The Language of Business and the Business of Language in Becque's Les Corbeaux

by Norman Araujo
The Language of Business and the Business of Language in Becque's Les Corbeaux
Norman Araujo
The French Review
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The Language of Business and
the Business of Language
in Becque's Les Corbeaux
by Norman Araujo
HENRY BECQUE'S LES CORBEAUX was presented for the first time on 14 September
1882, at the Comedie-Francaise. The work of a bookkeeper's son
whose earlier plays had been little noticed, Les Corbeaux opened to mixed
reviews, but would later be generally acclaimed as Becque's masterpiece
and one of the finest and most original plays of the late nineteenth
The plot, stark and simple, turns on the tragic vicissitudes of the Vigneron
family, suddenly rendered vulnerable to the machinations of unscrupulous
businessmen by the untimely death of Vigneron himself, a
manufacturer. Act I begins with a description of the Vigneron family preparing
for a dinner party to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of the
youngest daughter, Blanche; it ends with the sudden death of her father
and the lacerating grief of her mother. The following two acts detail the
progressive psychological disarray and commercial decline of the family, as
its business "friends," led by the deceased's partner, Teissier, conspire to
ruin it financially: Blanche is thoroughly devastated by her aristocratic and
opportunistic would-be mother-in-law's cancellation of her marriage because
of her inability to provide the dowry agreed upon; her brother,
Gaston, forsakes the family and joins the army; in their business transactions,
the sorrowful and inexperienced Mme Vigneron and her two remaining
daughters, Judith and Marie, prove no match for the doubledealing
Teissier and his cohorts. Finally, in act IV, with Blanche lost to
insanity, and absolute financial ruin threatening, the Vigneron family is
seen resigning itself to the only possible solution to its plight: Marie's
marriage of convenience to Teissier, who, having taken a fancy to her,
guarantees that, as her husband, he will protect the family's monetary
interests. Thus Becque's disillusioning commentary on the harsh realities
of the bourgeois world of business comes to an end, surprisingly, not by
means of a conventional denouement, but through the quiet-though no less
painful-resignation of the victims to their ironic fate.
Modern critical opinion has been somewhat divided as to whether Les
Corbeaux is to be labeled a naturalistic drama or regarded as a technically
unclassifiable work, closer in certain respects to Moliere's classical treat-
ment of character; but there has been fairly wide agreement to the effect
that the play is realistic in its observation of bourgeois manners and morals
under the Second Empire, and more than one critic has viewed it as a
protest against the sentimental, economic, and intellectual oppression of
A fresh analysis of Les Corbeaux suggests, however, that there is more to
the work than social realism in the traditional sense and psychological
insight based on classical paradigms. Indeed, possibly inspired by Balzacian
imagery, the play's title, with its connotative resonance, invites the critic to
explore other levels of meaning.' As the actionunfolds, it quickly becomes
obvious that the "vultures," or "ravens," or "crows" of the title are not birds
in the literal sense but people, and that, however "realistic" his intended
approach to his subject matter, Becque is concerned with the figurative use
of language, and, as will be seen shortly, other uses as well." Whatever
lingering doubts there are about the figurative use of language in the title
of Les Corbeaux are swept away when the faithful servant of the Vigneron
household, Rosalie, declares in act IV, "Voyez-vous, quand les hommes
d'affaires arrivent derriere un mort, on peut bien dire: v'la les corbeaux! lIs
ne laissent que ce qu'ils ne peuvent pas emporter" (602).
But well before this elucidation of the title's meaning, it is clear that a
central motif of Les Corbeaux has to do with language as such, with the
problem of verbal communication as it arises between the Vigneron family
and the vultures who exploit the weaknesses of the family. These weaknesses
involve not only an ignorance of the law and of business practices,
but also an ignorance of how language can be employed systematically to
deceive; how, more fundamentally, meaning in language is relative, and
reflective of the dominant social conventions rather than of any moral
The centrality of language itself to the fabric of the play's action is
apparent from the very first scene, when Mme Vigneron and her daughter
Blanche discuss the propriety of the expression plus mauoais, an expression
that Mme Vigneron is convinced that she is using properly because she has
seen it in the Cuisiniere bourgeoise (565). The metalingual dimension implicit
in this discussion will be developed later on in the play, as further commentary
on language reveals both the Vignerons' inadequate grasp thereof and
the hypocritical or destructive uses to which verbal expression is put by the
materialistic false friend of the Vigneron family, Mme de Saint-Genis, and
the vultures themselves.
