French Literature and Language

views updated


FRENCH LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE. From the end of the Middle Ages to the beginning of the Revolution, French literature reached heights of quality and range unequalled by any other literature of the time. After the destruction of the court culture of Languedoc in the thirteenth century, and the consequent end of Provençal troubadour poetry, French had become the dominant literary vernacular in Europe throughout the High Middle Ages, thanks largely to the French courtly or chivalric romance. These texts combined learned allegorizing with encyclopedic digressions and, at least in the case of the immensely influential Roman de la rose (c. 12251275; Romance of the rose) of Guillaume de Lorris (fl. early thirteenth century) and Jean de Meun (d. 1305), an often salacious misogyny. This text, and responses to it such as Christine de Pisan's (1364/651434?) Cité des dames (1404; City of women), continued to be read and discussed well into the sixteenth century. However, even by the time of the great debate over the Rose, in the early fifteenth century, the genre of the romance had already exhausted itself, and other modes of literary expression were coming to the fore. One medieval genre that had provided both material and counterpoint to the romance was that of the fabliaux, unabashedly worldly, graphic, often obscene comic stories in verse, which offered a decidedly nonidealized view of sex and society. Although most of the fabliaux had been written down in the thirteenth century, they continued to influence the literature of the centuries that followed, both in France and elsewhere (for example, in Italy, Boccaccio's Decameron [13481351]), while the medieval romances of chivalry became a dead letter, resurfacing only rarely, and then usually in parodic form.


The latter half of the fifteenth century has often been viewed as a period of decadence, even sterility, in the history of French literature, but this is not an entirely fair assessment. It was certainly the case that, in the ongoing cultural exchange between France and Italy, this was a time in which Italy gave more to France than vice versa, but French theater and, especially, lyric poetry were productive genres. The last poet in the medieval "courtly love" tradition is one of the finest: Charles d'Orléans (13941465), who, in his lyrics, manipulates the commonplaces of l'amour courtois with a gentle and graceful irony. It was a younger writer, however, one who was briefly in Charles's entourage, who became the greatest poet of the fifteenth century, and one of the most original and moving voices in all of French literature. François Villon (14311463?) was a violent criminalarmed robbery, burglary, theft, and murder were all on his rap sheet, and he narrowly missed being hanged more than oncebut he somehow found time to write lyrics of extraordinary beauty and depth. The apparently autobiographical mode in which he writes of his misadventures and his disreputable acquaintances, together with what little we know of his unedifying life, have combined to produce the legend of a kind of thug genius, which may obscure our understanding of the poetry. The voice of Le lais (c. 1456) and Le testament (c. 1461) is indeed intensely personal, but it is a consciously constructed voice, and one that speaks of universal experience: of desire, of suffering, of the impermanence of pleasure, and above all of death. Yet he does not wallow in despair or self-pity; his attitude is instead one of a grimly cheerful irony, expressed in language of piercing directness. If he allows the reader little comfort, his dark, skeptical humor provides an attractive alternative, and makes of this shadowy figure from the underworld of medieval Paris the first recognizably modern poet in French literature.

A similar (if somewhat sunnier) kind of humor predominates in the theater of the second half of the fifteenth century, whose isolated masterpiece is the anonymous Farce de Maistre Pathelin (first performed in the 1460s; first known printing in 1486). Medieval farces were short, semi-improvised plays, like the fabliaux using stock situations and characters in the service of a fairly raw brand of humor. While Pathelin is clearly part of this tradition, in scale and sophistication it goes far beyond the genre's limits, so that to call it a "farce" is hardly adequate. Revolving around the collective chicanery and mutual deception of a cloth merchant, a lawyer, the lawyer's wife, a peasant, and a judge, the minimal plot is mainly an excuse for the play's acutely observed comic representation of bourgeois mores and character. Its humor, both situational and verbal, makes for brilliantly effective comic theater, whose like will not be seen again until Molière.

We find another perspective, more cold-hearted if no less ironic, in the Mémoires of Philippe de Commynes (c. 14471511). This powerful nobleman was for a time the chief advisor to Louis XI (ruled 14611483), the "Spider King," and seems to have been just as ardent a practicioner of devious realpolitik as his master. Under Louis's successor, Charles VIII (ruled 14831498), Commynes suffered the consequences of his loyalty, but after weathering imprisonment, expropriation, and disgrace, he managed to work his way back into public life, and indeed into the favor of his new sovereign. The Mémoires present, under the guise of a chronicle of Commynes's political and diplomatic career, a kind of manual for the would-be courtier-statesman, and as such found a wide readership in France and elsewhere, being translated into every major European language. Seemingly direct, even flat, in style, the Mémoires in fact enact the kind of careful adjustment of facts they describe, being a highly selective, self-promoting, and ironic version of the events they narrate. In this they look forward to the writings of Commynes's younger contemporaries from south of the Alps, Niccolò Machiavelli and Baldassare Castiglione.

