Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 and shows that in the face of death he is able to form a self outside the limits of the tyranny that is killing him. Both lovers take their own lives and in death are united outside the hypocritical moral strictures of their day.

Delphine is an epistolary novel, meaning that it is written in the form of letters to and from various characters. Though much has been made about the fragmented and incomplete nature of epistolary novels, it is important to understand that in an epistolary novel the author intends to represent the whole story, and that writing in epistolary form enables an author to relate a story without the confinement and sentiment of an omniscient narrator. Delphine ranks as one of the great Romantic novels. One of the many favorable contemporary reviews of the book commented that there were so many Parisians staying home to read Delphine that the streets were empty at night, and that no one was attending the theaters. Staël, with books such as Delphine and her masterly essay “On Literature,” helped to establish Romanticism as a great movement.

Delphine agitates against the submission of women and strives to represent how liberty is always ruined by society and its structures. However, the novel shows that in one case a social convention can be tyrannical, and in another that same convention can bring a measure of freedom. This is what makes Delphine so interesting as a novel. Delphine is able, at times, to change her subordinate position into one of authority and power. Normally, being a widow in her society would be a great handicap, but Delphine is able to forge an independence at least partly of her own making. She understands that she can break through the frame of the normal petit-bourgeois existence. Her time in the convent, then, can be seen as an attempt at a form of liberty, though the meddling of her relations foils this attempt. At other times, what would normally be a gesture that brings power actually mires Delphine into a social web of deceit and heartbreak: When she gives money to Matilda, all her troubles begin. Hence, Staël certainly understood the changeableness of one’s fortunes in social and political contexts.

The ironic situations that ensue from the intrigues and loves in Delphine are frightening as well as eminently entertaining. Delphine’s use of irony, in fact, helps to mark the novel as a great Romantic text. Her ironic treatment of death as a bringer of life makes this novel break away from the sentiment of many novels of its time. Although it has great similarities to other lesser novels, it refrains from open moralizing and allows the characters and situations to speak in relation to themselves, rather than in a slavish relation to existing cultural constructs.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access