Jam on bread can be comforting, routine, pleasant, appetizing, or too sweet.  We step into different territory, however, when we look at the French word marmelade as it has been used in figurative ways by certain writers.


In the fable “Le Cheval et le Loup” by Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695), a wolf tries to prey on a horse that has a hoof abscess.  Claiming to have a cure, the wolf slowly closes in on the horse, but the latter becomes wary and kicks him in the mouth at the last minute.  La Fontaine’s use of the adverbial/adjectival expression “en marmelade” (brisé, contusionné, meurtri ) to describe how the wolf’s jaw and teeth have been smashed gives the reader an instant image of that moment in the story.  And not only is the wolf physically wounded, he is also hurt that his ruse did not work.  The wolf’s punishment is of course fitting, given that it is through telling lies (and his desire to feed, literally and figuratively, on the weak) that he gets himself into trouble.  Added to this is how difficult it must be now for the wolf to eat anything.


Mon galant ne songeait qu’à bien prendre son temps,

Afin de happer son malade,

L’autre, qui s’en doutait, lui lâche une ruade,

Qui vous lui met en marmelade

Les mandibules et les dents.

… (Recueil 1, Livre 5, fable 8)



The fellow, with this talk sublime,

Watched for a snap the fitting time.

Meanwhile, suspicious of some trick,

The wary patient nearer draws,

And gives his doctor such a kick,

As makes a chowder of his jaws.

… (Book 5, fable 8, translation from the website of the Musée Jean de la Fontaine, http://www.musee-jean-de-la-fontaine.fr/jean-de-la-fontaine-fable-uk-64.html )




In the novel Une page d’amour (1878) by Émile Zola (1840-1902) there is a scene in which the narrator describes a puppet show given at a children’s party.  The Commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella dives into a jumble of activity that includes murder, duels, and lots of beatings.  Zola’s words “les massacres de jambes et de bras dont les personnages sortaient en marmelade” can be translated as “the awful havoc of legs and arms, reducing the characters to a jelly” (Chauncey C. Starkweather, 1905).  Noting that the puppets are made of dry material can make this “jelly” take on an odd dimension.


Tous les yeux étaient fixés sur le rideau rouge.

—Attention! dit le docteur, en allant donner trois légers coups à la porte de la salle à manger.

Le rideau rouge, lentement, s’ouvrit; et, dans l’embrasure de la porte, apparut un théâtre de marionnettes. Alors, un silence régna. Tout d’un coup, Polichinelle jaillit de la coulisse, en jetant un «couic» si féroce, que le petit Guiraud y répondit par une exclamation terrifiée et charmée. C’était une de ces pièces effroyables, où Polichinelle, après avoir rossé le Commissaire, tue le Gendarme et piétine avec une furieuse gaieté sur toutes les lois divines et humaines. À chaque coup de bâton qui fendait les têtes de bois, le parterre impitoyable poussait des rires aigus; et les coups de pointe enfonçant les poitrines, les duels où les adversaires tapaient sur leurs crânes comme sur des courges vides, les massacres de jambes et de bras dont les personnages sortaient en marmelade, redoublaient les fusées de rires qui partaient de tous côtés, sans pouvoir s’éteindre. Puis, lorsque Polichinelle scia le cou du Gendarme, au bord du théâtre, ce fut le comble, l’opération causa une joie si énorme, que les rangées des spectateurs se bousculaient, tombant les unes sur les autres. Une petite fille de quatre ans, rose et blanche, serrait béatement ses menottes contre son coeur, tant elle trouvait ça gentil. D’autres applaudissaient, tandis que les garçons riaient, la bouche ouverte d’un ton grave qui accompagnait les gammes flûtées des demoiselles.


Translation by Chauncey C. Starkweather (1905, A Love Episode, L.C. Page/Société des Beaux-Arts), p.123-4:

And all eyes were intently gazing at the red curtain.

Slowly was it drawn aside, and in the recess of the doorway appeared a puppet-show. There was a hushed silence. Then all at once Punch sprang in, with so ferocious a yell that baby Guiraud could not restrain a responsive cry of terror and delight. It was one of those bloodthirsty dramas in which Punch, having administered a sound beating to the magistrate, murders the policeman, and tramples with ferocious glee on every law, human and divine. At every cudgeling bestowed on the wooden heads the pitiless audience went into shrieks of laughter; and the sharp thrusts delivered by the puppets at each other’s breasts, the duels in which they beat a tattoo on one another’s skulls as though they were empty pumpkins, the awful havoc of legs and arms, reducing the characters to a jelly, served to increase the roars of laughter which rang out from all sides. But the climax of enjoyment was reached when Punch sawed off the policeman’s head on the edge of the stage; an operation provocative of such hysterical mirth that the rows of juveniles were plunged into confusion, swaying to and fro with glee till they all but fell on one another. One tiny girl, but four years old, all pink and white, considered the spectacle so entrancing that she pressed her little hands devoutly to her heart. Others burst into applause, while the boys laughed, with mouths agape, their deeper voices mingling with the shrill peals from the girls.




The poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) used the word marmelade to mean poverty, destitution, impoverishment, as well as a difficult situation in general, a tangled mess.  When Verlaine sold a farm that he had bought under his mother’s name in 1880 for his pupil Lucien Létinois, there was a balance of nine hundred francs held by the town’s notary.  After his mother died, Verlaine asked his lawyer friend Emile Le Brun to be a mediator between him and the town notary to see if he could somehow obtain those nine hundred francs.  In a letter dated 9 November 1886 to Emile Le Brun, Verlaine writes: “Je vais même lui écrire moi pour lui réclamer ma rente (la seule !) de 900 francs, échéant le 15 courant.  Je ne ferai aucune allusion à vous […].  Purée ! marmelade ! dèche ! ô que ce serait beau ces 900 balles dans une gloire, la seule ? au fond.”   With marmelade following purée, Verlaine emphasizes both his desperate need for funds and his irritation with this as-yet unresolved matter: purée can mean a financial embarrassment or deprivation, but as an interjection it is a more fun way of expressing exasperation or aggravation, as in English we might say “Sugar!” to stand in for “Sh*t!”  The fact that purée is also a food term plays deeper into Verlaine’s impoverished situation.




In the novel La Nausée (1938) by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the words confiture, marmelade, gélatineux are all used in the same paragraph when the protagonist Antoine Roquentin is about to have an epiphanic moment in his musings about existence.


Est-ce que je l’ai rêvée, cette énorme présence ?  Elle était là, posée sur le jardin, dégringolée dans les arbres, toute molle, poissant tout, tout épaisse, une confiture.  Et j’étais dedans, moi, avec tout le jardin ?  J’avais peur, mais j’étais surtout en colère, je trouvais ça si bête, si déplacé, je haïssais cette ignoble marmelade.  Il y en avait, il y en avait ! Ça montait jusqu’au ciel, ça s’en allait partout, ça remplissait tout de son affalement gélatineux et j’en voyais des profondeurs et des profondeurs, bien plus loin que les limites du jardin et que les maisons et que Bouville, je n’étais plus à Bouville, ni nulle part, je flottais.  Je n’étais pas surpris, je savais bien que c’était le Monde, le Monde tout nu qui se montrait tout d’un coup, et j’étouffais de colère contre ce gros être absurde.


Translation by Lloyd Alexander (1964, Nausea, New Directions Publishing Corporation), p.134: Had I dreamed of this enormous presence?  It was there, in the garden, toppled down into the trees, all soft, sticky, soiling everything, all thick, a jelly.  And I was inside, I with the garden.  I was frightened, furious, I thought it was so stupid, so out of place, I hated this ignoble mess.  Mounting up, mounting up as high as the sky, spilling over, filling everything with its gelatinous slither, and I could see depths upon depths of it reaching far beyond the limits of the garden, the houses, and Bouville, as far as the eye could reach.  I was no longer in Bouville, I was nowhere, I was floating.  I was not surprised, I knew it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at this gross, absurd being.




There are of course many more ways in which the word marmelade has been used.  For example, when speaking of the lingering effects of a migraine George Sand (1804-1876) in a letter to her son Maurice writes: “J’ai, ce soir, la tête encore un peu en marmelade” (16 février 1853).  Synonyms for the expression “en marmelade” are “en confiture” and “en compote.”  For example, in the novel En ménage (1881) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) the painter Cyprien complains about his less-than-healthy heart when deciding to accompany André on an outing: “Eh bien, je t’accompagne, s’écria le peintre.  J’ai besoin de respirer.  Ça ne va pas ce matin.  J’ai le cœur en compote.  Ce n’est pas pour dire, mais les familles sont bien inconséquentes! elles vous lèguent tous les vices héréditaires de leur santé et, de plus, elles vous fichent sur la terre sans le sou!”  Regarding the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) and Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), the curious reader will do a bit of searching on his/her own to see how these two writers use marmelade to mean scatological matter or other bodily excretions, though in Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932) there is a more abstract usage of marmelade when the psychiatrist Baryton speaks to Ferdinand of “une ragouillasse dégueulasse de débris organiques, une marmelade de symptômes de délires” (“a foul slumgullion of organic debris, a marmalade of madness and symptoms,” as translated by Ralph Manheim, 1983).




Returning to marmelade as a food term, we can note that the French word comes from the Portugese marmelada and marmelo —it is thus not surprising that early forms of marmelade were mainly made using quince.  Medieval France had a similar jam called cotignac (or confiture de coings).  The word marmelade appeared in French texts as early as 1573 in the book Histoire de Lyon by Guillaume Paradin (c.1510-1590) when he mentions “confitures sèches et mermelades.”  The word confiture had already made its appearance at the end of the thirteenth century in a song by Perrot de Nesles (see the Recueil de chansons pieuses du XIIIe siècle publiées par Edw. Järnström, 1910), his words being “Siros confis de douce confiture.”  A general difference between confiture and marmelade is that more sugar is used when making marmelade.  The first books mentioning how to make jam in general (confiture) were published in 1541 in Venice as well as in Lyon —an Italian book had been translated into French as Le Bastiment de receptes (Jean Frellon et François Fellon).  Another early book that covers making jam was published in 1555 Lyon: Excellent & moult utile opuscule à touts necessaire, qui desirent avoir cognoissance de plusieurs exquises receptes by Nostradamus (1503-1566).


Wrapping up my blog entry are three artistic renderings of quince from the French:

Louise Moillon (1610-1696). Basket of Peaches, with Quinces, and Plums, after 1641. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Public Domain. http://collections.lacma.org/node/221448



Paule Gobillard (1867-1946). Nature morte aux coings, 7 January 1887, oil on canvas, 24 x 15 inches; owned by Wally Findlay Galleries. Attribution: By Isabelwallyfindlay – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49801398



Louise Descamps-Sabouret (1855-?), G. Severeyns. “Coing maliforme,” Hortalia. 1893. Editeur: La Maison rustique, Paris. Bibliothèque de la Société nationale d’horticulture de France. Bibliothèque nationale de France. http://bibliotheque-numerique.hortalia.org/items/show/1968