- French literature of the 18th century
French literature of the 18th century usually refers to the literature written between
1715, the year of the death of King Louis XIV of France, and 1798, the year of the coup d’État of Bonaparte which brought the Consulateto power, concluded the French Revolution, and began the modern era of French history. This century of enormous economic, social, intellectual and political transformation produced two important literary and philosophical movements: The Lumières, who questioned all existing institutions, including the church and state,and applied rationalism and scientific analysis to society; and a very different movement, which emerged in reaction to the first movement; the beginnings of Romanticism, which exalted the role of emotion in art and life.
In common with a similar movement in England at the same time, the writers of 18th century France were critical, skeptical and innovative. Their lasting contributions were the ideas of
liberty, toleration, humanitarianism, equality, and progress, which became the ideals of modern western democracy.
The 18th century saw the gradual weakening of the absolute monarchy constructed by
Louis XIV. Its power slipped away during the Regency of Philippe d'Orléans, (1715-1723) and the long regime of King Louis XV, when France lost the Seven Years' War with England, and lost much of its empire in Canadain India. France was forced to recognize the growing power of England and Prussia. The Monarchy finally ended with King Louis XVI, who was unable to understand or control the forces of the French RevolutionThe end of the century saw the birth of the United States, with the help of French ideas and military forces; the declaration of the French Republicin 1792, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, setting the stage for the history of modern France
The 18th century also brought enormous social changes to France; an enormous growth in population; and, even more important, the growth of the wealthy class, thanks to new technologies (the
steam engine, metallurgy), and trade with France's colonies in the New World and India. The new class (called The Third Estate) began to challenge the cultural and social monopoly of the aristocracy; French cities began to have their own theaters, coffee houses and salons, independent of the aristocracy. The Rise of the Third Estate culminated in their political victory in the French Revolution.
French thinking also evolved greatly, thanks to major discoveries in in science by Newton, Watt, Volta, Leibniz, Buffon, Lavoisier, and Monge, among others, and their rapid diffusion throughout Europe through newspapers, journals, scientific societies, and theaters.
Faith in science and progress was the driving force behind the first French
Encyclopediaof Denis Diderotand Jean le Rond d'Alembert. The authority of the Catholic Churchwas weakened, partly by the conflicts between high and low clergy, partly by the conflict between the State and Jesuits, who were finally expelled from the Kingdom in 1764. The Protestantsachieved legal status in France in 1787. The church hierarchy was in continual battle with the Lumieres, having many of their works banned, and causing French courts to sentence a protestant, Jean Calas, to death in 1762 for blasphemy, an act which was strongly condemned by Voltaire.
The explorations of the New World and the first encounters with American Indians also brought a new theme into French and European Literature; exoticism, and the idea of the
Noble Savage, which inspired such works as Paul et Virginieby Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. The exchange of ideas with other countries also increased. British ideas were particularly important, particularly such ideas as constitutional monarchy and romanticism, which greatly influenced French writers, particularly in the following century.
The visual arts of the 18th century were highly decorative and oriented toward giving pleasure, as exemplified by the
Regency Styleand Louis XV Style, and the paintings of François Boucher, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Watteau and Chardin, and portrait painters Quentin de La Tour, Nattier and Van Loo. Toward the end of the century, a more sober style appeared, aimed at illustrating scenery, work, and moral values exemplified by Greuze, Hubert Robertand Claude Joseph Vernet. The leading figures in French music were François Couperinet Jean-Philippe Rameau, but they were overshadowed by other European composers of the century, notably Vivaldi, Mozart Haendel, Bach, and Haydn.
"For art and architecture in the 18th century, see
French Rococo and Neoclassicism"
The Philosophes and The Literature of Ideas
Continuing the work of the so-called "Libertines" of the 17th century, and the critical spirit of such as writers as Bayle and
Fontenelle,(1657-1757), the writers who were called the Lumièresdenounced, in the name of reason and moral values, the social and political oppressions of their time. They challenged the idea of absolute monarchyand demanded a social contractas the new basis of political authority, and demanded a more democratic organization of central power in a constitutional monarchy, with a separation of powersamong the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government ( Montesquieu, Diderot, and Rousseau.) [ Rousseau wrote "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," in the "Social Contract" (1762). The idea was adapted by Thomas Jefferson 14 years later in the American Declaration of Independence. ] Voltairefought against the abuses of power by the government, such as censorshipand letters of cachet, which allowed imprisonment without trial, against the collusion of the church and monarchy, and for an " enlightened despotism" where kings would be advised by philosophers. [ Voltaire wrote, "It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one." ("Zadig", 1747, ch.6.)]
