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"Triangular Desire in Cervantes, Flaubert and Stendhal", by René Girard

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mai 2023

H. Daumier - Don Quichotte et Sancho Panza, 1866

Extracts from :

René Girard

Deceit, Desire and the Novel


"I want you to know, Sancho, that the famous Amadis of Gaul was one of the most perfect knight errants. But what am I saying, one of the most perfect ? I should say the only, the first, the unique, the master and lord of all those who existed in the world . . . .

I think . . . that, when a painter wants to become famous for his art he tries to imitate the originals of the best masters he knows; the same rule applies to most important jobs or exercises which contribute to the embellishment of republics; thus the man who wishes to be known as careful and patient should and does imitate Ulysses, in whose person and works Homer paints for us a vivid portrait of carefulness and patience, just as Virgil shows us in the person of Aeneas the valor of a pious son and the wisdom of a valiant captain; and it is understood that they depict them not as they are but as they should be, to provide an example of virtue for centuries to come.

In the same way Amadis was the pole, the star, the sun for brave and amorous knights, and we others who fight under the banner of love and chivalry should imitate him. Thus, my friend Sancho, I reckon that whoever imitates him best will come closest to perfect chivalry."

"Don Quixote has surrendered to Amadis the individual's fundamental prerogative : he no longer chooses the objects of his own desire - Amadis must choose for him. The disciple pursues objects which are determined for him, or at least seem to be determined for him, by the model of all chivalry. We shall call this model the mediator of desire. Chivalric existence is the imitation of Amadis in the same sense that the Christian's existence is the imitation of Christ.

In most works of fiction, the characters have desires which are simpler than Don Quixote's. There is no mediator, there is only the subject and the object. When the "nature" of the object inspiring the passion is not sufficient to account for the desire, one must turn to the impassioned subject. Either his "'psychology" is examined or his "liberty" invoked.

But desire is always spontaneous. It can always be portrayed by a simple straight line which joins subject and object. The straight line is present in the desire of Don Quixote, but it is not essential. The mediator is there, above thal line, radiating toward both the subject and the object. The spatial metaphor which expresses this triple relationship is obviously the triangle. The object changes with each adventure but the triangle remains. The barber's basin or Master Peter's puppets replace the windmills; but Amadis is always present.


Don Quixote, in Cervantes' novel, is a typical example of the victim of triangular desire, but he is far from being the only one. Next to him the most affected is his squire, Sancho Panza. Some of Sancho's desires are not imitated, for example, those aroused by the sight of a piece of cheese or a goatskin of wine. But Sancho has other ambitions besides filling his stomach. Ever since he has been with Don Quixote he has been dreaming of an "island" of which he would be governor, and he wants the title of duchess for his daughter. These desires do not come spontaneously to a simple man like Sancho. It is Don Quixote who has put them into his head.

This time the suggestion is not literary, but oral. But the difference has little importance. These new desires form a new triangle of which the imaginary island, Don Quixote, and Sancho occupy the angles. Don Quixote is Sancho's mediator. The effects of triangular desire are the same in the two characters. From the moment the mediator's influence is felt, the sense of reality is lost and judgment paralyzed. Since the mediator's influence is more profound and constant in the case of Don Quixote than in that of Sancho, romantic readers have seen in the novel little more than the contrast between Don Quixote the idealist and the realist Sancho. This contrast is real but secondary; it should not make us overlook the analogies between the two characters.

Chivalric passion defines a desire according to Another, opposed to this desire according to Oneself that most of us pride ourselves on enjoying. Don Quixote and Sancho borrow their desires from the Other in a movement which is so fundamental and primitive that they completely confuse it with the will to be Oneself. One might object that Amadis is a fictitious personand this we must admit, but Don Quixote is not the author of this fiction. The mediator is imaginary but not the mediation. Behind the hero's desires there is indeed the suggestion of a third person, the inventor of Amadis, the author of the chivalric romances.

Cervantes' work is a long meditation on the baleful influence that the most lucid minds can exercise upon one another. Except in the realm of chivalry, Don Quixote reasons with a great deal of common sense. Nor are his favorite writers mad: perhaps they do not even take their fiction seriously. The illusion is the fruit of a bizarre marriage of two lucid consciousnesses. Chivalric literature. ever more widespread since the invention of the printing press, multiplies stupendously the chances of similar unions.

