an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 9, January - June 2012, ISSN 1552-5112
The Raft of the Medusa, The Fatal Raft and the Art of Critique
Theodore Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa critiqued the French government and alluded to cannibalism, yet it was accepted into the Salon of 1819 and has since become a canonical work (Fig. 1). This painting and William Moncrieff’s play The Fatal Raft (1820) both depict the tragic shipwreck of the French ship the Medusa in 1816. Since the inexperienced and incompetent captain was a government appointee, many contemporaries blamed the French government for this shipwreck, which resulted in the deaths of at least one hundred and thirty-five people.  Thus, to contemporary viewers, just by representing this scandalous subject, both the play and the painting inherently vilified the French government. In addition to critiquing the government, the painting and the play both break from conventional behavior in other ways: by alluding to cannibalism, the abolition of slavery, and gender subversions. I argue that despite these unconventional themes, bourgeois viewers were able to comprehend the painting and the play because they were connected to normative visual and literary discourses. In order to reveal how these connections functioned, this paper will consider the strategy’s varying levels of effectiveness. Thus, several of these connections—especially the comic allusions included in the play—simultaneously undermine the political critique by diverting the viewer’s attention away from the actual tragic events, and at the same time, allow bourgeois viewers to relate to the works.
According to Barthes, in his canonical Mythologies, the bourgeoisie own and control society, using mythical constructions to purify and universalize societal values.  Through their myths, they naturalize morality, forcing society to fit into their pure ideological construct. Because the bourgeoisie must fight to keep control of society and the way that people see it, challenges to this construct, or things that do not fit neatly into it, become problematic. When something breaks from their ideology, they must normalize it in order to make it acceptable.  Accordingly, any group that deviates from the myth threatens it by showing that divergence from the bourgeoisie is possible. In order to purify and explain these groups, the bourgeoisie turns them into exotic creatures, relegating them to the margins of society. These Others are not able to create their own ideology, and for the most part, are absorbed into the bourgeoisie. They cannot create a separate construction of society since they lack their own language; therefore, they can only define themselves against the bourgeoisie, using the dominant language, thus reinforcing their position as Others.
Using this model, I show that The Raft of the Medusa and The Fatal Raft diverge from bourgeois myth by critiquing the French government. Yet, these works were not relegated to the margins as Others. The painting and the play are able to function within bourgeois society despite their allusions to cannibalism, the abolition of slavery and gender subversions, which break from purified societal norms. These works remain legible in bourgeois society because other motifs within the works draw them back into the construct. Due to their connections to dominant discourses, viewers are able to comprehend these works from within bourgeois society.
The painting and play incorporate a wide variety of literary, artistic and religious discursive connections which serve a normalizing function, showing how the works can be viewed from within the system. In contrast to The Raft of the Medusa and The Fatal Raft, some other literary and artistic works that show the shipwreck (for example, a first-hand narrative written by two survivors, and a more explicit image by Gericault) remain disconnected from contemporary discourses, breaking too thoroughly from bourgeois myth, so that viewers and readers conceive of the works and the shipwreck survivors as Others. The audience is completely distanced from the subjects, and the characters appear to be not only outside the bourgeoisie, but outside humanity itself.
Despite the clear connections between the painting and
Moncrieff’s play, Christine Riding is alone in having detailed this
relationship, which she addresses in her article, “Staging The Raft of the Medusa,” where she addresses viewer reception in
Both Gericault’s painting and Moncrieff’s
play have the same subject: the wreck of the Medusa, and the subsequent events
that occurred on the raft. In order to consider how these works operate, it is
essential to understand the events and what contemporaries knew of them. The
public, as well as the painter and the playwright, knew of the events through
the narrative written by two of the survivors, Alexander Corréard and J. B.
