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French Literature During the Enlightenment

French Literature during the Enlightenment


As in other parts of Europe, the Enlightenment in France had been preceded by the publication of a number of works that were critical of the Roman Catholic Church, traditional Christianity, and received wisdom in general. Although the French court had come to be affected powerfully by a renewed sense of piety in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, these years had also seen the publication of a number of works that were to be widely read in the eighteenth century, and to form the basis for the Enlightenment's attempts to establish an "Age of Reason." Newton's ideas of a world held together by the opposing forces of gravity and John Locke's teachings concerning the necessity of liberty in civil societies came to be almost as important in eighteenth-century France as they were in England and America. Yet France also produced its own scientists and political theorists in this period, intellectuals that challenged the wisdom of past ages. Among these, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657–1757) and Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) were two of the most important thinkers of the years around 1700, and their ideas formed one of the foundations of the Enlightenment in France as it gathered strength in the years following Louis XIV's death in 1715. Fontenelle was a scientist and a productive author who tried to make the implications of the latest scientific experiments available to a more general readership. He published widely on all kinds of topics, from the Classics to political theory and science, eventually winning a place for himself among the immortals of the French Academy. His most influential work, A Plurality of Worlds (1688), promoted the notion of the Copernican heliocentric or sun-centered universe. Although Copernicus had advanced this notion as early as 1543, and Galileo had elaborated upon his theory in the early seventeenth century, the Catholic Church's condemnation of the notion of a sun-centered universe had helped to dampen its rise to prominence, even among intellectuals in France in the later seventeenth century. Much of Fontenelle's scientific theorizing in the Plurality of Worlds was clearly wrong, and was soon disproven by the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia in 1689. Yet Fontenelle wrote vigorously and convincingly for the Copernican theory, and helped as a result to establish its acceptance in the country's intellectual society. Pierre Bayle, by contrast, singled out the entire edifice of Roman Catholicism for his most vigorous attacks. A Protestant, he was forced to emigrate from France as a result of Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which had previously granted a degree of toleration to France's Protestant population. Bayle helped to establish the tradition of French writers publishing in exile that was to play an important role in the eighteenth century. His and his successors' works were often printed in London, Amsterdam, or in Switzerland before being smuggled into France, where they were avidly read by French intellectuals. In his works Bayle attacked the fanaticism of the traditional Catholic Church, but he was at the same time critical of the developing rationalistic strains of thought found in many European thinkers. His works were important, especially his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697), because they celebrated toleration and championed a society of pluralistic views. His vision was not realized in late seventeenth-or early eighteenth-century France, although the thinkers of the Enlightenment were to champion many of the same causes that Bayle had.


The concerns that Bayle and Fontenelle had expressed soon were taken up by many others, including the Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), the first great thinker the French Enlightenment produced. Montesquieu entrusted his business interests to his wife, who was an astute manager, so that he could devote himself to study, writing, and his position in the Parlement of Bordeaux, an important court and administrative institution. In 1721, Montesquieu's first great work, The Persian Letters, appeared and soon prompted considerable debate. It was styled as a series of letters written between two Persian travelers during a visit to France. It mocked French civilization and customs by holding them up to the lens of supposed outsiders. In these letters Montesquieu ranged far and wide, and no one in France seems to have escaped the penetrating gaze of his considerable intelligence. The work attacked the absolutist system of government set up by Louis XIV, the Catholic Church, and all the country's social classes. In its allegorical portrait of a race of Troglodytes, it set forth a cogent discussion of Thomas Hobbes' seventeenth-century notion of the state of nature. Fueled by his success in prompting intellectual ferment, Montesquieu soon left his provincial home in Bordeaux and made his way to Paris, where he circulated in high court circles. In these years in Paris, he came into contact with several English aristocrats, and from his discussions with them, he, like other Enlightenment figures, came to admire the flexibility and greater freedom of England's political system. Eventually, he traveled to England to witness firsthand the country's government at work. In the years following his return to France, Montesquieu began his great classic, The Spirit of the Laws, a work that was largely complete by 1743, but not published until 1748, when he had deliberated over his arguments for a number of years and considerably refined them. In its final printed form it was almost 1,100 pages long. The originality of Montesquieu's vision as a political theorist can be seen in the ways in which he takes up subjects that were common among political writers at the time. Instead of insisting, as past theorists had, that governments should be divided for purposes of examination into aristocracies, monarchies, and democracies, Montesquieu instead treated the spirit that he believed produced each kind of political system. Republics, he argued, arose from a spirit of human virtue; monarchies from a spirit of honor; while despotisms were the product of fear. A second feature of the work proved to be of major importance in the later political history of France and the United States: Montesquieu's notion of the separation of powers. He argued that it was not enough for a government merely to separate functions, but that the legislative, judicial, and administrative duties in a state should be confided to completely separate groups that acted autonomously of each other. In this way his political theory anticipated the political innovations of the U.S. Constitution and the French Revolution. Although Montesquieu shied away from controversy, the implications of his work were widely recognized and attacked at the time. In the Sorbonne, Paris' distinguished university, they were condemned, and the French clergy widely attacked his conclusions as well. In 1751, his Spirit of the Laws was placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books.


