Les Diaboliques: Justice Manifested Via the Uncanny
The theme of justice is indeed ambiguous in the short stores Les Diaboliques by Jules Barbey D'Aurevilly. The stories are indeed graphically vivid, which take an unflinching perspective on life, love, sex, honor, lust, beauty and power -- mostly from a masculine point-of-view. It is this masculine perspective which can shackle and disarm the female characters of these stories. But in each story, justice prevails on the fictional reality by allowing the females to consistently have an uncanny sense of beauty or cunning -- a beauty that prevails by giving each female a bewitching or animalistic quality which endures and ends up haunting the male protagonists or disarming other female characters of the narratives. In this sense justice has fallen: while the female protagonists often don't have the same amount of freedom or power that the male characters do, they have a strong hold on the uncanny and the bewitching and their beauty continues to haunt and bewitch time after time, regardless of whether they're physically there or not.
Justice via Haunting in Le Rideau Cramoisi
The first instance of justice presented as an enduring, bewitching quality is in the short story, "The Crimson Curtain" (Le Rideau Cramoisi). "The story sets up a series of veils: the curtain, the table, the hand, the girl herself. Though we penetrate several layers, the mysterious reality beneath continues intact, and the girl forever remains an enigma. What is her power? What drives her?" (Pasco & Allen, 60). The girl's power is precisely her enigmatic quality; her power resides in her ability to remain in the memory of men, despite the steady passage of time. The girl has that extreme quality of "je ne sais quoi" that the narrator sees immediately and which drives into his very soul.
"Their daughter! It was no possible for anyone to be more unlike the daughter of people like them! Not but what the prettiest girls are the daughters of all sorts of people. I have known many such, and you also doubt. Physiologically speaking, the ugliest being may produce the most beautiful. But there was a chasm of a whole race between her and them! Moreover, physiologically, if I may employ that pedantic word, which belongs to your days and not to mine, one could not help remarking her air, which was very singular in a girl as young as she was, for it was a kind of impassive air very difficult to describe. She had not about her which would make you say, 'That is a pretty girl', and yet you would have thought of all the pretty girls you had met by chance, and about whom you had said that and never thought more about it. But this air -- which distinguished her not only from her parents, but from everyone else, amazed and petrified you; for she appeared to have neither passions nor feelings" (Barbey D'Aurevilly, 39).
This quote was reproduced here in its entirety to demonstrate how much difficulty the narrator has in attempting to pinpoint just what it was exactly about the girl that so deeply troubled him and which he had such difficulty expressing in words. It's clear that the girl he describes, Mademoiselle Alberte, is extremely beautiful and the old captain is able to convey that lucidly. However, the aspect about this girl that he struggles with and struggles with so profoundly, is that something else about her that is so challenging to pin down. However, when he does pin it down, as close as he can, he describes that aspect of her as terrifying. This reveals a tremendous amount about the girl's power over him, even when the old captain denies that she has any. The captain describes how he barely sees the girl and how she barely speaks to him and how this all contributed to a profound indifference to her on his part. Nothing could be further from the truth; this is a case where the narrator is being unreliable. Rather, one can be assured that the old captain is continually and irrevocably disturbed by her when he says, attempting to discount her affect on him, "To me she was an image that I scarcely saw…" (Barbey D'Aurevilly, 41). This line, attempts to be offhand and dismissive by the narrator, but actually succeeds in conveying just how disturbed and undone he was by the presence of this girl. This statement almost makes her seem like an indelible little ghost or specter, like a flitting image that migrates around their house.
The reader sees that Mademoiselle Alberte haunts the old captain before and after their first encounter, and that her power over him is precise and strong. In fact, one can argue that her power over him is even stronger after her death, as that is a clear example of justice manifesting with a totality of strength. The old captain has given her a most dishonorable death. This is a tremendous sin and way which can disgrace an individual's entire life, regardless of the culture that one originates from. Every culture and religious background has specific rituals regarding one's death that the old captain does not honor in lieu of his own cowardice. For example, "Common themes have been identified as important to the dying, regardless of cultural background. Aspects of care that are deemed highly important include: comfort and not being in pain, good communication between patient and doctors, maintaining hope, honoring spiritual beliefs, fixing relationships, making plans, and saying goodbye" (Clark & Philips, 211). Alberte is denied all of these aspects; instead, the reader is told that she dies as the result of an all-consuming orgasm given to her by her lover. This is likely a case of the old captain narrating in an unreliable fashion again; as such an explanation raises more questions about her death than it answers. Furthermore, his treatment of the corpse -- slapping it, mutilating it, leaving it on a couch and then taking off in the middle of the night -- further demonstrates the amount of dishonor that he leaves upon it.
Every culture in the world has precise rituals which accompany dying. All cultures treat death as something which should be done with precision and care and the proper treatment of the corpse is of the utmost priority. For example, in the Jewish tradition, "The person's eyes are closed, the body is covered and laid on the floor and candles are lit. The body is never left alone. Eating and drinking are not allowed near the body as a sign of respect. In Jewish law, being around a dead body causes uncleanliness so often the washing of the body and preparations for burial will be carried out by a special group of volunteers from the Jewish community. This is considered a holy act" (amemorytree.co.nz). This provides a cultural example of how the proper treatment of the body of the departed is absolutely crucial when it comes to the human experience -- and how such a fact is absolutely universal. This information aptly brings to light the grave dishonor that the old captain had bestowed on the Alberte, a fact which is even more scalding when one takes into consideration how intimate they had been together.
Two scholars of Barbey D'Aurevily have pointed out that Proust believed that his stories always have hidden at their center a 'hidden reality revealed by a material trace' (Pasco & Allen, 60). The hidden reality present in this story revolves around Alberte's revenge and the exact nature of that revenge.
Yet Alberte's revenge is certain, and it is via this revenge that justice is aptly served. Alberte's revenge orbits around the fact that she haunts him for years to come, despite the fact that he denies that she does. As the reader knows, he's not the most reliable narrator and the likelihood of his consistent accuracy of the retelling of any of these stories is indeed doubtful. "… but memories end by dying out. The devouring curiosity to know what had happened after my departure no longer disturbed me. I might have come back in after years to this little town -- and changed as I was, I should never have been recognized -- and learned what had been the end of my tragic adventure. But something, which was certainly not respect for public opinion, which I have all my life despised, but rather a disinclination to face a second time that which had given me a deadly fear, always restrained me" (Barbey D'Aurevilly, 84). This excerpt is extremely revelatory in that it describes the extreme limbo that the captain is in, even up and till the present day. He claims he's no longer curious about this woman, yet he's terrified to return to the town. His cowardice is enveloped in a deadly fear -- yet another aspect of Alberte's revenge which signifies the implementation of the justice.