After Villon, lyric poetry took a turn toward formalism with the work of the so-called grands rhétoriqueurs, a loosely constituted group of poets who, in the last years of the fifteenth century, produced short lyrics and longer poems characterized by technical virtuosity and learned linguistic playfulness. The most important of these authors are Jean Molinet (14351507), Jean Lemaire de Belges (14731524), and Guillaume Crétin (d. 1525). Their work, for which they often deliberately chose the most trivial of subjects, is full of alliteration, puns, and other forms of sonic and verbal humor, which did not always endear them to subsequent generations of readers. Du Bellay, for example, heaped scorn on the rhétoriqueurs in the mid-1500s, and they were mostly ignored or forgotten up through the first half of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, both their humor and their erudition, in which we may see the beginnings of a new, more historical appreciation of Classical Latin poetry, influenced Marot and Rabelais, and in the latter years of the twentieth century they began to find a new audience, who shared the rhétoriqueurs' appreciation for formal and linguistic play.


It was left to another lyric poet, Clément Marot (1496?1544), to take French literature in a new direction. Without entirely abandoning the playfulness of rhétoriqueur poetry (like that of his father, Jean Marot, d. 1526), he wrote with greater simplicity and directness, using both medieval forms (ballades, rondeaux) and more classicizing ones (verse epistles, epigrams, elegies) to produce a poetry at once personal and engaged with the political, social, and religious issues of his day. Less selfconsciously erudite than the poets of his father's generation, Marot nonetheless absorbed considerable classical and Italian influences from his time at the court of Francis I, where such things were greatly in vogue. Marot was also a Protestant at a time when (particularly after the "affaire des placards, " 1718 October 1534) it was becoming increasingly dangerous to profess Protestantism openly. Marot's sympathies, and his translations of the Psalms, got him into serious trouble more than once, and even a temporary return to Catholicism (in 1536) was not enough to keep him from being forced into exile at the end of his life. However, this did not dampen the lively humor and directness of his poetry; in fact, some of his best work (L'enfer [1526; Hell], Epistre au roy [1535; Letter to the king]) took as its subject his difficulties with the Catholic authorities.

Marot's troubles help to explain why the real literary heart of France in the second quarter of the sixteenth century was not Paris but Lyon. Far enough from Paris to be relatively safe from the watchful censors of the Sorbonne, and close enough to Italy to feel its cultural influence, Lyon became home to several of the most important poets of the time. We know little of the life of Maurice Scève (c. 1501c. 1560); he may have studied for a time in Italy, and he achieved a kind of paraliterary notoriety when, in 1533, he found in Avignon the alleged tomb of Petrarch's Laura. Scève's own poetry abounds in typical Petrarchan gestures: paradoxical conceits, violent contrasts, the idealization of the beloved, all find a place in Scève's Délie (1544), whose eponymous Laura-esque dedicatee was probably fellow poet Pernette du Guillet. Where the sonnet form had already imposed on Petrarch considerable economy of expression, Scève opted for an even briefer form; the 449 dizains (ten-line poems, rather than the fourteen lines of the sonnet) of his Délie are highly compressed, elliptical, often opaque expressions of the desire of the poet for his beloved. Scève's opacity is intensified by his Italianate, even Latinate vocabulary and syntax, and by the complex patterns of allusion that simultaneously create and obscure the collection's large-scale structure. The torments undergone by the lover as he pines for his Délie are mirrored in the work's tortured obscurity, and perhaps also in the reader's experience of the text.

Less extreme in her explorations of Petrarchism, but nonetheless fluent in the genre's language, was the poet to whom Scève was writing, Pernette du Guillet (1520?1545). As with Scève, we know little of her too-short life, but contemporaries described her as a prodigious musician as well as a scholar and poet. Her work (Rymes, 1545), too often read in Scève's shadow, is less willfully obscure, and therefore perhaps more engaging; yet she remains fascinated by the linguistic and formal possibilities opened up by the manipulation of Petrarchan tropes. Of the poets of the "School of Lyon," the most accessible to the modern reader is Louise Labé (1524?1566), whose elegies and sonnets (published in 1555) combine a learned Neoplatonism with a directness and personal intensity that speak to the reader in a distinctly non-Petrarchan way. She celebrates love as an experience both spiritual and physical, while giving voice to a specifically feminine subjectivity impatient with the arbitrary constraints her society imposes upon women. However, while she is conscious of her identity as a woman, she is even more aware of her identity as a poet, and her work refuses to allow the reader to reduce her to one or the other. Her outspokenness may have been the cause of scurrilous attacks on her personal life by some of her (male) contemporaries, but in any case her poetry speaks for itself and has rightly attracted considerable critical attention in recent years.