Henry Savigny. Immediately following his return to
According to the narrative, although the French colonial vessel the Medusa sailed for
William Moncrieff’s The Fatal Raft
weaves this tragic story into a conventional dramatic structure, including
comic elements and a love story. Although he incorporated certain
accurate events, such as the life boats abandoning the raft and the munity, the
central narrative of the play is a romance. The main focus of the play is on
these added elements, rather than the factual events, and only two scenes take
place on the raft after it is abandoned. The love story involves the characters
Constant and Adolphe, who both love the woman Eugenie. When they duel,
Eugenie’s father, the Governor, decides to take them both to
In addition to the love story, hackneyed characters provide comic relief, connecting the play to a variety of dramatic and literary comedies, and at the same time, concealing the tragedy. The German soldier who masterminds the mutiny in order to steal the alcohol speaks in a mixture of English and German. He provides comic relief in the form of asides and amusing dialogue with imprecise wording, often on the subject of alcohol. For example, in Act 1, Scene 3, the German soldier says “Der deyvil! Ich bin dry as a dyke [sic].”  Additionally, his phrases are often very repetitive, and in Scene 3 of Act 2, he says as an aside, “Ich sal tak care, Governor; but der deyvil, ich no like keeping der watch without der brandy [sic].” The black character, Pompey, serves a similar purpose, although his dialogue mostly focuses on his extreme loyalty to Adolphe. In both cases, the author characterizes these figures as marginal Others through their unseemly and incongruous use of language.
Gericault, on the other hand, focused on a single moment from the narrative in his The Raft of the Medusa, paring down the story, rather than embellishing it as Moncrieff did in his play. The foreground figures remain somber and unaware of the ship’s presence, while those in the middle and background are unified, both in their push toward the ship on the horizon and in their hopeful mood. Although these men are straining toward the safety offered by the ship, it is important to note that at this point during the actual events, the survivors were not about to be rescued, since when the men saw the Argus on the horizon, it disappeared. When it came back several hours later, they did not see it until it was right next to them. Thus, Gericault’s painting does not depict their moment of salvation, but an earlier scene, after which they soon fell back into despair.
Although the painting incorporates more survivors than the play does,
they are unified by their common purpose, signified by the pyramidal
composition. The black figure on top of
the barrels signaling to the ship forms the apex of this pyramid, while the
diagonal from the bottom left to the ship on the top right creates a dynamic
movement through the composition, as the figures push back toward this boat.
Additionally, the high horizon, along with the horizontal raft and the tall
verticality of the mast, serves to stabilize this towering mass of bodies. At
the same time, the gruesome bodies in the foreground clearly reference earlier
works, especially Antoine-Jean Gros’ Pesthouse
at Jaffa and his
Unlike Moncrieff’s play, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa simplifies the actual events, rather than adding to them. In this way, while The Fatal Raft includes several causes for the tragedy and several motives for the rescue of the survivors, the painting focuses on just the characters and their emotions, allowing viewers to interpret the work using their own knowledge of the roles that alcohol, desertion, and governmental mistakes played in the tragedy. This painting created a scandal when it was first exhibited, as Gericault’s contemporaries blamed the event on the French government since they appointed the incompetent ship captain, and many viewers saw the simple choice of subject as a condemnation of the government. As a result, contemporary viewers connected both the play and the painting to this discourse on the French government.
Nevertheless, Moncrieff was British, so this disparagement of the French occurred within a different discourse, where his British patriotism altered the critique. Thus, in The Fatal Raft, one heroic character, Jack Gallant, is a British sailor. Although he initially refuses to sail on a French ship, he gives in and becomes an important figure. Jack builds the raft and serves heroically on it, where the captain even refers to him as a “Noble fellow, [whose] example should inspire us.”  Additionally, at several points, Jack outright states the superiority of the British over the French, asking: “when did [one] ever find a British officer desert his men in this way?”  Thus, in Moncrieff’s play, British superiority is not simply alluded to, it is repeatedly stated. This amplifies the criticism of the French in general, and more specifically, the French government. However, this is one aspect of the narrative that is not effectively integrated into the commentary appears disconnected from the rest of the play.
Like the play, the painting also critiques the government by portraying
a subject that it found embarrassing. Significantly, when this work was shown at the Salon of 1819, it was
one of the few large-scale paintings that the government had not commissioned.