A case in point is the conversation in act III between Mme de Saint-Genis
and her would-be daughter-in-law, Blanche. As the conversation progresses,
Mme de Saint-Genis explains that her son Georges will never go
through with the marriage, given Blanche's changed financial status due to
her father's sudden demise. Shaken by the thought that Georges would so
easily give her up, it is Blanche who first broaches the question of sincerity
in language, exclaiming, "]e saurai d'abord si votre fils a deux langages, l'un
avec vous, l'autre avec moi" (600). Blanche makes this remark unaware, of
course, that, in the monologue of the preceding scene, Mme de Saint-Genis
has acknowledged that Georges was indeed sincere in his love for her and
agreed to abandon his marriage plans only when threatened with banishment
from his mother's sight.
But Mme de Saint-Genis is not about to admit the sincerity of the
sentimental language shared by Blanche and Georges. Rather, she counters
with an attempt to equate that sincerity, at least as far as Blanche is
concerned, with immorality. Thus when Blanche, confessing that she has
been intimate with Georges, declares that she would willingly become his
mistress rather than become the wife of another, Mme de Saint-Genis
seizes the opportunity afforded her for a counterattack. First protesting
that she has not called off her son's wedding for a mere "question d'interet"
but because of Blanche's immoral attitude, she then proceeds to chastise
Blanche for her licentious language: "Qu'est-ce que c'est que ce langage de
fille perdue!" (601). The truth of the matter is that Mme de Saint-Genis's
action was in fact prompted by the "question d'interet." But Blanche does
not know that, nor is she capable of detecting that a major difference
between her own language and that of Mme de Saint-Genis is the hypocritical
content of the latter.
Blanche is not the only member of the Vigneron family to lose a costly
battle of words. In her discussions with the lawyer Bourdon, one of the
vultures, Mme Vigneron is similarly victimized, except that, in the case of
Bourdon, language is at times both a vehicle for hypocritical expression and
an instrument of obfuscation. Contrary to the manner of Mme de SaintGenis,
which is relatively uncomplicated in its hypocrisy-and, on occasion,
even brutally frank-Bourdon's verbal technique is designed to overwhelm
the unsuspecting, financially and legally unsophisticated Mme Vigneron
with erudite and sonorous language. Seeking to convince her to sell her
property, Bourdon refers to Roman history and Ciceronian oratory, warning
Mme Vigneron that, while she hesitates, "Catilina est aux portes de
Rome" (583). In a subsequent conversation that she has with her daughter
Judith, Mme Vigneron indirectly reveals that she has not in the slightest
understood Bourdon's stratagem. She complains of the considerable
amount of "obscurite" in Bourdon's words, and asks Judith if she knows
what he meant by the reference to Catiline (587); but what has escaped
Mme Vigneron's attention is that Bourdon's allusion to Roman historyreminiscent
of the obfuscatory practices of some of Moliere's characters
(Chardin 87)-is merely a learned cover for his scheme to conceal from her
the true nature of her financial situation, which is less desperate than he
Another encounter between these two characters confirms Mme Vigneron's
verbal disadvantage when dealing with Bourdon and, in so doing,
provides a key to a fuller understanding of the Vigneron family's inability
to keep the vultures at bay. When, upset at Teissier's plan to sell the
Vigneron factory, and unaware of this vulture's collusion with Bourdon,
Mme Vigneron tells the latter that she is going to point out to Teissier that
he is committing a "mauvaise action," she betrays the puritanical moral
code that she is striving to apply in the Darwinian"survival of the fittest"
atmosphere of financial conspiracies threatening her and her daughters
(Hyslop 53). Bourdon's reaction to her words is equally revelatory: "]e
doute fort, madame, qu'en tenant ce langage avotre adversaire, vous arriviez
al'emouvoir" (595; my italics). One critic has viewed this exchange as
an illustration of the difference between the Vigneron family's naively
idealistic language of "rights" and the vultures' cynically pragmatic language
of "facts" (Chardin 84-85).
Whatever the validity of this distinction, further analysis of Les Corbeaux
demonstrates that, beyond the question of the vultures' deceptive and
cynical uses of language, the more basic issue involved is the very relativity
of meaning itself, and how that relativity is linked to prevailing social
customs. Two facts become obvious: one is that certain essential expressions
of the language still employed by the Vigneron family and absolutely
clear to it are no longer intelligible to most, if not all, of the vultures; the
second is that other essential expressions have taken on new or more
restrictive meanings, or have been altogether stripped of meaning in the
vultures' lexicon.