These writers, and others such as the
Abbe Sieyes, one of the main authors of The Rights of Man, became known as the philosophes. They came from the wealthy upper class or Third Estate, sought a society founded upon talent and merit, rather than a society based on heredity or caste. Their ideas were strongly influenced by those of John Lockein England. They introduced the values of libertyand equalitywhich became the ideals of the French Republic founded at the end of the century. [ It was Montesquieu who composed the classical definition of liberty: "Liberty consists of being able to do what you want to do, and not being forced to do what you do not want to do." ("Of the Spirit of the Laws") In the same work he added, "Liberty is the right to do all that the laws allow." ] They defended the freedom of conscience and challenged the role of religious institutions in society. For them, tolerance was a fundamental value of society. When the Convention placed the ashes of Voltaire in the Pantheon in Paris, they honored him as the man who "taught us to live as free men."
While the philosophes had widely different approaches, they all had a as common objective, both for mankind and for individuals, the ideal of
happiness("bonheur"). Some, like Rousseau, dreamed of the happiness of the noble savage, rapidly disappearing; others, like Voltaire, sought happiness in a life of the worldly pursuit of refinement. The philosophes were optimists, and they saw their mission clearly; they did not simply observe, but agitated ceaselessly for the achievement of their goals.
The important works of the philosophes belonged to a variety of different genres, such as the tale illustrating a particular philosophical point;("
Zadig" (1747) or " Candide" (175(), both by Voltairein 1759); or satire on French life disguised as letters from an exotic country ("Lettres persanes" by Montesquieuin 1721); or essays ("The Spirit of the Laws" by Montesquieu in 1748, "An Essay on Tolerance" by Voltaire in 1763; "The Social Contract" by Rousseau in 1762; The "Suppliment to a voyage of Bougainville" by Diderot, or The "History of the Two Indias" by the Abbé Guillaume-Thomas Raynal.
The comedies of
Marivauxand of Beaumarchaisalso played a part in this debate about and diffusion of great ideas. The monumental work of the philosophes was the "Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers", the famous Encyclopediaof Diderotand d'Alembert, published in thirty-five volumes, with texts and illustration, from 1750 until 1772, accompanied by large variety of essays, speeches, dialogues and interviews on all aspects of knowledge. [ "Nothing is more indisputable than the existence of our senses," Jean Le Rond d'Alembert wrote in the preliminary discourse of Volume One of the Encyclopedia, setting the tone for the systematic examination of all knowledge that followed. ] .
French Theater in the 18th Century
The great French playwrights of the 17th century,
Moliere, Racineand Corneille, continued to exert a great influence on the Comedie Francaise, put new life was brought into French theater by the tragedies of Voltaire, which introduced modern themes while keeping the classical forms of the Alexandrine, as in the play "Zaire" in 1732, and "The Fantaticism of Mohamet" in 1741, both of which enjoyed great success. Nonetheless, royal censorship was still active in the theater under King Louis XV and Louis XVI, and, despite his popularity, Beaumarchaishad great difficulty getting his play "The Marriage of Figaro" staged in Paris, because of its political message. [In 1784, a performance of "The Marriage of Figaro" was forbidden at Versailles, so it was performed instead at a private theater. One reason for the ban was a monologue by Figaro to his master, saying, "Because you are a great lord, you believe that you are a great genius! Nobility, fortune, rank, places, all that makes you so proud! But what have you done for so many advantages? You took the pain of being born, that's all - as for the rest, you are a rather ordinary man." Quoted in Marco Ferro, "Histoire de France" pg. 201. ]
The relaxing of morals under the
French Regencybrought the return in 1716 of the Comédiens-Italiens, which had been driven out of Paris under Louis XIV. It also saw a period of great theatrical spectacles; crowds went to the theater to see famous actors such as ( Lélio, Flaminia, and Silvia…) et to laugh at the characters introduced by the Italian commedia dell'arte, such as Arlequin, Columbine and Pantalon.This was the genre used by Marivaux (1688 -1763), with comedies which combined a perceptive analysis of the sentiments of love, subtle verbal play, and an analysis of the problems of society, all done through a clever use of the relationship between the master and his valet. His major works include "Les Fausses Confidences" (1737), "le Jeu de l'amour et du hasard" (1730), and "l'Île des esclaves" (1725). [ "In this world," Merivaux wrote, "you must be a bit too kind in order to be kind enough." (Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard, 1730. act 1, scene 2. ] Jean-François Regnardet Alain-René Lesage(1668-1747) also had great success with comedies of manners, such as Regnard's "Le Légataire universel" in 1798, and Lesage's "Turcaret" in 1709. But the greatest author of French comedies in the 18th century was Beaumarchais (1732-1799), who displayed a mastery of dialogue and intrigue combined with social and political satire through the character of Figaro, a valet who challenges the power of his master, who is featured in two major works; " le Barbier de Séville" (1775) and " le Mariage de Figaro" (1784).
