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The “Haussmanization” of Paris vividly outlined the social and financial inequality of classes in the city. Having in mind, perhaps, the ideas of beautification, sanitation, and anti-revolution Baron Georges Haussmann drew a clear line between the old and the new, between the poor and the rich. In his poem, Charles Baudelaire brings forth the results of such changes stating that the disproportion in wealth was now lying on the surface right before the eyes of the poor.
The Modernization of Paris in the 1850s
The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 showed that the medieval structure of the streets in Paris was playing one of the major roles in their success (Serag 68). Therefore, the regime tried to find a solution in tearing down the maze that helped the strugglers. Broad boulevards divided the old quarters and minimized the possibility of barricading (Jordan 110). According to Benjamin, the new streets with all their glittering beauty became the symbol of modern Paris, where the dominance of the bourgeoisie could be visible (146). However, those large shiny streets were designed not to address the needs of the people, but to keep them out of sight. It was repression against the poor (Terdiman 707).
The Depiction of Classes in the Poem
Baudelaire describes the upper class through the rich interior of the café and the abundance of food, noting that “all history and all mythology at the command of gluttony” (Baudelaire 68). Here the author expresses the shame for all that opulence attributing it to one of the seven mortal sins. This sense of discomfort for pleasuring themselves in front of others is verbalized by the words “I felt a little ashamed” (Baudelaire 69). This phrase may imply that wealthy people cannot see that they have more than they need, and for that, he feels shame.
The image of the poor is depicted through their clothes, faces, and, most importantly, their eyes. The father of the family is around forty years old with an already graying beard and a tired face. He may be a typical portrait of a working-class person, who looks older than he is due to harassing labor. The family went for a stroll. The father carries a child of unclear gender that is said to be “too weak to walk” (Baudelaire 69). The latter suggests that food is scarce in this family. All of them are poorly clothed adding to their image of the deprived working-class representatives.
The theme of Eyes in the Poem
Their eyes play a major role in the illustration of the relationships between the two classes. However, the look of each family member is different. The father notes only the glitter of the gold whereas the middle son’s eyes reflected the deeper and grimmer thought of the endless gap dividing the two worlds. The gap their family will never cross. The eyes of the smallest child relay the pure emotion of joy and happiness not burdened by thought.
Despite the purity of their emotions that touched the heart of a narrator, his companion seems to be displeased. She sees only hunger in their eyes and the dirtiness of their clothes and the combination seems to frighten and disgust her. The inability to see behind the appearance, the hurried judgment, and the cynicism were the qualities of the contemporary bourgeoisie that the man could not tolerate abandoning his love for her.
In his poem, Baudelaire distinctly outlines the outcomes of the “Haussmanization” that brought forward the class struggle. He showed the nature of the two worlds through the eyes that, according to an old proverb, are “the mirror of the soul.” The eyes of the poor reflected the excessive wealth that the narrator is ashamed of, while the eyes of the woman beside him showed only fear and disgust for the people of lower social standing. After the 1848 revolution, both Marx and de Tocqueville expressed ideas that it was a farce and their ideas were laughed at, which, together with Haussmann’s reconstruction, inspired further struggles (10; 53).
Baudelaire, Charles. The Parisian Prowler: Le Spleen de Paris, Petits Poèmes en Prose. Translated by Edward K. Kaplan. The University of Georgia Press, 1997.
Benjamin, Walter. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, and Autobiographical Writings. Edited by Peter Demetz. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1978.
Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. International Publishers, 1954.
Serag, Yehya. “The Haussmanization Approach.” Democratic Transition and Sustainable Communities: Proceedings of a Conference Held 6-7 November 2013 in Cairo, edited by Wafaa Nadim, 2013, pp. 68-81.
Terdiman, Richard. “Class Struggles in France.” A New History of French Literature, edited by Denis Hollier. Harvard University Press, 1994, pp. 705-710.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Recollections. Translated by George Lawrence, Doubleday, 1970.