An example of a term which, absolutely clear in meaning to the Vigneron
family, has become unintelligible for the most part where the vultures are
concerned is the adjective honniie, in its couplings with homme or gens. In the
monologue that she delivers in act IV, Marie reflects on the temperament
of her sisters and expresses particular concern about the vulnerability of
Judith because the latter is "honnete" (608). Marie is talking about moral
honesty, as is her father in act I, when he describes Mme de Saint-Genis as
an "honnete femme" (567), or even, ironically, Mme de Saint-Genis herself
when, cautioning Mme Vigneron against the pitfalls of her naivete, she
says to her, "Vous voyez des honnetes gens partout" (578). The word
honnefe continues to retain its moral sense when Mme Vigneron wonders
aloud, in the presence of Mme de Saint-Genis, whether her deceased husband
is now "au ciel OU vont les honnetes gens comme lui," refusing, at the
same time, to believe that he left any serious business problems behind
because, as an "honnete homme," he did not have complicated financial
transactions (577).
Unfortunately for the Vigneron family, the morality implicit in these
uses of the word honnefe is alien to the mentality and verbal code of the
vultures. It is true that a vulture-corne-lately, Dupuis, is not above employing
the adjective honniiein a pseudomoralistic sense when he tries, in act IV,
to collect from the grieving Vigneron family on a nonexistent debt. Attempting
first to reassure Marie of his own honesty by praising that of her
dead father, he recalls the supposedly congenial history of his dealings with
the deceased, noting that "entre honnetes gens, \a devrait toujours se
passer ainsi" (609). A short time after this utterance, confronted by Teissier,
he argues nervously that, as an "honnete homme," he would not be
asking for the money if it were not due him (610). But the hollowness of
Dupuis's hypocritical appropriation of the word honnit» becomes apparent
when, pressed menacingly by Teissier, he makes his wife the scapegoat,
allowing the inference that she might have made an error of computation.
While it might be submitted that Dupuis is at least paying lip service to
the meaning of honniie as understood by the Vigneron family, for Bourdon
it appears that that meaning has ceased to exist. When, in view of her
possible marriage to Teissier, Marie asks Bourdon whether her prospective
husband is an "honnete homme," Bourdon's initial response is to ask Marie
what she means by such a question (605). Then, without waiting for her
clarification, he proceeds to interpret the question in the narrow framework
of commercial law as related to Teissier's fidelity to his given wordon
which fidelity Bourdon then casts doubt, advising Marie to have contractual
agreements drawn up carefully stipulating her rights. Goaded on
by an unsatisfied Marie, who is finally allowed to elaborate on her question,
Bourdon now concedes that Teissier has probably not made his fortune
honorably-but quickly adds, in a notable exemplification of the vultures'
belief in the primacy of "fact" over "right," that the majority of fortunes in
France have been made in the same way (605-606).
What is particularly significant in this exchange between Bourdon and
Marie is that, in the course of Bourdon's reply, the notion of the honnete
homme as a moral concept has been so eroded as to lose its referential
consistency. Still struggling to exhaust, as he perceives them, the clarified
implications of Marie's original question, by the end of his answer Bourdon
is endeavoring to reassure her that, in his role as husband, Teissier will be
more "honnete" than not; but the gist of his comments permits the inference
that he takes "honnete" to mean "exercising sexual restraint" (606).
It is already demoralizing enough, from the standpoint of the members
of the Vigneron family, to discover that, in the world of the vultures, a
world dominating and absorbing their own, expressions such as honnete
homme and honnetes gens no longer have a definite meaning. More devastating
still is the discovery that, in the language of the vultures, words like
affaire have suffered a less readily apparent but more ominous fate: they
continue to exist and to be employed, but the meaning ascribed to them has
become exclusively commercial and self-servingly so. As in the case of
honniie, the action of Les Corbeaux is designed in part to measure the moral
distance separating what the word affaire means for the Vigneron family
from what it means for the vultures.
At the beginning of the play, the word affaire, as used by the Vigneron
family, continues to have two primary meanings, the general one of "matter"
or "affair" and the commercially oriented one of "transaction" or "deal."
