Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
A tale of passionate but pure love, Atala is another of the stories using the image of the noble savage, which began to find favor in the early nineteenth century. Against a background of the primitive American wilderness, the two lovers and the gentle priest wage a winning battle against sin and paganism. Simplicity and complexity of character are vividly contrasted, the two meeting in Christian faith in the goodness of God. Atala was the first of François-René de Chateaubriand’s romances to be published, and the book had a tremendous vogue in its own day. The novel was originally planned as part of a much longer work, The Natchez, based on Chateaubriand’s travels on the American frontier and influenced by his Romantic philosophy.
Atala is one of the significant literary expressions of the Romantic movement which developed essentially in France, Germany, and England in the latter part of the eighteenth century and constituted a revolution in thinking about virtually every phase of life. The aspects of the movement given literary expression in Atala include an awareness of the distinction between the true nature of human beings and the apparent or superficial nature that society imposes on them or which they adopt because of the expectations of those around them. The “true self” of Atala is that of a young woman with a natural warmth, compassion for the sufferings of others, and a readiness to love and to be loved. A vow that has societal but not natural force is imposed upon her by her mother; this and a misunderstanding of true religion make it impossible for her to be her natural self.
A second aspect of Romanticism—the “blue flower” concept expressed by Novalis in his Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1802; Henry of Ofterdingen, 1842—is a recognition that sensitive people may catch glimpses of an ideal (often an ideal love) but that the full ideal is never completely attainable except through intuition or imagination. Love, then, may remain in a pure or ideal state only if it cannot become actual marriage. Chactas’s love for Atala remains pure throughout his long life, colored by a tint of sadness for “what might have been,” even while it remains more beautiful than it could have been in the realities of marriage, work, home, and children. It is somewhat in this vein that the noble savage is idealized; this image can be idealized by Europeans, because it is known to them almost exclusively through their imaginations.
With nature, it is not the same. European civilization has “tamed” nature. The Romantics (William Wordsworth and Chateaubriand are prime examples) discover and deeply feel the beauties of uncontrolled nature, and Atala gives excellent testimony to the harmony of the receptive human spirit with that love of unspoiled nature, even with the hardships it may impose.
Chateaubriand does not represent the full range of Romantic thought; perhaps no single author incorporates all aspects of any literary period, but he is one of France’s best prose representatives of European Romanticism.
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