Violence and Masculinity in 19th c. France

A review of Revolutionary Histrionics: Violence and the Creation of Bourgeois Masculinity in Post-Napoleonic France.

Dana Drew Irwin’s Revolutionary Histrionics: Violence and the Creation of Bourgeois Masculinity in Post-Napoleonic France makes a valuable contribution to the study of gender, honor, and violence in nineteenth-century France. Irwin argues that the first half of the nineteenth-century witnessed the development of modern gender identities, at the heart of which lay an association of violence and aggression with masculinity. As men increasingly identified with a Romantic notion of their supposedly innate violence, they had to locate modes of enacting this form of masculinity in ways that were sometimes in tension with and sometimes in support of the social order. Through an analysis of both archival and published sources, Irwin shows that dueling, theater-going, brawling, colonial ventures, and revolution all provided opportunities for young men to work out ways of balancing the need to demonstrate their virility and to restrain themselves in the name of civilization. Ultimately, Irwin argues, only a certain set of white, bourgeois men were assumed to be so capable, with colonized peoples and the working class functioning as objects on which elites projected their hopes and fears of masculine aggression. Irwin thus shows how the emergence of modern gender ideology was, from its inception, both race- and class-based. Engaging not only with the historiography of early nineteenth-century France, but also with French literary studies and queer and feminist theory, Irwin’s dissertation provides an object lesson in how historical research provides the raw material for effective theorizing. He shows the contingency of masculine identity—how it was reconfigured in a complex relationship with the historically specific political and social developments. In doing so, Irwin demonstrates the continuing value of a cultural history that takes seriously the call to historicize the categories of social life. Revolutionary Histrionics, therefore, will be of interest not only to historians of gender and sexuality in nineteenth-century France and Europe, but also to those scholars interested in connecting historical and theoretical practice.

Chapter 1, “The Aggressive Self: Cultural Discourses of the Violent Male in Post-Napoleonic France,” grounds the rest of the dissertation by describing the various discourses of male aggression that circulated following Napoleon’s final fall at Waterloo. It argues that the association of men with violence and women with passivity hardened during this period, which contributed to the transformation of “gender into an immutable binary” (p. 44). The novels of Balzac and Stendhal, as well as nineteenth-century ethnography and early psychology, serve as effective sources for describing the central role that violence played in the construction of early nineteenth-century masculinity. These discourses emphasized the natural relation between violence and masculinity, a combination that demanded control through the mechanisms of “civilization.” An essential tension thus emerged wherein men were increasingly defined by violence at the same time that they were to be denied regular opportunities to give in to it.

In response, a new masculine ethos began to emerge that drew on the rituals of the past in order to fulfill the needs of the present. Witnessing the supposed degradation of society in the face of a “French social structure…reigned over by money and artifice,” as early nineteenth-century French commentators saw it, French men sought ways to rediscover an essential inner truth linked to aggression and honor (p. 65). Once the provenance of the aristocracy, the duel became increasingly connected to an emerging bourgeoisie as they sought ways of constructing rituals that would allow men to realize their masculinity within the constraints of civilization. The duel provided a means through which men could enact, or imagine enacting, a form of violence that affirmed one’s masculine identity without threatening the stability of the social order.

In Chapter 2, Irwin contributes to a long-standing historiography on the duel by orienting his discussion along the axis of sexuality, as well as gender and class. Deploying Eve Sedgwick’s theories, Irwin argues that the duel became a space of homosociality: “A male-only space, such as the sites of duels, served in the nineteenth-century world to define hierarchies of maleness” (p. 76). The duel thus served to elaborate one’s masculinity vis-a-vis other men, in an erotic play of dominance and submission. Moving through the reasons behind why men dueled, the shifting regulations and codes of honor that structured the practice, and its changing meanings, Irwin deploys expert commentators and writers to show the ways the duel shaped men’s relationships with other men as an enforcement mechanism for bourgeois male privilege. As such, the duel provided not only a means to demonstrate their virility outside of military service, but also “a way to forge networks among young men” (p. 102). The duel, as a practice representative of a certain form of masculine honor, contingent on the controlled and pointed use of violence, served as a key mode through which male social relationships were understood.

The duel continues to “haunt” the next two chapters of Irwin’s dissertation, each of which takes on violence in the French theater. Chapter 3, “Raucous Performances: Student Unrest in French Theaters, 1818-1830,” focuses on the theater audience. Following historians such as Alain Corbin, Sheryl Kroen, and Denise Davidson, who have emphasized the ways in which theater audiences both stood in for and produced a kind of public sphere, Irwin argues that young, bourgeois men got into altercations amongthemselves and with the authorities in order to demonstrate their right to act in public even as they revealed a “paradox of modern political life”: “Civil society is defined as non-violent, but the fraternal order upon which it is based is realized through oaths and the threat of bloodshed” (pp. 106-107). Tracing the political imperatives for theater censorship, Irwin depicts a raucous public sphere that displayed its oppositional stance not through “rational-critical discourse,” as in Jürgen Habermas’s classic depiction, but rather through fisticuffs. In addition, Irwin turns our attention not simply toward the internal dynamics of the audience, but also those between the audience and the authorities. In doing so, he highlights the oppositional role of the public sphere. Fighting with military officers both revealed and counteracted the gender anxiety that shaped this generation of young men. In asserting their manliness by fighting, rather than joining, the military, these men participated in the construction of a vision of masculinity rooted in the passionate individual, rather than the state or the rational public sphere.