Another writer who found in Lyon a refuge from intolerance was François Rabelais (c. 14831553). While his exact dates may be open to question, what is not in doubt is his stature as one of the major figures of the Renaissance and indeed of Western literature. Monk, secular priest, jurist, and doctor, Rabelais was very far from being the hard-drinking buffoon of popular legend. He was in fact one of the most brilliant and learned men of his day, famed for, among other things, his ability as a scholar of Greek and his prowess as a physician. It is, however, to his comic novels (Pantagruel, 1532; Gargantua, 1534; the Tiers livre, 1546; the Quart livre, 1552) that he owes his permanent fame. In them, he offers a view of the human experience at once critical and generous, but above all comic. He satirizes ignorance, intolerance, and fanaticism with ruthless abandon while celebrating an honest joy in things of this world, humanist learning, and a faith based on the humble acceptance of human imperfection. His work is overwhelmingly rich in allusive erudition, topical satire, linguistic invention, and humor both high and low. This polyphony makes him one of the most difficult of authors, but his work amply repays the effort it demands. His transformative effect on the French language and on Western literature is immeasurable.

One of Rabelais's patrons and protectors was Marguerite de Navarre (14921549), the older sister of Francis I. Until her brother's death in 1547, she was the most powerful woman in France, and she used her considerable influence to help artists and (especially) religious reformers with whom she was in sympathy. Her own profound piety, of an evangelical, quasi-Protestant bent, gave direction to much of her writing: the Miroir de l'âme pécheresse (1531; Mirror of the sinful soul) and the Marguerites de la Marguerite des princesses (1547), poetry full of a joyous, sometimes other-worldly mysticism. Some of the same spirit infuses the so-called Dernières poésies (Last poems), not published until 1896. These works stand in seeming contrast to the Heptaméron (15581559), a collection of often worldly, sometimes racy tales modeled on the Decameron. The stories are generally set in the France of Marguerite's day and are often about people known to her personally. They run the gamut from tragic to comic, and are told with verve, economy of expression, and an eye for the telling detail. They are united by a fierce sense of justiceparticularly as regards the tyranny of men over womenand a moral sensibility perhaps not so remote from that of Marguerite's explicitly religious writings.

As we have seen, much of French literature in the first half of the sixteenth century is beholden in various ways to the Italian Renaissance. Nowhere is this influence more pervasiveor more strenuously resistedthan in the poetry of the Pléiade, a group of poets who, proclaiming themselves to be an ensemble of literary stars, sought to emulate and surpass both Italian and classical models. Their explicitly stated goal was to prove the French language to be a vehicle of literary expression equal. if not superior, to Italian, Latin, and even Greek. The two most important poets of this movement were Pierre de Ronsard (15241585) and Joachim du Bellay (c. 15221560), friends, rivals, and in many ways polar opposites. Ronsard saw himself as the semiofficial poet laureate of the nascent nation-state of France, and even his lyric love poetry, to say nothing of his longer work, manifests immense ambition, both literary and historical. He appropriates Petrarchan tropes and vocabulary into a French vernacular that he does much to shape; in such collections as the Odes (1550), the Amours (1552, 15551556), and the Sonnets pour Hélène (1578), he deploys his considerable learning and technical skill in the service of a powerful poetic subjectivity sometimes bordering on the narcissistic, not to say megalomaniacal. Ronsard's ego is always front and center, and the dedicatees of his love poetry are often reduced to projections of his generative desire. He conceives of the poet not as an artisan but as an artist: a divinely inspired creator to be honored and respected above the common herd. For this ambition to be fully realized, merely writing amorous sonnets was insufficient; Ronsard could not claim to rival the great poets of antiquity without meeting them on their own ground, the exalted terrain of epic poetry. Therefore, urged on by du Bellay and other Pléiade poets, Ronsard attempted to write a French national epic, along the lines of Virgil's Aeneid, which he called La franciade (1572). Perhaps conscious of the work's inadequacies, he never managed to finish it, and it remains an intriguing Promethean failure, representing both the scope and the hubris of Renaissance artistic ambition.