Generally, works with even mildly controversial subjects were limited to a much
smaller size than this image, which at 16 x 23 feet was the largest painting at
the Salon. The composition implies a critique of French slavery and colonization,
as a black man stands at the pinnacle of the pyramidal form. In addition to
this racial hierarchy, the painting is also connected to a discourse on the
French role in colonization, since the passengers of the Medusa were going to
join a colony in
On the other hand, the play did not critique the French government’s
policies on colonization or allude to a tacit acceptance of slavery. In this
work, the black character is treated stereotypically, rather than raised to the
top of the hierarchy as he is in the painting. Throughout the play, Pompey
refers to Adolphe as “
Corréard and Savigny’s narrative, which intensified the scandal over the shipwreck, and Gericault’s study Cannibalism (Fig. 2), a preparatory work for The Raft of the Medusa, were not as effective as either the play or the painting in their criticism of the government because they strayed too far from the myth of bourgeois society. With their focus on the taboo of cannibalism and their separation from other visual and literary discourses, these works are less effective as political commentaries. Because of their actions, in both works, the characters can only be viewed as Others and cannot be related to society or serve as moral exemplars. Contemporaries interpreted Corréard and Savigny’s account as denouncing the government, since the last half of the work is particularly critical both of the French actions toward the survivors, and of slavery and colonialism. However, the most salient aspect of this narrative, and the scandal as a whole, was the cannibalism. The sections describing the raft and the events on it are more memorable and were better known than the political critique tied to the explanations of what happened after the survivors were saved. In fact, the inclusion of graphic details actually undermined the overt political discussions in this work. Since it strayed so far outside of conventional myths, contemporaries could read it for its scandalous nature, but its lessons were not easily applied to society.
The figures in Gericault’s Cannibalism appear even more aberrant than those in Corréard and Savigny’s first-hand account. Cannibalism was one of the numerous studies and preparatory drawings Gericault did before deciding on his final composition. He sketched many moments from the narrative, including scenes of the mutiny and the actual moment of rescue. Therefore, Gericault’s choice of the sighting of the Argus as the subject of his final painting was based on his careful consideration of the narrative and the relative merits of each scene. This is especially significant because his depiction of Cannibalism, like Corréard and Savigny’s narrative, does not fit within bourgeois mythology. It cannot be seen as a depiction of universal suffering like the final painting, since the figure of a man eating another man’s arm disrupts all other readings of the work. It is difficult to conceptualize larger causes for this tragedy. Here, the figures seem aberrant, and it is hard to imagine how outside forces could have driven them to this point. Rather, the men themselves seem inhuman and appear to hold the blame for this incident.
In addition to the way these works critique the French government, both Gericault’s painting and Moncrieff’s play are also connected to a variety of other contemporary discourses. Although these connections do not all directly critique the government, they do so obliquely by allowing the critique to become legible. By placing the painting and the play in the context of other acceptable works which are more easily understood and assimilated into society, these connections serve a normalizing function. In the play, the inclusion of comedy and romance lightens the mood of the work. The Fatal Raft is connected to tragedies through its subject matter, but also to comedies and to love stories. Beyond this, the characters appear to spend only one night on the raft, and only the two mutineers actually die. Both of these aspects of the work allow for a more comedic and entertaining story than the narrative of the actual event, in which over one hundred and thirty-five people died over the course of fifteen days. In the final painting, on the other hand, despair is a central motif. This despair, however, is universal, rather than specific, and focused on “a monumental struggle to survive, or more accurately, of man’s will to survive.” The survivors’ anguish is connected to universal despair and the misery of humanity, rather than the immediate, personal anguish shown in Gericault’s Cannibalism. In fact, when the completed work was first shown, even the title allowed for this extension, since it was originally called Scene du Naufrage or “Scene of a Shipwreck,” rather than the more specific Raft of the Medusa. Furthermore, these connections transform the characters from Others into relatable figures, which aids the political critique by allowing contemporary bourgeois viewers to relate to them. Nevertheless, although these particular allusions humanize the figures, other, more complicated connections, actually undermine the political critique while simultaneously allowing viewers to recognize it.
