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THE FRENCH ENLIGHTENMENT

If reason, understood as harmony and balance, stamped the "splendid century," it was above
all the spirit of scientific inquiry that gave to the 18th century its special character. With the
decline in the authority of the French monarchy, all social and political institutions came
under question and, eventually, attack. Ideas assumed sovereign power as, one by one,
traditional bastions were subjected to the scrutiny of the PHILOSOPHES. Probably no other
country or century has witnessed such a concentration of intellectual talent as that represented
by the French ENLIGHTENMENT.

Pierre Bayle, a Protestant philosopher turned freethinker who advocated religious toleration,
set the tone of the century with his Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; rev. 1704-06;
Eng. trans., 1709). In this work he foreshadowed the aggressive strategy of religious and
social criticism that would later be used by VOLTAIRE in his malicious but amusing
Dictionnaire philosophique (1764; Eng. trans., 1765). Voltaire wrote tragedies in the classical
mode, works of history, deistic poetry, and light verse. He is chiefly remembered, however,
for his philosophical tales, such as Zadig (1747; Eng. trans., 1749) and Candide (1759; Eng.
trans., 1759); his Letters concerning the English Nation (1733), comparing English and
French institutions (to the latter's disadvantage); and his Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des
nations (1769; partially trans. as The General History and State of Europe, 1754), an
anthropologically organized comparative history of national characteristics. These works
were the centerpiece of his lifelong battle against intolerance, injustice, and obscurantism.

Montesquieu also adopted the method of comparative analysis, producing in his


masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws (1748; Eng. trans., 1750), a profound study of the
different types of government. In this treatise he expounded the doctrine of the separation of
powers. This contributed to the 18th-century French admiration for British political
institutions and helped mold the U.S. Constitution.

The biggest weapon leveled against prejudice and traditional authorities was the
Encyclopedie, published in 35 volumes between 1751 and 1780 and incorporating most of the
materialist, skeptical, and antireligious ideas of the day. This was a collective enterprise
directed by Denis Diderot to which the best minds of the age contributed: Jean d'Alembert,
Baron d'Holbach, Etienne de Condillac, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Montesquieu,
Voltaire, and Rousseau.

Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose political and social ideas enjoyed an even wider vogue in the
19th and 20th centuries than in the 18th, asserted the principle of the collective sovereignty of
the people in The Social Contract (1762; Eng. trans., 1764); in Emile (1762) he expressed
pedagogical theories that formed the basis of later experiments in progressive education. His
novel La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), a compendium of the major intellectual questions
discussed at the time, was a forerunner of ROMANTICISM through which Rousseau
popularized the "return to nature" and the natural morality he believed would flow from such
a state. Rousseau's Confessions (1781, 1788) and Reveries (1782; Eng. trans. for both, 1783)
were daring autobiographical works that helped to develop the romantic taste for the public
display of the inner self.
The development of the novel and the drama contributed to the explosion of the new
sensibility. Alain Rene Lesage's (1668-1747) picaresque romance Gil Blas (1715, 1724,
1735; Eng. trans., 1749) opened the way to the novels of "sentimental education," especially
as produced in England by Tobias Smollettand Henry Fielding. In Manon Lescaut (1731;
Eng. trans., 1738), the Abbe Prévost presented a tale of passion triumphing over every
obstacle but death, while in Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
(1741-1803) analyzed the perverse psychology of a cynical seducer. From the lively plays of
Pierre de Marivaux came the term marivaudage, meaning the style in which the subtle
psychological components of love and dalliance were portrayed by the playwright. Toward
the end of the century Beaumarchais held the stage with his popular comedies The Barber of
Seville (1775; Eng. trans., 1776) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784; Eng. trans., 1785), which
also conveyed a subtly rebellious political message.

Poetry in the 18th century suffered from the desiccating influence of rational analysis, but
one great poet emerged. André Chenier, whose verse was inspired by the harmonies of
classical Greek models and by a love of liberty, became after his execution during the Terror
an important influence on the early romantic school.

