Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe and the Power of Destructive Love

Screenshot 2014-03-03 00.51.43Adolphe is a sorrowful classic novella by Benjamin Constant, first published in London and Paris in 1816. The  book has captivated numerous scholars and romantic readers  who are lucky to discover it. In 2002 french director Benoît Jacquot adapted Adolphe into a film starring the celebrated actress Isabelle Adjani.

 Benjamin Constant was born in Lausanne Switzerland and is best known for his books on politics. He was an active liberal political figure at the end of the French Revolution as a member of the Directory in 1799 and then of the “Tribunal”, but was forced to resign by Napoleon Bonaparte for his radical ideas on democratic rules as well as usurpation of power which form the core of his writings.

 Some believes that Adolphe is an autobiographical novella since Constant happened to be a seducer as well in his real life. Like Adolphe, he also pursued older women or neglected wives who tend to be vulnerable emotional-wise, making them easy preys of skilful lovers.

Constant had a 15-year long romantic relation with Germaine de Staël, with whom he became very close politically and emotionally. She was forced to exile from Napoleon’s Paris and settled in Château de Coppet near Geneva where she organised famous gatherings of “Salon” style, attended by refugees and political thinkers to talk about  international events. Before Adophe was published, Mme de Staël had written two novels which can be seen as “inversed mirror” of Constant’s novella since the victim is not a tormented married woman who becomes madly in love with a younger and selfish lover as in Adolph, but a married man that falls in love with a woman who makes him suffer as she does with other men. Like Constant, Mme de Staël also used the main characters’ names as the titles of novels – Corinne (1802) and Delphine (1807).

There has been three editions of Adolphe, in 1816, 1824 and 1828 respectively. Each of the second and third came with a preface explaining why the work was reprinted. The  novella exists in the form of a diary of a young man which is sent by the inn keeper in a box to a publisher who is stranded by a snow storm and comes across a stranger who happens to be the writer and who has vanished. The content of the mysterious box is described by the publisher as “a quantity of very old letters either unaddressed or on which the addresses and as signatures were illegible, a woman’s portrait and a notebook containing the anecdote or story you are about to read.” The fictional publisher remembers that stranger as “..very silent and looked sad. He showed no impatience. Now and again, as he was the only man in the place to whom I could talk” and “when the roads were reopened and we could have set off, the stranger fell seriously ill”.

 Adolphe, the narrator of the novella recalls that at the age of twenty two his father, a government official, sent him “on a tour of the most interesting European countries” where he leads “a very dissipated life”. He looks back to the moment when he falls in love with Ellénore, a married woman who is ten years older than him. Initially she turns down this younger suitor who uses his charms to win over her love. She eventually gives up her stable and privileged status and abandons her husband for a short, passionate and then, in the end, painful love affair.

In the beginning Adolphe finds profound pleasure with his seducing adventure and describes how “younger men.. were delighted with the skill with which I had supplanted the Count“, i.e. Ellénore’s husband, and “congratulated me on my conquest and undertook to imitate me.”

However, Ellénore feels the opposite as she “soon realised that opinion was turning against her”. Women friends including family members, “broke off the connexion with the greatest possible ostentation”.  Men, on the other hand, “came …because she was still a attractive and her recent frailty had given them aspirations they made no effort to disguise.

The happy beginning of the affair soon brings disgrace and social isolation. Adolphe’s father who cares about his son’s future career decides to break the relationship. At the same time Adolphe is getting bored and trying to end an affair which becomes a heavy emotional as well as social burden. The book focuses on the feelings and state of mind of a desperate lover, that is Ellénore, who suffers to see her beloved becoming distant  which almost reaches a point of cruelty.

Adolph is aware that Ellénore has sacrificed everything for him, now that she is socially cut-off and continues to be attached and deeply in love with him. He also perceives that a separation will bring utter despair and pain to her which might lead to a suicide.

There are many stories about enduring love which is made possible only when each of the couple is “lover” and “beloved” at the same time. Somehow it is not the case with Adolphe, which deals with unhealthy relationships pursued by immature egocentric seducers who target fragile persons, which always have tragic endings since the seducers, once achieve their conquests, stop being a pursuing “lover” but, for vanity’s sake, allow themselves to be “loved” and thus cause enormous pain.

 There are many other novels which follow the same pattern, such as Senso, written by Camillo Boito and adapted into film by Luccino Visconti in 1954. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carlson MaCullers brilliantly portrays this type of relationship. When she describes a love relationship, she distinguishes the “lover” and the “beloved”. Clearly  “the beloved is only a stimulus for all the stored-up love which has lain quiet within the lover for a long time… The beloved may be treacherous, greasy-headed, and given to evil habits. Yes, and the lover may see this as clearly as anyone else—but that does not affect the evolution of his love one whit.” – this is how the prototype of the character Adolphe could be depicted by the author of the Ballad.

 Benjamin Constant In this brief novella explores with considerable knowledge the social context in the post French Revolution Europe and shows a profound understanding of individual feelings and the psychological state of mind of those who confuse love with infatuation.

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1. Excerpts From: Benjamin Constant. “Adolphe.”. Pinguin Books, 1964 iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/adolphe/id374925591?mt=11

 2. Excerpts From: Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Cafe. 2005. 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-ballad-of-the-sad-cafe/id429702512?mt=11

3. Benjamin Constant. The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814.



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