Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904

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Although critics have generally respected Alfred de Vigny’s Cinq-Mars as one of the first important French historical novels, their judgments have varied wildly regarding its literary or artistic worth. Some of these critiques are that Cinq-Mars was Vigny’s only mediocre work (his ranking as a poet has always been high), that Vigny did not know what he was doing, that he was ideologically confused, that the novel distorts history and truth, and that his plot lacks drama and his characters are flat.

Nevertheless, upon its publication in January, 1826, Cinq-Mars achieved popular success and subsequently went through more than a dozen editions. It was translated into English by William Hazlitt (not the famous critic and essayist, but his second son, a lawyer and a specialist in French translations) in 1847, and an American edition followed in 1889. Two other English translations were issued, one by W. Bellingham in 1851 and another, under the title The Spider and the Fly, by Madge Pemberton in 1925. As Edgar Allan Poe once pointed out, however, a book may prove exceedingly popular yet have no legitimate literary merit.

The reasons for the contrary critical evaluations of Vigny’s Cinq-Mars are not difficult to imagine, given its controversial subject matter. Biases regarding politics, religion, and scientism, together with misunderstandings of Vigny’s aim and of the generic tendencies of a prose romance, are the culprits. If Vigny’s Cinq-Mars is to be judged fairly, Vigny’s background and his political and moral positions must be understood and weighed in the balance. Likewise, his philosophy of history and his execution of his narrative must be considered in terms of his aim and the attributes found in the genre of the prose romance.

Vigny was born to a distinguished family of aristocrats dating from the ancien régime of prerevolutionary France. He did not regard the French Revolution of 1789-1799 as a progressive event but as a gross error caused by the centralization policy of the royal administration guided by Cardinal Richelieu. To Vigny, this policy, first, impoverished the majority of the rural nobility; second, contributed to the moral degeneracy of the few rich gentilshommes champêtres (country gentlemen) who were tempted to desert the land of their fathers and go to Versailles or Paris to purchase an appointment at court; and third, confused and unbalanced the social hierarchy because the state raised money by creating offices to be purchased by the increasingly rich bourgeoisie, who thereby had “nobility” conferred upon them.

Hence, Vigny was a royalist and a legitimist; that is, from a liberal point of view, he was a conservative and a reactionary. So was his mentor, Sir Walter Scott, whose adventures were his way of reacting against the effects of the Industrial Revolution in the region around Birmingham, England. Like Montesquieu, Vigny believed in the political balance of the three governing powers represented by the clergy, the nobility, and the common people. He was convinced that King Louis XIII and his first minister, Richelieu, were responsible for the gross errors that led to the French Revolution.

Therefore, Vigny intended his historical novel to be a thesis narrative, a feudal parable that would prove his moral conclusion. This narrative, however, is a romance and not a novel. That is, it tends toward divinity and the demoniac, dealing as it does with heroes and not with normal humans. The logic of this results in idealization on one hand and in demonization on the other, but it moves beyond the ideal to sink into the morass of the actual in a tragic and ironic conclusion. Armed with his didactic motivation, Vigny tends to allegorize his characterizations and even his settings to dramatize his characters appropriately. In thinking out his plot, his politics drove him to accept the feudal myth as true and forced him to face up to the problem of the relation of history to fiction. Attacked for his manipulation of history, he defensively included a manifesto-like preface, “Réflexions sur la vérité dans l’art” (“Thoughts on Truth in Art”), to the 1829 edition of Cinq-Mars, and it remained in place in subsequent editions.

In this preface, Vigny affirmed that the past existed only in the minds of living generations. History was a fabula and a romance originally created, true and experienced, by those who passed it on to later generations by word of mouth. Not knowing more than themselves and nature, there predictably were gaps in their accounts of the chain of events, which the imaginations of contemporary people would have to complete. What was true in fact (“le Vraie dans le fait”) had to be complemented by the truth in art (“la Vérité dans l’art”); the first belonged to the narration of events, whereas the second belonged to the explanation of the events. This philosophy accounts for the liberties Vigny took with historical facts. To him, the value of history lay primarily in the moral lessons it taught.

These factors must be taken into consideration if a fair evaluation of the literary worth of Cinq-Mars is to be given. Vigny was an honest and sincere man who wrote in terms of his true feelings. Cinq-Mars is his protest against the destruction of the feudal aristocracy. Although a pessimist, he was strongly idealistic. In this light, his romance is much more interesting and exciting than has been reported by some critics in the past; indeed, it is eminently worthwhile.