THE 19TH CENTURY

The romantic tendencies implicit in the 18th century had by 1830 become a full-fledged and
triumphant movement affecting every area of French letters--poetry, drama, the novel,
history, and criticism. Poetry completely recovered its elan, while the novel, as the most
suitable genre for registering the social upheavals brought first by the French Revolution and
Napoleonic wars and then by the expansion of capitalism and the industrial revolution,
ultimately became the dominant mode of expression. The century-long conflicts between
reactionaries and liberals, the church and the anticlericals, and the bourgeoisie and the
proletariat provided ample scope for the literary giants of the age--Hugo, Balzac, Michelet,
and Zola, each endowed with a prodigious productivity.

The aristocratic Vicomte de Chateaubriand ushered in the century with an aggressive


defense of Catholicism, Le Genie du christianisme (1802; trans. as The Beauties of
Christianity, 1815), and two novels set among the American Indians. His Memoires d'outre-
tombe (Eng. trans., 1902), composed between 1811 and 1841 in a romantic vein, is
considered a classic of French autobiographical writing. Madame de Stael, notable chiefly as
a literary critic, became the champion of German romantic literature in her De L'Allemagne
(1813; trans. as Germany, 1913). Her influence can be seen in Benjamin Constant's novel
Adolphe (1816; Eng. trans., 1817), analyzing the waning passion of a young man for an older
woman, which suggests many parallels with Constant and de Stael's own tortuous
relationship.

Alphonse de Lamartine, with his Meditations poetiques (1820; Eng. trans., 1839), brought
French poetry back to its lyric roots. He was the first in a line of great French romantic poets
that included Alfred de Vigny, who came to prominence with his Poemes antiques et
modernes (1826); Alfred de Musset, known alike for his Byronic poetry--alternately impish
and moving--and his affair with George Sand, herself a romantic novelist and early feminist;
and the giant among them, Victor Hugo, who for 65 years would magnificently amplify
every possible poetic theme and reign as chief spokesman and practitioner of the romantic
credo.

The first break with romanticism was made by Théophile Gautier, a onetime enthusiast
whose art-for-art's-sake credo announced the arrival of the PARNASSIANS, a group of poets
infatuated with formal perfection and objectivity and hostile to the romantics' subjective
effusions. Led by Charles Marie Leconte de Lisle in the 1860s, the Parnassians saw their
ideals best realized in the sonnet collection Les Trophees (1893; Eng. trans., 1897) of Jose
Maria deHeredia.

Influenced by the Parnassians but determined to create beauty even out of the horrors of life,
Charles Baudelaire in The Flowers of Evil (1857; Eng. trans., 1909) sounded a new note--
obsessive, morbid, presenting the poet as an accursed being--that would significantly
influence all subsequent French poetry. Arthur Rimbaud, in A Season in Hell (1873; Eng.
trans., 1932) and Illuminations (1886; Eng. trans., 1932), reached an absolute of revolt,
experimenting with mixtures of verse and prose, with rhythms, and with the juxtaposition of
unrelated words. His older friend and lover Paul Verlaine brought to French poetry a
musical, melodic quality it had not previously attained, seen especially in his collection Jadis
et naguere (Once Upon a Time and Not Long Ago, 1884). Stéphane Mallarmé, whose most
celebrated poem was Afternoon of a Faun (1876; Eng. trans., 1951), which Debussy later set
to music, guided poetry toward even more abstruse paths and, as the leader of the symbolists
in the 1880s and 1890s, exercised an enormous influence over his contemporaries that is still
lively today.

The 50 years between 1830 and 1880 witnessed enormous changes in the shape of the novel
as it was molded by a succession of innovators. Madame George Sand, exemplifying
romanticism in its most individualistic form, in Lelia (1833; Eng. trans., 1978) championed
the ultimate moral claim of passion over convention, though her novels of country life, such
as The Country Waif (1847; Eng. trans., 1976) and Fanchon the Cricket (1848; Eng. trans.,
1977), have endured better. Stendhal, who also portrayed the dominant role of passion as a
motivating force in life, nevertheless injected into his two great novels, The Red and the
Black (1830; Eng. trans., 1916) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839; Eng. trans., 1901), an
ironic tone and analytical power that foreshadowed the 20th-century psychological novel.
Victor Hugo, in his evocation of medieval Parisian life, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(1831; Eng. trans., 1833), and Alexandre Dumas père, in a whole series of adventures
covering high points of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in France, made the historical novel
a genre to be reckoned with. Hugo's later work, Les Misérables (1862; Eng. trans., 1862),
recounting the redemption of a convict emerging from the lower depths, successfully merged
high drama with questions of social morality.

