François René de Chateaubriand Essay - Critical Essays

Chateaubriand, François René de


François René de Chateaubriand 1768-1848

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms François-Auguste de Chateaubriand; Vicomte de Chateaubriand; René de vicomte de Chateaubriand; François Auguste René Chateaubriand.) French novelist, essayist, memoirist, translator, playwright, critic and biographer.

The following entry presents criticism on Chateaubriand's works from 1928 through 2002. For additional information on Chateaubriand's life and career, see NCLC, Vol. 3.

Chateaubriand is considered a leading literary figure in the French Romanticism movement, and his prolific literary output greatly influenced subsequent generations of French authors. His works contain lush descriptions—particularly of nature—and address moral concerns via inwardly focused characters. These aspects help to articulate his dual foci on aesthetics and morality and have helped establish Chateaubriand's reputation as an early Romanticist.

Biographical Information

Born on September 4, 1768 in Saint-Malo to a Breton family of aristocratic blood, Chateaubriand was the youngest of ten children. Much of Chateaubriand's childhood was spent at the family home at Combourg, where his primary companion was his older sister Lucile, to whom he was very attached. Chateaubriand's education was thorough, although marked by several changes in direction. Intent on a naval career, he attended the nearby College of Dol for four years and then the Jesuit college at Rennes for a more thorough preparation in mathematics. After a year at Rennes, he considered entering the priesthood and, to this end, briefly attended the College of Dinan. Changing his mind, he then secured a military commission, but left the army in 1786 (after his father's death) and returned to Combourg. In 1789, Chateaubriand visited his brother in Paris and witnessed the fall of the Bastille. Although he professed sympathy for the ideals of the French Revolution, the ensuing violence appalled him. He sailed to America in 1791 to escape the volatile climate in France. While in America, Chateaubriand traveled the Hudson River from New York City to Albany and reported encounters with Native Americans. It was this trip to America which provided the inspiration and subject matter for many of his later works. In 1792, Chateaubriand returned to France and married a young heiress named Céleste Buisson de la Vigne. To defend the monarchy, he joined the army, was wounded and abandoned on the battlefield. He managed to survive and, in 1793, escaped to London, where he began working as a translator and tutor.

During this period, Chateaubriand wrote and published his first book, entitled Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dan leurs rapports avec la Révolution Française (1797; An Historical, Political and Moral Essay on Revolutions, ancient and modern). He next published a romantic love story set in America titled Atala (1801), which proved extremely successful. After the deaths of his mother and sister, Chateaubriand experienced a renewed interest in Christianity, and the subsequent Le Génie du christianisme (1802; The Genius of Christianity) was written. It, too, was well received and Chateaubriand decided to take a government post in Rome. He later traveled to the Near East to gather information for Les martyrs (1809; The Martyrs) and Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem et de Jérusalem à Paris, en allant par la Grèce, et revenant par l'Egypte, la Barbarie, et l'Espagne (1811; Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt and Barbary, during the Years 1806 and 1807). Active politically, Chateaubriand held a variety of governmental posts and wrote political essays and pamphlets. In the 1830s, he began work on his Mémoires d'outre‐tombe (1848‐50; Memoirs of Chateaubriand, written by himself)—a project that overlapped his political career and continued until his death on July 4, 1848.

