Cyrano de Bergerac Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

ph_0111206537-Cyrano.jpg Cyrano de Bergerac. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

In the course of his brief and turbulent life, Cyrano de Bergerac (SEE-rah-noh deh BEHR-zheh-rahk) tried his hand at an array of genres and acquitted himself honorably in all of them. His tragedy La Mort d’Agrippine (pr. 1653) compares favorably with the lesser works of Pierre Corneille. Cyrano’s one comedy, Le Pédant joué (pb. 1954; the pedant outwitted), though never staged in his lifetime, was almost certainly the unacknowledged source of two highly effective scenes in Molière’s Les Fourberies de Scapin (pr., pb. 1671; The Cheats of Scapin, 1701). Le Pédant joué is essentially a burlesque of the pedantry and préciosité that were rife in Cyrano’s day—though Cyrano himself could tap a “precious” vein when he chose.

The same gift for burlesque is evident in Cyrano’s satiric poem, or mazarinade (attack on Cardinal Mazarin), of 1649, Le Ministre d’état flambé (the minister of state goes up in flames), and in the best of his letters. The latter were not genuine correspondence but showpieces designed for publication. They are of several kinds: love letters full of exaggerated compliments and reproaches, set off by far-fetched figures of speech in the worst précieux style; elaborate and fanciful descriptions of nature; satiric attacks on real and imagined enemies; and polemic pieces on a variety of political and philosophical issues. The letters “For the Sorcerers” and “Against the Sorcerers” are especially noteworthy for their satiric power and cogency of argument; they also anticipate the attacks on superstition and intolerance in Other Worlds, Cyrano’s most important work.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

It is a great irony of literary history that Cyrano de Bergerac, a minor but talented and aggressively ambitious seventeenth century writer, at last achieved world renown in the twentieth century—as a fictional character who scarcely resembles his original. To be fair to Edmond Rostand (the playwright whose Cyrano de Bergerac, staged in 1897, spread Cyrano’s fame), the unexpurgated manuscripts that were to reveal the full extent of his hero’s boldness and malice were as yet unpublished when he wrote; yet it took a deal of willful misreading—and, of course, imaginative reworking—to make a noble Platonic lover of the dissolute and misanthropic Cyrano. Whatever his failures as a man, the real Cyrano deserves to be remembered as a competent literary craftsman and an inspired satirist. There is no denying that his libertinism had its sordid side, but its essence was simply “freethinking,” a rejection of the Catholic Church’s exclusive claim to truth and an espousal of the cause of scientific investigation.

In his best works, the two volumes of Other Worlds and the letters for and against sorcerers, Cyrano anticipates the form and some of the major themes of Voltaire’s contes philosophiques (philosophical tales—a distinct genre). Indeed, Voltaire’s Le Micromégas (1752; Micromegas, 1753), as well as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), owes a debt of inspiration to Cyrano. Perhaps Cyrano’s greatest single achievement was his astonishing vision of cultural pluralism and toleration in an age clouded by superstition and repression.

Cyrano de Bergerac

(17th- and 18th-Century Biographies)

Early Life

Savinien Cyrano became famous as Cyrano de Bergerac, an appellation he took from the name of an estate near Paris. When Cyrano was born in Paris in 1619, France was entering a turbulent but exciting period. Young Louis XIII was on the throne, and cardinal de Richelieu (Armand-Jean du Plessis) was consolidating his power behind that throne. The great philosophers René Descartes (1596-1650) and Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) flourished during this period. Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) became the era’s great tragic dramatist, abandoning the comic stage to Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by the pseudonym Molière (1622-1673). Corneille’s even greater successor, Jean Racine, was born in 1639. The French Academy had been established only four years earlier.