Even when Mme Vigneron appears to intend the commercial sense of the
word, that sense retains a benevolent neutrality. Hence she describes a
joint business venture undertaken by her husband and Teissier in the
following fashion: "M. Teisser et monsieur Vigneron ont fait une affaire
ensemble; elle a ete bonne pour tous les deux, partant quittes" (568). The
intrinsic merit of this "affaire" was its balanced outcome: it was not consummated
at the expense of one of the two associates.
On the lips of the vultures, however, the term not only loses its general
meaning of "matter" or "affair" but has its commercial meaning circumscribed
by the notion of a transaction or deal to be turned to the advantage
of one person, or group of persons, at the expense of the designated victim,
or victims. When, in a discussion with Mme Vigneron about the suitability
of having Marie marry Teissier, Bourdon notes that such a union would
not be a "mauvaise affaire" for Marie, he means that she would be the one
to profit financially from it; and all his succeeding remarks on the subject
only serve to embroider on this theme (595).
With the subsequent elaboration of his thought, the meaning of Bourdon's
words penetrates even the naivete of Mme Vigneron. Perceiving that
he means "business deal" when he uses the word affaire, Mme Vigneron
replies defiantly with a reiteration of her opposition to the selling of her
factory and with the statement that she is not expecting anything from
Teissier's fortune (595). But it is clear that she has not grasped the accent,
the intensity of Bourdon's use of the word affaire. Nor will she do so in time
to save her family from capitulation to the vultures. Her failure in this
regard is foreshadowed in act I, when she offhandedly observes to Mme de
Saint-Genis that the reason why Vigneron and Teissier do not fraternize
more is that, once they have talked out their"affaires" at the factory, they
have little more to say to each other (572). While Mme Vigneron does not
indicate, at this early point, which of the two men pursued these business
conversations with the greater ardor and single-mindedness, the evolution
of the play's action and the emerging character portrayals will lend credence
to the assumption that it was Teissier. Indirectly and unbeknownst
to her, Mme Vigneron has touched here on the vultures' invasive conception
of the affaire: an all-absorbing, intense activity devoted solely to the
making of a profit. Indeed, one of Les Corbeaux's tragic themes is the laggard
development of Mme Vigernon's verbal awareness in this connection,
tragic because that development is too little and too late.
The intensity with which the word affaire is charged for Bourdon, and by
implication for Teissier, is again suggested to Mme Vigneron-and again
with little effect-in another conversation with Bourdon, when the lawyer
comes initially to announce that Teissier has made arrangements to sell the
Vignerons' factory. Pretending indignantly to discern in Mme Vigneron's
attitude a trace of suspicion directed against him, Bourdon criticizes in turn
her passivity: "Pendant que vous vous agitez sans rien conclure, attendant
je ne sais quel evenernent qui ne se presentera pas, Teissier, lui, avec ses
habitudes d'homme d'affaires, a marche de l'avant" (593). Whatever the
duplicitous character of Bourdon's manner and presentation, his account of
Teissier's action reflects the vultures' conviction that it is with relentless
intensity that the successful "homme d'affaires" pursues his affaire to its
profitable conclusion. Not, by the way, that Teissier himself has not already
directly indicated to Mme Vigneron just how seriously he regards that
phenomenon represented by the word affaire. The value that Teissier attaches
to the business deal is rendered forcefully evident as early as act II,
when he firmly prevents Mme Vigneron from intervening in a heated
exchange between Bourdon and the architect Lefort, another vulture.
Teissier justifies his preventive action by observing, sententiously, that one
never interrupts a "conversation d'affaires" (586).
As much as an attestation of the fervor that Teissier brings to the
upholding of the conventions in vogue among the vultures with respect to
the conduct of business matters (this "fripon honnete" carries with him at
all times the book of legal statutes in effect in French territory"), this scene
provides a more accurate gauge of the distance separating Mme Vigneron's
naivete from the callousness of the vultures' ardent business practices. Not
only is she incapable of determining the meaning that the vultures give to
the word affaire; she is unable, in a broader context, to distinguish between
a "mere disagreement" on business tactics and a truly violent altercation.
