Madame de Staël Essay - Critical Essays

de Staël-Holstein, Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne

Introduction

Anne Louise Germaine Necker, Baronne de Staël-Holstein 1766-1817

French critic, novelist, historian, and playwright. The following entry presents recent criticism of de Staël. For further discussion of de Staël's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 3.

Madame de Staël is credited with infusing the theories of Romanticism into French literary and political thought. Her belief that critical judgment is relative and based on a sense of history sharply altered French literary attitudes of her time. In her De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (1800; The Influence of Literature upon Society), de Staël delineated the distinction between the classical literature of southern Europe, and northern Europe's Romantic literature. Though her fiction, including the novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne; ou, L’Italie (1807; Corinne; or, Italy), has attracted the attention of modern scholars, it is generally considered to be secondary to her historical and critical works, which influenced a generation of writers.

Biographical Information

The daughter of Louis XVI's minister of finance, de Staël was raised in Paris. Her intellectual interests were encouraged by her parents, whose literary salon included such notables as Edward Gibbon, Denis Diderot, and Friedrich Grimm. She was married in 1786 to the Swedish ambassador in Paris, Eric de Staël-Holstein. Though de Staël had begun to write at fifteen, it was not until she published Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau (1788; Letters on the Works and Character of J. J. Rousseau) that she became known as a theorist. Published just before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the book advocated liberal thinking and the ideas of the Enlightenment as antidotes to the growing political crisis. During the revolution, her husband's political immunity enabled de Staël to remain in France and arrange for the escape of numerous refugees. Ultimately, however, she was forced to flee to Switzerland. Upon her return to Paris in 1797, de Staël began what many critics consider to be the most brilliant segment of her career. She published several important political and literary essays, notably De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations (1796; A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations). During this time she met the French painter and author Benjamin Constant, who became one of her lovers and exposed de Staël to the German philosophy that influenced this and other works. Outspoken in politics, de Staël provoked the ire of Napoleon, who viewed her as a personal enemy; when she formed a liberal opposition to his political aims, he banished her to Switzerland in 1803. During this time she established a well-known coterie of writers and intellectuals at Coppet, wrote two novels, and produced De l’Allemagne (1810; Germany). Napoleon found De l’Allemagne subversive, and ordered its proof sheets to be destroyed. By 1812, finding that she was no longer safe in Switzerland, de Staël fled across Europe, eventually retreating to England. Napoleon's abdication in March of 1813 allowed her to return home; she spent the remainder of her life in Paris and Coppet.

Major Works

Among De Staël's earliest mature works are several dramas, notably Jane Grey, tragédie en cinq actes et en vers (1790) concerning the Englishwoman who chose death rather than recant her beliefs. The essays of Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau attest to the profound influence of Rousseau's writing and thought on de Staël, and contain analyses of his novels and political works, as well as an assessment of his life. De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations considers such topics as passionate love, ambition, vanity, friendship, and religion. In Essai sur les fictions (1795), de Staël champions the novel as a legitimate literary genre. This work also suggests some of the ideas de Staël was to explore more fully in The Influence of Literature upon Society, which states that a literary work must reflect the moral and historical reality, the Zeitgeist, of the country in which it is created. The epistolary novel Delphine follows an intricate plot as it confronts the multitude of social problems faced by women in the early nineteenth century. Part travelogue and part romantic novel Corinne features the ill-fated affair of its heroine Corinne, a poet of genius, and Oswald, a young Englishman traveling through Italy. De l’Allemagne offers a study of the Sturm und Drang movement and a discussion of German Idealism, particularly the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Dix années d’exil (1818; Ten Years' Exile) is de Staël's memoir of the years 1803 to 1813.

Critical Reception

An influential literary and political figure in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, de Staël has been associated with the hegemony of Romantic thought during this period. Critics have noted that the clarity and objectivity of de Staël's literary theories greatly influenced writers to follow, notably Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve and Victor Hugo. Commentators have also acknowledged that she awakened an interest in foreign literature in France and sought to transform the aging spirit of classicism into the new currents of Romanticism. Additionally, she has been viewed as an early and outstanding proponent of feminism. Thus, while scholars have tended to privilege de Staël's criticism over her fictional works, contemporary interest in the novels Delphine and Corinne as significant feminist texts has remained strong.