Major Works

Chateaubriand's works examine classical literature, nature, politics and religion. An Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern juxtaposes ancient and modern history in order to examine the history of revolution. Written shortly after the French Revolution—which Chateaubriand regarded as mismanaged—it was an attempt to engender reflection among the French public. The Genius of Christianity offers a romantic view of religion, and focuses on its “moral and poetic beauties.” It was well-timed as, after the excesses of the Revolution, the French public were interested in a return to traditional morality. Napoleon was appreciative of this influence and so invited Chateaubriand to end his exile in England and return to the continent. With The Martyrs and Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt and Barbary, during the Years 1806 and 1807, Chateaubriand continued to emphasize the superiority of the Christian religion while offering compelling, descriptive passages on nature from the individualist's perspective. His two novels, Atala and René (1802), are set in America. Both present a melancholy individualist hero at the core of their descriptive prose, and depict protagonists whose natural desires are often at odds with Christian morality. Atala highlights the tension between nature and religion through descriptions of the landscape. René, an autobiographical novel, centers on the melancholy soul-searching of a youth who harbors an incestuous love for his sister. Although his travel prose—particularly on America—is considered very important from a literary perspective, there has been some debate on the veracity of the descriptions. As Dennis J. Spininger points out in one case, “Various discerned errors, departures from the scientifically verified fauna and flora of the region he describes, have been used as the basis for determining that Chateaubriand's voyage to America did not include a visit to the Louisiana area.” Due to these discrepancies, it is now believed that Chateaubriand did not travel to the Mississippi river, Florida, Alabama, or to Louisiana, as implied by his writing. It appears that certain landscape descriptions were cobbled together from other travellers' accounts. Richard Switzer points out a striking similarity in one case between Chateaubriand's descriptions in Travels in America and Italy and Robert Imlay's descriptions in his Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (1793). In addition to Atala and René, Chateaubriand provided further writings on America with The Natchez and Travels in America and Italy. Chateaubriand's life and works are the foundation for his Memoirs of Chateaubriand which recounts his travels and exploits, as well as his aesthetic, political, and religious beliefs. With its treatment of Christianity, politics, and nature, as well as its descriptive prose and emphasis on the individual, Chateaubriand's work stands firmly in the French Romantic tradition.

Critical Reception

Although not as well known today as in the nineteenth century, Chateaubriand enjoyed great critical and commercial success during his life and interest in his works has remained constant since his death. Critical response to Chateaubriand's writings has focused primarily on his place in literary tradition. Scholars generally comment on his contributions to the French neoclassical and Romantic movements. Other critical approaches have examined Chateaubriand's biographical and contemporary historical influences, considering Chateaubriand's own influence on writers, particularly those writing about America. Thematic responses tend to concentrate on the dual aspects of nature and Christian morality within his works. Here, critical responses focus primarily on Atala and, to a lesser extent, René and the Memoirs. Other critics emphasize Chateaubriand's interest in the individual. Stylistically, his rich, descriptive prose and his symbolic use of landscapes have been addressed, sometimes including a psychoanalytic examination of his work. Finally, a more recent strain of scholarship examines Chateaubriand's travel writing through a post-colonial perspective, considering his descriptive work as a cultural construction of Europe and the foreign Other.

Principal Works

Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes considérées dans leurs rapports avec la Révolution Française [An Historical, Political and Moral Essay on Revolutions, ancient and modern] (essay) 1797

Atala, ou, les Amours de deux sauvages dans le désert [Atala: or, The amours of two Indians, in the wilds of America] (novel) 1801

*Le Génie du christianisme; ou Beautés de la religion chrétienne [The Genius of Christianity] (essay, and novel) 1802

René (novel) 1802

Défense du Génie du Christianisme (essay) 1803

Les martyrs, ou, Le triomphe de la religion chretienne [The Martyrs; or, The Triumph of the Christian Religion] (novel) 1809

Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem et de Jérusalem à Paris, en allant par la Grèce, et revenant par l'Egypte, la Barbarie, et l'Espagne [Travels in Greece, Palestine, Egypt, and Barbary, during the Years 1806 and 1807]. 3 vols. (travel essay) 1811

De Buonaparte, des Bourbon, et de la nécessité de se raillier à nos princes légitimes, pour le bonheur de la France et celui de l'Europe [On Buonaparte and the Bourbons, and the necessity of rallying around our legitimate princes, for the safety of France and of Europe] (essay) 1814

De la...

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Emile Malakis (essay date August 1928)

SOURCE: Malakis, Emile. “Chateaubriand's Contribution to Philhellenism.” Modern Philology 26 (August 1928): 91-105.

[In the following essay, Malakis examines Chateaubriand's interest in Greece and its language using a biographical approach. Malakis also considers the contributions of Chateaubriand's Itinerary to the Greek liberation movement.]

Between the years 1820 and 1830 an ardent enthusiasm was expressed in France for the emancipation of Greece.1 The feeling was widespread and varied. Society had its Philhellenism with banquets and concerts, expositions of paintings and plays for the benefit of the Palikares; there was a religious...