Teissier, on the other hand, possesses the necessary sophistication to place
such disagreements in perspective, the accomplishment of the successfulif
morally condemnable-business deal being the very rationale for his
Mme Vigneron's inability to grasp the practical ramifications of the ardor
that Teissier brings to the promotion and defense of the "conversation
d'affaires" is all the more detrimental to her family's material well-being
since this ardor is the mark of a particular hierarchy of values for the
vultures. It is not merely that, according to this hierarchy of values, the sole
objective of the affaire is the generating of a profit; it is rather, and far more
fundamentally, that generating a profit emerges as the only value of any
true importance, the money question being the only question worth discussing
at all. This truth becomes fully explicit when Bourdon, Mme Vigneron,
and Marie are considering the latter's prospective marriage to Teissier.
After rudely informing Mme Vigneron, in Darwinian terms, that she
has simply experienced lila loi du plus fort," but now, through Marie's
marriage to Teissier, has a chance to recoup financially, Bourdon comes
back to Marie and to the nub of the issue at hand:
Vous avez entendu, mademoiselle,ce que je viens de dire avotre mere. Faitesmoi
autant de questions que vous voudrez, mais, abordons, n'est-ce pas, laseule
quisoit vmtablement imporlante, laquestion d'argent. je vous ecoute. (606; my italics)
The asserted primacy of the question of money is all the more striking in
this context, it should be remembered, since Marie and Bourdon have just
finished discussing Teissier's moral character.
But a more precise measure of the primacy of the question of money for
the vultures is to be found in their manner of reacting to the very concepts
of death, love, and marriage. Scholarly research has already shown how
Becque utilizes the early death of Vigneron to unmask the vultures (Araujo
623-628). On the more specific level of the play's language, however, Vigneron's
demise also serves to illuminate the fact that, for the vultures, the
meaning of death has little to do with a sense of loss or grief but is purely
relative-relative to the financial advantage to be derived therefrom, to the
opportunity created for a lucrative affaire.
There is already more than a hint of this relativistic outlook in the
approach that the materialistic Mme de Saint-Genis adopts in the face of
Vigneron's death. To a Mme Vigneron in tears, Mme de Saint-Genis's
attempt at consolation is hardly grounded in sentimental or spiritual sensitivity.
She suggests, rather, that she herself was more to be pitied when
she lost her own husband-because all he left her were debts and a fouryear-
old child to raise (577). As revealing as is this effort to comfort Mme
Vigneron monetarily, more revealing still is the verbal framework in which
the effort is conveyed. Mme de Saint-Genis's lead-in statement is "]e sais ce
que c'est que de perdre son mari," which, in the lexicon of the Vigneron
family, would be the prelude to an expression of emotional communion in
suffering. But, as is now evident, Mme de Saint-Genis intends a "communion"
of a different sort.
As for the vultures themselves, their employment of a language even
more impersonal in its final significance than that of Mme de Saint-Genis
plainly demonstrates that for them death is absolutely devoid of any sentimental
or spiritual meaning. Seeing Mme Vigneron for the first time after
the death of her husband, Bourdon is completely closed to the propriety of
condolences. He begins with a cold question designed to elicit financial
information: "Dites-moi, madame, pendant que j'y pense: est-ce avec votre
autorisation que madame de Saint-Genis s'est presentee chez moi pour
connaitre la situation que vous etait faite par Ie deces de votre mari?" (583).
Under similar circumstances, Teissier and Lefort behave in the same fashion,
their queries differing only very slightly in form from Bourdon's
(578, 586). In the particular case of Bourdon, not only does he fail to offer
condolences to Mme Vigneron, but he has the effrontery to be shocked
that she has not immediately inquired about her husband's financial arrangements.
After all, he observes, giving his comments the form of a
solemn truism, such inquiry is of the essence: "Quand on perd son mari,
c'est la premiere chose dont on s'occupe" (583).
No different, basically, is the tenor of Teissier's remarks to Marie on the
subject of selling her dead father's factory. The emphasis has merely
shifted from the question of ordering one's material priorities when one's
husband dies to the equally matter-of-fact question of how one best avails
oneself of the death of a factory owner to promote a profitable affaire: "La
mort de son directeur est une occasion excellente, qui ne se representera
pas, pour nous en defaire, profitons-en" (580). Once again, it is the imper74
sonality of the allusion which is striking in the language of the vultures.
Teissier elevates-or reduces-the matter of Vigneron's death to the level
of a vague generality, as if Marie were not all all connected to this anonymous
"directeur" whose demise has created an "occasion excellente." The
qualification "excellente" is further evidence, as if such were needed, of
Teissier's glacial indifference to Marie's bereavement.