Cannibalism is not directly included in the play, however, it is alluded to on several occasions, such as when the Governor suggests that the occupants of the raft draw lots to decide who will die in order to save the others. Although according to the narrative, this actual event did not occur on the raft, this is the most straightforward allusion to cannibalism in the play. At this point, when Eugenie draws the lot to die and her father is supposed to kill her, Constant offers to die in order to save her life. In this instance, blood and cannibalism come to signify honorable intentions and love. Later, however, as they despair on the raft, cannibalism becomes threatening, rather than sacrificial, as Constant says “Adolphe, thou murderer, that art in league with fever and with famine, give us thy blood for drink, since thou’st shut out all other: nay, we will have it!”  At this point, blood and cannibalism take on a different meaning, as cannibalism becomes a threat tied to the desire for revenge, rather than honor or love. This complex depiction of cannibalism built on a variety of literary traditions. Although in both the narrative and Gericault’s study, hunger is shown as the reason for cannibalism, in the play, the motives are common literary tropes. The idea of doing anything for love or revenge is an enduring literary theme, and this normalizes the cannibalism. However, while these motives make the work more acceptable, they do not aid the political critique, since drawing the viewer’s attention away from the starvation and the suffering lessens the impact of the trauma.
Iconographically, Gericault’s work is connected to a wide variety of
other images, which brings the painting into discourse with these sources and
allows it to fit into contemporary myth. Additionally, unlike Moncrieff’s
inclusions, the iconography of the painting often refers to both the tragic
events on the raft and other visual and literary documents, thus reinforcing
both the actual events and the discursive connections. The old man and the
younger figure in the left foreground are often read as a Father and Son grouping,
which was generally seen as symbolic of suffering and despair. Significantly, this group does reflect an event that occurred on the
raft, although it happened several days before the rescue, when a
twelve-year-old boy died in an older man’s arms.  Contemporaries also saw connections between this group and the story of
Count Ugolino and his sons in Dante’s Inferno,
where Ugolino ate his children when they were dying in the
Both the painting and the play include some subversion of gender roles, which creates another break from societal norms. In the painting, while the allusion to Mary’s suffering increases the scope and universality of this work, it also transgresses gender roles, since it is a male figure that appears in Mary’s place. In the play, gender subversion is even more central, as Eugenie dresses as a boy in order to sail on the Medusa. While this sort of transgression does not fit into bourgeois society, it builds on literary and theatrical tradition. Not only have males often dressed as females on stage, but women dressed as men were also a common theatrical trope. In the play, a further connection to discourses on gender is the allusion to the figure of Salome. After Salome danced for her step-father, Herod, he promised her anything she desired, and Salome requested John the Baptist’s head. Liralie, on the other hand, asks her father to save Adolphe when she says: “‘Tis my first request—and in your mirth, last moon, when I had pleasured you with songs and dances, you swore, great sire, to grant whatever boon your Liralie might ask; —will you refuse my first?”  This request is directly tied to the story of Salome, and in this way, connects the play to a variety of discourses on the power of women and the femme fatale—although, in this case, Liralie subverts expectations by asking for Adolphe’s life, rather than his death. Nevertheless, Adolphe does become her slave and so she retains power over him. Thus, this powerful female figure breaks from bourgeois myth and the accepted roles of women, although she is simultaneously connected to other literary and artistic figures, which normalizes both the play and her degenerate behavior.
Both the play and the painting include motifs that directly contradict the actual events, but humanize the characters in a way that allows viewers to recognize the works’ political critique. The men in Gericault’s painting are not shown as degenerate, but as heroic, muscular figures. They do not make viewers uncomfortable by reminding them that starvation can lead to cannibalism. Rather, they are connected to an endless array of other heroic masculine characters throughout the history of art. In addition to emphasizing their humanity, this also gives them the power to save themselves, allowing them to become the heroes, instead of characterizing the sailors on the Argus in this way. This heroic effect is especially significant because it directly contradicts the description given in the narrative. There, Corréard and Savigny describe themselves as gaunt, almost naked men who must have been terrifying to their saviors. In the play, the love story as a whole fits into common literary discourses while diverging from the actual events on the raft. Moncrieff’s inclusion of two men fighting over the same woman, who goes against her parents’ wishes when she chooses one of them, built on a variety of literary tropes. Additionally, this love story incorporates a happy ending that is the absolute antithesis of the story of the couple in Corréard and Savigny’s narrative. Although the actual man and woman on the raft survived for several days, when the stronger survivors realized that the wine rations were being rapidly depleted, they threw weaker people like the couple overboard in order to save their provisions.
