Beyond reasonable doubt: aesthetic violence and motiveless murder in French decadent fiction

Lisa Downing*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


This article explores the concept of murder as an art form, discussed by the English writer Thomas De Quincey in the 1820s and reappearing later in a group of texts not previously analysed from this perspective: French Decadent fiction. Close readings of texts by Octave Mirbeau and Rachilde delineate the structures and thematic characteristics of this conceit. Drawing insights from ethical and psychoanalytic criticism (Levinas, Jessica Benjamin, Žižek, Lacan), the article argues that attempts by Decadent writers to imagine the perfect murder mask a historical - cultural anxiety related to the alienating processes of social modernization in France. Such textual murder is read as a simultaneous attempt to wreak further destruction on meaning by killing the other and, paradoxically, to reify meaning by exalting the figure of the murdering sovereign subject. Thus, the apparently asocial trope of aesthetic murder is re-inscribed as a fantasy with a significant social component and with wide-ranging ethical implications ignored by earlier commentators. The article closes by proposing that the murders found in Decadent fiction are significant prototypes for the kinds of killings found in post-Second World War fiction (by, for example, Gide and Genet) that have recently been the subject of ethical criticism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)189-203
Number of pages15
JournalFrench Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Cultural Studies
  • History


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