The Epistolary Novel Analysis

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Love themes are given a special privilege in the epistolary fiction derived from the tradition of Ovid, Abélard, and Héloïse, while the tradition descending from Cicero and Pliny to Guez de Balzac encourages the use of letters to treat a variety of topics of more general interest with the familiar touch of friends in social conversation. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the rise of the epistolary novel to a dominant prose form throughout Europe, first in France and England, then in Germany and Eastern Europe. Three of the most influential novels of the eighteenth century, Richardson’s Pamela, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters, 1761; also as Julie: Or, The New Eloise, 1968; better known as The New Héloïse), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), were all in letter form. It was certainly the exploitation by the writers of the epistolary form itself that gave their novels their immense impact.

In The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, the epistolary novel is given an emotionally concentrated model, inspiring numerous translations, “completions,” and imitations. The French edition of 1669, for example, was translated into English several times between 1678 and 1716. With its five letters, La Vergne’s work is extremely brief, especially considered in the context of novels such as the five-volume L’Astrée. Presented by the author, in his guise as editor, as “a correct copy of the translation of five Portuguese Letters which were written to a noble gentleman who served in Portugal,” the letters are univocal; that is, the reader hears only the voice of one correspondent. Every attempt is made to establish the credibility of the letters, which are said to have been circulating in private hands. Publication is resorted to only to ensure that a “correct copy” rather than a spurious compilation is in public circulation. The nun’s voice cries in genuine pain, expressed through a correspondence whose failure destroys the romantic ties with her French lover. The expectation of a response is inherent in the nun’s use of the letter and in the I-you couple that defines the alternate composers of a correspondence. Direct address calls for direct response. The nun’s letters begin in answer to a letter from the absent lover, and a two-sided exchange is expected. In fact, while requesting frequent letters, the nun also tries to set the tone and admonishes her lover not to talk of useless things, nor ask her to remember him. The correspondence, and the romance, have run their course by the fifth and final letter, because the Frenchman does not respond within the expectations of the nun. At first he does not write at all; then his letters are inadequate to feed her passion.

Sentimental analysis, so important in this novel, is doubled by the analysis of the specific written form involved, by the problem of maintaining a satisfactory exchange of letters between parted lovers. The wounded heart of the nun is expressed in complaints of the lack of proper response in the letter chain, as well as of the lack of love. The author exploits the value of the letter as a tool for immediate access to his heroine’s emotions, setting the tone for many later epistolary novels in the impassioned style of the nun’s effusions. Even Madame de Sévigné joked that if she responded in like tone to a tender note from a gentleman friend, she would have to write a “portugaise.”

In 1721, Persian Letters was published anonymously by Montesquieu. The introduction once again insists that the letters are a collection chosen from a great number written and received by Persians lodging with the author, letters copied and kept sometimes without the knowledge of the foreign travelers. The editor has “translated” the letters and adjusted them to European tastes, leaving out the flowery language, “sublime expressions,” and long complimentary formulas of the originals. In choosing Persians for the chief characters of his novel, Montesquieu gave his novel an exotic background; in professing to adapt this exoticism to European tastes, he could add just as much as he liked for seasoning, without worrying about authentic Asian style. The choice of Persians also greatly emphasizes the theme of absence inherent in epistolary form; it is the chief difficulty facing Usbek in the administration of his distant harem and the reason for his ultimate downfall as a domestic tyrant. This exotic flavor also allows for comic exploitation in the naïve reactions of the Persians as their letters recount the manners and morals of Montesquieu’s world.

Persian Letters includes letters attributed to numerous pens, although the chief correspondents are Usbek and his younger companion Rica. Usbek’s exchange with the members of his harem and their keepers provides the story without which this would be no true novel, but this story is only one of the two major strains in the novel. There are a great many letters that serve as discussions of current events in France or deal with moral and philosophical questions. In all the letters, the name of the writer is given, in many of them a definite correspondent. All are dated according to the Persian calendar, covering a span of eight years. There are several complete letter circuits, letters given with their direct response, and subsequent letters to and from that same correspondent. There are also letter exchanges between secondary characters, such as that between the chief eunuch of Usbek’s harem and a young protégé destined to replace him. The lapse of time indicated in the complete circuit of response is given great weight, especially at the denouement of the harem intrigue, when Usbek helplessly rages at the distances which make his own responses inadequate.

In letter 155, Usbek announces his return to Ispahan. His letters have often been received as much as six months late, and it is abundantly clear that he will not return to his harem until well after the horrible events chronicled in subsequent letters. Letter 148, Usbek’s reply to letter 147, giving the chief eunuch universal power over the harem, arrives after the death of the addressee and is kept by his elderly successor as a sealed relic (noted in letter 149). Letter 150, from Usbek, seeking to “reactivate” the sealed letter, is either intercepted by harem rebels (version given in letter 151) or lost during a robbery (letter 152). The last letter of the novel, 161, written by Usbek’s favorite, Roxane, is composed after a self-administered dose of poison, noted in the text, and the process of death defines the compass of the letter. In this letter, the writer details the end of the harem world in her own death and ends the novel’s text and her life when the pen falls from her hand and she dies.

The varied stylistic possibilities of letters are explored in the harem series; different writers are given different tones in which to express their characters, and the tones of the correspondents change as they address different people. Usbek does not write in the same manner to two different wives, and his tone and subject matter change again in addressing the chief eunuch or his own friend Nessir. The means of transmission of letters across the great distances is noted; letter 150 is to be delivered by some Armenian merchants traveling to Ispahan, but since the harem has moved to Usbek’s country house, a servant is sent to fetch it; it disappears during a robbery on the servant’s return trip. Letters are objects subject to many strange fates.