The greatest author of the French Enlightenment was François-Marie Arouet (1694–1774), who was always known by his pen name Voltaire. He began his career as a secretary before turning to writing, although troubles soon plagued his career. For his early plays, tragedies in the tradition of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, he was pronounced the great successor to seventeenth-century classicism. But when he fell afoul of members of the court, he was banished for a time from France. In these years he lived in London and came to admire the greater liberty of English life. When he returned to France, he published his reminiscences of his time among the English as The Philosophical Letters (1734), a work filled with keen insights and irony about the differences between French and English societies. In religious matters, Voltaire always professed to be a deist, that is, a follower of the naturalistic religion that had been popular in England among some intellectuals at the end of the seventeenth century. His criticisms of French life, manners, and religion eventually made his life in Paris uncomfortable and, turning his back on France, he traveled for a time to Prussia, where he was offered a position in the court of Frederick II. There intrigues followed him, and eventually he left Germany, only to be captured and imprisoned for a time by Frederick's forces before regaining his liberty. The remainder of his life he spent in Switzerland and at a château he owned on the French border at Ferney. Controversies continued even there, although Voltaire established a salon wherever he went that frequently was sought out by the best minds of Europe at the time. He was also an avid correspondent who kept in touch with many other Enlightenment figures. Besides his plays, Voltaire's greatest literary achievement was his short fictional satire, Candide (1759), a work that viciously attacked the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, an early German Enlightenment thinker. Leibniz had taught that nature showed a gradual evolution and improvement towards the most perfect forms. Voltaire, by contrast, argued that such complacency was a fundamentally wrong-headed attitude toward the world. Life presented everyone with sheer random events as well as inexplicable evils that every human being should strive to correct. The characters in his Candide start with an essentially optimistic view of the world, a view from which they are soon disenchanted by the stunning series of tribulations they experience. The work presented Voltaire's alternative to Leibniz's philosophical optimism. In it, he argued that human society could be changed for the better, but only if, as in the work's conclusion, everyone tended to "cultivating their garden."

Diderot and the EncyclopÉdie.

Voltaire's fame spread far and wide throughout eighteenth-century Europe, in large part because of his popular plays but also because of his voluminous correspondence and his literary works. Denis Diderot (1713–1784) did not enjoy such an exalted reputation among France's Enlightenment philosophers and authors, but he came nevertheless to exert a significant influence over literary and artistic tastes in the country in the second half of the eighteenth century, primarily through his role as editor of the Encyclopédie. Diderot's publisher had intended this project to be merely a translation of the Cyclopaedia written by Ephraim Chambers and published in England in 1728. In his capacity as editor, though, Diderot soon vastly expanded the work, and together with his co-editor, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783), the pair made the publication into a major organ for promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment. The radical character of some of its articles, which were solicited from like-minded figures, soon led the government to censor parts of the publication. Despite such efforts and the work's 25-year production schedule, the Encyclopédie was eventually completed, a significant work that helped to establish many of the new teachings about art, literature, and politics among its broad, cultivated readership in France and Europe.

The French Novel.

While political philosophy and works of social and literary criticism attracted some of the finest minds of the French Enlightenment, the period was also a great one in the development of the novel. An important genre of roman de moeurs or "moralistic novels" developed throughout the period. In this regard, the works of Alain René Lesage (1667–1747) were widely influential. After producing several works that were influenced by Spanish novel traditions, Lesage began to publish his Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane) in 1715. When the final installment was completed in 1735, it was a work unlike any other written to that time in French. The story followed its hero, Gil Blas, through a series of positions as a valet. Unlike the picaresque novels of Spain, the story is less tragic and brooding. It tells of Blas' adventures, crimes, and amours, before recounting his marriage and retirement from a life of exploits. More tragic, but no less popular was Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (History of the Knight des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut), the best known of the novels of the Abbé Prévost (1697–1763). It tells the story of a nobleman who falls in love with a courtesan. As a result, he falls into a seamy life to support his passion. In this widely read novel, realism combines with the taste for romance. The result produces a work that stood far above most of the novels written at the time. The tale follows the couple's fateful romance to its final destination, colonial Louisiana, where Manon dies. The overwrought but realistic description of her death was irresistible fare for operatic and ballet composers, as it was for eighteenth-century readers. Several composers relied on the story in the nineteenth century for operas and ballets. In contrast to Prévost's hard-edged realism, the novelist and playwright Pierre Marivaux (1688–1763) preferred plots that allowed him ample room to explore human psychology and his characters' thoughts. His two most accomplished works in this strain were The Life of Marianne, published between 1731 and 1741, and The Fortunate Peasant, published between 1734 and 1735. In both works Marivaux showed that he was a master of analyzing feelings and their effects on the human character. His works are now seen as anticipating the popular "novels of sentiment" that became common in both England and France in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Rising Literary Quality.

