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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Nerval’s Voyage en Orient : the quest for a literary sign Griffiths, Frances


The aim of this thesis is to examine the nineteenth century novel "Voyage en Orient" by Gerard de Nerval, using the semiotic theories of Roland Barthes and Roman Jackobson. The word 'Orient' is for the protagonist of the novel, a sign which represents an exotic fantasy land promising spiritual experience and "true love". His voyage through the Middle East and his various encounters teach the narrator here that the sign he longs for is empty, and he acquires a new image and understanding of the Orient. However, this more realistic concept is not as desirable as his original ideal and,in order to regain that lost paradise, the narrator immerses himself in oriental stories and legends. In this study a triangular structure is used to depict the three-stage development of the narrator's notions of the Orient, from his first ideas to his awareness of the real situation and finally to the lengthy stories which depict once more the desired magical land. The first part of the triadic structure examines the Orient as an imaginary or literary sign which the narrator anticipates finding during his voyage. This sign is shown to be based on literary and artistic works and to have no real referent. The narrator's desire to find this ideal land permits him to anticipate and misunderstand events. This way of decoding information and projecting a personal image is called a connotative system of interpretation. This system is examined in relation to the romantic discourse with which the narrator describes his fantasies. The second stage in the triangular model corresponds to a change from a connotative system of decoding to a denotative system, as the narrator begins to perceive the real Orient. His actual experience and his need to communicate force the hero to recognize that the oriental sign he longs for is empty; the result is a documentation of the actual Middle East. This time, the first stage in the triangle emerges in an examination of the legends found in the novel. Nerval himself creates these new literary signs; their codes and their significance for the author provide the reader with a new point of departure for his own pursuit of the "oriental". Nerval's novel is seen to provide a commentary on the relationship between literature and experience, between signifiers and the signified.

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