The theater of the 18th century also introduced two new genres, now considered minor, which both strongly influenced the French theater in the following century; the "Comedy of Tears" (fr:"comédie larmoyante") and the bourgeois drama (fr:drame bourgeois) which told stories full of pathos in a realistic setting, and which concerned the lives of bourgeois families, rather than aristocrats. Some popular examples of these genres were the "Le Fils naturel" (eng: The Natural Son) by
Diderotin 1757; "Le Père de famille" (eng:The Father of the Family) by Diderot in 1758; "Le Philosophe sans le savoir" (Eng: The Philosopher who did not know he was a Philosopher) by Michel-Jean Sedaine, (1765); "La Brouette du vinaigrier" (Eng: The Vinegar Cart) by Louis-Sébastien Mercier(1775); and "La Mère Coupable" (Eng: The Guilty Mother) by Beaumarchais, (1792).
The 18th century also saw the development of new forms of musical theater, such as the
vaudevilletheater, and the opéra comique, as well as a new genre of literary writing about theater, such as Diderot's "Paradoxe sur le comédien"; the writings of Voltaire defending theater actors against the condemnation of the church; and Rousseau's condemnation of immorality in the theater.
The French Novel in the 18th Century
The novel in the 18th century saw innovations in form and content which opened the way for the modern novel, a work of fiction in prose recounting the adventures or the evolution of one or several characters. In the 18th century the genre of the novel enjoyed a great increase in readership, and was marked by the effort to convey feelings realistically, through such literary devices as first-person narration, exchanges of letters, and dialogues, all trying to show, in the spirit of the lumieres, a society which was evolving. The French novel was strongly influenced by the English novel, through the translation of the works of
Samuel Richardson, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe. [ "There exists one book," Rousseau wrote, "which, to my taste, furnishes the happiest treatise of natural education. What then is this marvelous book? Is it Aristotle? Pliny? Is it Buffon? No - it is "Robinson Crusoe".' ("Emile, ou De l'education" (1762).]
The novel of the 18th century explored all the potential devices of a novel - different points of view, surprise twists of the plot, engaging the reader, careful psychological analysis, realistic descriptions of the setting, imagination, and attention to form. The texts of the period are difficult to neatly divide into categories, but they can loosely be divided into several sub-genres.
The Philosophical Novel
This category includes the novels of Voltaire, "Zadig" (1747) and
Candide(1759),and also the later novel, "l'Ingénu", (1768) in which Voltaire moved away from fantasy and introduced a large part of social and psychological realism.
The Realistic Novel
This sub-genre combined social realism with stories about men and women looking for love. Examples include "la Vie de Marianne" (1741), and "Le Paysan parvenu" (1735) by
Marivaux; " Manon Lescaut" ((1731) by the abbé Antoine François Prévost(1731) and "Le Paysan perverti" (Eng: The "Perverse Peasant") (1775), a novel in the form of letters by Nicolas-Edme Rétif(1734-1806). Within this sub-genre is a sub-sub-genre of realistic novels about love influenced by Spanish literature; novels full of satire, a variety of different social mileux, and young men learning their way in the new world. The classic example is "Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane" by Alain-René Lesage(1715).
The Novel of the Imagination
The novel of the imagination pictured life centuries in the future; "L'An 2440, rêve s'il en fut jamais" (Eng: The year 2440 - dream of all dreams) by Mercier(1771); or stories of fantasy "le Diable amoureux" (Eng:The Devil in Love) of
The Libertine, or Erotic Novel
The libertine, or erotic novel, featured featured eroticism, seduction, manipulation, and social intrigue. Classic examples are "Les Liaisons dangereuses" (Eng: "Dangerous Liaisons") by
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos(1782); ("Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu" (Eng: "Justine or the misfortunes of virtue") Donatien Alphonse François de Sade ( The Marquis de Sade) (1797); "Le Sopha- conte moral" ) (Eng:"The Sopha - a moral tale") by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon(1745), and "les Bijoux indiscrets" (Eng: "The indiscreet jewels") (1748) and "La Religieuse" (Eng: "The Nun") by Diderot(1760).
The Novel of Feelings
The novel of feelings appeared in the second half of the 18th century, with the publication of "Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse" (Eng: "Julie, or the New Heloise"), in a novel in the form of letters, written by
Jean-Jacques Rousseau(1761). It was modelled after the English novel "Pamela" by Samuel Richardson, which was the best-selling novel of the century, drawing readers by its pre-romantic depiction of nature and romantic love. Another popular example was "Paul et Virginie" by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre(1787).