The audience thus actualized the themes depicted on the stage, the subject of the next chapter, “Staged Combats: Theater and the Consolidation of Bourgeois Masculinity.” Understanding the theater as a scene of public instruction, Irwin here argues that the stage served to propagate these new gender ideologies. Through an analysis of several plays, including Victor Hugo’s famous Hernani, Irwin describes how the stage provided a narrative structure to the various forms of violent practice he had already discussed. The theater of early nineteenth-century France provided the terms on which men understood their own behavior. Setting a Romantic vision against more “bourgeois” authors, Irwin emphasizes the way the valorization of honorable violence moved with the times. The decline of Romanticism in the 1840s, for instance, provided an opening for “bourgeois” authors such as Eugène Scribe and Casimir Delavigne, who “sought to identify a new urban elite in [a] period of economic, political and social flux” (p. 162). Ultimately, however, the Romantic vision of violence as necessary, innate, but also threatening, prevailed by the end of the century.

In Chapter 5, “Blistering Sands: Brutality and Manhood in Colonial Algeria, 1830-1849,” Irwin turns to a new avenue for military masculinity in nineteenth-century France: the colonies. Portraying Algeria as both a project of male fantasies and a place where men actually enacted forms of violence, this chapter argues that Algeria became a location for working out some of the links between masculinity and aggression that were built during the first third of the century. The conquest of Algeria put racial difference into sharp relief and enabled it to emerge as a key signifier of different kinds of masculinity. Africans came to stand in for a kind of “pure” masculinity that had to be reckoned with by the civilizing French. It was through the conquest of Algeria, therefore, that the tension between the innate aggression of men and the effects of civilization were most clearly produced and understood. Sections that describe the ways that Algeria became a focus of the French imagination, as a place “for Frenchmen to achieve a new masculine glory by traveling to a landscape imagined throughout the eighteenth century as full of mystery and exoticism” (p. 174),  are followed by an evocative discussion of “going native.” Focusing on two men, Léon Roches and Ismaÿl Urbain, who, in their own ways, immersed themselves in Algerian culture, the section shows how the colonies enabled the development of a paternalistic form of masculine violence. To the French, Algerians required not simply domination and control, but also uplift and civilization. In doing so, they not only contributed to the development of France’s “civilizing mission,” but also to a form of masculinity that reconciled civilization and violence because civilization could only come to Algeria through conquest.

The techniques of pacification developed in Algeria came home in 1848 when the French Second Republic turned on its own working-class supporters during the June Days. The final chapter of Irwin’s dissertation, “Utopian Vistas: Working-Class Violence and the Failed Dream of Socialism, 1830-1848,” examines some of the processes leading up to that moment by arguing that while the ideology of honor was increasingly democratized, violence in pursuit of honor had become the prerogative of only one class. The chapter focuses on Lyon, which saw some of the most widespread worker activism in the 1830s. Analyzing a series of pamphlets written in the name of the working-class, the chapter details the ways in which “the disgrace of emasculation from a loss of a living wage or meaningful labor” (p. 203) radicalized the working-class even as French elites tried to reckon with the potential for a violent response. The chapter thus links the economic transformation of the country to shifting constructions of gender and ultimately concludes that while many writers acknowledged the legitimacy of the working-class urge to  violence under certain conditions, the fear of such violence split masculine visions along class lines. The forms of masculine violence traced throughout the dissertation thus became the provenance of white, bourgeois men and served, not to build a universal fraternity, but rather classed social order.

Revolutionary Histrionics ends by demonstrating that no single “masculine” self ever actually solidified in nineteenth-century France. Instead, the notion of the masculine was riven by racial and class distinctions even as it alluded to a universalist promise. Ultimately, only those men blessed by “civilization” had the right to assert their masculinity through the violence deemed necessary to defining oneself as a man. The dissertation thus contains the core of an important argument that will contribute to ongoing debates not only within French history, but within the history of gender and sexuality more broadly. First, Irwin places violence at the center of public life and thus disrupts a continuing emphasis on a public sphere of rational men. Rather, the public sphere was constituted by violent men whose rationality was always a constraint, albeit an often useful one. The tension between these two urges defined people’s ability to use public space. Second, Irwin disrupts universalist pretensions by showcasing an intersectional approach to the construction of gender in early nineteenth-century France. The gendering of violence led not to a singular masculinity, but rather multiple masculinities that were cut by racial and class distinctions. Third, Revolutionary Histrionics is a reminder of the value of theoretically engaged cultural history that is willing to advance the insights of the cultural turn rather than retreat from them. Irwin’s unwillingness to “naturalize” the history of the nineteenth-century and instead to emphasize its contingency and instability strengthens his emphasis on the processes by which “the social” was constructed.

Andrew Israel Ross
Assistant Professor of History
University of Southern Mississippi

Primary Sources

Archives Nationales de France (CARAN)
Centre des Archives d’Outre Mer
Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Archives Parlementaires de 1787 à 1860

Dissertation Information

Emory University. 2013. 272 pp. Primary Advisor: Judith A. Miller.

Image: Lithograph by Jean-Jacques Granville, Les Romains échevelés à la première représentation d’Hernani (ca. 1830).

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