Gérard de Nerval’s Sylvie. Souvenirs du Valois, published in 1853, is an exploration of time and memory, dream and reality. The first person narrator is also the main character, who is indecisive and cannot commit himself to any of the three women in his life: Aurélie, Sylvie and Adrienne.
The narrator of Sylvie is unreliable because his perspective is severely distorted. Sometimes his memory fails him and he does not understand his own motives and behaviour, which is both passive and impulsive at the same time. The story he tells us is about himself and only himself, because he has little understanding of the people around him.
It is obvious that the narrator of Sylvie is indeed lost in illusions – this is partly symbolised by the colour descriptions and the fact that most of the novella is set at night and in ‘a dark forest’ – but does that really mean that he actually prefers the state of illusion or reverie to that of clear-headedness and rationality?
In order to find an answer, first we have to look at the specific aspects that he is deluded about. This will certainly reveal the narrator’s character and we can then go on and with the help of such psychological concepts as the of the ego’s mechanisms of defence determine whether it is possible to say, that the narrator of Sylvie positively prefers illusion to reality.
At the beginning, the narrator appears to be analysing himself with scrutiny and seems to be on the way to self-discovery after he has found out that his love for Aurélie is only a present manifestation of his past love, of Adrienne: “Aimer une religieuse sous la forme d’une actrice!…et si c’était la même!” (Chapter 3, p. 46).
Yet this revelation can in no way “cure” him. On the contrary, the narrator seems to be more than content with having found a way to continue to love Adrienne through Aurélie. And if we believe conscious choosing between illusion and reality to be possible then this must certainly be a case of such a choice. Thus what may have gone on to be a tale of self-discovery from this point ends as a tale of self-deceit.
And the narrator is subject to illusion on more than one level. Most importantly he has substantial illusions about memory and the past, which then subsequently cause many of the other illusions. Sometimes he is not able to say whether a fleeting moment was actual memory, a present daydream or a daydream of the past, for example his memory of Châalis (Chapter VII), which has manifested itself as a valid memory -perhaps through endless repetition, wishful thinking or even more unconscious processes. Again, he is semi-conscious of this problem when he says: “Ce souvenir est une obsession, peut-être!” (Chapter VII, p.72), but remains quite indifferent.
Most of his illusions about the past seem to originate in his romantic ideals. To him, life in the countryside is perfect and timeless, untouched by the corrupting forces of the town and the Valois has come to signify his childhood. One could even say that here his romanticising has gone so far as to transform the whole region into a landscape of his self. His Valois is non-existent in the real world, nor was it ever real. Its people and customs are changed, only he cannot or will not see this, as his memories constantly come back to him in the form of overpowering daydreams and his past is thus constantly at work at the distortion of his perception of the present. The conscious and the unconscious are so readily intertwined it becomes almost impossible to distinguish the two.
Likewise, his idea of Sylvie as the ‘paysanne’, the rustic and therefore ‘bonne et pure de coeur’ county girl has become intrinsic with his childhood memories and his idyllic perception of the Valois: “je sentis le besoin de revoir Sylvie, seule figure vivante et jeune encore qui me rattachât à ce pays.” (Chapter VIII, p. 81).
This brings us to the next level of illusion that the narrator is lost in - his illusions and misconceptions of the nature of love and of course about the women who dominate his life and the nature of his feelings towards them. It may only be natural that we should idealize who we are in love with, but in accordance with his character, here again the narrator goes into extremes, which may no longer be called sane. His love is obsessive and at the same time it is without object. This is most obvious in his adoration of the long dead Adrienne, whom he describes as ‘l’apparition’, (p. 72) ‘l’image vain’, (p.77), or ‘spectre funeste’, (p.78). Although, here this sounds as though he was terrified and the spectre unwelcome, this is nevertheless partly what the narrator is looking for in love; for he has his own romantic (and again distorted) definition of it: “Amour, hélas! des formes vagues, des teintes roses et bleues, des fantômes métaphysiques.”,(Chapter I, p. 38). In this definition all the above aspects are already included, but elsewhere, they are even more clearly expressed. His romantic need to idealize and revere the women could not be more obvious than when he says: “Il fallait qu’elle apparût reine ou déesse, et surtout n’en pas approcher.” (Chapter I, p. 38), and the universal and unspecific nature of his love is evident in the following quote: “…c’était Adrienne ou Sylvie, - c’étaient les moitiés d’un seul amour. L’une était l’idéal sublime, l’autre la douce réalité.” (Chapter XIV, p. 106).
 For a closer analysis of such symbolism, see B. Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, Vintage, 1975