Love and marriage fare no better than death in the code of the vultures.
Given the foregoing analysis, it would not be illogical to assume that love
and marriage would be of interest to the vultures only if related to a
prospect of making money. But both concepts suffer even more cruel
compression at their hands. Love is so compressed, in fact, that it disappears
entirely; and marriage becomes only another form of "the only game
in town"-the affaire or business transaction. Such are the profound conclusions
to which Bourdon comes when conversing with Marie in act IV:
[e parle, n'est-ce pas, aune jeune femme raisonnable, bien elevee, qui n'a pas de
papillons dans la tete. Vous devez savoir que l'amour n'existe pas; je ne l'ai
jamais rencontre pour rna part. nn'y a que des affaires en ce monde; Ie mariage
en est une comme toutes les autres .... (607)
In what Bourdon imagines to be his reasonable perspective, "love" and
"marriage" are now signifiers that have no signifieds: the former is nothing
more than a myth; the latter has disappeared as an end in itself to become
only a means toward the end of making money. It is not only Marie,
however, who has failed to grasp these "truths." The whole Vigneron
family shares in this failure, and, perhaps most ironically, Blanche. In act III,
still naively expecting that her marriage to Georges will become a reality,
Blanche vows to be more decisive in that marriage than her family has been
in its business transactions (591). Not having been treated to Bourdon's
"insights," what she cannot perceive is that there is no real distinction, in
the world of the vultures, between affaire and mariage. Because of that
absence of distinction, her marriage, now viewed by Mme de Saint-Genis
as a mauvaise affaire, will not take place.
The vultures are not content to redefine or eliminate entirely essential
concepts of the world of the Vigneron family, such as death, love, and
marriage. Their code is designed to reflect a new "worldly wisdom" by the
creation of maxims which dissipate the myths and illusions cultivated by
the likes of the Vigneron family, myths and illusions predicated, in the
vultures' opinions, on an irrelevant morality." Dupuis, for example, takes
philosophical note of the unpredictability of business: "... vous savez ce
que sont les affaires, bonnes un jour, mauvaises Ie lendemain ... (609). For
Teissier, on the other hand, true to the tenor of his other remarks on the
subject, what is to be stressed is that in business one comes quickly to the
point: "On ne fait pas de ceremonies dans les affaires" (609).
Since for the vultures, as noted above, the affaire has necessarily to do, in
the final analysis, with money, its acquisition and accumulation, it is not
surprising that some of the maxims should address this paramount issue.
Speaking of Vigneron, Teissier ventures a global definition of a man's
worth in financial terms: "Un homme vaut davantage quand il possede
quelque chose" (575). As far as Bourdon is concerned, if the love of money
is the root of all evil, the lack of money is the root of spinsterhood. His
words to Mme Vigneron on this matter are quite explicit: "C'est qu'en
effet, madame, faute d'argent, les jeunes filles restent jeunes filles" (607). It
is Bourdon again, finally, who utters the comprehensive proverbial expression
that puts all the preceding maxims in context and provides a broad
philosophical backdrop for them. Referring to what he takes to have been
Vigneron's outlook on life, he assumes that the latter would have viewed
with utmost concern the predicament of his wife and daughters, and advised
the sacrificial gesture of Marie's marriage to Teissier: "II connaissait la
vie; il savait que tout se paye en ce monde ..." (607). In Bourdon's world,
then, the beginning of wisdom is not the fear of God but the realization
that everything has a price-or, to try to match the intended literalness of
Bourdon's expression-a price tag.
By its systematic exploration of the difference between the language
spoken by the Vigneron family and that spoken by the vultures, with the
attendant tragic consequences of this difference for the Vigneron family,
Les Corbeaux points to a function of realistic literature consistent with Roland
Barthes's reading of Balzac's Sarrasine and J. L. Austin's theory of
speech acts. According to the conclusions reached by these writers, realism
demonstrates not only how words become detached from their referential
source in the process of social and economic change but also how, despite
this detachment, language continues to enjoy representational authority.
This authority stems from language's ability to continue to indicate, faithfully
and effectively, that meaning is derived not from an "objective" reality
but from social convention, from what society-in the case of Les Corbeaux
that dominant segment of society comprising the vultures-chooses to
accept as real. 7
Against this onslaught of conventional meaning, the "truths" which constitute
the moral predicate of the Vigneron family's verbal expression
simply evaporate, having no independent means of support in the social
context. That the evaporation of these "truths" is complete by the end of
Les Corbeaux is powerfully underscored by the play's final verbal irony.
