Hugues Viane has retired to Bruges after the death of his wife of ten years; five years later, he is still unable to put her memory to rest. Indeed, he has sequestered himself in his home, erecting a shrine to his wife; in this room are gathered her portraits and various objects and trinkets, along with a tress of her hair which Viane has placed inside a glass box. Each day he caresses and kisses each item, and by night he takes to the meandering the streets of Bruges whose grey melancholy he feels in tune with, a kind of “spiritual telegraphy between his soul and the grief-stricken towers of Bruges.”
As in many symbolist texts, doubling is apparent here: not only is Viane’s mood that of the city, and therefore emphasized, but his grief is so obsessive that he chances upon a woman whom he believes to be the striking image of his dead wife. This act of doubling is one in which Georges Rodenbach is extremely interested in that it proves how the dead die twice, the first death being their physical death and the second being when our memories of them begin to fade, causing those mental images to which we cling to no longer be sources of recollection and comfort:
But the faces of the dead, which are preserved in our memory for a while, gradually deteriorate there, fading like a pastel drawing that has not been kept under glass, allowing the chalk to disperse. Thus, within us, our dead die a second time.Bruges-la-Morte is very much concerned with the vacillation between states of intense joy and utter anguish. In his obsession over Jane, the woman who resembles his dead wife, Viane is embodying this idea of the dead dying twice. While there are moments of some melodramatic intensity characteristic of symbolist work, Rodenbach is also keen on exploring how the life of a small city reacts to a scandal, and it is both the solitary city scenes that drive home the despair of the protagonist and the scenes of townspeople gossiping in the city that demonstrate how the city works in different ways for its inhabitants.
Although he is under “the spell” of this double, and even though he hopes that the likeness “would allow him the infinite luxury of forgetting,” Viane can do no such thing, and soon finds himself at an erotic and psychological crossroads at which the “distressing masquerade” he enacts to quell his grief is not enough to sustain the memory of the dead.Bruges is very much the main character in the novel: “He was already starting to resemble the town. Once more he was the brother in silence and in melancholy of this sorrowful Bruges, his soror dolorosa.” The novel is accompanied by photographs of the city to underscore the central role it plays in Viane’s state of mourning. Rodenbach is adamant about how living spaces breathe and affect those living there:
Towns above all have a personality, a spirit of their own, an almost externalised character which corresponds to joy, new love, renunciation, widowhood. Each town is a state of mind, a mood which, after only a short stay, communicates itself, spreads to us in an effluvium which impregnates us, which we absorb with the very air.This idea of the city having an emotional and psychological state of its own is also something Rodenbach explores in the short essay included in the Dedalus edition, “The Death Throes of Towns.”
Bruges-la-Morte is a symbolist masterpiece; more than that, it is powerful novel about grief and mourning, as well as a treatise on how one’s city can reflect one’s emotional state, and vice versa.