Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
Delphine appears in the form of letters, the epistolary form, which was almost outmoded by the time of Madame de Staël. In addition, the tone of the novel is in the sentimental vein of many French and British novels of the first rank in the first half of the eighteenth century. The origin of the sentiment was undoubtedly Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom Madame de Staël had a very high regard. In Delphine, there is constant reflection of the ideas of Rousseau and other advanced political thinkers and philosophers of the late eighteenth century, for such doctrines as the education of women, political equality, freedom of religious conscience, anticlericalism, and devotion to reason appear constantly in the letters written by Delphine to the other characters in the novel. The novel is, therefore, an index to the temper of Madame de Staël’s circle at the time.
Delphine is in many ways a roman à clef. It describes a strong, independent woman who is brilliant and desirable, and who lives her life in many different contexts: In the space of one novel, Delphine is a respected and financially independent widow who then becomes a destitute pensionary (almost a nun), but only after becoming a notorious figure in the eyes of her society. Madame de Staël was a woman much like Delphine. She never became a nun, but Staël had such a forceful character and brilliant literary and social career that it was difficult for some to regard her as a woman because she resisted common definitions and paradigms for a female of that time. In fact, Prince Talleyrand, French statesman and Napoleon’s most trusted adviser, once said of Delphine, “I understand that Madame de Staël, in her novel, has disguised both herself and me as women.” This not only shows that her novel has strong autobiographical elements but also shows that she resisted, in life and in her fiction, many social norms and barriers, including those of gender. Such was the power of her charisma that it became a standard joke among polite company that after Napoleon’s fall, only three major powers remained: England, Russia, and Staël.
There are many similarities between Delphine and her creator. Both lived amid the French Revolution, and both were involved in sexual and political intrigues of the day. Delphine’s journey to Switzerland and back to France echoes Staël’s life; her father, the brilliant financier and politician Jacques Necker, had residences in both countries. Staël had affairs with many notables, including Friedreich Schlegel and Talleyrand. Finally, note how the changing political times radically affect Delphine’s fortunes: At first, she is considered a dangerous woman for resisting the mores and traditions of the time. Then, after the Revolution, things have changed so much that she is now in a convent, and it takes the state to free her because it has made such vows illegal.
Staël had similar reversals and changes of fortune, for she and her father had to worry about the latest political change in France: With the slightest change of a minister or bureaucrat, one’s head could be lost, and it is to Necker and Staël’s credit that such a thing never happened to them. Delphine contains some of the most penetrating examples of how individual life is altered, hemmed in, and contained by the state. However, it also shows how the mind and spirit can overcome such limitations; Delphine always remains outside the norm, and the tension between what is expected of Delphine by state and society, and what Delphine actually does, makes the novel a classic.
Delphine is not the only character who confronts state and societal tyranny. Mondeville dies at the hands of the state. He becomes somewhat heroic at the end when he invites the guards to kill him. Through this act, he wrests power away from his executors...
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