Image of the Noble Savage in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Image of the Noble Savage in Literature


Image of the Noble Savage in Literature

An idealized concept of native cultures as being uncorrupted by the influences of civilization.

The idea of the Noble Savage, according to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, resulted from “the fusion of three elements: the observation of explorers; various classical and medieval conventions; the deductions of philosophers and men of letters.” While scholars debate as to whether Jean-Jacques Rousseau was truly the creator of the literary tradition of the Noble Savage, the concept dates all the way back to the classical period. The overriding literary image of the Noble Savage throughout history is one of a figure who is uncorrupted by civilization and possesses a kind of innocence that has been lost by civilized cultures.

From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the concept of the Noble Savage became a popular element in literature. Columbus wrote of a people who were generous, gentle, had physical beauty, and had minds open to being trained. Voyagers and travel writers for over two centuries proclaimed the “natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas.” Many of these travel writers commented on the natural virtues possessed by these Noble Savages, and based on what they observed, raised doubts as to the value of civilization. Many scholars credit Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the primary figure in the history of the Noble Savage concept. According to Rousseau, “the noble savage is an individual living in a ‘pure state of nature’—gentle, wise, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization.” Although the idea of the Noble Savage existed long before Rousseau, he is generally credited with formalizing the concept.

Commentary on the idea of the Noble Savage in literature has covered a wide range of topics and perspectives. As to the origin of the concept, Ter Ellingson claims that there are still unanswered questions, and concluded, “that Rousseau's invention of the Noble Savage myth is itself a myth.” Stelio Cro argues that Rosseau loved the idea of the Noble Savage because he saw him as a figure of freedom: “physical freedom as opposed to slavery and tyranny, moral freedom as opposed to religious discrimination or superstition.” According to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, the Noble Savage is really a creation of philosophers who read into explorers' narratives a concept that would support their disillusionment with civilized society. In examining travel writers, Lewis Saum argues that fur-trade literature shows a concern on the part of the fur traders that the Noble Savage was being corrupted by the encroaching civilization. Terry Jay Ellingson disagrees, claiming that many travel writings depict natives in a very negative light and that these works should be “taken into account if only for the sake of balance, to counteract the tendency built up over a century and a half of unquestioning acceptance of the myth of the Noble Savage.” Roy Pearce argues that the Noble Savage was a literary invention used for the purpose of creating a history and a culture in America, but one “in which the idea of savagism … compromised the idea of the noble savage and then absorbed and reconstituted it.” Hence, he argues, in the ideology and belief reflected in the literature of the time, natives transformed and became what Americans needed as the country grew. Ironically, the depiction in literature of the Amerindians as Noble Savages was indeed a myth, according to critic Olive Patricia Dickason, who claims that they were “far from being uninformed savages in the ‘infancy of nature,’ [but] were the products of cultures that had evolved over many centuries.”

Representative Works

Denis Diderot
Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville (dialogue) 1772

Michel de Montaigne
Of the Cannibals (essay) 1578-80

Jean Jacques Rousseau
Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (essay) 1750 [A Discourse on Inequality]
Second Discourse on Inequality (essay) 1755
The Social Contract (essay) 1762

L'Ingénue (prose) 1767

Criticism: Overviews And Development

Hayden White (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: White, Hayden. “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea.” In The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, edited by Edward Dudley and Maximillian E. Novak, pp. 3-38. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, White examines the history of the Wild Man image throughout history, concluding that the image of the Wild Man as viewed in literature is a criticism of the security and peace-of-mind brought by civilization.]

The subject of these essays is the Wild Man during his age of triumph, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he was viewed as “the Noble Savage” and...

(The entire section is 16246 words.)

Hayden White (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: White, Hayden. “The Noble Savage: Theme as Fetish.” In First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, edited by Fredi Chiappelli, pp. 121-35. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, White discusses the history of the Noble Savage theme, proposing that the concept contains attributes of a fetish in the sense that form is believed to reflect content. White maintains that Europeans not only fetishized native peoples, but fetishized their own culture.]

The theme of the Noble Savage may be one of the few historical topics about which there is nothing more to say. Few of the topoi of eighteenth-century...

(The entire section is 7193 words.)

Gorman Beauchamp (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Beauchamp, Gorman. “Montaigne, Melville, and the Cannibals”. Arizona Quarterly 37, no. 4 (winter 1981): 293-309.

[In the following essay, Beauchamp examines the use and development of the Noble Savage as a literary device, highlighting the use of the Noble Savage in the writings of Montaigne and Melville.]

From his inception, the Noble Savage has served as a weapon in ideological warfare, a convenient stick figure with which to beat civilized man over his corrupt head. As early as the first Christian century, Tacitus was belaboring his fellow Romans with the image of the simple, brave, virtuous Germani living like noble Stoics all in the wilds beyond the...

(The entire section is 6770 words.)

Ter Ellingson (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Ellingson, Ter. “The Noble Savage Myth and Travel-Ethnographic Literature.” In The Myth of the Noble Savage, pp. 45-63. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Ellingson surveys travel writings throughout history, maintaining that the idea of the Noble Savage was not widely held by the writers of these works or by the general population.]

In the interval between Lescarbot's invention of the Noble Savage concept at the beginning of the seventeenth century and its reemergence as a full-blown myth in the 1850s, the Noble Savage appears to have receded into a state of virtual nonexistence. Although no one could say with...

(The entire section is 8323 words.)

