French Long Fiction to the 1850's Analysis


The roots of French fiction run deep in France’s history, from the medieval epic chansons de geste and romans, or “romances,” of the late medieval period to the Renaissance and early modern periods, when the novel in its modern form began to emerge. Storytelling is fundamental to human life, and certainly the French are no exception to this rule. Stories can be told in verse, as in French epic poems and great tragedies and comedies for the stage; prose chronicles and histories also share a storytelling function, but they promise their readers “truth,” not fiction, even when employing the technical devices of prose fiction writing. Long fiction in France, as in other Western societies, found its métier in the novel, and it is the story of the novel’s rise to prominence and popularity among critics and the reading public alike that necessarily forms the central focus of this survey. While to modern readers the novel’s place in literature is beyond dispute, the reasons for its emergence, development, and survival are varied and complex.

In English, the distinction between novel and novella is easier to grasp than in French; short fiction means the short story, and a novella represents some sort of halfway mark between a story and a full-fledged novel. The French word roman means simply “novel” to the modern reader, but its original usage conveyed instead the sense of “romance,” a literary genre lacking what...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

From Chansons de geste toRomans comiques

Today, fiction is associated with prose, but the earliest French tales appeared in verse, often in rhyming couplets. One notable thirteenth century exception to this rule was the anonymous chante-fable (song-fable) Aucassin et Nicolette (c. 1200; Aucassin and Nicolette, 1880), with its mixed prose and verse form. The earliest examples of the French verse epics were the tales of the great deeds of warriors and heroes known as the chansons de geste; the word chansons (songs) is a reminder of their beginnings in the oral tradition. The most famous of them, the Chanson de Roland (c. 1100; The Song of Roland, 1880), was set down by an anonymous author during the twelfth century, but it recounts deeds of the great French hero Roland from around the year 800. Despite its poetic form and its pretensions to historical accuracy, The Song of Roland established the idealized theme of the noble hero that would dominate French fiction until at least the seventeenth century.

The twelfth century was the period of high feudalism in France, characterized by the dominant role of the landholding aristocracy and the central importance of the Roman Catholic faith. The first works to be called romans were the romans courtois (courtly romances) of the twelfth century. The best-known author of such works was Chrétien de Troyes (c. 1135-c. 1183). His romans courtois featured idealized knights and aristocratic figures of court society, much like the personae of Arthurian legend. Similar to the songs of the Provençal troubadours, the romans courtois were composed of octosyllabic lines and rhyming couplets.

The most important romance of the thirteenth century was Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, 1846) of Guillaume de Lorris (c. 1215-c. 1278) and Jean de Meung (c. 1240-1305), a long epic poem that extolled modes of feminine conduct befitting the Cult of the Virgin, the increased preoccupation with the legend of the Virgin Mary in the popular religion of the day, a concern that complemented some of the themes of courtly love. As latter-day feminist scholars and others have been able to appreciate acutely, these idealized literary treatments of women not only masked the reality of their oppression but also participated directly in that oppression.

The late Middle Ages also saw the rise in importance of urban commercial centers on a limited scale. A bourgeois, or merchant, class played a vital cultural role in the towns and served as the audience for a newer form of literature, known as bourgeois or “realistic.” Fabliaux (the word is of Breton or Norman origin), or “fables,” were the chosen form of this new literature in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and, by featuring nonaristocratic characters, served to broaden the representational scope of French fiction. If the connotations of words such as “bourgeois” or “realistic” were far from positive, they nevertheless prefigured the later sense of those terms as applied to the novelistic treatment of recognizable figures placed within a familiar social landscape, even if such characters in the fabliaux are more often to be found in improbable situations.

Despite the popular trend, there was in the late Middle Ages at least one important aristocratic use of prose in the official chronicles of such beneficiaries of royal patronage as Jean Froissart (c. 1337-c. 1404), remembered for his Chroniques de France, d’Engleterre, d’Éscose, de Bretaigne, d’Espaigne, d’Italie, de Flandres et d’Alemaigne (1373-1410; Chronicles, 1523-1525) of the Hundred Years’ War. This work serves as a reminder that, as far as the upper classes were concerned, the function of prose narrative was to supply historical chronicles, recording the deeds of actual historical personages in a favorable light. For many centuries to come, notions of “great literature” required the use of verse, as in the more valued genres of epic poetry and drama.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, French artistic and cultural life shared in the world of the Renaissance, deriving originally from the Humanism of Florence in the age of the Medicis. The aged Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years as the guest of the French king Francis I at the latter’s château at Amboise, and this act of hospitality is symbolic of the interest taken in Italian Humanism by the arbiters of French cultural taste. The Renaissance in France was a great age for poetry and for both Neoplatonic and Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Prose fiction realized a much smaller output. For that matter, the first of the two important French authors of fiction during this period derived her style and subject matter almost exclusively from Italian sources. That author was Marguerite d’Angoulême de Navarre (1492-1549), or Marguerite de Navarre, whose collection of seventy-two stories, known as L’Heptaméron (1559; The Heptameron, 1959), was heavily modeled on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron: O, Prencipe Galetto (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) and shared that work’s tendencies toward the ribald. This similarity is worth mentioning, especially as a reminder that for centuries, salacious and erotic details and themes were thought to be the unavoidable tendencies of prose fiction, which thus by definition could never rise to the heights of eloquence and moral example to be gained from the more idealized genres of poetry and drama, especially great tragedy. The mimetic tendency of fiction to represent realities...