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Carlos Lynes Jr. (essay date December 1940)

Lynes Jr., Carlos. “Chateaubriand, Revitalizer of the French Classics.” Romantic Review 31, no. 4 (December 1940): 355-63.

[In the following essay, Lynes Jr. analyzes Chateaubriand's contributions as a literary critic and proponent of classicism, focusing on The Genius of Christianity.]

The Génie du Christianisme, even supplemented by Chateaubriand's other writings, does not present a systematic and complete tableau of French literature in the seventeenth century. Nevertheless in his occasional rôle as a critic Chateaubriand gives us interesting and suggestive judgments on nearly all the seventeenth-century writers whom he finds time to mention. In these...

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Charles A. Porter (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Porter, Charles A. “Chateaubriand's Classicism.” Yale French Studies 38 (1967): 156-70.

[In the following essay, Porter examines Chateaubriand's interest in a literary return to classicism, based on French and ancient traditions. Porter asserts that Chateaubriand believed that classicism, with rules and principles which could be discovered and followed, offers a timelessness for art. To this end, Chateaubriand offered his own works as models, including René and Atala.]

“The Génie du christianisme will remain my great work,” Chateaubriand wrote in the Mémoires d'outre-tombe, “because it produced or determined a revolution and...

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Adrian H. Jaffe (essay date June 1968)

SOURCE: Jaffe, Adrian H. “Chateaubriand's Use of Ossianic Language.” Comparative Literature Studies 5, no. 2 (June 1968): 157-66.

[In the following essay, Jaffe examines the influence of Ossianic poems, both in terms of language and their inclusion of the idealized noble savage, on Chateaubriand's work.]

The curious, and ironic, relationship between Chateaubriand and the poems of Ossian is interesting not only in itself but also as an excellent example of the important distinction, in comparative literature studies, between success and influence. It may have not been sufficiently recognized that while success may be accompanied by influence, it often is not, and...

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D. G. Charlton (essay date January 1969)

SOURCE: Charlton, D. G. “The Ambiguity of Chateaubriand's René.French Studies: A Quarterly Review 23, no. 1 (January 1969): 229-43.

[In the following essay, Charlton analyzes Chateaubriand's René as an example of French Romanticism that constructs the melancholic, solitary individualist. Charlton maintains that Chateaubriand presented an ambivalent view of both melancholy and Christianity.]

No figure is more often connected with French Romanticism than the melancholic solitary. Although recent studies have identified not one kind of héros romantique but several—the poet-prophet, the rebel, the dandy, even the ‘unheroic hero’, amongst...

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Joyce O. Lowrie (essay date April 1970)

SOURCE: Lowrie, Joyce O. “Motifs of Kingdom and Exile in Atala.French Review: Journal of the American Association of Teachers of French 43, no. 5 (April 1970): 755-64.

[In the following essay, Lowrie asserts that the themes of exile and kingdom are unifying components in Atala and that the work presents the Romantic estranged hero as separated from Divine Unity. Lowrie then argues that Atala offers Nature as a refuge for the hero in a depiction which ultimately reifies the individual and exile itself over the divine.]

The portrayal of man as an expatriate who is in literal and symbolic exile from his true abode is a commonplace in...

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Dennis J. Spininger (essay date May 1974)

SOURCE: Spininger, Dennis J. “The Paradise Setting of Chateaubriand's Atala.PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 89, no. 3 (May 1974): 530-6.

[In the following essay, Spininger considers the symbolic values of the landscape descriptions in Atala. Spininger claims the tensions in the descriptions not only serve Chateaubriand's aesthetic purposes, but represent the doubleness of the New World as an exotic, Eden-like paradise which also is harsh and savage.]

The lush landscape description with which Chateaubriand begins his novel Atala has been approached from curiously myopic critical perspectives. Hostile critics...

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Richard Switzer (essay date fall-winter 1974-75)

Switzer, Richard. “Chateaubriand and the Welsh Indians.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 3, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1974-75): 6-17.

[In the following essay, Switzer details Chateaubriand's romantic reconstruction of the identity of the mound builders of the North American continent, as seen in the author's Voyage en Amérique.]

