonist of the novel, an eccentric aristocrat who rejects societal norms and seeks refuge in a highly artificial and solitary existence
Madame de VénouseA former lover of des Esseintes who is still besotted with him, despite his rejection of her and his withdrawal from society
Father MartineA priest who represents the conflict between religious beliefs and des Esseintes' atheistic and hedonistic tendencies
Marquis de la Taillade-EspinasseA friend of des Esseintes who shares similarly decadent tastes and becomes a confidant in his life of seclusion

Main Events

  1. Des Esseintes' Retreat: At the start of the novel, des Esseintes decides to withdraw from society and seclude himself in his country residence, where he begins to construct his heavily artificial lifestyle.
  2. The Loneliness of Solitude: As des Esseintes' isolation deepens, he experiences a profound sense of loneliness and questions whether his chosen existence is truly fulfilling.
  3. Aesthetic Experiments: Des Esseintes obsessively pursues new aesthetic experiences, including experimenting with exotic perfumes, creating his own unique library, and commissioning an artificial garden.
  4. Visiting Old Acquaintances: Des Esseintes reconnects with former lovers, including Madame de Vénouse, who is still captivated by him despite his rejection of societal expectations.
  5. Conflicts with Religion: The encounter with Father Martine highlights the tension between des Esseintes' hedonistic worldview and religious beliefs, leading to an internal struggle about the meaning of life.
  6. Health Decline: Des Esseintes' increasingly fragile health becomes a concern, and he begins to question whether he can sustain his artificial existence in the face of mortality.

Themes and Insights

Aestheticism: "Against Nature" explores the philosophy of aestheticism, emphasizing the importance of beauty, art, and individual sensory experience. Des Esseintes' highly curated existence reflects his obsession with aesthetic perfection and the rejection of societal norms.

Individuality and Alienation: Huysmans delves into the consequences of extreme individualism and the alienation that can result from eschewing social conventions. Des Esseintes' journey highlights the potential isolation and loneliness that can accompany a complete rejection of societal expectations.

Critique of Society: Through des Esseintes' unconventional lifestyle, Huysmans critiques the superficiality and conformity of 19th-century French society. By pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable, des Esseintes challenges societal norms and reveals the limitations of a conventional existence.

Religion and Morality: The conflict between des Esseintes' hedonistic worldview and the religious beliefs represented by Father Martine raises questions about the role of religion and morality in shaping one's choices and self-perception.

Reader's Takeaway

"Against Nature" provides readers with a thought-provoking exploration of individualism, the pursuit of beauty, and the consequences of rejecting societal norms. Huysmans' vivid descriptions and meticulous attention to detail draw readers into the surreal and decadent world of Jean des Esseintes. This novel challenges readers to question the limits of personal freedom, the nature of happiness, and the balance between societal expectations and individual desires.


"Against Nature" continues to captivate readers with its exploration of decadence, aestheticism, and the quest for an ideal existence. Huysmans' novel offers a unique glimpse into an eccentric character's retreat from society and the consequences of pursuing an artificial and highly individualistic lifestyle. The themes and insights presented in this novel remain relevant today, making it a timeless work of literature that sparks contemplation and introspection.

Against Nature FAQ

  1. What is the book 'Against Nature' about?

    The book 'Against Nature', also known as 'Against the Grain' or 'À rebours', is a novel by French author Joris-Karl Huysmans. It tells the story of Jean des Esseintes, an eccentric aristocrat who withdraws from society in search of an ideal, artificial life.

  2. Who is the author of 'Against Nature'?

    The author of 'Against Nature' is Joris-Karl Huysmans, a French novelist and art critic. He is associated with the Decadent movement and is known for his exploration of spiritual and aesthetic decadence in his works.

  3. When was 'Against Nature' first published?

    'Against Nature' was first published in 1884 in French. It gained immediate attention and became a significant novel of the 19th-century French literature.

  4. What genre does 'Against Nature' belong to?

    'Against Nature' is considered a classic novel of Decadent literature. It combines elements of satire, psychological introspection, and philosophical contemplation.

  5. Is 'Against Nature' available in English translation?

    Yes, 'Against Nature' is available in English translation. Several translations have been made over the years, making this influential novel accessible to a wider audience.

  6. What are the main themes explored in 'Against Nature'?

    The main themes explored in 'Against Nature' include the decadence of society, the pursuit of artificiality and aestheticism, the clash between art and life, and the isolation of the individual.

  7. Can you recommend similar books to 'Against Nature'?

    If you enjoyed 'Against Nature', you might also like 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde, 'Tender Buttons' by Gertrude Stein, and 'The Flowers of Evil' by Charles Baudelaire. These works also explore themes of decadence and aestheticism.