Places: Against the Grain

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: À rebours, 1884 (English translation, 1922)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Character study

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Places DiscussedFontenay-aux-Roses

Fontenay-aux-Roses Against the Grain (fahn-teh-NAY-oh-rohz). French town in which Des Esseintes takes up residence. The suburban house he selects seems at first to be a sensible compromise between the Château de Lourps in the Seine Valley and the clamorous crowds of central Paris. The stifling ennui generated by the provinciality of his family estate encourages him to the opposite extreme in Paris, where he takes great delight in furnishing his apartments in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. His desire is to create a retreat that will be both calm and curious.

Surrendering the second floor of the house to his servants, Des Esseintes decorates the walls and ceiling of the study in imitation of the bindings of his books, using coarse-grained morocco leather instead of wallpaper. Orange is the principal color, with blue-tinted windows curtained in dark red-gold. His dining room, separated by a padded corridor, becomes a smaller enclosure contained within the one designed by the house’s architect. It is timbered so as to resemble a ship’s cabin, with a window like a porthole looking out toward an aquarium stocked with mechanical fish.

In order to provide a suitable contrast to the violet and yellow tints of an Oriental rug, Des Esseintes adds to the decor of his study a large tortoise, the shell of which is glazed in gold and embellished with gems. The paintings he acquires for his study include Gustave Moreau’s two famous depictions of Salome, while his bedroom houses an El Greco, and his dressing room is decorated with ebony-framed engravings by Jan Luyken and works by Francisco de Goya and Odilon Redon. When the time comes to liven up his abode with flowers he selects carnivorous plants. As a backdrop for his hallucinatory nightmares, he purchases a black marble sphinx and a multicolored earthenware chimera.

The purpose of this environment–an archetypal expression of decadence–is not so much to reflect Des Esseintes’s flagrantly contradictory personality as to facilitate his research into the possibility of escape into a world of imagination. In violating all the customary norms of decorative taste and deploying the work of the most extreme artistic outsiders, Des Esseintes contrives to make the house into a kind of porthole through which the possibility of a gloriously perverse and wholly artificial existence is briefly glimpsed.


Bodega. London pub that Des Esseintes imagines visiting when he is seized by a desire to experience the England of Charles Dickens’s novels. He takes a train into Paris on a rainy day and imagines that the Seine River is the Thames. After buying a travel guide to London, he descends into a drinking establishment where English patrons are known to gather and transports himself, by the power of fantasy, into a world that is reminiscent of Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe. However, the relief his fantasy provides is brief, and he is glad to return to his books. Even more than the house, this establishment is symbolic of the borderline between fact and fantasy, where actual locations become magic casements overlooking the enticing but unreachable landscapes of the imagination.

BibliographyAntosh, Ruth B. Reality and Illusion in the Novels of J.-K. Huysmans. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1986. Rejects the opposition of realism and decadence, which has dominated criticism of Huysmans. Sees the entire work as presenting the tension between the real and the imaginary. Excellent analysis of memory in Against the Grain.Baldick, Robert. The Life of J.-K. Huysmans. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. Still the most authoritative biography of Huysmans available in English. Contains valuable information about the writing of Against the Grain.Ellis, Havelok. Introduction to Against the Grain, by J.-K. Huysmans. Translated by John Howard. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1969. A fascinating reaction to Huysmans’ novel from an important English psychologist.Friedman, Melvin J. “The Symbolist Novel: Huysmans to Malraux.” In Modernism, edited by Malcom Bradbury and James McFarlane. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Defines the Symbolist novel as being more concerned with words than with reality. As such, Against the Grain has great significance in the development of the modern novel.Lloyd, Christopher. J.-K. Huysmans and the Fin-de-Siècle Novel. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1990. Defines the fin de siècle period as it applies to literature, and charts in detail the influence of Against the Grain on other writers.
Categories: Places