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Realism and Its Vicissitudes

Essays in Honor of Sandy Petrey

Edited By Robert Harvey and Patrice Nganang

This collection honors the career of Donald «Sandy» Petrey, Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Stony Brook for over forty years. The diversity of essays – written by colleagues, friends, and former students, and ranging in subject from the traditional Festschrift theme of the honoree’s compelling contributions to the study of realism and the novel’s role in history, to chapters on Susan Sontag’s experimental films, the thought of the late Marxist philosopher André Gorz, silence in the graphic novel, and linguistic disparities between American and Standard Italian – attests to the plasticity of Sandy Petrey’s mind and the ample indications of his work. Best-known (and well-loved) for his often gruff, no-nonsense style in teaching and prose, Petrey is celebrated by those whose careers and ideas he has helped to nurture, inform, and embolden. This collection is a fine text for courses in nineteenth-century as well as contemporary French studies and literature.
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5. Legality, Narrative Order, and Vagabondage in Balzac’s Ferragus

← 68 | 69 →Notes



The long opening paragraph of Ferragus (three and a half pages) begins with a kind of physiognomy of streets in Paris, which is described as a delicious monster for those strolling amateurs who know their Paris. The extended metaphor unfolds the monster into a creature with a head, tissue cells, a stomach, and other random body parts, until Balzac is obliged to make excuses for “ce début vagabond.”1 This self-reflexive comment provides an entry point into a reading of vagabondage in Ferragus, a story that errs and does not arrive at a desired or predictable outcome. Balzac wrote the novella, one of the three in the Histoire des Treize, in 1833, but the action takes place during the Restoration, in 1819. During the July Monarchy, as Sandy Petrey wrote, the novel, and in particular the Balzacian novel, “devoted itself to exploring the mechanisms through which reality goes away or comes thundering out of nowhere.”2 In Ferragus, the mechanism through which reality is both lost and reimposed is characterized by the rhetorical structure of error I am calling vagabondage. It is the semiotic figure of the novella’s mimesis, the discourse of its story. A semiotic reading identifies the signs of error; such a reading shows that the style corresponds to the subject matter: the matter is the description of Paris, the manner is as of a vagabondage through the text.3

The point is that Balzac always gives us the...

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