Having intimidated and chased away Dupuis, Teissier feels duty-bound to
alert Marie to the danger that Dupuis and others like him represent for her
and her family now that her father is dead: "Vous etes entourees de fripons,
mon enfant, depuis la mort de votre pere. Allons retrouver votre
famille" (610). With his own friponnerie-as the Vignerons might have defined
it-having become so second nature that he is not at all aware of it,
Teissier literally gives new meaning here to the word fripon. It now simply
designates anyone who poses a threat to his financial security and that, by
"natural" extension, of his wife-to-be and her family.
Thus the ending of Les Corbeaux marks more than just the financial
victory of the vultures. It also marks, in resounding as well as ironic terms,
their definitive verbal victory. In the latter connection, the play's denouement
takes on a special significance: while one cannot directly trace back to
Becque the twentieth-century French theater's concern with the problem
of how meaning is created, it is evident that he anticipates that concern in
Les Corbeaux and conveys it with unusual dramatic insight and artistry.
IThe circumstances surrounding the first presentation of Les Corbeaux are noted in Hyslop
5-6. Becque's earlier plays were L'Enfant prodigue (1868), Michel Pauper (1870), L'Enleoement
(1871), La Navette (1878), and Les Honnites Femmes (1880).
2For the view that Les Corbeaux is essentially a naturalistic play, see Senart 189; Martino
178-181. For the view that Les Corbeaux is unclassifiable, and more in the Molieresque
tradition of character analysis, see Lindenberg 7-8; Hyslop 47, 81-83; Blanchart 49-50. For
a discussion of realistic techniques in Les Corbeaux, see Hyslop 49, 81; Descotes 122; Wooton
72, 78; Martino 180-181. Interpretations of Les Corbeaux as a protest against the oppression
of women are to be found in Chardin 82-83 and Arnaoutovitch 1: 426-429.
3Tne idea of a Balzacian source for the title of Becque's play is advanced in Arnaoutovitch
2: 273-274.
4For "vultures," "ravens," and "crows" as English translations of corbeaux in the title and
body of Becque's play, see Wooton 72-73 and Becque 564. The author of the present article
employs "vultures" throughout to designate corbeaux.
5The expression fripon honnete is to be found, with reference to Teissier, in Senart 190.
6According to Chardin, this new "worldly wisdom" reflects a historical shift from the
ideology of the lower middle class to that of the world of finance and industry (82-83).
7For a discussion of the ideas of Barthes and Austin regarding the opposition between
constative meaning and referential truth in realistic prose, see Petrey 153-55, 161-62.
Works Cited
Araujo, Norman. "The Role of Death in Becque's Les Corbeaux." Revuedes Langues Vivantes
36 (1970): 621-631.
Arnaoutovitch, Alexandre. Henry Becque. 3 vols. Paris: PUF, 1927.
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.
Barthes, Roland. 5/2. Paris: Seuil, 1970.
Becque, Henry. Les Corbeaux. Nineteenth-Century French Plays. Ed. Joseph L. Borgerhoff.
New York: Appleton, 1931. 563-610.
Blanchard, Paul. Henry Becque: son ceuvre, portrait et autographe. Paris: Nouvelle Revue
Critique, 1930.
Chardin, Philippe. "Quelques problernes ideologiques poses par Les Corbeaux d'Henry
Becque." Les Cahiers Naturalistes 52 (1979): 81-92.
Descotes, Maurice. Henry Becque et son theatre. Paris: Minard, 1962.
Hyslop, Lois Boe. Henry Becque. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Lindenberg, Daniel. "Un Dissident theatral: les luttes d'Henry Becque (1817-1899)."
Comedie Francaise May 1982: 7-12.
Martino, P. Le Naturalisme [rancais (1870-1895). 2nd ed. Paris: Colin, 1930.
Petrey, Sandy. "Castration, Speech Acts, and the Realist Difference: S/Z versus Sarrasine."
PMLA 102 (1987): 153-65.
Senart, Philippe. "Henry Becque: Les Corbeaux." Nouvelle Revue des Deux Mondes, Oct. 1982:
Wooton, Carl W. "The Vultures: Becque's Realistic Comedy of Manners." Modern Drama 4.1
(1961): 72-79.
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