Despite its great popularity, novels were considered slightly disreputable forms of literature in France—that is, until some of the country's greatest authors began to write them. Although they had long been consumed in France's elite society, fiction generally was associated in the elite mind with the lower classes and country folk. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thousands of cheap fictions were sold in France's villages through colporteurs, itinerant peddlers who carried with them everything from bows to buttons to escapist fiction. The figures of the colporteurs, immortalized in François Boucher's eighteenth-century painting The Galant Colporteur, had helped to create a whiff of disreputability for the novel in French high society, even though the evidence suggests that many in high society read these texts. But the traditional concerns of French classicism, with its efforts to create a national literature that was immortal and timeless, continued to discourage efforts to see the novel as a literary form that might rise to the status of high art. In the later eighteenth century, though, this situation changed rather quickly. In the articles he wrote for the Encyclopédie, for example, Denis Diderot celebrated realistic bourgeois fiction as a vehicle for inculcating moral values, and he pointed to the English novelist Samuel Richardson's Clarissa as an appropriate source for authors to emulate. Diderot eventually tried his hand at writing such an "elevated" novel, but the resulting product, Jacques, the Fatalist, did not appear in print until 1796. A generation earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), perhaps the greatest political and social theorist of the Enlightenment, had already taken up Diderot's call for a morally uplifting fiction. He was the first French philosopher to embrace the novel form as a serious vehicle for treating moral and philosophical issues. But he would not be the last. Until modern times, the novel in France has retained a centrality in philosophical discussions that it lacks in many other cultures. The great twentieth-century philosophers, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, continued to write novels, as their Enlightenment and nineteenth-century forebears had. Rousseau's Julie, or the New Heloise (1762) stands at the beginning of this trend. Today, it hardly appears as a great work of art. It is long, overly sentimental, and often dry, but eighteenth-century readers loved it all the same. They seemed to have found in the work a precise description of a world they recognized, combined with a moral commentary they thought was appealing. Rousseau himself seems to have labored over Julie, working on the novel for about five years before its publication. The subject he chose was modeled after the medieval romance between Abelard and Heloise, an event that ended tragically with Abelard's castration and


introduction: The Abbé Prévost, a clergyman, was also one of France's most successful eighteenth-century novelists. His Manon Lescaut (1731), a sentimental and over-wrought piece of fiction, was widely popular in its day. It tells the story of a young aristocrat who takes up with a courtesan, to disastrous effect. Both he and his lover are eventually destroyed by their passion, although her death on the Louisiana frontier is certainly the grimmer punishment. In the following passage, Prévost plays upon his readers' desire for sentiment. The work's influence on other arts was longstanding, perhaps because of this death scene, which was widely depicted in several nineteenth-century operas and plays.

We had thus tranquilly passed the night. I had fondly imagined that my beloved mistress was in a profound sleep, and I hardly dared to breathe lest I should disturb her. As day broke, I observed that her hands were cold and trembling; I pressed them to my bosom in the hope of restoring animation. This movement roused her attention, and making an effort to grasp my hand, she said, in a feeble voice, that she thought her last moments had arrived.

I, at first, took this for a passing weakness, or the ordinary language of distress; and I answered with the usual consolations that love prompted. But her incessant sighs, her silence, and inattention to my enquiries, the convulsed grasp of her hands, in which she retained mine, soon convinced me that the crowning end of all my miseries was approaching.

Do not now expect me to attempt a description of my feelings, or to repeat her dying expressions. I lost her—I received the purest assurances of her love even at the very instant that her spirit fled. I have not nerve to say more upon this fatal and disastrous event.

My spirit was not destined to accompany Manon's. Doubtless, Heaven did not as yet consider me sufficiently punished, and therefore ordained that I should continue to drag on a languid and joyless existence. I willingly renounced every hope of leading a happy one.

