New York State
New York State. When François-René de Chateaubriand visited the United States in 1791, he saw only parts of New York and the New England states. Nevertheless, he impressed his readers with an imaginative description of the Niagara Falls, although the nearest he ever got to them was New York City. Accuracy was never important to him.
American wilderness. Chateaubriand’s novel, which he later combined with René (1802) in a work he titled Le Génie du Christianisme (1802; The Genius of Christianity), develops the theory of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau that “noble savages”—such as Native North Americans—who are uncorrupted by European influences are purer and more religious than their European counterparts. Rousseau himself admitted that the “noble savage” was a myth and never claimed that it corresponded to reality; however, Chateaubriand made effective use of this myth by transforming North America’s “noble savages” into committed converts to Roman Catholicism.
The Indian characters in Atala live in a never-never land that has some resemblance to the Louisiana bayous, the Florida Everglades, the Mississippi Delta, and the mountains of eastern Tennessee and North Carolina. However, it is not possible to determine exactly where events in the book occur because of the book’s vagueness and a number of geographical impossibilities, such as the assertion that the narrator, Chactas, can see the Mississippi River from the Appalachian Mountains.
Chateaubriand describes the incredible geographical diversity of the American wilderness in prose that is so exquisitely beautiful that it almost seems wrong to wonder whether what he describes corresponds to reality at all. He evokes Native Americans traditions such as the “festival of the dead” and presents them as amazingly similar to Catholic religious holidays such as All Souls Day. The title character, Atala, is converted to Catholicism by European missionaries and assures her people that their traditions are perfectly compatible with Christian practices. A small crucifix hangs on her necklace at all times and she is a proper Catholic woman who simply dresses somewhat differently from European Catholic women.
Chateaubriand made no serious effort to understand Native American cultures, and readers do not even know to which tribes the various characters are supposed to belong. His novel seems to suggest that all tribes are essentially the same.
Exotic locales and strange customs would not have threatened Chateaubriand’s contemporary readers because his fictional characters are uniformly virtuous. Atala, for example, though strongly attracted to Chactas, regards premarital sex as a mortal sin and refrains from yielding to temptation lest she lose her immortal soul.
Although Chateaubriand’s locales are strange and exotic, his book suggests that even people from the most remote parts of the world are receptive to Christianity. Unlike real missionaries, Chateaubriand’s missionaries need not struggle to find converts because his Native American characters accept Christianity eagerly. His Catholic priests need merely point out to potential converts that nature is so exquisitely beautiful that God must exist, and conversions follow rapidly. Moreover, these converts remain committed to their new faith.
Hamilton, Jane F. “Ritual Passage in Chateaubriand’s Atala.” Nineteenth Century French Studies 15, no. 4 (Summer, 1987): 385-393. This article applies psychological theories about rites of passage and heroic development to Atala.
Porter, Charles A. Chateaubriand: Composition, Imagination, and Poetry. Saratoga, Calif.: Anma Libri, 1978. This brief monograph is published through Stanford French and Italian Studies. The text focuses on Atala and its companion piece, René (1802), in light of their portrayals of and interactions with Christianity.
Porter, Laurence M. “Writing Romantic Epiphany: Atala, Seraphita, Aurelia, Dieu.” Romance Quarterly 34, no. 4 (November, 1987): 435-442. This article compares the heroine of Atala to characters in works by other French romantics, including Honoré de Balzac, Gérard de Nerval, and Victor Hugo.
Switzer, Richard. Chateaubriand. New York: Twayne, 1971. This book-length study approaches Chateaubriand’s literary output from a primarily biographical position. It places Atala in the context of Chateaubriand’s body of work, relating the text to trends in literature and thought.
Wang, Ben. “Inscribed Wilderness in Chateaubriand’s Atala.” Romance Notes 33, no. 3 (Spring, 1993): 279-287. Discusses Chateaubriand’s portrayals of nature and Native Americans in light of current ideas and literary theories.