To Ronsard's egomania we may contrast the ironic humility of Joachim du Bellay, who claimed (perhaps somewhat disingenuously) to be setting his sights much lower, writing a humbler, more homely sort of poetry. He does begin his career with a typically Petrarchan collection, L'olive (1549), but then develops a more individual voice, writing with eloquent artlessness in Les regrets and Les antiquitésde Rome (both 1558) of his own experience of exile and loss, as refracted through the contrast he draws between the Rome of his own day, decadent and corrupt under papal rule, and the glorious Rome of the ancients. For du Bellay there seems to be little hope that the moderns will ever rise to the heights reached by their forebears; and yet he hints that his ironic perspective may itself be an advance beyond anything the ancients could achieve. This idea is made slightly more explicit in his Deffence et illustration de la langue françoyse (1549; Defense and illustration of the French language), which combines theory and polemic into a manifesto of the Pléiade program. In it du Bellay aggressively condemns most pre-Pléiade poetry as shallow, silly, and semiliterate. The true poet, he says, diligently studies and internalizes the best ancient and modern authors, so that his own work becomes both an imitation and a transcendence of those precursor texts. Du Bellay thus theorizes what he, Ronsard, and the other poets of the Pléiade thought they were doing and sometimes actually accomplished.

We should not suppose that the Pléiade poets were mere aesthetes, solely concerned with pursuing ever-more-recondite developments of the Petrarchan tradition. Like Marot, they neither could nor would escape the religious and political issues of their time. The Roman poems of du Bellay, as well as Ronsard's Discours des misères de ce temps (15621563; Discourse on the miseries of these times), directly engageand proclaim themselves agents inthe debates occasioned by the Reformation, the Gallican controversy, and the French Wars of Religion. Another author thus engaged was Michel de Montaigne (15331592), jurist, courtier, and philosopher. His Essais (1580, 1588, 1595) have their ancestry in the moral essays of Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch, but he radically expands the possibilities of the form, making it a vehicle for autobiography, political and historical analysis, literary criticism, and philosophical speculation, all expressed with an unassuming, protean eloquence. Montaigne's multivocal text articulates an ironic, tolerant skepticism, questioning rather than answering, and as such is one of the most enduring expressions of the Renaissance mind.

To Montaigne's generous tolerance may be opposed the fierce intransigence of the warrior-poet Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné (15521630), someone not merely marked but scarred by the Wars of Religion. Totally committed to the Protestant side, he never fully accepted the compromises that put an end to the conflict. His quasi-epic poem, Les tragiques (1616), is therefore a passionate threnody for a cause d'Aubigné felt had been betrayed and lost, unfolding in a series of tableaux notable for the baroque violence of both their imagery and their language.


The seventeenth century, the so-called Grand Century, is undoubtedly a period of extraordinary achievement, but the traditional image of a world dominated by the court of Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) and its grandiose classicism is, if not misleading, at least incomplete. Even for the Sun King's reign in the last third of the century, the literary landscape of the period was much more diverse and strange than we are accustomed to think. Even the supposedly "classicizing" reaction against the noholds-barred exuberanceformal, linguistic, and aestheticof a Rabelais or a Ronsard is more complex than it seems. Certainly François de Malherbe (15551628), in both his poetry and his theoretical writings, aspired to sanitize and elevate a literature too crude for the postHenry IV generation, but this move toward refinement took other forms as well. By far the most influential and widely read work of the first half of the century was Honoré d'Urfé's (15681625) Astrée (16071627), an immense, sprawling novel set in an idyllic pastoral world (strongly resembling the author's native region of Forez) in which amorous shepherds and shepherdesses (or rather nobles in rustic disguise) pursue one another endlessly through intrigues, enchantments, and adventures of all sorts. The book's representation of desire as a passion that elevates the soul set the tone for court and urban society, not to mention literature, for the next several decades. We find in it the roots of the notion of the honnête homme (roughly, the 'honorable man'), the person perfectly adapted to every situation and circumstance; this ideal of conduct became the model for societyand literaturefor the rest of the century, not only in France but throughout Europe. It was also the founding text of the related phenomenon known as préciosité, an aestheticization of social and literary discourses of desire meant to bring refinement and decorum to the interactions between the sexes. Poets such as Vincent Voiture (15971648) and Honorat du Bueil, seigneur de Racan (15891670) wrote précieux lyrics whose occasional and stereotyped content should not prevent the modern reader from appreciating their high degree of poetic craftsmanship. In the wake of the Astrée, the novel enjoyed a period of immense fertility; among the many authors who expanded on the possibilities opened up by d'Urfé was Madeleine de Scudéry (16071701). She went far beyond the limits of Astrée's pastoral world to create the genre of the roman héroique ('heroic novel'); her multivolume extravaganzas (Les femmes illustres, 1642 [Famous women]; Artamène, ou le grand Cyrus, 16491653; Clélie, 16541660) recounted their heroines' and heroes' elaborate and seemingly interminable adventures, amorous and otherwise, in ever more exotic settings. Her works, and others like them, found a wide readership among women and men in salon and court alike, and like the Astrée may be said to have conditioned both literary and social discourse for much of the century.

