Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Suzanne Simonin is one of the three daughters of M. and Mme Simonin; throughout her childhood and adolescence, her parents prefer her sisters although Suzanne is superior to them in every respect. When it is time for marriages to be arranged for the sisters, Suzanne is preferred by the suitors. However, when she tells her mother of the attention paid to her, she is sent off to a convent.
At first, Suzanne thinks that she is to remain in the convent just until her two sisters are married. Then, Father Séraphin visits her and explains that her parents have decided that she will become a nun. Suzanne objects but is convinced by the mother superior to begin her novitiate. During this time, Suzanne is very well treated, but on her second day she sees an apparently insane nun who has been confined in chains. Suzanne is terrified and sees the poor woman as a warning of what may happen to her. Suzanne informs the mother superior of her decision not to continue her preparation for the convent. Her parents are informed of her decision. She is locked in her cell in isolation, after which she is continuously visited by the priest and nuns, who harangue her to change her mind.
Eventually, Suzanne decides that she will become a nun. However, her reason for doing so is to give her the opportunity to refuse her vows publicly. During her profession of faith, she answers “no” to all of the priest’s questions. She istaken home and locked in a room for six months. Finally, having received permission from her mother to reveal the truth, Father Séraphin tells Suzanne that she is not M. Simenon’s daughter, that she is illegitimate. He insists that she must take the veil to expiate her mother’s sin. He also tells her that she must not reveal the truth in public, because to do so would eliminate her right to inherit the family fortune.
Suzanne’s mother agrees to speak with her. Suzanne attempts to convince her to try to find someone who will marry her without a dowry or to allow Suzanne legally to renounce her inheritance. Her mother refuses, stating that Suzanne’s public refusal of her vows created such a scandal that there is no possibility of marriage for her and that children cannot disinherit themselves. Her mother then insists that the only way she...
(The entire section is 931 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Nun, a memoir novel written in first person, was originally written as a series of letters to Marc-Antoine-Nicolas, Marquis de Croismare. Diderot was not composing a novel but participating in a ruse to bring the marquis back to Paris. The marquis, a member of the intellectual circle that frequented the home of Louise Tardieu d’Esclavelles, Marquise d’Epinay, had been called away to his lands in Normandy on business matters. Before leaving Paris, he had attempted to help a woman who had been cloistered against her will. Diderot’s letters were an attempt to convince the marquis that she had fled the convent and needed his help. Developing an attachment for the character he had created, Diderot went on to write a novel about her.
The Nun is a forcible attack upon the cloistering of women. Diderot presents the convent as an unnaturally repressive institution, which degrades human nature, corrupting it to promiscuity, sadism, or insanity. The novel recounts the misfortunes and torments of the illegitimate Suzanne Simonin, who is forced to take the veil in order to expiate the sin of her mother and to enable the legitimate daughters to make more suitable marriages.
Suzanne is confined under the authority of three different mother superiors. Mme de Moni, the first mother superior, is kind to Suzanne and even favors her. However, in the closed oppressive ambiance of the convent, with its continual emphasis on expiation of...
(The entire section is 532 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Caplan, Jay, and John Achulte. Framed Narratives: Diderot’s Genealogy of the Beholder. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. Two chapters are devoted exclusively to The Nun, discussing the techniques Diderot used to establish a dialogue between the characters, the author, and his readers. Good analysis of Diderot as a writer interested in how to write a novel.
Choufhury, Mita. Convents and Nuns in Eighteenth Century French Politics and Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Excellent study of the role and importance of the convent in eighteenth century France. Looks at the power structure within convents, the public’s reaction to convents, and how convents affected the lives of women. Views the convent as a representation of despotism. Provides a good factual account for comparison with Diderot’s convents and Suzanne’s plight.
Cusset, Catherine. No Tomorrow: The Ethics of Pleasure in the French Enlightenment. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999. Good for understanding the erotic aspects of the novel; examines how Diderot uses the ethic of pleasure (vanity and sensual enjoyment), a key component of the libertine novel of the century, in The Nun. Treats the topic in terms of Suzanne’s experiences and her quest for freedom.
Edmiston, William. Hindsight and Insight: Focalization in Four Eighteenth Century Novels. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991. Examines Diderot’s experimentation with narrative form. Analyzes how the first-person narrator focuses the work. Also addresses manipulation of the reader and narrator reliability.
Marshall, David. The Surprising Effects of Sympathy: Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Chapter 3, “Sympathy and Seduction,” discusses The Nun in terms of Diderot’s admiration for the novels of Samuel Richardson; analyzes the interactions of sympathy with seduction both within the novel and in the reader-narrator relationship.
Mortimer, Armine Kotin. Writing Realism: Representations in French Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. A close reading of The Nun from the standpoint of realism in fiction. Discusses Diderot’s role in establishing novel theory.