(The entire section is 2314 words.)

The French novel in the twilight years of the ancien régime

During the hundred years or so that transpired before the great revolution of 1789, France experienced profound cultural, social, economic, and demographic changes. The realities of these changes can be obscured by excessive emphasis on narrowly defined political history or by a tendency to assume from the shock waves of 1789 that France was a dormant country prior to that time. From the artificially sheltered, and therefore distorted, point of view of the absolutist Bourbon monarchs, the social fabric lay largely undisturbed. This was the Age of Enlightenment, the Siècle des lumières, when a new class of writers and social critics called philosophes advanced progressive ideas to a rapidly expanding bourgeois readership critical of the Crown and anxious to be rid of the feudal obligations and restrictions that undergirded the edifice of French absolutism. Such philosophes as Voltaire (1694-1778), Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755), and Denis Diderot also lashed out at the Roman Catholic Church for its legacy in France of persecution and bigotry. Here, too, they found ready assent from the middle-class readers to whom they appealed.

The philosophes could count on a burgeoning readership for their tracts and treatises and for the massive multivolume Encyclopédie: Ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers (1751-1772; partial translation Selected Essays from the Encyclopedy, 1772; complete translation Encyclopedia, 1965) edited by Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783); a steadily increasing literacy rate, an increasing number of outlets and vehicles for literary activity, and a general and dramatic population increase resulting largely from the growth of a middle, or bourgeois, class were perhaps the most significant trends shaping the literary culture of this period. Population growth was itself linked to a significant decline in pestilence and other natural disasters and to an impressive expansion of the food supply. Indeed, economic growth was steady throughout the eighteenth century, although England was as yet the only country in which manufacture rather than agriculture largely set the pace.

It is estimated that the percentage of literate (defined as those who could sign their names) French people at the end of the seventeenth century was 21 percent, increasing by the end of the eighteenth century to 37 percent. Unlike England, France had to wait until the revolution to experience a real proliferation in newspapers, but they were increasing, as were broadsides and pamphlets of various kinds. By the mid-eighteenth century, the institution of the café, modeled on the British coffeehouse, had taken hold as the social setting for reading and discussing new books, periodicals, and newspapers. Voltaire and the other philosophes all experienced censorship at one time or another, and several of them, including Voltaire, knew imprisonment and exile, yet they lived to see the ban lifted and experience the sense that their ideas circulated ever more widely. The growing body of readers to whom they appealed, however, were interested in more than political treatises and satires. They read novels eagerly, and occasionally the philosophes themselves accommodated them with contes philosophiques (philosophical tales) and didactic novels.

Though it would occupy a more central role in the publishing world of the nineteenth century, the novel’s popularity was increasingly noted by French publishers of the ancien régime. On the face of it, the “frivolous” novel would seem to have been a safer venture for a publisher than the more overtly political writings of a Voltaire, but the latter were not always more vulnerable to censorship. The world of French publishing was far from standardized in the eighteenth century, and this lack of predictability and routine provided headaches for publisher and author alike. Surely one of the publisher’s major headaches was the uneven and unpredictable exercise of royal censorship. In order to operate, a publisher needed a royal license, or privilège, which granted him, in some cases, a monopoly in certain types of publishing, but this could easily be withdrawn on a royal whim. Apart from that major uncertainty, publishers could not be sure when they might face censorship. By definition, broad powers of censorship were in the hands of royally sanctioned provincial courts called parlements, of which the most important and most active was the Parlement de Paris. The institution of parlements reflected the increasing tendency since the age of Louis XIV for publishing to be concentrated in and around Paris itself, whereas regional centers such as Rouen and Lyons had been prominent in earlier centuries. Even the Parlement de Paris, Voltaire’s great nemesis, occasionally let a “scandalous” book pass. When censorship came, however, punishment was often harsh. This fact, coupled with the pessimistic tendencies of some publishers to expect the worst from the parlements, led to the creation of a thriving underground publishing industry. Diderot is the best-known name associated with this illegal publishing activity.

Authors, too, faced an uncertain existence—and not merely because of the more serious threats of censorship and imprisonment. Authors’ relationships with their publishers were often severely strained. To begin with, nothing resembling a modern copyright law existed in the eighteenth century. An author’s name would not necessarily appear on the book, and payment was not always guaranteed. Piracy was a common problem; unscrupulous publishers were known to seize manuscripts of authors whose names could be counted upon to sell copies. Royalties were unknown. Today, an author commonly receives a fixed percentage of the price of each copy that is sold. This practice was not, however, adopted until the nineteenth century.

