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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


George Sand

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To purchase Gabriel

Title: Gabriel
Author: George Sand
Genre: Novel
Written: 1839 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 220 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Gabriel - US
Gabriel - UK
Gabriel - Canada
Gabriel - Canada (French)
Gabriel - France
Gabriel - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • French title: Gabriel
  • Translated by Kathleen Robin Hart and Paul Fenouillet
  • With an Introduction by Kathleen Robin Hart
  • Previously translated by Guy Manifold (1992)

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Our Assessment:

B- : intriguing but ultimately way too messy piece of work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 16/11/2022 Niklas Bender
19th-Cent. French S. . Fall–Winter/2014-5 F.Ghillebaert
TSWL . (32:1) Spring/2013 M.Lukacher

  From the Reviews:
  • "Die Infragestellung geschlechtlicher Identitäten gerade unter Rückgriff auf ein romantisches Standardvokabular, das 1839 längst zu erstarren drohte, trägt wesentlich zur Eigenart dieses konzen­trierten Textes bei. Ein weiterer Punkt sind die burlesken Szenen, die sich aus den wankenden Rollenbildern ergeben – gern sieht man gestandene Mannsbilder wie Astolphes Rivalen Antonio vom Zweifel zerzaust. Nicht zuletzt macht die eigenwillige Form den Text für die Heutigen attraktiv: Der „Dialogroman“ ist von seiner Anlage als Wechselrede her dramatisch; kurze Szenenangaben verstärken die Bühnentauglichkeit." - Niklas Bender, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Today we value the play’s original resolution of the tension between Gabriel’s masculine and feminine identities and suggestion that the practice of cross-dressing is not limited to the stage. Recalling the gender theories of Judith Butler and Marjorie Garber, the editor stresses that the play demonstrated that all men and women play roles for which they must dress the part. This conception of gender roles, however, may have been too disturbing to Sand’s contemporaries and theater directors who refused to play it." - Françoise Ghillebaert, Nineteenth-Century French Studies

  • "Sand's concern with gender instability is closely related to the generic instability of the text as it shifts from a narrative to a dramatic mode. (...) This generic instability explains Sand's revisions of Gabriel, and theatrical directors' refusals to stage the play. (...) Obviously, anatomy plays a role in Sand's play, but it is complicated by family duties and upbringing. No synthesis or reconciliation is possible between nature and culture (.....) The translation by Hart and Paul Fenouillet is excellent." - Maryline Lukacher, Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In a Foreword to a later edition, included here, author Sand claims her Gabriel: "belongs to pure fantasy, in both form and subject", while translators Kathleen Robin Hart and Paul Fenouillet refer in their Introduction to: "its hybrid generic status as neither altogether play nor novel". Originally published as a 'roman dialogué' -- a novel in dialogue -- Gallimard's contemporary edition is published in their 'Folio théâtre'-series -- while a recent German translation published by Reclam insists it is: 'Ein Dialogroman' -- again, a novel in dialogue. At nearly two-hundred pages, a performance of the text would be uncomfortably long -- and yet the presentation, in five acts and multiple scenes, and limited to dialogue and what amount to stage-directions, suggest a play much more than (what contemporary readers would consider) a novel .....
       The translators correctly note that this ambiguity is entirely appropriate, given the premise and plot of the work. Gabriel opens when the title-character is seventeen, the orphaned Gabriel having been raised by his grandfather, Prince Jules de Bramante, and tutor Father Chiavari in almost complete isolation. From the first, Bramante had plans with Gabriel. Bramante had two sons: Julien, the sickly elder who was Gabriel's father, and Octave -- whose son Astolphe would, in the absence of an heir from Julien's side of the family, inherit the Bramante title and riches. Bramante wants to keep his legacy out of the hands of the Octave line, and so he has raised Gabriel as male, so that he could eventually inherit everything. But Gabriel is, in fact, physically female.
       Bramante has been so cautious in what and who Gabriel has been exposed to that Gabriel himself does not know or understand that he is female. Beyond that, his tutor has made sure that: "he has been imbued with the grandeur of the man's role and the lowliness of woman's in nature and society", and Gabriel has little more than contempt for what he see as the lesser sex. It's been drilled into him how lucky he is to be male -- and thus also his grandfather's heir:

No doubt I could have been born a woman, and then good-bye to fortune and family love ! I would have been a cursed creature, and by now would no doubt be hidden away in some convent expiating the crime of my birth. But it is not my grandfather who did me the great honor of making me belong to the male race.
       The play abounds in such ironical utterances -- of course, it is only his grandfather that made him 'belong to the male race' ... -- as Gabriel's true self also can't quite fully be kept down. Early on already, he dreams that he is a woman (and: "around my neck hung a heavy chain whose weight pulled me toward the abyss"). Soon enough, he has sought out his cousin Astolphe -- and is talked into disguising himself as a woman, dressing up in women's clothes. Though Astolphe has also witnessed Gabriel acting manly -- killing a man when they first meet -- he's also quite taken by him, admitting at one point:
Listen, Gabriel, I am not myself tonight. I am under the spell of a strange illusion: I am convinced that you are a woman. Even though I know otherwise, the illusion has taken hold of my imagination the way the reality does, perhaps even more so.
       Even when Gabriel becomes aware of his true physical nature, all those year's of indoctrination make it difficult for him to commit, one way or the other. He and Astolphe fall in love, and Gabriel presents herself as Gabrielle, but outside pressure still conspire to make it impossible for them to live as a happy couple, from the family pressures on both sides to others who are jealous and suspicious and, not least, to Gabriel(le)'s deeply ingrained notions of the place, role, and (in)capabilities of women. (It doesn't help that they are cousins, either.)
       Astolphe claims:
I know women. You do not know them, you who are not half man, half woman, as you believe, but rather angel in human form.
       And while he is correct that Gabriel(le) does not know women, to consider him/her an angel instead is not particularly helpful either.
       Astolphe's mother -- not aware of Gabriel's true identity -- is also opposed to her and Astolphe being together, yet another opportunity for Sand to mix in her theme of identity-confusion, on yet more levels:
I hate your Gabrielle. I hate her for goading you on and helping you every day to deceive me by passing herself off as a girl of good family and a rich heiress, when she is nothing but a schemer with no name, no fortune, no family, no reputation, and what is more, no religion !
       In parts, Sand lays it on way too thick -- the Pope gets involved ! -- and, for example, late in the story, Gabriel is drawn into a duel, with his opponent hoping to expose him by insisting: "we shall both fight bare-chested"; Gabriel doesn't go along with that, but shows he can handle a sword (though, as his opponent notes: "Your sword is shorter than mine" ...). Late scenes are set during carnival time; here it's no longer a question of Grabriel appearing disguised as a man or woman, but rather we find him: "unrecognizable in a mask and black domino". Tortured to the end, he: "can barely resist the temptation of suicide" (and self-mutilation); inevitably, it all comes to a melodramatic, tragic end.
       This is a messy piece of work. Sand raises interesting questions and makes some good points -- but usually with sledgehammer subtlety. Certainly, she's right in pointing out -- through Gabriel -- that: "the transmission of inheritance solely from male to male is a troublesome law, perhaps even unjust" -- but Bramante's perverse attempt to circumvent these laws come across as basically lunatic. (Bramante is an intriguing character -- evasive and shadowy and, although apparently ill and dying, lingering on and on.) The play does consider nature versus nurture in the debate about gender-identification -- but the way Gabriel has been indoctrinated to believe that women are far lesser beings only adds to his psychological confusion; arguably, most of his problems stem not from the fact that he been raised as male but rather than he has been taught to have such great contempt for women (though, of course, that is an issue with many men ...).
       Sand -- herself famous for dressing 'like a man' -- thus skirts some of the major questions here. How a person is seen, depending whether they are considered male or female, does crop up in a variety of interesting ways here, but Sand freights her work down and distracts with too many other elements to really allow that question to shine through. Clearly a subject close to her heart, she just doesn't seem to be able to get a handle on all she wants to say here.
       This edition of Gabriel is presented in the excellent MLA Texts and Translations-series, and as such there's also a companion volume, featuring the original French text. This translation is fine -- though a significant proportion of the footnotes (of which there are fortunately only a manageable 33) discuss whether and for what reason tu or vous are being used at various points (translated as 'you' in English in either case); while the characters' choice of address is of some significance and interest, these explanations prove distracting; a simple mention of the issue in the Introduction would probably have sufficed.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2024

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Gabriel: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Franch author George Sand (actually: Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) lived 1804 to 1876.

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© 2024 the complete review

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