"Sylvie", a different dream


King's College London: Faculty of Arts and Humanities
-- Introduction to French Literature --
Spring 2020   /   Dr. Emily Butterworth   /   Core essay

Despite being a short novel, Sylvie has a profound message, as it is a reflection of the eternal conflict between reality and desire. Romantic authors used to feel like misunderstood geniuses in a world where there was no cavity for them and their ideas. This is the reason why their work might have reflected their melancholy and vital frustration. Nerval and his Sylvie are not an exception to the rule here.

The aforementioned conflict between reality and desire is expressed through a dualism, similar to the one Plato mentioned about thousands of years ago in the Ancient city of Athens. A conflict between two irreconcilable worlds can be found. Firstly, the 'ideal world', which is a 'dream', unreal, formed of the narrator's subjective memories and idealised notions of reality. This refers to things such as his memories from the popular festivities in Loisy or his idea of Aurélie, the actress to whose plays he goes day after day in Paris. This 'fantasy land' is incarnated in Loisy, the village where the narrator spent his childhood. Secondly, there is the 'real world', which is the physical world, the present in which the narrator lives, and where the real action happens.

The 'petit Parisien' tries to live in the unreal world, this 'fairy land' he has created in which everything is perfect and incorruptible. This can be clearly seen in the notion he has of the women he falls in love with during the novel, based on idyllic and subjective ideas and memories. The first woman to appear in the story is Aurélie, the actress. He admits from the very beginning that he is in love with the idea of her, more than the person itself: 'Moi? C'est une image que je poursuis, rien de plus' [1] (p.30). He even says that he does not want to know anything about her: 'Depuis un an, je n'avais pas encore songé à m'informer de ce qu'lle pouvait être d'ailleurs' (p.26). The reason behind this is that he thinks that if he meets her, the idealized image that he had of her would disappear: 'Je craignais de troubler le miroir magique qui me renvoyait son image' (p.26). In other words, he thinks that the collision between the two worlds, between what he wants and what really holds, would result in disappointment for him.

The narrator is only in love with Aurélie because she reminds him of a girl named Adrienne, with whom he fell in love with in the popular festivities in Loisy when he was a teenager, and who became a nun some time after he left the village:

'Cet amour vague et sans espoir, conçu pour une femme de théâtre, qui tous les soirs me prenait à l'heure du spectacle, pour ne me quitter qu'à l'heure du sommeil, avait son germe dans le souvenir d'Adrienne(...) Aimer une religieuse sous la forme d'une actrice!...et si c'était la même!' (p.35).

He tries to convince himself that he is in love with the actress, but deep down he knows that he is using her to live his dream of being with Adrienne. After being with her for some time, there is a moment when he realises that he cannot be happy living this lie: 'Alors je lui raconté tout; je lui dis la source de cet amour entrevu dans les nuits, rêvé plus tard, réalisé en elle' (p.83). Here it can be seen the narrator's frustration, because he tried very hard to fulfil his dreams, but it does not matter how hard he tries, it is impossible to do so. In the real world there is no cavity for happiness and true love, as it is a place ruled by personal interests and convenience. Even him is contaminated by this atmosphere because he tries to use a person he knows he does not love. [2]

An analysis of the narrator's idyllic world will result is the conclusion that it is built especially around the village of Loisy, as he conceives this place as his locus amoenus. It is in Loisy where he met Adrienne and Sylvie, the only two women he ever loved. 'Ces mots, fort simples, réveillèrent en moi toute une nouvelle série d'impressions: c'était un souvenir de la province depuis longtemps oubliée, un écho lointain des fêtes naïves de la jeunesse' (pp.30-31). His memories from this thorp are clearly subjective, as they are mainly based on the popular festivities and his teenage love stories. He conceives it as bucolic distant place, full of love and warmth. Here it can be seen an enormous contrast with the image he has of the city of Paris: big, cold and impersonal. [3]

It can be said that the main reason why Loisy is so perfect is Sylvie, the other woman in the narrator's life. She plays a more significant role than Aurélie because he truly loved this peasant girl, as she was not used as a tool to love, such was the case of the actress. 'Et Sylvie que j'amais tant, pourquoi l'ai-je oubliée depuis trois ans?...C'était une bien jolie fille, et la plus belle de Loisy!' (p.35). Sylvie is the narrator's last hope, the only creature that has not been corrupted by a cruel and ruthless world: 'Elle existe, elle, bonne et pure de coeur sans doute' (p.35). She remains pure and naïve, oblivious to what happens outside of Loisy, outside of this little idyllic world. He hopes blindly that she will remain forever the same lovely peasant girl, and that she will wait for him forever: 'Elle m'attend encore (...) Elle m'amait seul, moi le petit Parisien' (p.36). [4]

