The question is on par as highlighted in this passage from chapter 6 of La porte étroite by André Gide.

For context, Alissa and Jerome are cousins, who have been friends and are trying their hand at being lovers (apparently a socially acceptable thing at this time and place), but not managing it well and about to feel awful about it.

Il faisait chaud pour la saison. La partie de la côte où nous marchions était exposée au soleil et sans charme ; les arbres dépouillés ne nous étaient d’aucun abri. Talonnés par le souci de rejoindre la voiture où nous attendait la tante, nous activions incommodément notre pas. De mon front que barrait la migraine je n’extrayais pas une idée ; par contenance, ou parce que ce geste pouvait tenir lieu de paroles, j’avais pris, tout en marchant, la main qu’Alissa m’abandonnait. L’émotion, l’essoufflement de la marche, et le malaise de notre silence nous chassaient le sang au visage ; j’entendais battre mes tempes ; Alissa était déplaisamment colorée ; et bientôt la gêne de sentir accrochées l’une à l’autre nos mains moites nous les fit laisser se déprendre et retomber chacune tristement.

To get the sense of par contenance, I had to rely on several translations.

Dorothy Bussy:

to keep myself in countenance

Paul Greve:

aus Schicklichkeit (something like from propriety)

Maria Honeit:

um mir eine gewisse Haltung zu geben (in order to give myself a certain poise)


  1. What is the exact sense of par here?

  2. Can you give several sentences in which par is used in exactly the same sense (so I may learn when I could use it that way)?


I find prepositions very tricky. In English you get things like:

He did right by his old benefactor.


That's OK by me.

--in which by has a subtle sense that is rather damaged when you replace it with anything else.

I suspect something of that sort may be going on with par in Gide? The translators are interpreting it and fixing the sense more definitely than in the original?

  • Maria Honeit's translation is the closest to my understanding in French.
    – Frank
    Jan 14, 2017 at 4:16
  • translation: /for appearance's sake/
    – Lambie
    Jan 14, 2017 at 19:16

3 Answers 3


The definition of contenance that applies here is:

Attitude extérieure exprimant une manière d'être voulue, précise, propre à une personne qui se surveille devant autrui.

and par contenance stands for par manière de contentance.

In other words, contenance reflects a desire to appear a certain way to others. As I understand it here, the narrator is acting out of an almost instinctive social impulse when he sees Alissa's available hand and decides that it would be neat to hold her hand.

To me personally, the translations that make it sound like the countenance is a purpose, such as to keep myself in countenance and um mir eine gewisse Haltung zu geben, feel a bit far from the original meaning because I perceive par contenance to indicate more the reason for behaving a certain way than the goal. I feel that aus Schicklichkeit is a lot closer in terms of sentence construction. (Also this prose is obviously very carefully and beautifully written, it would have been easy for the author to express the idea of a goal explicitly if it had been their intent to do so.)

Here are a few other similar constructions of par + raison that will show what I mean.

Par respect pour ton père, écoute ce qu'il a à te dire. (Hear your dad out, out of respect.)

Par ignorance, j'ai causé du mal. (I've done wrong, out of ignorance.)

Elle répond à ses mails le week-end, par excès de conscience professionnelle. (She answers email on weekends, out of excessive professionalism.)

Even though um mir eine gewisse Haltung zu geben / to give myself a certain poise doesn't translate the expression literally, I think it's the best translation of the three given the lack of a strict equivalent for this meaning of contenance in English.

  • Is it really necessary to drag German into this? :)
    – Lambie
    Jan 14, 2017 at 19:21
  • I didn't start it! ;)
    – qoba
    Jan 14, 2017 at 19:22
  • 1
    I guess it's not usual to see "contenance" as a reason, probably because of expressions such as "perdre contenance", where "contenance" is a result, not a cause.
    – Frank
    Jan 14, 2017 at 20:03
  • Thank you. (And apologies for introducing German. Those are the translations I have, and I can't help turning to them for help.) It seems what you called raison may also be thought of as characterization? E.g., Listening to Dad is a case of respecting him. My doing wrong makes me ignorant. Answering email in the weekend is excessive. Taking Alissa's hand was a case of contenance.
    – Catomic
    Jan 15, 2017 at 3:48
  • Yes, I think that could be a good way to think about it in the sentences above. Hard to generalize but hopefully you understand the gist of the meaning of par in these examples.
    – qoba
    Jan 15, 2017 at 4:01

I am not sure how to explain the exact meaning of "par" here, but I could say that it is the same as saying:

pour garder ma contenance

I could find another expression where "par" is probably used the same way:

par inadvertance: Je l'ai bousculé par inadvertance.

But that is not quite the same... I have to say that even in Gide, this "par" sounds a bit funny to me. I would have naturally written something like:

Pour me donner bonne contenance

The reason this particular "par" sounds funny to me is probably that usually, "par" is used to denote a cause ("par amour de la patrie", "par erreur"...), but here, it seems that contenance is the result (en prenant sa main, il garde sa contenance). It feels inverted between the cause and the effect. All three translations put "contenance" as a result, and that feels more natural to me, unless "contenance" has a meaning I missed (where it could be a cause).

  • Thank you. I like this answer because it well brings out what troubled me and got me to ask the question in the first place.
    – Catomic
    Jan 15, 2017 at 3:56
  • Yes, usually it is not like this. That said there are many adverbial phrases introduced by par in French: Par chance, par conséquent, par contumace, etc. etc. Some are for and some are by. I really think that la contenance d'une personne is the way their show themselves to the world. In English, we say countenance. However, here, it really boils down to for the sake of appearance. Attitude extérieure exprimant une manière d'être voulue, précise, propre à une personne qui se surveille devant autrui=appearance in English.
    – Lambie
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:18
  • par inadvertance = inadvertently. These adverbial phrases sometimes are LY, sometimes BY, and sometime FOR and sometimes something else.
    – Lambie
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:20

The expression for this in English is appearance.

Translation: for the sake of appearance or for appearance's sake.

Appearance is the word for acting a certain way in front of other people.

Think of the British comedy: Keeping Up Appearances

  • +1 for emphasizing (as also did qoba) the conscious or willful element in contenance. I would have wished that whoever downvoted explained their reason.
    – Catomic
    Jan 15, 2017 at 3:39
  • @Catomic I just was looking over all the downvotes I get in French and think something weird is afoot, frankly. Also, I can tell that literary translation is not everyone's forte. :) I really do not think this deserved a downvote.
    – Lambie
    Jan 19, 2017 at 22:13

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