In Jules Laforgue’s short but prolific writing career, he produced more than two hundred poems and many works in other literary forms, only some of which have been rescued from the papers left at his death. His surviving verse dramas include “Tessa,” written in 1877, existing in a manuscript only recently discovered; Pierrot fumiste, composed in 1882, first published in 1892; and Le Concile féerique, published in 1886, compiled from five poems originally written for Des fleurs de bonne volonté (poems that Laforgue composed between 1883 and 1886 and that first appeared in 1888). These three cabaret farces command the attention of scholars eager to explore Laforgue’s developing themes and ironic dialogue; they are not major contributions to theatrical literature.
Masterpieces of an original genre are Laforgue’s six fanciful prose tales, Moralités légendaires (1887; Six Moral Tales from Jules Laforgue, 1928), retelling myths in details both mundane and psychologically plausible. Among these, “Hamlet” and “Persée et Andromède” (“Perseus and Andromeda: Or, The Happiest One of the Triangle”) have provoked considerable admiring commentary. The actor and mime Jean-Louis Barrault performed a memorable adaptation of “Hamlet” in 1939. Several works of fiction have apparently been lost, but there survive a short autobiographical novel, Stéphane Vassiliew, written in 1881, first published in 1946, and a short autobiographical story, “Amours de la quinzième année,” written about 1879, first published in 1887.
Laforgue’s selected letters, especially those to his sister, created the legend of the poet as a self-conscious, sensitive, starving aesthete, but his letters to various other friends reveal his humor, his broad interests in philosophy, art, and music, and his acute observations of society. A fuller portrait of Laforgue’s intellectual range emerges from his critical essays on Impressionist aesthetics, on the Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire and Tristan Corbière, and on life in the German imperial court. Laforgue’s translations of Walt Whitman’s verse were published in 1886.
Among his other essays and drafts published posthumously are some provocative comments on the cultural definitions constricting the roles of women, including “La Femme—la légende féminine,” among many others. Simone de Beauvoir, in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953), and Léon Guichard, in his critical study of Laforgue, have evaluated these comments on feminine roles.