Nevertheless, what seem perfect is not so anymore. Every time he returns to Loisy he can see how she is changing, and with her the 'dream land' starts to vanish. In chapter III she is still a sweet peasant girl: 'J'avais à peine répondu qu'elle se leva joyeusement, arrangea ses cheveux (...) et se coiffa d'un chapeau de paille rustique. L'innocence et la joie éclataient dans ses yeux' (p.48). However, her character is evolving during the story, and this transformation is caused by the Industrial Revolution, a sublime metaphor. This revolution started the extinction of rural life, the extinction of what the narrator considers pure and good, and with it, the corruption of the place and the people he loved. This can be seen when she starts dressing like the people from the city, or how she stops doing laces, something beautiful that requires artisanal work, to venture into glove making, with an industrial machine that gives her a bigger profit. She even decides to marry the 'Grand Frisé', and stops waiting for the 'petit Parisien', or in other words, she chooses a safe and pragmatic option over him, who may not have given her so much stability, but to whom she truly loved.

The disintegration of the 'ideal world' is patent with Sylvie's evolution from a sweet peasant girl into an industrialized capitalist woman. The only thing good and pure that was left in the world has disappeared, and with it the narrator's dream of a perfect world and of finding love is destroyed in a million pieces. Happiness is a path that only leads to pain and frustration for those who decide to pursuit it.

With this idea of life as a road of pain, the end of the novel is quite unexpected, as it is melancholic but happy at the same time. It is true that the 'petit Parisien' does not end up with Sylvie, as she marries and forms a family with the 'Grand Frisé':

'Puis je gravis un certain escalier où les joyeux cris de deux enfants accueillent ma venue. Le sourire athénien de Sylvie illumine ses traits charmés. Je me dis: "Là était le bonheur peut-être; cependant..." '(p.86).

The last sentence makes the reader think that the narrator deeply regrets not settling down with that peasant girl he met when he was a teenager. He had happiness in front of him for so much time, but he waited too long before it was too late for him: happiness is a train that does not wait for anybody.

Nevertheless, he seems to be happy to go on and visit Sylvie and her family from time to time. He enjoys being with her husband and her children, and going to the theatre with Sylvie. The sights that he has from the window in his room in 'L'image Saint-Jean' are of big relevance: 'Quand j'ouvre la fenêtre, encadrée de vigne et de roses, je découvre avec ravissement un horizon vert de dix lieues (...)' (p.86). This is an image of hope, of what used to be, but that can be again in the future.

In conclusion, Sylvie is a novel that evokes a dream only to destroy it, as it expresses a cry for help from romanticists, who do not feel understood in a world where there is no place for idealists like them, a world where there is no place for happiness and love. However, this whole concept of pessimism is broken with an encouraging end, an end that gives hope for a better world and a better future.


Haxell, Nichola Anne. 'Woman as Lacemaker: The Development of a Literary Stereotype in Texts by Charlotte Brontë, Nerval, Lainé, and Chawaf', The Modern Language Review, vol. 89, no. 3, (1994).

Ingler, James Boyd. Woman as myth in the works of Gérard de Nerval (Michigan: The University of Oklahoma, 1966).

Mein, Margaret. Nerval: a precursor of Proust (London: Westfield College, 1971).

Nerval, Gérard de. Sylvie (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2019).


[1] Nerval,Gérard de. Sylvie (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2019).

[2] Mein, Margaret. Nerval: a precursor of Proust (London: Westfield College, 1971), pp.102-105.

[3] Haxell, Nichola Anne. 'Woman as Lacemaker: The Development of a Literary Stereotype in Texts by Charlotte Brontë, Nerval, Lainé, and Chawaf', The Modern Language Review, vol. 89, no. 3, (1994) pp. 545-560.

[4] Ingler, James Boyd. Woman as myth in the works of Gérard de Nerval (Michigan: The University of Oklahoma, 1966), pp.76-80.