Letters serve a different function in the parallel series devoted to the exploration of various themes of French society and thought through the eyes of the Persian visitors. Here the epistolary form is used much as Voltaire later used it in his Lettres philosophiques (1734; originally published in English as Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733; also as Philosophical Letters, 1961), where no story line is imposed within the letter framework to produce a true epistolary novel. In this use of the letter form, the epistolary license to touch on any subject with a light and familiar tone is the desired feature. The necessary epistolary use of the first person and direct address to the fictional correspondent gives the opportunity for the epistolary writer to build an automatic bridge of sympathy with the reader. In general, the formal fiction of the letter is given less weight as more is given to thematic development of the individual argument. In the Troglodyte series of letters (10 through 14), Usbek writes to his young friend Mirza, with the correspondence acting as a simple frame, an excuse for thematic development. Within the series, there are only the most perfunctory references to the correspondence, none to the letters themselves. Several texts succeed one another with no transition or attempt to explain differing circumstances of composition for different dates. Although written as a “response” to Mirza’s letter, this series is a finished whole and requires no answer to complete it.

Persian Letters was followed by many epistolary novels set in exotic locales or using foreign characters for added interest and a pretext for letters. Laurent Versini, in his Roman épistolaire (1979), notes that half of the French epistolary novels between Montesquieu’s success and 1750 were exotics. The great novels of the eighteenth century, however, concentrate on domestic situations, set within the countries of origin of their authors: Pamela in England, The New Héloïse in French Switzerland, and The Sorrows of Young Werther in Germany. These three works had enormous influence on the European reading public. All were translated into many tongues and inspired many imitators, both in literary terms and within the realm of everyday life. The Sorrows of Young Werther, said to have taken inspiration from The New Héloïse, in its turn supposed a direct descendant of Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748), was not only one of the great propulsive works of German Romanticism but was said to have inspired a rash of suicides on its publication as well.

Pamela appeared in print one year before The Complete Letter-Writer, begun earlier, in which Richardson had set down the novel’s premise: a series of letters telling a true story of a virtuous servant girl who defends herself from her employer’s advances and eventually is rewarded by his hand in marriage. What is a skeleton in the letter manual is fleshed out to great length in the highly detailed development of the novel. Translated by no less a light than the Abbé Prévost, and succeeded by Richardson’s own Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison (1753-1754), Pamela was parodied by Henry Fielding in An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), and by his The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). Pamela continues to arouse debate. Critics have often seen prurience in Richardson’s theme and hypocrisy in his happy ending. Pamela’s letters chronicle successive scenes of attempted seduction and rape in panting detail, while steadfastly defending the strictest principles of female chastity. Were Pamela’s sufferings in some way a calculated “come-on” to a dupe due to be seduced into marriage? Although psychological credibility may be strained by the union of so much innocence and vulnerability with such a ferocious determination to resist and to recount every evidence of Mr. B.’s passion, the use of the letter form argues for Richardson’s insistence on Pamela’s candor. Richardson’s first great epistolary novel is predicated on the assumption that the familiar letter is a direct window on the soul. Pamela may be taken at face value, and every letter carries what is supposed to be the free expression of the state of her soul.

Pamela is presented by the author as a collection of genuine letters, and he intrudes in his guise as editor to explain and provide transitions as well as to point out the moral at the end. In the opening pages, one finds complete letter circuits between Pamela Andrews and her aged, impoverished parents. These early letters introduce several of the major characters and establish the family’s virtuous character, as well as a critical facet of Pamela’s behavior. The favorable notice she had received from the lady whose death occasions the first letter had led her to take an inordinate interest in reading and writing, though yet very young (letter 4 gives her age as fifteen), and in general had raised her above her station in education and behavior. The first letter speaks explicitly of itself, drawing attention to rather than leaving in the background the epistolary pretext of the fiction: Pamela’s tears are blotting her paper. The means by which the letter is to be sent are discussed, and a postscript opens the theme of letters hidden from and discovered by Mr. B.

As the novel progresses and Pamela passes through a series of harrowing experiences, including lengthy captivity by Mr. B., the letter exchange with her parents cannot continue, and Pamela writes to them in the hope that one day they will read her words and understand the trials through which she has come. Even her early letters are written in the anticipation of preservation and rereading by her entire family. The letters become a sort of journal, although an outward-turning one, in which the destined readers are often mentioned, and their reactions to a particular scene or...

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The twentieth century and later

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Epistolary novels passed into comparative disuse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Late in the twentieth century, however, writers of experimental and avant-garde fiction and criticism found the letter form, with its constant self-reflection and accepted freedom from certain formal structures, a tempting medium. Certain writers still used the letter as a form suited for naïve confidences, but, in general, its innocence was lost. In fact, even French deconstructionist critic and philosopher Jacques Derrida toyed with epistolary form in La Carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà (1980; The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987), a series of letter texts with dates, direct address,...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982. Focuses on the nature of the letter text and how it is exploited in epistolary fiction. Examples drawn from the English and French traditions. Many key citations are in French only. Bibliography includes both epistolary works and critical studies.

Beebee, Thomas O. Epistolary Fiction in Europe, 1500-1850. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Covers the history of the epistolary novel from the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, with a bibliography on major European epistolary fiction to 1850.


(The entire section is 528 words.)