Annotated Bibliography of Criticism


Attfield, N. “A Study on Hysteria: Reinterpreting the Heroine of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.” The Opera Quarterly 26 (2010) 499-525. Project MUSE,

In this article Nicholas Attfield studies the character Mélisande and claims that she suffers from the medical condition known as hysteria. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By using various scenes from Pelléas and Mélisande, Attfield constructs the argument that Mélisande is in fact a more complicated character than she appears and uses hysteria as an attractive force for personal gain.

Attfield begins his arguments with a collection of reviews in which many of them claim Mélisande to be a one-dimensional character with little to no depth. Attfield disagrees with these claims to a certain extent and states that Mélisande has appeared that way because directors and interpreters over the years have made Mélisande a blonde female stereotype. The blonde stereotype is when a beautiful blonde woman is often the damsel in distress in a film or play and is utterly useless, which is basically the same as saying she’s all looks and no brains. Nowhere in the play does it state Mélisande is blonde, yet she has appeared as a blonde woman in every single theater adaption. Because of this critics give little to no proper analysis of the Mélisande character because they interpret it through this mentality that she’s only there to keep the story moving.

Attfield argues that Mélisande is actually an intelligent woman and claims that Mélisande exerts the men around her for her personal gain. She knows what she has and knows how to work it: “From this perspective, Mélisande is not so much a victim as a source of bewilderment and pervasive influence. She is the character at the heart of the work, who drives Golaud and Pelléas to distraction and still manages, as all critics of the opera agree, to remain an enigma.” (7) There would be no Pelléas and Mélisande without Mélisande, so critics shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the Mélisande character. Rather, they should respect her for the character she is and not who has been portrayed to be.

—Eduardo Guzman


Goehr, Lydia. “Radical Modernism and the Failure of Style: Philosophical Reflections on Maeterlinck-Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.” Representations 74 (Spring 2001): 55-82. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.

Lydia Goehr’s essay discusses how Claude Debussy’s Pelléas—a music-drama based on Maeterlinck’s play titled Pelléas et Melisande—compares with Richard Wagner’s Tristan. But as the bulk of the essay may have discussed the similarities and differences of the two works—Debussy’s Pelléas being compared more to Wagner’s Tristan due to its success and precedence—the essay uses Maeterlinck’s ambitions for his play and his own philosophies regarding theatre to support the essay. In the beginning of the essay, Goehr introduces the idea of the play—and music-drama—to be all about Mélisande’s beauty and the symbol it represents. Goehr explains that Mélisande’s complex personality could be considered as the catalyst for the “entire tragic action of the work.” Furthermore, she describes Mélisande as having “the legendary double nature of la femme inconnue, of aggressor and victim.” Goehr further expands this idea by stating how Mélisande’s beauty corresponds to Wagner’s Tristan, yet “her beauty means more.” Using an argument by Paul Valéry, ““The beautiful’’ implies effects of unsayability, indescribability, ineffability. And the word itself says nothing…” Goehr expresses how Mélisande’s beauty could have been “more.” She argues that as audience, as humans, “we do not like to be struck dumb” and “this is what Pelléas does. It renders us mute as Mélisande is symbolically mute.” For the rest of the essay, Goehr explores the idea of how the Debussy’s music-drama could have been a “failed masterpiece” and how the word ‘failure’ becomes the “key word of choice for the work’s reception”, partly due to Maeterlinck’s public announcement of “his wish that Debussy’s work be an “immediate and utter failure”” which is fueled by a personal annoyance to Debussy’s choice of actress for Mélisande.

—Kristine Anne Perez


Kosove, Joan Pataky. “Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande.” French Review 40,(1967): 781-84. MLA International Bibliography, Accessed 14 Nov. 2017.

In Joan Pataky Kosove’s analysis of Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande, she describes the main theme of the play as embodying the philosophy that one cannot fight the events that are inevitable in life. She describes this by pointing out that the main characters of the play, “passively await the inevitable consequences of life” (783). The main characters try to delay the inevitable in diverse ways. Golaud fears growing old and that is why he wants the young Mélisande so much, to make him appear younger. Mélisande does not want to grow up and assume the responsibilities of life, hence why she acts like a child. She believes that by growing up she will be subject to abuse and that is why she will not let anyone touch her at the beginning and acts juvenile. The play seems simplistic at first and lacking action, but that is the point. It is revealed that, “the efficacy of action leads to an acceptance of responsibility just as failure to believe in action negates responsibility” (783-84). As hard as the characters try to oppose what is inevitable, growing old and death, they cannot and in turn it leads to their own downfall. They try to control their circumstances, but they can’t combat the forces of life. Maeterlinck is brilliant at relaying this philosophy of life in his work by creating symbolism and not spoon-feeding the reader with his view. It is his subtle tactics that make the piece artistic.

—Colby Levin


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