At the same time, a very different sort of novel, the so-called roman libertin ('libertine novel'), descended both from Rabelais and from the Spanish picaresque novels of the sixteenth century, was being written by such authors as Charles Sorel (c. 16001674), Paul Scarron (16101660), and Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (16191655). Irreverent, earthy, sardonic, Sorel's La vraie histoire comique de Francion (1623; The true comic history of Francion), Scarron's Roman comique (1651; Comic novel), and Cyrano's L'autre monde (c. 1650; pub. 1657; The other world) represent an alternative set of voices in the first half of the century, voices unafraid to ridicule either literary tradition or religious or social pieties. The skeptical rationalism of these texts had its counterpart in the philosophical writings of René Descartes (15961650). His Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on method) and Traité des passions (1649; Treatise on the passions), besides being of immense philosophical importance, were also a major influence, thanks to their clarity and precision of language, on the development of French prose.

The centralization of political power under Louis XIII (ruled 16101643), Cardinal de Richelieu (15851642), and Cardinal Jules Mazarin (16021661) was not an untroubled process; the resistance of disaffected nobles and others culminated in the Fronde (16491653), a series of sometimes violent episodes of rebellion that ended in a qualified victory for the crown. The salons of Paris had been incubators for the Fronde, and one can read the romans héroiques, with their idealized aristocratic protagonists, as both reflecting and producing the frondeur sensibility. The same can be said for a range of other texts from the middle of the century, from the brilliant if self-serving Mémoires (16751677) of the Cardinal de Retz (16131679), to the Maximes (published in several versions between 1664 and 1693) of one of the most important of the aristocratic frondeurs, François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld (16131680). The Maximes, mordant, lapidary aphorisms, were perhaps the most lasting product of the mid-century literary salons. While La Rochefoucauld seems to have been principally responsible for their final form, the Maximes were in fact a collaborative effort, the precipitate of conversations between La Rochefoucauld and his friends, particularly Madame de La Fayette (see below). Articulated around the ideal of the honnête homme, their elegant pessimism reflects both the disappointments of the Fronde and the influence of Jansenism.

The rigorous Augustinian theology of the Jansenists was even more important to the most profound of the moralistes, Blaise Pascal (16231662). In his early years a fixture on the Parisian social scene, and one of the most important and original mathematicians of his century, in 1654 he underwent a religious conversion and turned from mathematics to philosophy and theology. His Lettres provinciales (16561657; Letters to a provincial), a series of polemical essays, written with dazzling ironic wit and ruthless logic, constituted a scathing attack on the elastic moral philosophy of the Jansenists' greatest enemies, the Jesuits. Even more important were the Pensées, a collection of sometimes cryptic fragments from a few words to several pages in length, that were posthumously published by his family in 1670. Pascal seems to have meant them as sketches toward a work proving the truth of Christianity. They range in subject from the trivial to the cosmic; informed with crystalline brilliance of thought and style, they are the fullest expression of his literary and philosophical genius.

While the novel, the essay, and even the lyric poem were for the reader of the time genres of great importance, to the modern mind one area of seventeenth-century literary production stands out: theater. A crowded, intensely competitive field, it was nonetheless dominated by three playwrights whose careers overlapped, sometimes uneasily: Pierre Corneille (16061684), Jean-Baptiste Poquelin de Molière (16221673), and Jean Racine (16391699). Trained in rhetoric by the Jesuits, and immersed in the literature of préciosité, Corneille brought to the theater an ear for verse that could charm, persuade, or overwhelmsometimes all at once. While he drew his subjects mainly from antiquity, and claimed to be adhering strictly to classical theory in constructing his plays, he combined these classical influences with a précieux vocabulary of love and a heroic sense of proportion to produce a theater of larger-than-life heroes and heroines that dominated the French stage for more than two decades. His work also had important political resonances, linked to the Fronde and the rise of Louis XIV. If Le Cid (1637) was a celebration of the aristocrat as free agent, Cinna (16401641) staged the apotheosis of the ideal ruler, nobler than any of his potential rivals, while La mort de Pompée (16421643; The death of Pompey) and the plays that followed offered a more pessimistic vision of the triumph of raison d'état over the nobility.

Molière had aspirations to write (and act in) heroic drama in the style of Corneille, but fortunately he realized that his talents lay elsewhere. He began with slapstick comedies rooted in popular genres like the Italian commedia dell'arte and medieval French farce, but his skill as a Latinist enabled him to draw on Plautus and Terence as well, to create comedies that for intelligence, wit, and sheer theatrical effectiveness have never been surpassed. Whether ridiculing foolish old men in love (L'école des femmes [1662; The school for wives], L'avare [1668; The miser]), the foibles of his own society (Les précieuses ridicules [1659; The ridiculous précieuses], Le misanthrope [1666]), religious hypocrisy (Tartuffe, 1664), or murderous medical malpractice (Le malade imaginaire [1673; The hypochondriac]), Molière's comedy is both hilarious and humane, generously reminding us that the faults we find so ridiculous in an Orgon or an Alceste are, after all, our own. Molière has been variously described as an apologist for a complacent bourgeoisie, as a tool of Louis XIV's propaganda machine, and as a radical critic of both; the truth is probably a combination of the three, but we would do well to remember that a comedy as sharply ironic as that of Molière lends itself ill to any sort of propaganda.