It is clear that Chateaubriand, attempting to set up a coherent itinerary for his Voyage en Amérique, was being guided much more by his imagination and his readings than by his actual memories of the trip.1 For this reason, the selection of sites he chose to evoke takes on a particular importance from the literary point of...

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Eva Doran (essay date November 1976)

SOURCE: Doran, Eva. “Two Men and a Forest: Chateaubriand, Tocqueville, and the American Wilderness.” Essays in French Literature, no. 13 (November 1976): 44-61.

[In the following essay, Doran examines both Chateaubriand's and Tocqueville's depiction of American forests as more than descriptions, but as images of human experience. Doran contrasts Chateaubriand's more positive depictions of the wilderness—as an expansive space reflecting one's personal power and God's presence—with the depersonalized and isolated environments portrayed by Tocqueville.]

In his scholarly study, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America,1 George Pierson evaluates the...

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Jon Beeker (essay date summer 1977)

SOURCE: Beeker, Jon. “Archetype and Myth in Chateaubriand's Atala.Symposium 31, no. 2 (summer 1977): 93-106.

[In the following essay, Beeker analyzes Atala from a Jungian perspective. Using archetypal imagery, Beeker asserts the work acts as a monomyth, in that it portrays the ego's struggle for self-emancipation, and presents the characters of Atala and Chactas as two aspects of one psyche.]

Chateaubriand's intent in writing Atala is clearly stated in the epilogue to the work. Here we see that the author's goal was essentially that of presenting to the readers an example of the importance of the Christian religion:


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Richard M. Chadbourne (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Chadbourne, Richard M. “Chateaubriand's Aviary: Birds in the Mémoires d'Outre-Tomb.” In Symbolism and Modern Literature: Studies in Honor of Wallace Fowlie, edited by Marcel Tetel and Austin Warren, pp. 65-80. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Chadbourne traces the presence of birds in Memoirs, noting Chateaubriand's use of the thrush as a trigger for childhood memories. Chadbourne then considers Chateaubriand's use of birds in four ways: in literary and other references, as comparisons, in literal ways, and as symbolism.]

In the Génie du Christianisme birds are one of the “marvels of nature”...

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Eric Gans (essay date fall 1983)

SOURCE: Gans, Eric. “René and the Romantic Model of Self-Centralization.” Studies in Romanticism 22, no. 3 (fall 1983): 421-35.

[In the following essay, Gans argues that Chateaubriand attemped to integrate classical, Hellenic aesthetics with Christian morality in René. Gans claims the character of René—as both a literary hero and a behavioral model—operates as the central and self-centered character whose behavior is not motivated by desire. In this way, the work positions aesthetic questions rather than moral ones at its center.]

Few men have been as aware as Chateaubriand that modern western culture is a combination of Hellenic esthetics and...

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Michael J. Call (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Call, Michael J. “René in the Garden.” In Back to the Garden: Chateaubriand, Senacour and Constant, pp. 15-56. Saratoga, Calif.: ANMA Libri & Co., 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Call critiques Chateaubriand's depiction of the American wilderness via the myth of Eden, in René and Atala which represent America as a place for escape and isolation. Call further claims that Chateaubriand countered the expectations of paradisiacal settings as regenerative and portrayed René as a Cain figure.]

The opening lines of René present the image of a young European nobleman living in the wilds of the New World. Upon his arrival there,...

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Harry Redman, Jr. (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: Redman, Jr., Harry. “Chateaubriand and his Memoirs' ‘Louisianaise.’” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 19, no. 1 (fall 1990): 22-35.

[In the following essay, Redman examines the relationship between Chateaubriand and the “Louisianaise” woman referred to as Célestine in Memoirs.Redman provides biographical information for this Célestine and considers her influence on and presence in Chateaubriand's writings.]

Chateaubriand may or may not have seen Louisiana when he visited North America in 1791. Whether he did or did not, Louisiana, or the idea of Louisiana, made a deep impression upon him. His Voyage en Amérique and his Mémoires...

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Mary A. O'Neil (essay date fall-winter 1993-94)

SOURCE: O'Neil, Mary A. “Chateaubriand's Atala: A Study of the French Revolution.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 22, nos. 1-2 (fall-winter 1993-94): 1-14.

