Decadent novel À rebours, or, Against Nature


This is the earliest edition the British Library holds of À rebours, a novel published by the French writer and civil servant Joris–Karl Huysmans in 1884.

What does the title mean?

Either translated as ‘against nature’ or ‘against the grain’, the title refers to the central process of the book, in which an aristocrat, Des Esseintes, completely withdraws himself from society to immerse himself in concentrated sensations in private. The book became a central work in the Decadent movement, as described by Arthur Symons. Huysmans partly modelled Des Esseintes on Comte Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921), a dandyish French aristocrat whom Oscar Wilde’s friend – and later literary enemy – the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) had painted in 1891-92.

What influence did it have on Oscar Wilde?

Wilde read the book during his honeymoon in Paris the year it was published, and later called it ‘one of the best’ novels he had ever read. It had a profound influence on much of his work; critics tend to see it as providing the inspiration behind the ‘poisonous’ book which corrupts the title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

But it also became important inspiration for how Wilde’s equally controversial play SaloméAs a figure in culture, the biblical story of Salomé – the beautiful woman who dances the dance of the seven veils and receives the head of St John the Baptist in return – has encouraged imaginative exchange between the visual art and writing. 

À rebours contains an extensive scene in which Des Esseintes becomes obsessed with two versions of the Salomé theme painted by the French artist Gustave Moreau (1826-98). These paintings inspired Huysmans to write vivid, descriptive prose in response; but in painting them, Moreau himself had been inspired by literature; here Gustave Flaubert’s treatment of the Salomé story ‘Hérodias’ (included in the 1877 collection Three Tales) is relevant, as is the extravagant historical novel Salammbô (1862). Wilde also appreciated Flaubert; at one point he called him his ‘master’.

For his version of the Salomé story, then, Wilde – an amateur painter and more ‘professional’ art-critic at various points in his life – was able to build on all of these influences and more. Later, he would acknowledge this complicated influence by sending Gustave Moreau an inscribed copy of his play.

Full title:
À rebours. [A novel.] Troisième mille
1891, Paris
J K Huysmans
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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