The analysis of François-René de Chateaubriand’s best-known works of fiction, Atala and René, can be better appreciated after the earlier introductions on the author’s overall achievements and his works of nonfiction. The two novels may stand as independent units, but any comprehensive discussion must view them as linked with the author’s achievements in general and his other literary forms in particular.
Atala began as an episode in The Natchez, a work originally composed during Chateaubriand’s stay in London. The author reworked it in order to include it in a section of The Genius of Christianity titled “Harmony of the Christian Religion, with Scenes in Nature and the Passions of the Human Heart.” He first published it separately, however, in 1801.
Le Mercure, a journal of the period, had been engaged in a polemic attacking the antireligious spirit of the eighteenth century, against which complaints had been lodged by the partisans, including Madame de Staël, of this aspect of the old regime. Because the government of Napoleon Bonaparte favored the restoration of religion in France, the times seemed right for the “author of The Genius of Christianity,” as Chateaubriand called himself in Le Mercure, to let the public know of his existence. Still a political refugee, he needed to be cautious. Perhaps fearing a clandestine edition of some part of his work—no doubt anxious for glory at a time when he was still composing The Genius of Christianity and similar works by others were appearing—Chateaubriand began by publishing a few pages of Atala in Le Mercure in 1800 and 1801. Soon he gave a complete Atala to the public and the critics, prefacing it with a kind of manifesto.
It was as easy to detach Atala from The Genius of Christianity as from The Natchez. There was no need to read all of “Harmony of the Christian Religion” to appreciate either Atala or René, which had also been detached from The Natchez and intended for inclusion in The Genius of Christianity; not only did Chateaubriand begin by publishing them separately (in 1801 and 1802, respectively), then together (1805), but in 1826 he ceased to include them in The Genius of Christianity.
Exotic literature did not originate with Chateaubriand. In the eighteenth century, the triumph of religion over love in a non-European setting had been treated in Voltaire’s Zaïre (pr. 1732; English translation, 1736). The accounts of travelers such as Thomas Cook had revealed the simple manners of primitive peoples to civilized society. In Paul et Virginie (1787; Paul and Mary, 1789; better known as Paul and Virginia, 1795), Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre had depicted the virgin forest and seascapes of the tropics, and several writers had invented stories analogous to Atala set in America. Like Abbé Prévost, Chateaubriand had not seen all the scenes that he described, but he made use of books by naturalists and travelers to compensate for what he lacked in firsthand experience.
Atala opens on the banks of the Meschacebé (Mississippi River) in Louisiana; here lives the tribe of Natchez, which welcomes the young Frenchman, René. The old American Indian, Chactas, who visited France at the time of Louis XIV, befriends René during a beaver hunt and begins to tell him of his adventures as a young man. He was about twenty years old when an enemy tribe captured him. He was saved by Atala, a beautiful young Native American woman who had been reared as a Christian. For a long time they fled through the forest, their passion growing stronger all the while. During a storm, they encountered a missionary, Father Aubry, who wished to convert Chactas and unite him and Atala in marriage. Atala was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by her mother, however, and she believed that she could never be released from the vow of chastity. In order not to surrender to her love for Chactas, Atala took poison. Repentant and resigned, Atala died, consoled by the ministrations of the kindly Father Aubry and to the great sorrow of Chactas.
Despite Chateaubriand’s protests to the contrary, his idyllic picture of “savages” is reminiscent of Rousseau. In the religion that required no church, with its rudimentary practices, Chateaubriand’s readers recognized the doctrine...
(The entire section is 1856 words.)