Gericault and Moncrieff also included causes other than governmental misconduct in their works—inclusions which paradoxically both undermine and support their critiques of the government. When Gericault and Moncrieff include other possible causes for the tragedy and spread out the blame, they undermine their critiques. On the other hand, these causes often connect the works to other discourses which were familiar to nineteenth-century bourgeois viewers. For example, the play offers several other reasons for the tragedy—an inclusion which undermines the political reading, but also heightens the connections to contemporary discourses. The love story in Moncrieff’s play allows viewers to easily identify which characters are good and which are evil. Thus, Adolphe is characterized as evil, and is responsible for abandoning the raft because he wants to kill Constant, his rival for Eugenie’s love. This love story allows viewers to read the play more universally since it includes both the clichéd tropes of purely good and evil characters and a love triangle. Nevertheless, when Moncrieff depicts certain characters as heroic and lays the blame on other figures, he does not show the government as solely responsible. The alcohol-fueled mutiny in the play also undermines political readings of the work. Like the love story, this serves to make the play more understandable and connects it to contemporary and traditional discourses on subjects such as the dangers of intemperance. By placing blame on understandable societal concerns, the tragedy is more easily explained. Yet, by allowing for so many causes, the culpability of the French government is diffused over several sources, which makes the play less effective as a critique.
On the other hand, the painting does not refer to other causes for the suffering, and the characters develop an agency that intensifies political readings. The mast and sail appear at the center of the painting, signifying the survivors’ efforts to save themselves. Although the actual survivors were not successful in reaching the ship at this point, Gericault emphasizes his characters’ attempts to save themselves. Just like their muscularity, their heroic gestures aid the critique since they downplay the reality of their actual salvation at the hands of the French Argus. A formal narrative reading of the painting also shows how the figures develop their own agency. In this way, the work can be read from the front to the back, as the foreground figures are still in the depths of suffering, while the figures at the back of the raft strive for salvation. Finally, in the distant background is the ship that will eventually save them. Thus, as the survivors move forward in time, and backward through the canvas, it is their actions that bring them closer to the boat, rather than the actions of sailors on the Argus.
The play and the painting are both connected to contemporary discourses, which allows them to be read within the context of the bourgeois myth. Additionally, in both cases, the works serve as political critiques, a function that is allowed by bourgeois society because of these connections to other sanctioned discourses. The Raft of the Medusa is effective in its inclusion of discursive connections, as these elements work together to fit the painting into the bourgeois myth of society. The play also includes multiple themes, causes, and motifs, which aid the political critique through their normalizing power. However, the disunity of these elements, as well as the multiple reasons for the tragedy, undermines the play’s political critique.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 9, January - June 2012, ISSN 1552-5112
Alhadeff, Albert. The Raft of the Medusa: Gericault, Art and
Barthes, Roland. “Mythology
Today.” In Mythologies. Trans.
Boime, Albert. Art in an Age of Counterrevolution:
Corréard, Alexander and J.
B. Henry Savigny. Narrative of a Voyage
Raft of the Medusa.
Michel. “The Discourse on Language.” In Critical
Theory Since 1965. Eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle.
Moncrieff, William Thomas. The Shipwreck of the Medusa or The Fatal Raft!
Riding, Christine. “Staging The Raft of the Medusa” in Visual Culture in
Fig. 1. Theodore Gericault The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Oil on Canvas, 16’ x 23’, Musée du Louvre.
Fig. 2. Theodore Gericault, Cannibalism, 1818, Black chalk, ink wash, watercolor and white gouache on light brown paper, 11” x 15”, Paris, Gobin Collection.
captain, Duroys de Chaumareys, was a nobleman who had not been on a ship in
twenty-five years when he was awarded command of the Medusa. He was given this position because of his connections at
court and the favoritism that was rampant at the time. Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Counterrevolution:
 Roland Barthes, “Mythology Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1984), 109-159.