Criticism: The Noble Savage In The New World

Lewis O. Saum (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Saum, Lewis O. “The Fur Trader and the Noble Savage”. American Quarterly 15 (1963): 554-71.

[In the following essay, Saum examines the writings of the fur traders of North America, many of which portray natives as being corrupted by European settlers.]

In narrating his experiences in the Far-North as trader and explorer, Samuel Hearne of the Hudson's Bay Company included a lengthy treatment of that fascinating animal, the beaver. In doing so, “honest old Hearne,” as a nineteenth-century bibliographer called him,1 felt the obligation to temper glowing accounts of the beaver written by people with inadequate knowledge. According to him, they...

(The entire section is 7858 words.)

Francis Jennings (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Jennings, Francis. “Savage Form for Peasant Function.” In The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, pp. 58-84. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

[In the following essay, originally presented in 1971, Jennings argues that the English conception of the natives of North America continually changed to better fit the purposes of the colonists, whewther as trading allies or military enemies.]

In his book on the Canadian fur trade, Harold A. Innis has conceived of the contact between Europe and the Americas, not as a collision of civilization and savagery, but as a meeting of two civilizations, one relatively...

(The entire section is 10500 words.)

Richard C. Shaner (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Shaner, Richard C. “Simms and the Noble Savage.” American Transcendental Quarterly 30, no. 1 (spring 1976): 18-21.

[In the following essay, Shaner analyzes William Gilmore Simm's work The Yemassee, where the Native American is depicted as a creature who needed to be subject to the white man.]

By the time nineteenth-century American novelists were writing of the colonization of America, the lives and cultures of the Indian tribes already were obscured not merely by change and passage of time, but by the world view of the European. The same is true of the land. Whatever the American wilderness was in its existential reality, Western man seems to have...

(The entire section is 2788 words.)

Olive Patricia Dickason (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Dickason, Olive Patricia. “L'Homme Sauvage.” In The Myth of the Savage: And the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas, pp. 61-84. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Dickason traces the development of the European view of Amerindians, arguing that the European view of Native Americans as savages discounts their cultural and political systems.]

Europe's discovery of the Amerindian is usually represented as affording her the first large-scale encounter with man living in a state of nature.1 According to this view, that discovery was largely responsible for the development of the European idea of...

(The entire section is 11735 words.)

Roy Harvey Pearce (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Pearce, Roy Harvey. “The Virtues of Nature: The Image in Drama and Poetry.” In Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind, pp. 169-95. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Pearce examines how the colonists of America viewed the Native American, beginning with the romantic idea of the Noble Savage, but later viewing the Native American as simply savage.]

The indian over whom Americans finally triumphed was he whom they put in their plays, poems, and stories. New-rich in their discovery of the possibility of a national culture, they were certain that they could find the Indian's place in the...

(The entire section is 9141 words.)

Criticism: Rousseau And The French Enlightenment's View Of The Noble Savage

Jerry Combee and Martin Plax (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Combee, Jerry, and Martin Plax. “Rousseau's Noble Savage and European Self-Consciousness.” Modern Age 17 (spring 1973): 173-82.

[In the following essay, Combee and Plax examines Rousseau's use of the Noble Savage as a vehicle to criticize European culture.]


Critical interpretations of Rousseau have commonly characterized him as either a revolutionary or a conservative romantic.1 The first interpretation, linking him with the French revolution, has generally seen him as a contributor to the development of a revolutionary consciousness and specifically as having been:

looked upon by...

(The entire section is 5694 words.)

Michelle Buchanan (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Buchanan, Michelle. “Savages, Noble and Otherwise, and the French Enlightenment.” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 15 (1986): 97-109.

[In the following essay, Buchanan claims that the invention and idea of the Noble Savage became a notable element of literature, fiction, and drama in eighteenth century France because the belief was important in the thought of the French Enlightenment.]

The notion of the French philosophes' humanistic view of the savage continues to find wide acceptance, along with the belief in the capital role played by Montaigne and Rousseau in the development and concretization of the concept of the Noble Savage. Both commonplaces,...

(The entire section is 5473 words.)

Stelio Cro (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Cro, Stelia. “The Noble Savage: Allegory of Freedom.” In The Noble Savage: Allegory of Freedom, pp. 131-57. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Cro argues that, to Rousseau, the idea of the Noble Savage spoke to the principles of physical and moral freedom.]


By the middle of the eighteenth century the exoticism of the voyagers, who for over two centuries had proclaimed the natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas, not only had inspired authors to write idealized accounts of the discovery and conquest of the New World, such as Marmontel's...

(The entire section is 13367 words.)

Ter Ellingson (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Ellingson, Ter. Introduction to The Myth of the Noble Savage, pp. 1-8. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Ellingson questions the attribution of the idea of the Noble Savage to Rousseau, arguing that the concept is an ongoing tradition and should not be attributed to any one individual.]


More than two centuries after his death, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is still widely cited as the inventor of the “Noble Savage”—a mythic personification of natural goodness by a romantic glorification of savage life—projected in the very essay (Rousseau 1755a) in...

(The entire section is 3721 words.)

Further Reading


Baudet, Henri. Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965, 87p.

Provides commentary on the attitude of European and Western peoples toward non-Western cultures throughout the centuries.

Bissell, Benjamin. The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925, 229p.

Overview of the treatment of Native Americans in English Literature, with an examination of the extent to which their existence was idealized.

De Lutri, Joseph R. “Montaigne on the Noble Savage: A...

(The entire section is 283 words.)