Desire according to the Other and the "seminal" function of literature are also found in the novels of Flaubert. Emma Bovary desires through the romantic heroines who fill her imagination. The second-rate books which she devoured in her youth have destroyed all her spontaneity. We must turn to Jules de Gaultier for the definition of this "bovarysm" which he reveals in almost every one of Flaubert's characters :

"The same ignorance, the same inconsistency, the same absence of individual reaction seem to make them fated to obey the suggestion of an external milieu, for lack of an auto-suggestion from within."

In his famous essay, entitled Bovarysm, Gaultier goes on to observe that in order to reach their goal, which is to "see themselves as they are not" ; Flaubert's heroes find a "model" for themselves and "imitate from the person they have decided to be, all that can be imitated, everything exterior, appearance, gesture, intonation, and dress." The external aspects of imitation are the most striking; but we must above all remember that the characters of Cervantes and Flaubert are imitating, or believe they are imitating, the desires of models they have freely chosen.

A third novelist, Stendhal, also underscores the role of suggestion and imitation in the personality of his heroes. Mathilde de Ia Mole finds her models in the history of her family; Julien Sorel imitates Napoleon. The Memoirs of Saint-Helena and the Bulletins of the Grand Army replace the tales of chivalry and the romantic extravagances. The Prince of Panna imitates Louis XIV. The young Bishop of Agde practices the benediction in front of a mirror; he mimics the old and venerable prelates whom he fears he does not sufficiently resemble.

Here history is nothing but a kind of literature; it suggests to all Stendhal's characters feelings and, especially, desires that they do not experience spontaneously. When he enters the service of the Renal family, Julien borrows from Rousseau's Confessions the desire to eat at his master's table rather than at that of the servants. Stendhal uses the word "vanity"to indicate all these forms of "copying" and "imitating." The vaniteux - vain person - cannot draw his desires from his own resources; he must borrow them from others. Thus the vaniteux is brother to Don Quixote and Emma Bovary. And so in Stendhal we again find triangular desire.

In the first pages of The Red and the Black we take a walk through Verrieres with the mayor of the village and his wife. Majestic but tormented, M. de Renal strolls along his retaining walls. He wants to make Julien Sorel the tutor of his two sons, 'but not for their sake nor from love of knowledge. His desire is not spontaneous. The conversation between husband and wife soon reveals the mechanism :

"Valenod has no tutor for his children - he might very well steal this one from us."

Valenod is the richest and most influential man in Verrieres, next to M. de Renal himself. The mayor of Verrieres always has the image of his rival before his eyes during his negotiations with old M. Sorel. He makes the latter some very favorable propositions but the sly peasant invents a brilliant reply :

"We have a better offer."

This time M. de Renal is completely convinced that Valenod wishes to engage Julien and his own desire is redoubled. The ever-increasing price that the buyer is willing to pay is determined by the imaginary desire which he attributes to his rival. So there is indeed an imitation of this imaginary desire, and even a very scrupulous imitation, since everything about the desire which is copied, including its intensity, depends upon the desire which serves as model.

At the end of the novel, Julien tries to win back Mathilde de Ia Mole and, on the advice of the dandy Korasof, resorts to the same sort of trick as his father. He pays court to the Maréchale de Fervacques; he wishes to arouse this woman's desire and display it before Mathilde so that the idea of imitating it might suggest itself to her. A little water is enough to prime a pump; a little desire is enough to arouse desire in the creature of vanity.

Julien carries out his plan and everything turns out as expected. The interest which the Marechale takes in him reawakens Mathilde's desire. And the triangle reappears - Mathilde, Mme de Fervacques, Julien - M. de Renal, Valenod, Julien. The triangle is present each time that Stendhal speaks of vanity, whether it is a question of ambition, business, or love. It is surprising that the Marxist critics, for whom economic structures provide the archetype of all human relations, have not as yet pointed out the analogy between the crafty bargaining of old man Sorel and the amorous maneuvers of his son. A vaniteux will desire any object so long as he is convinced that it is already desired by another person whom he admires.


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