The colossus of 19th-century French novelists, however, was Honoré de Balzac, whose
prodigious, multivolume Human Comedy (1842-48; Eng. trans., 1895-98), encompassing
more than 2,000 characters drawn from every rank and walk of life and sweeping
imaginatively over 40 years of French history, brilliantly delineated a major society in flux.
His genius for realistic detail, together with his emphasis on material gain as the engine of
human behavior, directly links Balzac with the novelistic REALISM that won the day in the
second half of the century.
This was most triumphantly realized in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857; Eng.
trans., 1886), the story of a provincial adulteress whose bleak life ends in tragedy--a novel as
notable for its perfection of style as for its unerring observation. A disciple of Flaubert, Guy
de Maupassant, excelled in the sparely told, realistic, often ironic short story, as in such
collections as La Maison Tellier (1881; Eng. trans., 1910) and Mademoiselle Fifi (1882; Eng.
trans., 1917). Influenced by contemporary determinist thought, Émile Zola sought to make
the novel a more scientific reflection of reality. His 20-volume fictional examination of every
level of social life during the Second Empire, Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-93), with its
emphasis on the sordid and the depressing, remains the outstanding exemplar of
NATURALISM whose influence as a movement it spanned.

History and criticism also came to maturity during the 19th century. Jules Michelet, whose
immense 17-volume History of France (1833-43, 1855-67; Eng. trans., 1882-87) vibrantly
resurrected the past, exemplified the romantic narrative tradition at its best. Alexis
de Tocqueville, in his probing Democracy in America (1835, 1840; both trans. the same
years), offered analyses of American politics and character in large part still valid today.
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, in his astute study Port-Royal (1840-59) and in his in-depth
analyses of French literary figures, gave to literary criticism the importance it has retained
since. In applying his erudition as Hebrew scholar and philologist to religion in The Origins
of Christianity (7 vols., 1863-83; Eng. trans., 1888-89), Ernest Renan established modern
critical methods in France. Simultaneously, the philosopher and historian Hippolyte Taine,
seeking a scientific explanation for historical and cultural phenomena, professed to discover
in the interplay of physical and psychological factors the cause of national and individual
variations. Zola's naturalistic oeuvre was the application of this hypothesis to literature.

The French theater was at first dominated by the romantic dramas of Hugo, whose Hernani
(1830; Eng. trans., 1830) liberated playwrights from the confining traditions of the past, and
by those of Dumas père. These were followed in popularity by the well-made plays of
Eugène Scribe, Victorien Sardou, and Alexandre Dumas fils, who also defended social
theses.

THE 20TH CENTURY

The 20th century in France has been characterized by a tremendous expansion in literary
output and the ever-faster pace of experimentation with new means of expression. Both
Marxism and Freudianism have left a deep imprint on literature, as on all the arts. Two world
wars have tried France sorely, while the technological revolution confronts the current
generation with an altogether new world. The result of such profound socioeconomic and
political change has been a continuous questioning of all moral, intellectual, and artistic
traditions.

In poetry, symbolism continued to serve as an inspiration without stifling new departures.


Paul Claudel, notable as both dramatist and poet, injected a mystical Catholicism into his
masterpiece, Five Great Odes (1904-10; Eng. trans., 1967). Paul Valérybecame famous for
delicate poems that were at once meditative, musical, and rich in imagery.
Guillaume Apollinaire deliberately aimed for modernity in his poetry, which was full of
whimsical surprises. He not only coined the term surrealist but in The Breasts of Tiresias
(1918; Eng. trans., 1961) produced the first surrealist play. Under the leadership of
André Breton, the movement's theorist, SURREALISM aimed for a complete revolution in
poetry and the visual arts to be achieved through an exploration of the subconscious,
considered as poetry's deepest source. A rejuvenator of poetic imagination, surrealism
launched, among others, the poet and novelist Louis Aragon, although Aragon after 1930
found inspiration in his Marxist beliefs.

