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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Who is Herculine Barbin?

Maureen England

"One is not born, but becomes a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society: it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, indeterminate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine." Simone de Beauvoir from The Second Sex

When one is faced with a biography or memoir, one expects, "Here is where I will find out who this person was." Oddly enough, in the case of the discovered incomplete memoir of Herculine Barbin, this expected outcome is just what the reader is left wondering. Who was Herculine Barbin? Was she a woman? Was he a man? Was she Herculine, Camille, or Abel? Both through Herculine's devlopment as storyteller, or author in the work and in her confusion in identifying as male or female, one can try to piece together some semblance of what, in the end, consititutes identity, and what is Herculine's "true" identity.

However, even in asking "who is Herculine Barbin the author?" one is suddenly faced with answering "what is an author?" Consequently, to ask "what is an author?" one also needs ask "what can be considered an author's work?" Here, one is faced with daunting questions that trouble even the most prominent of literary critics. New Critics, like Matthew Arnold, may argue that a work is and should be taken as independent of the author, to "see the object as in itself it really is".
(2). One cannot apply this criticism to Herculine though, as her memoir, being at its essence about her identity, should and must be examined in context to the society, religion, science, and morality of the nineteeth-century, as Herculine was undoubtedly influenced in her life by what was around her. Therefore, Herculine as an author, is dependant on external influences as her "work" is her life in the outside world. Only through Herculine's interaction with other people, with the moral and religious codes of her time, and with the gender roles set up by the political and social atmosphere around her can the reader begin to understand who Herculine is.

Contingent upon this conclusion however, is the idea that one's identity is created in relation to external notions of identity; that one is, simply because one can "identify" with this or that labeling characteristic dictated by things outside oneself. At the time she is a girl, Herculine often expresses confusion between the role society has assigned her and the role she seems to want to play, "Was I guilty, criminal, because a gross mistake had assigned me a place in the world that should not have been mine?"
(3). Similarly, Herculine is fearful of not fitting a category, of an identity which does not easily fit into a predeterminded gender, "I was devoured by the terrible sickness of the unknown."
(3R). However, right before the reader learns that Herculine commits suicide, she expresses relief in the possibility of being free from external definitions of identity, "The sight of a tomb reconciles me to life. [...] The man who was a stranger to me becomes a brother. I converse with his soul, which has been freed from its earthly chains; a captive, I devoutly pray for the moment when I shall be allowed to join him."
(3). Can "true" identity only be achieved outside of the physical world then? Or is the very notion of identity, or at least gender identity, a complete construct of the physical world?

In the subject of gender studies, various prominent critics would agree that Herculine's confusion in her identity is due to the constricting labels which external agents give to Herculine; that is to say Herculine as "woman" or "man" is a notion entirely created by society. Judith Butler argues that gender exists only in the repetition of socially created roles, "gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real."
(4). Furthermore, she says that there is no "true" or "false" gender, since gender is itself an external performance, "If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can neither be true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity."

Butler speaks mainly of gender identity though. To go further, what if one were to think of Herculine's indentity independant of gender, which may be hard to do as her main conflict in life seemed to be with her gender identification and the ensuing actions. Simone de Beauvoir suggests that all human identity is created in relation to the external world, "An existent is nothing other than what he does; the possible does not extend beyond the real, essence does not precede existence: in pure subjectivity, the human being is not anything. He is to be measured by his acts."
(5).Here though, comes an interesting circular thought. Stepping back to Matthew Arnold and the New Criticism, which judges on what is there on the page, than mightent Beauvoir be agreeing? If indeed, a human being is as a human being does, that a human "is to be measured by his acts" than regardless of the fact that Herculine was herself writing the memoir, a reader would be able to tell Herculine's idenity though the words on the page alone. The lost pages of the memoir telling of the majority of Herculine's life as a man do not need to be found, the action does not need to be told, since Herculine's inscribed identity both as she is labeled by society and what she does, is enough to give her as "true" a identity as one can, if indeed, one agrees that idenity exists at all.

What then, or death? In terms of the act of writing and storytelling, Michel Foucault says, in his critical essay "What is an Author?", that, "it is the kinship between writing and death [...] The hero accepted an early death because his life, consecrated and magnified by death, passed into immortality; and the narrative redeemed his acceptance of death."
(6). If identity, and gender identity, exist in the physical and external realm, if a human is as he does, if gender is as society dictates, than in death, would a person cease to have an idenity? Herculine is not disconcerted by death, and so one may assume that she is not thinking along these finite terms. Clearly, in the previously stated quote of Herculine contemplating death, she is more comforted by death. Herculine has though, told her story to the world in her memoirs. She has permanently recorded her actions in life. Thus, she has become the immortal hero of her own tale. Because her writing exists, so does she, even in all her confusion.

Through all of this abstract philosophical postulation, novelist Don DeLillo seems to sum up rather clearly, "Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals."


1) Monique Wittig, "One is Not Born a Woman," The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001) 2015.

2) Matthew Arnold, "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001) 802

3) Herculine Barbin, Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteeth-Century French Hermaphrodite, trans. Richard McDougall (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980) 54.

4) Judith Butler, "Gender Trouble," The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001) 2489.

5) Simone de Beauvoir, "The Second Sex," The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001) 1410.

6) Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001) 1623.

7) Deborah Brodie, ed., Writing Changes Everything (New York City: St. Martin's Press, 1997.) 136.

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