The first half of the seventeenth century was a time of revivification in France, and Paris was the scene of furious activity when, as legend has it, a brilliant, impudent nineteen- year-old Gascon, Cyrano de Bergerac, arrived in the capital. Although Cyrano certainly fit the Gascon stereotype of a swaggering boaster, most sources list Paris as his birthplace, which means that the appealing story of a young fire-breather from the provinces who takes the capital by storm is probably fiction. However, Cyrano could outswagger and outboast anyone in France, and his fearsome sword arm supported his bravest words. In Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), the author presents a hero whose swordplay is a match for that of a hundred men. Although this characterization suits Rostand’s romantic purposes, it also is historically accurate. Cyrano’s capacity for dazzling violence was larger than life, even in a violent age. His personality utterly charmed his friends, embittered his enemies, and assured him of having plenty of both.

Cyrano’s most prominent physical feature was his long nose—so long, indeed, that it was thought to be disfiguring. A modern historian might be tempted to attribute Cyrano’s disdain for the nobility, the clergy, artistic dilettantes, and the reigning beauties of the day to a neurotic compensation for his facial disfigurement. Regardless of the source of his motivation, he was a force with which to be reckoned during the stormy seventeenth century.

As a very young man, Cyrano had joined a company of guards, and he was a soldier up to the age of twenty-three. During his distinguished military career, he was twice wounded, suffering one of these injuries while serving gallantly at the Siege of Arras.

Life’s Work

In 1642, Cyrano left military life to study science and literature. His teacher was the philosopher and mathematician Pierre Gassendi. Cyrano was strongly influenced by his tutor’s scientific theories and libertine philosophy and, as a result, had become a skeptic and a materialist by the time he began his writing career.

He published works in several genres. He wrote for the stage: a comedy Le Pédant joué (1653; The Ridiculous Pedant or The Pedant Imitated) and a tragedy La Mort d’Agrippine (1654; The Death of Agrippina). His best-known works, however, were collected and published after his death by his friend Le Bret. These two science-fiction books are L’histoire comique des états et empires de la lune (1657; The Other World, or the States and Empires of the Moon)—the complete text of which appeared for the first time in 1921 as L’Autre Monde—and L’histoire comique des états et empires du soleil (1662; The States and Empires of the Sun). His other writings, the Lettres and Le ministre d’état flambé, are difficult, if not impossible, to find in English translations.

Cyrano was a free thinker who questioned traditional religious beliefs and challenged the authority of the church. He was ahead of his time in arguing that animals possess intelligence and in stating that matter is made up of atoms. His science fiction is sometimes prescient; for example, it predicts the invention of the phonograph and Esperanto, an artificial language that was not created until 1887. His writings in this genre satirize seventeenth century religious and astronomical beliefs, which placed man and his world at the center of the universe. Cyrano was not, however, a rigorous, systematic thinker. Rather, his mind was that of a brilliant poet, capable of achieving inspired insights.

His earlier dramatic work Le Pédant joué was ebullient but was considered too frivolous for the established taste of classicism. The value of its liveliness and high spirits was recognized first by Molière, who based two scenes in one of his plays on it, and later by modern readers. La Mort d’Agrippine is a fine, intellectually impressive play that advances daring ideas through impassioned tragic dialogue. Among Cyrano’s political writings—he was a fearless political satirist—was a violent pamphlet against the men of the Fronde (“opposition”)—a series of political disturbances during the minority of Louis XIV, 1648-1653. In this pamphlet, he defends Jules, Cardinal Mazarin, prime minister to Louis XIV, as a political realist in the tradition of Niccolò Machiavelli. Cyrano’s Lettres, filled with bold and original metaphors, are among the finest examples of baroque prose, an elaborate and ornate style. His works inspired a number of later writers.

Despite the quality of these works, Cyrano’s colorful life consistently evokes more interest than does his work, largely because of the continuing popularity of Rostand’s...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Addyman, Ishbel. Cyrano: Adventures in Space and Time with the Legendary French Hero. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Presents a precise, balanced, and well-documented study of Cyrano. Includes notes, select bibliography, and index.

Aldington, Richard. An Introduction to “Voyages to the Moon and the Sun.” New York: Orion, 1962. Aldington, one of England’s best critics and a translator of Cyrano’s fiction, discusses the legend and life of Cyrano as well as his friends and works.

Alter, Jean. “Figures of Social and Semiotic Dissent.” In A New History of French Literature, edited by...

(The entire section is 465 words.)