[In the following essay, O'Neil presents Chateaubriand's Atala, The Genius of Christianity, and Memoirs, as organized around contemporary history, particularly the French Revolution. In so doing, Chateaubriand critiqued government, religion, and the excesses of the Revolution.]

The young Chateaubriand was a perceptive critic of his own work. In his preface to the first edition of Atala, he predicted that this book would confuse its audience:


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James F. Hamilton (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Hamilton, James F. “The Gendering of Space in Chateaubriand's Combourg: Archetypal Architecture and the Patriarchal Object.” Symposium: A Quarterly Journal in Modern Literatures 50, no. 2 (summer 1996): 101-13.

[In the following essay, Hamilton analyzes the use of spatial arrangements in Memoirs. In depicting Combourg, his childhood home, Chateaubriand offered an archetypal architecture which psychologically represented his hierarchical family structure and the dominance of his father.]

                                        Cet étroit espace me parut propre à
                                        renfermer mes longues espérances;
spatio brevi...

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Caroline Bailey (essay date April 1997)

SOURCE: Bailey, Caroline. “Beneath the Surface of Atala: ‘Le Crocodile au Fond du Bassin.’” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 51, no. 2 (April 1997): 138-54.

[In the following essay, Bailey concentrates on the image of the crocodile in Atala. Using a psychoanalytic perspective, Bailey claims Chateaubriand's work depicts tensions between nature and civilization and between sexuality and Christianity, especially in its representations of desire.]

Je n'ai point encore rencontré d'homme qui n'eût été trompé dans ses rêves de félicité, point de cœur qui n'entretînt une plaie cachée. Le cœur le plus serein en apparence,...

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Ban Wang (essay date May 1997)

SOURCE: Wang, Ban. “Writing Self, and the Other: Chateaubriand and His Atala.French Forum 22, no. 2 (May 1997): 133-48.

[In the following essay, Wang claims Chateaubriand offered an Orientalist approach to foreign culture in Atala. Wang examines the work's aesthetics through the concept of chinoiserie—or the dual elements of grotesqueness and disorientation—to argue that Chateaubriand both exoticized and sexualized the New World.]

The notion of the grotesque often figures prominently in the way one culture thinks about its radical other. In his classic study of the grotesque the German literary theorist Wolfgang Kayser recalls an instance...

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Claudia Moscovici (essay date spring-summer 2001)

SOURCE: Moscovici, Claudia. “Hybridity and Ethics in Chateaubriand's Atala.Nineteenth-Century French Studies 29, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 2001): 197-216.

[In the following essay, Moscovici argues that Atala challenges French Romanticism's dichotomy between nature and culture in its representations of Western and Native American cultures. Rather than positioning these cultures as ethical opposites—with the implicit superiority of Western culture—Chateaubriand's work offers a model of hybrid cultural identity.]

The figure of the noble savage constitutes one of the defining features of French Romanticism. As contemporary criticism points out, this...

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Luke Bouvier (essay date spring-summer 2002)

SOURCE: Bouvier, Luke. “How Not to Speak of Incest: Atala and the Secrets of Speech.” Nineteenth-Century French Studies 30, nos. 3-4 (spring-summer 2002): 228-42.

[In the following essay, Bouvier looks at Atala in relationship to René to examine the motif of incest in the former. Using a Derridean approach, Bouvier focuses on the structures of silence and secrecy, addressing the paradoxical nature of incest’s dual presence and absence in Chateaubriand's work.]

How not to speak of incest in Atala? The subject would seem to be unavoidable, for Chateaubriand's exotic tale of the doomed love of Chactas and Atala has frequently been read...

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Further Reading


Gladwyn, Cynthia. “Madame Recamier: A Romantic French Salon.” In Affairs of the Mind: The Salon in Europe and America from the 18th to the 20th Century, edited by Peter Quennell, pp. 57-88. Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1980.

Provides an examination of Chateaubriand's involvement with Juliette Recamier, both personally and professionally, and with her literary salon.

Moore, Fabienne. “Chateaubriand's Alter Egos: Napoleon, Madame de Staël and the ‘Indian Savage.’” European Romantic Review 9, no. 2 (spring 1998): 187-200.

Explores the ambivalent relationship between Chateaubriand and de...

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