I remained for twenty-four hours without taking my lips from the still beauteous countenance and hands of my adored Manon. My intention was to await my own death in that position; but at the beginning of the second day, I reflected that, after I was gone, she must of necessity become the prey of wild beasts. I then determined to bury her, and wait my own doom upon her grave. I was already, indeed, so near my end from the combined effect of long fasting and grief, that it was with the greatest difficulty I could support myself standing. I was obliged to have recourse to the liquors which I had brought with me, and these restored sufficient strength to enable me to set about my last sad office. From the sandy nature of the soil there was little trouble in opening the ground. I broke my sword and used it for the purpose; but my bare hands were of greater service. I dug a deep grave, and there deposited the idol of my heart, after having wrapt around her my clothes to prevent the sand from touching her. I kissed her ten thousand times with all the ardour of the most glowing love, before I laid her in this melancholy bed. I sat for some time upon the bank intently gazing on her, and could not command fortitude enough to close the grave over her. At length, feeling that my strength was giving way, and apprehensive of its being entirely exhausted before the completion of my task, I committed to the earth all that it had ever contained most perfect and peerless. I then lay myself with my face down upon the grave, and closing my eyes with the determination never again to open them, I invoked the mercy of Heaven, and ardently prayed for death.

source: Abbé Prévost, History of Manon Lescaut and of the Chevalier des Grieux (Paris and New York: Société des Beaux Arts, 1915): 186–187.

both lovers' entrance into convents. In Rousseau's updated retelling of the story, Julie instead dies, but before she does, she composes a letter to her lover that asks him to accept her death and their unresolved passion. The novel thus set up an interesting interplay between erotic attachment, sexual desire, and its ultimate renunciation in death. The effect of this ending galvanized Rousseau's reputation as a novelist of the highest merit, particularly among his female readers. In this work, Rousseau had intended to accomplish for the French novel what Samuel Richardson had done for the English genre through his Clarissa. In the wake of his Julie, Rousseau was barraged with letters from his fans, particularly his female fans, a testimony to the way in which he modulated his storytelling to the sentiments of his time.

Later Eighteenth-Century Novels.

Two other novelists produced works in the later eighteenth century that stirred similar emotions, and which continued to experiment with ways of presenting moral and intellectual dilemmas to their readers. In 1782, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' Les liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) caused an excitement similar to Rousseau's Julie. The work has stood the test of time better than the earlier philosopher's fiction, and it remains an extraordinary piece of literature today. In fashioning his story Choderlos de Laclos (1741–1803) was also influenced by Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, a tale of a corrupt aristocrat who brutally rapes the heroine when she refuses to submit to his will. By contrast, the central story line of Les liaisons dangereuses involves, not a rape, but the gradual, entirely calculated seduction of a virtuous woman, who proves unable to resist the protestations of love of the anti-hero, Valmont. In the end it is the wicked Valmont who is consumed by his deceit, although the transforming experience of love that he undergoes with his heroine redeems him, so that even in his death he is restored to a state of moral goodness. But before this sublime transformation occurs, the work's complex plot twists reveal love among the "high and mighty" as nothing more than a cynical game, untouched by true passion, a diversionary amusement shaped by the desire for possessions and reputation. Choderlos de Laclos' brutal and contemptuous portrait of the dissolution of French high society remains unparalleled for its descriptions of aristocratic decadence. Its publication seven years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, when mounting criticism of France's idle aristocrats was steadily rising, helps to explain the sensation it caused, but the work transcends the problems of its own era and is one of the great Western depictions of hypocrisy and trickery. Evil of a different kind is also to be found in the works of the last great French novelist of the eighteenth century, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814). His descriptions of sexual pleasure mingled with pain, particularly in his Justine, helped coin the word "sadism." The work is a "black novel," recounting the lives of two sisters, Justine and Juliette, the first virtuous, the second wicked. The religious Justine sees good in everyone, but is taken in by a libertine who gains her trust before subjecting her to his perversions. Like Rousseau's Julie and Choderlos de Laclos' Les liaisons dangereuses, the story line is also shaped by a reading of Richardson's Clarissa and the many "novels of sentiment" popular in late eighteenth-century Europe. The themes that Sade developed here—sexual desire, misplaced trust, and depraved wickedness—had frequently been treated in many other works, but certainly not with the degree of candor or overt sexuality as in Sade's fictions. The perversions he related in Justine as well as in many of the other writings he undertook while imprisoned for his own sexual deviations were, in large part, drawn from his own repertory of experiences.


J. P. Bertaud, Choderlos de Laclos (Paris: Fayard, 2003).

P. V. Conroy, Jean Jacques Rousseau (London: Twayne, 1998).

F. Du Plessix Gray, At Home with the Marquis de Sade (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

H. Mason, Voltaire: Optimism Demolished (New York: Twayne, 1992).

A. Niderst, Fontenelle (Paris: Plon, 1991).

S. Werner, The Comic Philosophes: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Sade (Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, 2002).

R. Whelan, The Anatomy of Superstition: A Study of the Historical Theory and Practice of Pierre Bayle (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1989).

see also Philosophy: The Enlightenment in France ; Theater: The French Enlightenment and Drama

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