 Roland Barthes, “Mythology Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1984), 137-157.
 I will use
Foucault’s discourse theory to reveal how these works are connected to
normative discourses—Foucault’s theory enables the historian to identify and
account for the connections that the viewer makes to a variety of disciplines,
including history, politics, art, and religion, thus allowing for a more
complex and nuanced understanding of a work’s many meanings. Michel Foucault,
“The Discourse on Language,” in Critical
Theory Since 1965, ed. Hazard
 Ibid., 14.
 Lorenz Eitner, Gericault (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), 10.
 Ibid., 10-11.
officers convinced him that a cloud was
 According to the narrative, the survivors were:
Dupont: Captain of Foot, L’Heureux: Lieutenant, Lozach: Sub-Lieutenant, Clairet: Sub Lieutenant, Griffonde Bellay: Ex-Clerk of the Navy, Coudin: élève de marine, Charlot: Sergeant Major, Courtade: Master Gunner, Lavillete , Coste: Sailor, Thomas: Pilot, François: Hospital Keeper, Jean Charles: Black Soldier, Corréard: Engineer and Geographer, Savigny: Surgeon. Alexander Corréard and J. B. Henry Savigny, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816, (London: Dawsons, 1968), 28-9, 30-2, 36-9, 43-47, 59, 81, 83-100, 104-5, 108, 111-3, 137-9, 141, 145.
Albert Boime uses this list to argue that the narrative hides the class struggles that occurred on the ship, since five of the survivors were officers, another was a non-commissioned officer, and seven were in skilled occupations. Additionally, all of the survivors were French. Based on this, Boime argues that political, gender, and social biases had a significant impact on who survived.
While the list of survivors raises questions about the methods of rationing (which the officers were in charge of), Boime also discusses the incidence of “racist slurs” throughout the work. Since the authors were well-known abolitionists and the second half of the narrative criticizes the French policies of slavery and colonization, this discussion is problematic. The word “slur” is especially difficult since the examples he gives are the terms “Asiatic” and “Negro,” and documentation of their contemporary use as slurs is not included in Boime’s study. Boime, 135, 149.
 William Thomas Moncrieff, The Shipwreck of the Medusa or The Fatal Raft! (London: T. Richardson, 1820).
 Moncrieff, 11-38.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 31.
Alhadeff, The Raft of the Medusa:
Gericault, Art and Race (
 Lorenz Eitner, Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (New York: Phaidon, 1972), 48.
 Gericault was well-known as a liberal and the authors of the narrative, Corréard and Savigny, showed their liberalism through their focus on removing favoritism from the military and ending the slave trade. Boime, 139.
 Moncrieff, 27.
 Ibid., 31.
 Eitner, 1971, 5.
 Ibid., 3, 5.
 See Alhadeff for a
discussion of the painting that focuses on racial issues, especially the
placement of the black man, the colonial context, and the issues of slavery and
Napoleon banned slavery and the Restoration government upheld this ruling in
1817, there was still a huge demand for slaves in the West Indies and in the
 Corréard and Savigny, 250-65, 311-8.
 Riding, 17.
 Some scholars argue that the Salon authorities, rather than the artist, choose the title Scene du Naufrage. Eitner, 1971, 5; Boime, 142.
 Moncreiff, 34.
 Ibid., 38.
 Riding, 13.
 Corréard and Savigny, 116-7.
 Eitner, 1972, 155.
 Boime, 143.
 Moncrieff, 29.
 Corréard and Savigny, 139.
 Ibid., 118-9.
Albert Boime uses this aspect of the narrative to emphasize the savagery of the survivors of the raft. Calculating the amount of wine left at this point, he determines that when the weak passengers were thrown overboard, they would have had one hundred flasks of wine in the barrels, and when they were rescued, they would have had almost fifteen bottles. Additionally, the reports of other passengers suggest that the officers conspired to choose who to throw overboard, and that these decisions were based on class, as discussed in note 11. Boime, 136-7.