The Novel Broken Apart
* The "romans éclatés", roughly translated "Novels broken apart", such as "Jacques le fataliste et son maître" (Eng: "Jacques the Fatalist and His Master") (1773) and "
le Neveu de Rameau" (Eng: "The Nephew of Rameau") (1762) [by [Denis Diderot|Diderot] are almost impossible to classify, but resemble the modernist novels that would come a century or more later.
The Birth of the Autobiography in the 18th Century
Literary stories of people's lives were popular throughout the 18th century, with such popular books as "la Vie de mon père" (Eng: "The Life of My Father") (1779) and "Monsieur Nicolas" (1794) by
Nicolas-Edme Rétif, but the success of the century was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who founded the genre of the modern autobiography with "les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire" (Eng: "The dreams of a solitary walker") in 1776, and "Les Confessions" in 1782, which became the models for all novels of self-discovery.
French Poetry of the 18th Century
Voltaire used verse with great skill in his "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne" (Eng: "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster") and in "le Mondain" (Eng: "The Man About Town"), but his poetry was in the classical school of the 17th century. Only a few French poets of the 18th century have an enduring reputation; they include
Jacques Delille(1738-1813), for "les Jardins" (Eng: "The Gardens"), in 1782; and Évariste de Parny(1753-1814) for "Élégies" in 1784, who both contributed to the birth of romanticism and to the poetry of nature and nostalgia.
The poet of the 18th century best-known today is
André Chénier(1762-1794), who created an expressive style in his famous "la Jeune Tarentine" (Eng: "The Young Tarentine") and "la Jeune Captive" (Eng: "The Young Captive"), both published only in 1819, long after his tragic death during the Terrorof the French Revolution. Fabre d'Églantinewas known both for his songs, such as "Il pleut, il pleut, bergère") (Eng: "It's raining, shepherdess") and for his participation in the writing of the new French Republican Calendarcreated during the French Revolution.
Other Genres of 18th Century French Literature
* The genre of modern art criticism was launched by Diderot in "Salons," in which he analyzed the way emotions could be created by works of art, using the example of the feelings inspired by the poetic ruins painted by
Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Count of Buffon, popularized the scientific discoveries of his century with the massive "Histoire naturelle" (Eng: "Natural History"), published with great success between 1749 and 1789.
* During the French Revolution, political speeches became a popular genre of literature with the publication of the speeches of such talented orators as
Honoré Gabriel Riqueti de Mirabeau, Louis de Saint-Just, Georges Jacques Dantonand Maximilien de Robespierre.
French literature in the 18th century offered a rich collection of works in all genres, and brought together, rather than opposed, the philosophical and analytical views of the "Philosophes" and "Lumieres" with the more subjective and personal views of the emerging romantic movement. Many of the works of the 18th century are forgotten, but the century also produced a number of writers who were great both for the originality and importance of their ideas and for their literary talent; writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot and Beaumarchais, whose ideas are still quoted today. They used their novels and plays as weapons which profoundly changed their society, while expressing their own personalities and feelings. Thanks largely to these writers, in the 18th century French became the language of culture, political and social reform all across Europe, and as far away as America and Russia. [ The works of Montesquieu and Rousseau were sources for Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the United States, while Voltaire's ideas were first welcomed and then violently rejected by Russian Empress Catherine the Great. See Orlando Figes, "Natasha's Dance - A Cultural History of Russia", Metropolitan Books, 2002.]
*Robert Mauzi, Sylvaine Menant, Michel Delon, "Précis de Littérature Française du XVIIIe Siécle", Presses Universaires de France, 1990
*Marc Ferro, "Histoire de France", Èditions Odile Jacob, Paris, 2001
* Michel Delon, Pierre Malandain, "Littérature française du XVIIIe siecle", Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1996.
* Béatrice Didier, "Histoire de la littérature française du XVIIIe siecle", Paris, Nathan, 1992.
* Jean-Marie Goulemot, Didier Masseau, Jean-Jacques Tatin-Gourier, "Vocabulaire de la littérature du XVIIIe siecle", Paris, Minerve, 1996.
* Michel Kerautret, "La Littérature française du XVIIIe siecle", Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1983.
* Michel Launay, Georges Mailhos, "Introduction à la vie littéraire du XVIIIe siecle", avec la collaboration de Claude Cristin et Jean Sgard, Paris, Bordas, 1984.
* Nicole Masson, "Histoire de la littérature française du XVIIIe siecle", Paris, H. Champion, 2003.
* François Moureau, Georges Grente, "Dictionnaire des lettres françaises. Le XVIIIe siecle", Paris, Fayard, 1995.
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