We find irony of a sharply different kind in the theater of Jean Racine, whose tragedies are both more strictly "classical" and more baroque than those of his older rival Corneille. Racine, like Pascal, was strongly influenced by Jansenism, and his plays manifest a grimly pessimistic view of human nature, according to which transgression and consequent misery are not only likely but inevitable. The pure beauty of Racine's verse, and the austere restraint of his vocabulary, serve only to intensify the violence and depravity of the passions they express. He is especially fond of showing us great-souled women in torment. Whether they are noble victims, like the title characters of Andromaque (1667) or Iphigénie (1674), or monstrous sinners driven to crimes by their irresistible passions, like the protagonists of Phèdre (1677) or Athalie (1691), they suffer unbearable agonies, of which the greatest may be their intense awareness of their own helplessness. Like Corneille and Molière, Racine enjoyed great commercial and critical success during his lifetime, and like theirs his reputation has remained exalted ever since.

A friend of both Molière and Racine, Jean de La Fontaine (16211695) was perhaps the finest pure poet of the century. His Contes (16651674; Stories), racy, often satirical stories told in graceful, fluent verse, earned him a somewhat scandalous reputation. The Fables (16681693), brief tales about animals à la Aesop, are denser and more sophisticated than the Contes, full of elegant twists and layers of meaning. They simultaneously celebrate and criticize the reign of Louis XIV, but they do so with such subtlety that La Fontaine can be called neither a subversive nor a flatterer; he remains, thanks to his art, independent. The theoretician and propagandist of this group of authors was Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (16361711); writing both poetry and literary criticism, he aspired to be the Horace of his day. His Satires, written from 1660 to 1705, and his Art poétique (1674) codify the aesthetic of seventeenth-century classicism: balance, order, restraint, and grandeur tempered with critical distance. His work gives us a valuable sense of how the seventeenth century wanted to read itself.

An author somewhat less enthralled with the absolutist state of Louis XIV was Madame de Sévigné (Marie de Rabutin Chantal, 16261696). Born into a family of the high nobility, and married at eighteen, she found herself widowed at twenty-six with two small children, her husband having gotten himself killed in a duel over his mistress. She counted among her close friends her cousin the Cardinal de Retz, La Rochefoucauld, Madame de Lafayette, the finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, and the widow of Scarron, later Madame de Maintenon. Her fame rests on her voluminous correspondence, especially with her daughter, in which she writes of her aristocratic world with great intelligence, critical acumen (directed especially at the king and his circle), and style. Her letters, well known to her family and friends, did not begin to be published until 1725, but they have enchanted readers ever since. Marcel Proust was one of her most enthusiastic admirers. Her friend Madame de La Fayette (Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, 16341693) was one of the great innovators of seventeenth-century literature. She transformed the genre of the novel; instead of writing at enormous length about fantastical adventures in faraway lands, she wrote with refinement, focus, and profound emotional insight of love, loss, and renunciation in the world she knew, the world of court and salon. La princesse de Clèves (1678) is a work of great subtlety and depth, and with it Madame de La Fayette may be said to have invented the modern psychological novel.

The dazzling surfaces of Louis XIV's court society were critically examined in the work of another of the major moralistes, Jean de La Bruyère (16451696), whose Caractères (16881694) are a series of aphoristic vignettes of that society, portraits of the "characters" or types that inhabit it. La Bruyère lacked the philosophical depth of La Rochefoucauld, let alone Pascal, but he was an extremely acute observer of his milieu, and his work is a nuanced vision of a society based on artifice and perfomance. La Bruyère was also one of the principal anciens in the Querelle des anciens et des modernes, a literary debate at the end of the century that pitted defenders of the classics of antiquity, such as Boileau, against advocates (such as Charles Perrault [16281703], whose famous Contes de ma mère l'oye [1697] are familiar to every French child, and Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle [16571757], author of the skeptical Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes [1686; Conversations on the multiplicity of worlds] and Histoire des oracles [1687]) of the superiority of modern authors. The querelle was the natural result of the contradictions inherent in the idea of classicism as an imitative rivalry with the ancients, and ultimately something of a tempest in a teapot. The modernes won the battle, but at least in literary terms they lost the war, in that the canon of modern authors they held up as equal or superior to the ancients was precisely the list formulated by the arch-ancien Boileau; this list of Boileau's friends (Racine, Molière, La Fontaine, et al.) has determined our idea of the seventeenth century ever since.


