A comparison between James’s “The Last of the Valerii” and Mérimé’s “The Venus of Ille”

January 25, 2022 by Essay Writer

This essay examines the differences and similarities between two texts: The Venus of Ille and The Last of the Valerii. The first is a French short story written by Prosper Mérimée in 1835 and the second is short story written by Henry James in 1885. The essay will show that although the texts have several differences, they also share several key similarities.

The Venus of Ille is tale of a bronze statue of Venus that comes to life and kills a man on his wedding night. The story was the inspiration for Henry James’s The Last of the Valerii, where a man becomes obsessed with a marble statue of Juno. The former is primarily a supernatural story, since the Venus statue has the power to come to life. The latter is a psychological story, because the Count descends into madness and obsession without anything explicitly paranormal happening. Despite this difference, the statues in both stories are strikingly similar. This essay will demonstrate that although one story is supernatural and the other is primarily psychological, the statues are depicted similarly.

Both statues are of Roman goddesses: the metal statue of The Venus of Ille is of Venus, the goddess of love, and the marble statue of The Last of the Valerii is of Juno, the goddess of women and marriage. Both statues are incredible beautiful. The narrator in the Venus of Ille says the statue has “incredible [and] marvelous beauty” (5), and goes onto say “I never saw anything so beautiful” (5). The Juno statue meanwhile is described as “incomparable” (10), and Martha says, “She’s beautiful, she’s noble, she’s precious” (20). It is the beauty of the statues that ensnares the men in both stories. The beauty of the statue of Juno takes hold of the Count and he spends much of his spare time worshipping. Meanwhile, the Venus statue is the pride of its owner, M. de Peyrechorade, who declares, “I never saw anything so beautiful” (5). Despite his wife wanting to turn it into a bell (3) and it breaking the leg of one of his workers, he keeps the statue.

Both statues are depicted as having an evil quality. The beauty of the Venus statue is matched only by its maliciousness. There are as many descriptions of the statue’s malevolence as there are of its attractiveness: It is described as having “an utter absence of goodness” (5), “something ferocious in her expression” (5), “ill-nature to the point of wickedness” (5) and “disdain, irony, [and] cruelty” (5). All these descriptions are fitting because the statue genuinely is evil. The same cannot be said of the Juno statue, however, which is never explicitly shown as being sentient and therefore cannot be evil. However, Martha says, “I was afraid of her almost from the first” (18). The narrator sees the statue at night and says “the effect was almost terrible” (15). The statue’s effect on the Count is also insidious and sinister, causing him to commit blood sacrifices. Both statues are the cause of misery in the stories. The Venus statue kills its owner’s son, kills crops, and injures a worker. Meanwhile, the Juno statue obsesses the Count, which frustrates his wife and the narrator. The Count completely recovers from his obsession once the statue is reburied.

It is hinted that both statues are alive. While the Venus statue seems to be genuinely be alive and capable of movement, the Juno statue is only ever described as being on the verge of coming alive. The Count’s wife admits that she almost feels “as if she were alive” (20). The statue has a “beauty so expressive could hardly be inanimate” (16), “a sort of conscious pride into her stony mask” (16) and “an almost human look” (7). The narrator says her eyes “seemed to wonder back at us” (7). The statue does move once in the story, although in a dream. The Count dreams “that they had found a wonderful Juno, and that she rose and came and laid her marble hand on mine” (7).

Mérimée’s Venus statue comes to life, whereas James’s Juno statue does not. Despite this difference, the two statues share many similarities, such as their striking beauty, their realistic quality, and their ability to instill fear. They are also the antagonists in their stories. Living statues used elsewhere in popular include the Commendatore statue in the play Don Giovanni which drags the titular character to hell, and the Weeping Angels in the TV show Doctor Who. The use of statues in the James’ and Mérimée’s stories are subtly effective scary entities, and I believe that living statues are underused in popular culture.

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