The novel thrived especially during the first half of the century. Anatole France kept the
tradition of political satire alive with his allegorical spoof, Penguin Island (1908; Eng. trans.,
1909). RomainRolland, with his 10-volume Jean-Christophe (1904-12; Eng. trans., 1910-13),
followed later by Jules Romains with his even larger Men of Good Will series (27 vols.,
1932-47; Eng. trans. in 14 vols., 1933-46), demonstrated the continuing popularity of the
roman-fleuve, or cyclical novel, in France. Andre GIDE, from The Immoralist (1902; Eng.
trans., 1930) through The Counterfeiters (1926; Eng. trans., 1927), novels that are still
compelling, championed the individual at war with conventional morality. France's greatest
20th-century novelist, however, was Marcel Proust, the extent of whose contributions to the
genre can be compared only with those of James Joyce. In the multivolume, multilevel
Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27; Eng. trans., 1922-31), Proust sought to recapture the
essence of lost time, for him a spiritual reality, through reconstructing the external shape or
sensations of the past; the whole was narrated chiefly by means of an interior monologue.

Working on a smaller canvas, Colette produced short novels that shrewdly analyzed the
complexities of intimate relations, while François Mauriac took as his special preserve, in a
series of novels influenced by his Catholicism, the eternal battle between spirit and flesh.
Two of the freshest voices in the decade before World War II belonged to Louis
Ferdinand Céline, whose cynical, often scurrilous Journey to the End of Night (1932; Eng.
trans., 1934) and Death on the Installment Plan (1936; Eng. trans., 1938) spoke for the
fascism to come, and to the then politically radical adventurer-writer André Malraux in
Man's Fate (1933; Eng. trans., 1934) and Man's Hope (1937; Eng. trans., 1938).

Philosophical EXISTENTIALISM dominated literature in postwar France, spilling over into


the novel as onto the stage. Jean Paul Sartre, leader of the movement, had previously
explained its tenets (namely, the human freedom to choose and to forge one's own values) in
the novel Nausea (1938; Eng. trans., 1949), the play No Exit (1944; Eng. trans., 1946), and a
trilogy of novels dealing with World War II. Its themes would be echoed by others, most
notably by Albert Camusin The Stranger (1942; Eng. trans., 1946) and The Plague (1947;
Eng. trans., 1948), in which the absurdity, or meaninglessness, of life is stressed. Simone
de Beauvoir, Sartre's lifelong friend and disciple, also dealt with existentialist problems in
her novels but is probably best known for her massive treatise on the status of women, The
Second Sex (1949; Eng. trans., 1952), and a series of distinguished memoirs.

From the 1950s, the dominant trend was the NEW NOVEL, or antinovel, as represented by
Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Although these authors have no
common doctrine, all reject plot and verisimilitude as traditionally understood. Their work,
allied with new insights provided initially by the adherents of STRUCTURALISM, has had a
marked effect on literary expression, analysis, and criticism (as for example, in the work of
Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida.
The French theater, perhaps more than any other form, illustrates the profound literary
revolution that has swept France since the days of Edmond Rostand's flamboyant Cyrano de
Bergerac (1897; Eng. trans., 1937). The poetical plays of Jean Giradoux, especially the
astringent Madwoman of Chaillot (1945; Eng. trans., 1947), continued to appeal to postwar
audiences, as did the productions of Jean Anouilh, some smiling, some ferocious. But with
EugèneIonesco's The Bald Soprano (1950; Eng. trans., 1958), an altogether new drama,
called the THEATER OF THE ABSURD, came into being, marking a sharp break with the
past. Samuel Beckett best exemplified both the strengths and limits of this theater in Waiting
for Godot (1953; Eng. trans., 1954) and Endgame (1957; Eng. trans., 1958). In these two
plays the sets, the characters, and language itself disintegrate into an awesome void. The
plays of JeanGenet, such as The Balcony (1956; Eng. trans., 1958) and The Blacks (1958;
Eng. trans., 1960), also aim at destruction, but in a fuller, more theatrical, sacramental way.
Yet however baffling and depressing these productions are, there can be no doubt that they
powerfully illuminate the underlying somber concerns of the present era. Above all, they
testify to the ever-present originality and vitality of French literature and confirm its enviable
avant-garde role.