On a larger scale, however, the modernes definitely had the last word. Writers like Fontenelle and the Protestant Pierre Bayle (16471706), in their critical interrogations of religious and social dogmas, continued the rationalist project begun by Descartes, which would come to dominate eighteenth-century literary discourse. One author swimming against this tide, however, was Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (16751755), whose voluminous memoirs of his time at the court of Louis XIV displayed both stylistic brilliance and a nostalgia for the good old days of the feudal nobility. He therefore heaped scorn on the king and his court, and on the Jesuits, whom he saw as abetting Louis's demolition of aristocratic power. Very remote indeed from Saint-Simon's reactionary vision was the Olympian historical perspective of Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (16891755); through the fictional device of letters written home by foreign visitors, he turned a calmly critical gaze on his own society in the Lettres persanes (1721; Persian letters). His L'esprit des lois (1748; Spirit of the laws) is an exhaustive examination of the origins and development of social and political institutions, considered as the result not of divine will or providence but of human needs and desires as conditioned by the material circumstances of their existence. He seeks to understand laws and institutions as they are, with the idea that a clear and rational understanding of them may lead to their improvement. In this way, and before Rousseau or Voltaire, he lays the foundation for the American and French Revolutions.

It is even possible to think of the Encyclopédie (17511780) as an attempt to extend Montesquieu's pragmatic vision to all areas of knowledge: not just history, but mathematics, the natural and physical sciences, all areas of technology, even the manual arts, all find a place in the volumes of the Encyclopédie. For the encyclopédistes, headed by Denis Diderot (17131784), the rational understanding of the world was the necessary first step toward making it better. This is the so-called "Enlightenment project," often denigrated in the later years of the twentieth century for its supposedly oppressive consequences; but it is crucial to remember that it was conceived not to repress, nor even to control, but rather to liberate humanity from oppression, from unjust institutions, and from humanity's own ignorance. Diderot did much more than oversee (and write considerable portions of) the Encyclopédie ; he also somehow found time to write philosophy, aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and novels, among which Le neveu de Rameau (c. 1765; Rameau's nephew) and Jacques le fataliste (c. 1780; Jacques the fatalist) are the most important. He writes with humor and a cheerful naturalism, which does not preclude often daring formal experiments. His work, more profound than that of Voltaire, more generous than that of Rousseau, has remained enormously influential down to the present day, perhaps more within the French-speaking world than outside it.

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 16941778) was, if anything, even more prolific than Diderot; in his long life, he went from being a young Turk to being the Grand Old Man of European letters, writing plays, poetry (he even tried his hand at epic), essays philosophical and polemical, history, literary journalism, novels, and an immense correspondence that by itself fills many volumes. He involved himself in public controversies of all kinds, simultaneously ingratiating himself with the powerful and doing his best to shake up the institutions that gave them power. While not a genuinely original thinker, he wrote with unequalled facility and a brilliant, sardonic wit, and he did more than anyone else to explain and popularize the most progressive, even radical, ideas of his contemporaries. In works like the Lettres philosophiques (1734), Zadig (1747), Le siècle de Louis XIV (1751; The century of Louis XIV), Candide (1759), and the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), he brought the ideals of the Enlightenment to a pan-European audience.

The most revolutionary and influential of French Enlightenment authors was in many ways not an "Enlightenment" author at all. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) was at once a trenchant critic of the social problems of his day and deeply suspicious of rationalist solutions to those problems. These two poles of his thought were already manifest in his Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; Discourse on the sciences and the arts), which made him famous literally overnight, and the Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité (1755; Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality), and it is possible to see in these two relatively brief essays the germ of all his subsequent work. The Contrat social (1762; Social contract), fundamental to the subsequent development of democracy, expanded upon and completed the thought of the second Discours, and his two novelsJulie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761), and Émile, ou traité de l'éducation (1762)elaborated his vision for the reformation of humanity through a return to nature. Human nature, claimed Rousseau, is essentially good, and it is only society that renders it corrupt. The task of the philosopher is therefore to show the path to the restoration of this original goodness. Rousseau's Confessions (1782) cannot be said to exemplify this process; simultaneously soul-baring and mendacious, they established the modern genre of autobiography while calling into question the very possibility of writing truthfully about oneself. His work had and continues to have an immense influence on political philosophy and practice, on philosophies of education, and on ideas about humanity's relationship to nature; the anti-rational strain in his thought lies at the origin of Nietzsche's critique of Western rationalism and of the extension of that critique in much of twentieth-century continental philosophy.

