Places: Down There

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Là-bas, 1891 (English translation, 1924)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedDurtal’s apartment

Durtal’s Down Thereapartment. Set of rooms in a house on Paris’s rue du Regard; they contain the compact book-lined study where the scholar Durtal works on his dissertation on Gilles de Rais, a French marshal briefly associated with Joan of Arc. The dust is frequently disturbed and redistributed, but never diminished, by a surly concierge. Over the mantelpiece, in place of a mirror, is an old Dutch painting whose principal figure is a kneeling hermit with a cardinal’s hat and cloak set beside him. The bedroom is sparsely furnished but decorated with a photograph of a Sandro Botticelli Venus and a print of Peter Breughel’s representation of “The Wise and Foolish Virgins.” All this is symbolic, as is only to be expected from the author, Joris-Karl Huysmans, a central figure of the French Symbolist movement

Chantelouve’s house

Chantelouve’s house. Residence on the rue de Bagneaux of a Roman Catholic historian who supplies Durtal with information–and whose wife, Hyacinthe, becomes Durtal’s mistress and guide to the occult underworld of Paris. Chantelouve hosts regular “salons” in his drawing room, where disputatious visitors gather to discuss theological matters and the debased state of contemporary society. The house also has a well-stocked library, where more confidential discussions take place.

*Church of Saint-Sulpice

*Church of Saint-Sulpice (sah[n]-sewl-pees). One of the most famous churches in Paris, built by King Louis XIV. The church became notorious during Huysmans’s time for the nearby street-market whose tradesmen specialized in cheap, sordid devotional artifacts (which became known as “Saint-Sulpiceries” in consequence). The lofty situation of Louis Carhaix’s bell tower places it, symbolically speaking, in clean air, remote from the streets whose literal pollution reflects a deep-seated moral pollution. Below the belfry is a room used now as storage space for obsolete statuary, because it was misused as a rendezvous in the days when it accommodated a swing. In the apartment in the gallery below the church’s towers, Madame Carhaix serves wholesome food, ministering to Durtal’s body while her husband assists his spirit.

Château de Tiffauges

Château de Tiffauges (shah-TOH deh tif-ohj). Castle in Brittany that was the inordinately luxurious residence of Gilles de Rais, the marshal of France and associate of Joan of Arc who became the subject of a sensational early fifteenth century sorcery trial. When Durtal visits the château in Huysmans’s novel, he finds it deserted, stripped of every vestige of its former finery. Its walls are overgrown by ivy and viburnum, but are still intact. Its great halls, walled in granite, with arch-vaulted roofs, are cold and gloomy. They are linked by narrow, twisting corridors whose spiral staircases ascend and descend into mazes of smaller rooms. Following the method of the historian Jules Michelet, Durtal populates it again in his imagination and tries to put himself in the shoes of its medieval lord. It is while doing so that he begins his secret liaison with Madame Chantelouve–a meeting that re-emphasizes the symbolic parallel between the alleged corruption of Gilles de Rais and the moral and spiritual predicament of contemporary Paris.


Chapel. Last remnant of a long-suppressed convent of Ursuline nuns. Its exact situation is unspecified, but it must be somewhere on Paris’s Left Bank, since Durtal and Madame Chantelouve’s route takes them along the rue Vaugirard, a thoroughfare that branches from one of the quarter’s two main roads, the boulevard St. Michel, angling away from the other, the Boulevard St. Germain. Here Durtal witnesses a supposed black mass celebrated by Canon Docre, although his conclusion that it is a mediocre and silly sham is far more reliable than the judgment of legions of credulous readers who have taken it as solid evidence that black masses really were being celebrated in late nineteenth century Paris.

BibliographyBaldick, Robert. The Life of J.-K. Huysmans. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1955. A useful biography, which sets Down There in the context of Huysmans’ own explorations of the occult.Birkett, Jennifer. The Sins of the Fathers: Decadence in France 1870-1914. London: Quartet Books, 1986. A useful study of the Decadent movement. Part 2, chapter 1 discusses Huysmans’ work.Brandreth, Henry R. T. Huysmans. London: Bowes & Bowes, 1963. A biographical and critical study. Down There is discussed in chapter 4, “The Devil with His Hooked Claw.”Carter, A. E. The Idea of Decadence in French Literature 1830-1900. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958. One chapter, “Fin-de-Siècle,” includes a discussion of Down There and its relationship to other works of the period.Lloyd, Christopher. J.-K. Huysmans and the Fin-de-Siècle Novel. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990. Down There is discussed in terms of its relevance to all four of the book’s thematic headings: “Words,” “Women,” “Monsters,” and “Magic.”
Categories: Places