In the age of the philosophes, it was possible for an author to enter into an agreement whereby he would receive a fixed sum for a certain number of copies to be printed, regardless of whether they were actually sold. If the book proved popular and additional printings were run, the author received nothing. Not until nearly the end of the eighteenth century was this practice modified so that the author was paid a fixed amount on a certain quantity of copies that were actually sold, and it was well into the nineteenth century before the per-copy royalty practice was adopted. As a result of these many uncertainties, most eighteenth century authors were forced to rely on some sort of patronage from wealthy admirers and benefactors. Diderot was one of the few examples of a truly professional writer who attempted to earn a living, albeit a modest one, by his pen, and even he benefited, at least temporarily, from the royal patronage of the Russian empress Catherine the Great.

Most critics and historians of French literature reserve the adjective “great” for the novels of the nineteenth century, but within the changing eighteenth century milieu, the French novel began to come into its own. To a great extent, this can be attributed to the very exclusion pronounced by Boileau and other guardians of tradition in the preceding century. Not that the sense of shame and apology held toward the novel, even by novelists themselves, was completely dispelled in the eighteenth century, but the novel and other fictional genres were free, in a sense, to develop in an undefined new literary space: a terra incognita unglimpsed by académiciens and other traditionalists. The novel’s proven popularity with a steadily expanding readership further undermined whatever reservations authors might have.

It has become commonplace in French literary history to assign La Princesse de Clèves (1678; The Princess of Clèves, 1679), by Madame de La Fayette (1634-1693), the position of “first” in the development of the modern French roman, using the argument that it embodies the essential characteristics of the genre in its modern form: recognizable, believable characters; ordinary settings; and attention to the feelings, motivations, and psychological states of the principal characters. Set in the period of the French Renaissance, La Fayette’s novel nevertheless offers descriptions of scenes much more recognizable to her late seventeenth century readers. In portraying privileged court society, she adhered to the aesthetic of the more established genres but broke radically with literary tradition by translating this milieu into the novelistic realm.

Much of the interest this novel has held for readers past and present has been its presentation of a woman as the central tragic figure, coupled with the fact of its feminine authorship. The Princess is a woman caught in an intolerable situation, for she is married to a man she does not love. Though she is pursued by a would-be lover, she resists temptation as she remembers the counsel of her beloved mother with regard to the crucial importance of wifely virtue. Even her virtue goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by her husband, who torments and eventually destroys himself through suspicious jealousy. At the end of the novel, the Princess has become widowed, and, shunning the attentions of the man she would then be free to marry, she retires to a convent, remaining true to the memory of the husband she never loved.

Certainly, in one sense, The Princess of Clèves reaffirmed the carefully circumscribed social role available to women, even women of the privileged class. Ending her days in the convent, the Princess recalls the much earlier, prototypically tragic, figure of Héloïse. Yet La Fayette was able to portray her protagonist in such a way as to encourage empathy with her on...

(The entire section is 4007 words.)

Romanticism and early nineteenth century French novels

The seeds of Romanticism were sown to a great extent within the Enlightenment period that preceded the Romantic age, most obviously in the writings of Rousseau. Rousseau’s influence on English and German Romantics was considerable, but the full-blown Romanticism that developed in those traditions reentered France by a circuitous route. Matters were complicated by the political and military upheaval of the quarter of a century, roughly, that transpired from the advent of the French Revolution to the defeat of Napoleon. European Romantics had been divided in their support for the French Revolution and likewise divided into groups expressing either admiration or contempt for Napoleon Bonaparte. Occasionally, this division became...

(The entire section is 1147 words.)

The golden age of the French novel: Balzac to Flaubert, 1829-1857

After the downfall of Napoleon, France attempted to reenter the ancien régime for a time. The Bourbon monarchy was revived, with Louis XVIII occupying the throne from 1814 to 1824 and Charles X, the last Bourbon king, reigning thereafter until 1830. Prerevolutionary France was a lost world that could not genuinely be revived. The bourgeoisie continued to expand and longed to reclaim the promise of property rights affirmed by the French Republic. France lagged behind England in the Industrial Revolution, but industrialization was under way, adding impetus to the bourgeois drive for recognition and enfranchisement. In 1830, the rebellion in Paris forced Charles X into exile, and Louis-Philippe, the Duc d’Orléans, formed a...

(The entire section is 1644 words.)


DeJean, Joan. Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. Witty, highly readable study of the role of women in the development of the French novel includes analyses of salon life, social class, and the relationship between gender and authorship. Supplemented with a rich bibliography.

Gaunt, Simon, and Sarah Kay, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Collection of seventeen critical essays includes several that analyze works of long fiction, including Le Roman de la rose and Chanson de...

(The entire section is 457 words.)