By the end of the century, the novel had moved away from the optimistic naturalism of Diderot and Rousseau. Les liaisons dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (17411803), is an epistolary novel of sexual manipulation, in which some readers have seen liberating possibilities in the freedom enjoyed by the female protagonist; however, this is to some extent undercut by the way in which the book's intrigues work themselves out with a cold, calculated determinism. Seemingly far more subversive were the pornographic novels of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (17401814), whose Justine, the least graphic of his works, was published in 1791. Sade proclaimed that the over-whelming obscenity of his work would liberate the reader from the repressive strictures of ancien régime society, but in the end his detailed and systematic catalogues of violent (only secondarily sexual) transgressions were no less rational or tyrannical than the conventions they claimed to destroy.

It is perhaps in the theater that we find the most genuinely subversive literature in the years leading up to the Revolution. Even in the comedies of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (16881763), written in the first half of the century, we find heroines remarkable for their intelligence and spirit, who at least partially transcend the conventional framework of the plays. But it is in Le barbier de Seville (1775) and Le mariage de Figaro (1784) of Beaumarchais (Pierre-Augustin Caron, 17321799) that we find the French Revolution in miniature. The resourceful Figaro and Suzanne, conspiring to outwit their employer, Count Almaviva, are projections of the emancipatory ideals of the Revolution that was about to begin.

Figaro and Suzanne spoke what had become, by the 1780s, the language of revolution, both historical and literarya language that had evolved through the humanist-influenced exuberance of the sixteenth century, through not one but several waves of classicizing restraint in the seventeenth, to become in the eighteenth century an instrument of almost limitless expressive capacity: flexible, precise, and, above all, clear. The French of Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Beaumarchais had become the literary lingua franca of Europe; French literature was, in a very real sense, the international literature of the Enlightenment. It transformed the cultural landscape of the period and continues to give shape to the literary cultures of the present day.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Ancients and Moderns ; Bayle, Pierre ; Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas ; Corneille, Pierre ; Descartes, René ; Diderot, Denis ; Encyclopédie ; France ; Fronde ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; Jansenism ; La Fayette, Marie-Madeleine de ; La Fontaine, Jean de ; La Rochefoucauld, François, duc de ; Laclos, Pierre Ambroise Choderlos de ; Marguerite de Navarre ; Molière ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Pascal, Blaise ; Perrault, Charles ; Philosophes ; Rabelais, François ; Racine, Jean ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Sade, Donatien-Alphonse-François de ; Saint-Simon, Louis de Rouvroy ; Salons ; Scudéry, Madeleine de ; Sévigné, Marie de ; Voltaire .


Apostolidès, Jean-Marie. Le prince sacrifié: Théâtre et politique au temps de Louis XIV. Paris, 1985.

Defaux, Gérard. Marot, Rabelais, Montaigne: L'écriture comme présence. Paris, 1987.

DeJean, Joan. Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France. New York, 1991.

Didier, Béatrice. Histoire de la littérature française du XVIIIe siècle. Paris, 1992.

France, Peter, ed. The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French. Oxford, 1995.

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Hampton, Timothy. Writing from History: The Rhetoric of Exemplarity in Renaissance Literature. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990.

Harth, Erica. Cartesian Women: Versions and Subversions of Rational Discourse in the Old Regime. Ithaca, N.Y., 1992.

Hollier, Denis, ed. A New History of French Literature. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Langer, Ullrich. Divine and Poetic Freedom in the Renaissance: Nominalist Theology and Literature in France and Italy. Princeton, 1990.

Lanson, Gustave. Histoire de la littérature française. Edited by Paul Tuffrau. Paris, 1951.

Lyons, John D. Kingdom of Disorder: The Theory of Tragedy in Classical France. West Lafayette, Ind., 1999.

MacPhail, Eric. The Voyage to Rome in French Renaissance Literature. Stanford, 1990.

Marin, Louis. The Portrait of the King. Translated by Martha Houle. Minneapolis, 1988 (1983).

Miller, Nancy K. French Dressing: Women, Men and Ancien Régime Fiction. New York, 1995.

Mornet, Daniel. Les origines intellectuelles de la Révolution française, 17151787. Paris, 1933.

Posner, David M. The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

Reiss, Timothy J. Tragedy and Truth: Studies in the Development of a Renaissance and Neoclassical Discourse. New Haven, 1980.

Rigolot, François. Le texte de la Renaissance: Des Rhétoriqueurs à Montaigne. Geneva, 1982.

Rohou, Jean. Histoire de la littérature française du XVIIe siècle. Paris, 1989.

Rousset, Jean. La littérature de l'âge baroque. Paris, 1985.

Scherer, Jacques. La dramaturgie classique en France. Paris, 1986.

Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, 1988 (1957).

Weber, Henri. La création poétique au XVIe siècle en France de Maurice Scève à Agrippa d'Aubigné. Paris, 1955.

Zumthor, Paul. Le masque et la lumière: La poétique des grands rhétoriqueurs. Paris, 1978.

David M. Posner

About this article

French Literature and Language

Updated About content Print Article