Principal Works

Lettres sur les ouvrages et le caractère de J. J. Rousseau [Letters on the Works and Character of J. J. Rousseau] (essays) 1788

Jane Grey, tragédie en cinq actes et en vers (verse drama) 1790

*Recueil de morceaux détachés (essays and novels) 1795

De l’influence des passions sur le bonheur des individus et des nations [A Treatise on the Influence of the Passions upon the Happiness of Individuals and Nations] (essays) 1796

De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales [A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Literature, also published as The Influence of Literature upon Society] (criticism) 1800

Delphine [Delphine] (novel) 1802

Corinne; ou, L’Italie [Corinne; or, Italy] (novel) 1807

De l’Allemagne. 3 vols. [Germany] (history and criticism) 1810

Réflexions sur le suicide (essay) 1813

Considérations sur les principaux événements française. 3 vols. (criticism) 1818

Dix années d’exil [Ten Years' Exile; or, Memoirs of That Interesting Period of the Life of the Baroness the Staël Holstein, Written by Herself] (memoirs) 1818

Oeuvres complètes de Mme la Baronne de Staël. 17 vols. (novels, essays, criticism, and memoirs) 1820-21

Des circonstances actuelles qui peuvent terminer la Révolution et des principles qui doivent fonder la république en France (essay) 1906

Madame de Staël on Politics, National Character (essays) 1964

*Contains Epître au malheur; Essai sur les fictions; Trois nouvelles: Mirza, ou Lettre d’un voyageur, Adelaïde et Théodore, Histoire de Pauline.

Criticism

Noreen J. Swallow (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Portraits: A Feminist Appraisal of Mme de Staël's Delphine,” in Atlantis, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1981, pp. 65-76.

[In the following essay, Swallow assesses Delphine as it depicts “the oppressive effects of patriarchal hegemony.”]

Madame de Staël has suffered from superficial and fallacious criticism disposed to dismiss her novels as clumsy, dated romans à clef. Certainly there are weaknesses in Staël's writing—she is, for example, annoyingly prone to prolixity and repetition—but her contribution as a writer of fiction has been unduly minimized, especially by critics prepared to see no more in Staëlien theme and characterization...

(The entire section is 6859 words.)

Madelyn Gutwirth (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Forging a Vocation: Germaine de Staël on Fiction, Power, and Passion,” in Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, Vol. 86, No. 3, 1983-1985, pp. 242-54.

[In the following essay, Gutwirth analyzes de Staël's views on love, passion, and ambition as expressed in De l’influence des passions.]

Quelle époque ai-je choisie pour faire un traité sur le bonheur des individus et des nations! (What an age I have chosen to write a treatise on the happiness of individuals and nations!)

—Staël De l’influence des passions … Introduction

“Marat,” wrote Germaine de Staël...

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Charlotte Hogsett (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “History and Story,” in The Literary Existence of Germaine de Staël, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 71-93.

[In the following excerpt, Hogsett examines de Staël's attempts to insert feminine ways of narration into a masculine-oriented history and literature in De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales and Delphine.]

Staël published nothing between Passions in 1796 and On Literature in 1800. Simone Balayé speculates that between 1796 and late 1798, when she began the writing of On Literature, she was perhaps working on the second part of the Passions.1 That...

(The entire section is 10244 words.)

Deborah Heller (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Tragedy, Sisterhood, and Revenge in Corinne,” in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 26, No. 2, Spring, 1990, pp. 212-32.

[In the following essay, Heller evaluates the impact of de Staël's feminist narrative in Corinne on twentieth century readers.]

1

The publication of Avriel H. Goldberger's new translation of Germaine de Staël's Corinne ou l’Italie makes accessible to an American readership the novel that Ellen Moers, in her early pioneering study of women's literature, called “the book of the woman of genius” and whose “enormous influence on literary women” she traced throughout the...

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Frank Paul Bowman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Communication and Power in Germaine de Staël: Transparency and Obstacle,” in Germaine de Staël: Crossing the Borders, edited by Madelyn Gutwirth, Avriel Goldberger, and Karyna Szmurlo, Rutgers University Press, 1991, pp. 55-68.

[In the following essay, Bowman considers the problem of communication in de Staël's writing.]

