François René de Chateaubriand Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.