What was most extraordinary about this 1832 novel, was that it posited the Romantic subject – which is to say an individual of exceptional sensitivity, who will exhibit the most self-absorbed form of suffering – as female. Up until this point all the Romantic heroes you care to think of have been men, who at this stage in history are considered the only gender with the education and self-awareness necessary for the full gamut of Romantic emotional experience. But Sand begged to differ: Indiana is the story of a woman’s emotional journey through a series of abusive and unhappy relationships that will end with an ambivalent and enigmatic vision of ideal mutual harmony.
The novel opens with Indiana in a state of death-in-life, married to the bellicose, elderly Delmare. In this situation she is utterly miserable, exhibiting the classic hysterical symptoms of the woman imprisoned and restricted both physically and ideologically. She has some comfort in the ever-present Ralph, a taciturn Englishman who has rescued her from abandonment as a child and remained her companion ever since. However, into this uncomfortable ménage a trois comes Raymon, a silver-tongued young rogue who quickly insinuates himself into Indiana’s affections. For the love of him, Indiana will commit any number of astonishing rebellions, leaving Delmar and making the perilous crossing from her homeland back to France to be with him. But Raymon is feckless and abandons Indiana for a society marriage. Indiana then falls ill, a regular motif in Sand’s works in which fundamental change to the self can only be effected at the cost of a kind of mental and physical breakdown. In a sordid hotel room while the July revolution rages outside, she suffers a series of depersonalizing losses, including the loss of her identity papers, and of her hair.
If the reader breathes a sigh of relief at Ralph’s ability to rescue Indiana in the nick of time, that breath will quickly turn into a gasp, for rescue comes in the form of a mutual suicide pact. Where we might have expected a declaration of undying love, Ralph instead convinces her of their intolerable marginality, alone, unloved, and different to their fellow beings, and suggests the best thing is to return abroad and commit suicide together. When they finally reach their destination, the banks of a waterfall, with the intention of throwing themselves into its fury and splendour, Indiana effects an extraordinary talking cure on the silent Ralph. She persuades him to tell her his life story and in doing so, she liberates him psychically and recentres him in his existence. The chapter ends with what would appear to be their jump, but in an epilogue a young male narrator comes to visit Ralph and Indiana living in isolated harmony on their island, engaged in a perpetual struggle to free blacks from white slavery.
So what we can see in this story, which might strike the reader initially as surprisingly discordant, is an astonishing mix of the ideal and the real, of social comment and Romantic passion. Sand binds together in causal and consequential ways the erotic, the moral and the political, as contemporary political events are woven into an unconventional love story and a woman’s fight for individual emancipation. But let’s consider the extent of that emancipation. Indiana fights articulately and literally for her right to freedom from base male desire, and from a system that makes women (and blacks) into possessions – indeed the freedom from patriarchal bondage is represented as inseparable from the dream of emancipating the victims of colonialism. The island paradise she and Ralph have created is a fantasy ending removed from the social reality of contemporary France and one that leaves the couple in a state of indeterminacy somewhere between life and death, between the personal and the political between the ideal and the real. The antislavery politics she and Ralph champion are purely local; they have no place in a wider social or historical context, they are in fact exiled from the polis, the heart of politics and power, and worst of all it is not clear what the actual state of their relationship is – we are not at all sure whether they are married, or even whether they are lovers.
The suicide ritual they perform is a moment of rebirth but into a kind of monumental passivity. This is a text about suicide and survival, but Indiana’s survival as a liberated woman is ambivalent; her independence never truly being freed from dependence on a man. Sexuality is a vexed issue in Sand’s work, as regularly we find in her novels female love and desire taking the form of a maternal nurturing of a man. The equal relationship Indiana finally achieves with Ralph is marked as asexual. So we are left with a number of questions to the political problems this text poses. Must the self always be so deformed to be transformed? Can love find a place within real society? And must women be desexualized if they are to be authentic and free?
This is also a story about finding voices, notably about the amazing transformation of Ralph from silence into health-giving speech (which has led some critics to argue that George Sand identified with Ralph rather than her female heroine). However, Indiana is an enigma in that her linguistic development is not equated to her personal evolution. The text is probably most famous for some of her speeches delivered while she is living with Delmare, in which she denounces arbitrary patriarchal power. She is most eloquent and convincing when railing against her tyrannical husband and the injustice of marriage. But this is counterbalanced by her submissive discourse to her lover, Raymon, which is a syrupy and alarming mishmash of subservient rhetoric. When she finally reaches the island Indiana is the catalyst enabling Ralph to speak out, but his rehabilitation and her implied contentment seem to come at the cost of her silence. We can perhaps see, then, that Indiana is troubled in her self-expression as she can only be reactive – either in rebellion or in resignation. The extreme uncertainty and ambivalence of the ending of this novel cannot help but prove indicative of Sand’s inability to envisage the truly liberated woman who has all her needs met. In the mid-nineteenth century, in the hands of a woman writer who had known what it was to be autonomous, sexually free and politically active, there is still no voice truly possible for the new ideal form of femininity.