One of the results of absolute power which most contributed to Napoleon's downfall was that, bit by bit, no one dared any longer tell him the truth about anything. He ended up unaware that winter arrived in Moscow in November because none of his courtiers was Roman enough to tell him something even that...

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Naomi Schor (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Corinne: The Third Woman,” in L’Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 99-106.

[In the following essay, Schor examines the relationship between death and femininity in Corinne.]

On eût dit que dans ces lieux, comme dans la tragédie de Hamlet, les ombres erraient autour du palais où se donnaient les festins.

Madame de Staël, Corinne ou l’Italie

In March, 1992, while on leave in Paris, I prepared a synopsis of a paper on death in Staël's Corinne that I proposed to give at the annual fall meeting of Nineteenth-Century French Studies. A month...

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Gretchen Rous Besser (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Forays into Fiction: Delphine,” in Germaine de Staël Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1994, pp. 64-76.

[In the following excerpt, Besser surveys the story, theme, and critical reception of Delphine.]

Staël's two principal novels were to earn her spectacular success. Her first full-length work of fiction, and her only experiment with the epistolary form,1 was the hugely popular Delphine. Recapitulating themes touched on in her short stories, Delphine has a well-developed if convoluted plot, presents a number of sharply defined characters, exemplifies social criticism at its most daring, and marks Staël's emergence as a...

(The entire section is 6297 words.)

Françoise Massardier-Kenney (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Staël, Translation, and Race,” in Translating Slavery: Gender and Race in French Women's Writing, 1783-1823, edited by Doris Y. Kadish and Françoise Massardier-Kenney, Kent State University Press, 1994, pp. 135-45.

[In the following essay, Massardier-Kenney investigates de Staël's critique of cultural values in her work, particularly in the antislavery sentiment of Mirza.]

Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) is the only major woman author of the nineteenth century, with the exception of George Sand, who has managed to break through the silence in literary history surrounding women's writing during that time. Still, until recently her reputation has rested...

(The entire section is 5655 words.)

Jennifer Birkett (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Speech in Action: Language, Society, and Subject in Germaine de Staël's Corinne,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 7, No. 4, July, 1995, pp. 393-408.

[In the following essay, Birkett discusses the dynamics of subjective and collective narrative voice within the feminist text of Corinne.]

A central preoccupation in Germaine de Staël's Corinne, ou l’Italie (1807),1 and one which is returning to contemporary agendas with a political urgency equal to that of its feminist theme, is the problematic of the relation between the individual subject and the social and political community. In his influential collection of lectures,...

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Patrick Coleman (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Exile and Narrative Voice in Corinne,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 24, 1995, pp. 91-105.

[In the following essay, Coleman contends that the influential narrative voice of Corinne is traceable “to Staël's own experience with exile and other political expressions.”]

Exile was a decisive experience for Germaine de Staël, shaping not only the course of her life but the character of her work as well. If women's fame, in Staël's phrase, can be defined as “le deuil éclatant du bonheur,”1 her own reluctant career, out of which emerged such works as Corinne and De l’Allemagne, provides the most...

(The entire section is 7404 words.)

John Isbell (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Painful Birth of the Romantic Heroine: Staël as Political Animal, 1786-1818,” in Romanic Review, Vol. 87, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 59-66.

[In the following essay, Isbell argues that de Staël chose to produce literary art in response to her exclusion from politics as a woman.]

1. On a raison d’exclure les femmes des affaires politiques et civilies. Staël, 1810.

2. Depuis la Révolution, les hommes ont pensé qu’il était politiquement et moralement utile de réduire les femmes à la plus absurde médiocrité. Staël, 18001.

...

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Renee Winegarten (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “An Early Dissident: Madame de Staël,” in The New Criterion, Vol. 16, No. 9, May, 1998, pp. 17-22.

[In the following essay, Winegarten probes the results of de Staël's exile from France during the Napoleonic regime.]

There is a world elsewhere.

Coriolanus Act III, scene iii

Exile is a terrible fate, a source of bitterness and grief since the time of the ancient Hebrews as they sat down by the waters of Babylon and wept. In our own tormented era, a great many people have felt what it means to be forcibly cut off, perhaps forever, from their treasured familiar culture....

(The entire section is 3936 words.)