Places: Adolphe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1816 (English translation, 1816)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Cerenza

*Cerenza. AdolpheVillage on the River Neto, near the larger town of Cosenza, in southern Italy. Although the novel situates Cerenza in the region of Calabria, at the tip of Italy’s “boot,” Cerenza actually belongs to the region of Basilicata, north of Calabria. There, the flooding of the Neto briefly brings together the hero and the fictional publisher of Adolphe’s journal, whose comments on it open and close the novel. Adolphe’s other travels–and especially his indifference to his enforced stay in Cerenza–suggest a restless, even wasted life. The publisher comments on this in the final lines of the novel, noting the inability of people to make themselves “any better by a change of scene.” This and similar reflections make Adolphe’s various moves in the story a symptom more of his conflicts and aimlessness than of the kind of cosmopolitan ease evidenced in Benjamin Constant’s own sojourns throughout Europe.


*Göttingen. City in central Germany on the Leine River, where Adolphe’s first-person narrative opens at the time of his graduation from the University of Göttingen–the only specific German location mentioned in the novel. It is unclear where Adolphe lived earlier, since he identifies his father only as minister to a German prince. Constant himself attended the university at Erlangen in southeastern Germany; he may have chosen to use Göttingen in his novel because he lived there with his wife from 1811 to 1813.


D––. Small, unnamed German town near Göttingen in which Adolphe takes up residence after leaving Göttingen, instead of accepting his father’s offer to send him on the traditional young man’s tour of Europe. D–– is ruled by an enlightened prince and is possibly based on the real town of Duderstadt, southeast of Göttingen. In keeping with the vagueness of D––’s identity, the publisher mentions meeting “some people in a German town” from Adolphe and Ellénore’s past. Without naming or identifying the town or court, Constant nevertheless has it embody what Adolphe disdains as the “artificial and highly-wrought thing called society.” In Constant’s own life, the corresponding place that developed his youthful distaste for tedious court life was Brunswick (Braunschweig), in north-central Germany.


*Germany. Native country of Adolphe, who in chapter 7 frets over being unable to “resume [his] rightful place in [his] own country” because of a clinging mistress, while a friend of his father reprimands him for “vegetating” in Poland when he could be building a brilliant career back home.

Although Adolphe’s hometown in Germany, where he once inhabited an ancient castle with his father, obviously symbolizes conventional success as opposed to the irregular life he leads with Ellénore, Constant never identifies the location. When Ellénore follows Adolphe here from D––, Adolphe already feels constrained by their relationship. Then, accompanying her after his father has her officially ordered from this unspecified “big city,” he crosses the border as a reluctant exile. Perhaps Constant, himself Swiss by birth and a native of Lausanne, intended an indirect portrait of sober, conservative Switzerland in the paternal site of bourgeois propriety and prosperity.


Caden. Little Bohemian town, in what is now the Czech Republic, where Adolphe and Ellénore take refuge for a year after crossing the border from Germany, then depart for Poland. While living in this apparent backwater, Adolphe chafes at Ellénore’s dependence on him, while Ellénore sacrifices a fortune from Monsieur de P–– by refusing to leave Adolphe.


*Poland. Ellénore’s homeland, from which her father was exiled to Russia while her mother, accompanied by the three-year-old Ellénore, sought refuge in France. By the time Adolphe accompanies Ellénore to Poland, where she is to inherit her father’s estate near Warsaw, their affair is doomed. In the chapters set in Poland, Constant includes more description of place than in the rest of the novel. These details function symbolically, as, for example, when Adolphe restlessly wanders all night in the “greyish countryside” surrounding the estate or when Ellénore resigns herself to his departure, and subsequently dies, in a frozen winter landscape.

BibliographyCruickshank, John. Benjamin Constant. New York: Twayne, 1974. One of the best introductions in English to the wide range of Constant’s literary, biographical, political, and religious works. Includes a good chronology and selected bibliography.Fairlie, Alison. Imagination and Language: Collected Essays on Constant, Baudelaire, Nerval, and Flaubert. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Approximately one-fourth of Fairlie’s volume consists of essays on Adolphe, which Fairlie calls “that most quietly disruptive of all French novels.” Treats the book’s style, structure, and characterization, as well as its reception by other French novelists such as Honoré de Balzac. Two of the eight essays are in French.Nicolson, Harold. Benjamin Constant. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A sympathetic biography by a noted writer and diplomat. The most readily available biography in English, but one based on secondary sources and not reflecting later scholarship. Places Constant clearly in the context of his tumultuous period.Turnell, Martin. The Novel in France. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries, 1972. Turnell considers Constant and Adolphe in a tradition that extends from the seventeenth century novelist Madame de La Fayette to the twentieth century novelist Marcel Proust, and declares Constant’s protagonist to be “the ancestor of the heroes of innumerable modern novels.”Wood, Dennis. Benjamin Constant: Adolphe. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An essential, sharply focused volume. Includes a useful chronology of Constant’s life, chapters on the novel’s biographical and intellectual context, and a detailed analysis of the book’s first three chapters. Wood concludes by highlighting the novel’s impact on future generations of writers.
Categories: Places