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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

Anatole France, born Jacques-Anatole-François Thibault, was the son of a Parisian bookseller, François Thibault. The father was nicknamed France, and Anatole began to use the pseudonym for the poems he wrote as a boy. Educated at a religious school, the Collège Stanislas, he received a thorough and disciplined education in both religion and the classics. The classical side of his education, however, had the greater impact, for he quickly became skeptical about religion and began writing precise, neoclassic poems.{$S[A]Thibault, Jacques-Anatole-François;France, Anatole}

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After writing several unsuccessful novels, France found both his private style and public success in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard in 1881. France portrayed Bonnard, an old classical scholar, with charm, humor, erudition, and an edge of irony. Gently skeptical about religion, science (although France had acknowledged Charles Darwin, Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, and Ernest Renan as his masters during his school days), and scholarship, France began to develop a graceful, discursive style. At about this time, a wealthy literary patron, Madame Arman de Caillavet, took an interest in France. While Madame de Caillavet introduced France to the world of the literary salon in Paris, she also made sure he worked, and she helped change his attitude gradually from that of the skeptical dilettante to that of an energetic champion of Alfred Dreyfus and other social causes. After France and his wife were divorced in 1892, he began to work at the home of Madame de Caillavet, an association that lasted until her death in 1910.

In 1886 France began to contribute weekly essays on literary life to Le Temps. At first the essays were mild and pleasant excursions into literary topics, but they soon began to assume a more biting and skeptical attitude toward the church and the established institutions of the day. His attacks against Christianity became more explicit in his novel Thaïs, in which he saved the licentious courtesan and damned the religious hermit while maintaining a constant ironic attitude toward conventional Christianity. In this novel, as in one written a few years later, At the Sign of the Reine Pédauque, France also demonstrated a robust and Rabelaisian sensuality not apparent in his earlier work. The latter novel particularly, with the jovial and voluptuous Abbé Coignard as its hero, indicated new range, power, and emphasis in France’s writing. By this time France, famous as the creator of the memorable and spirited Abbé Coignard and as an ironic opponent of conventional Christianity, was called by some of his contemporaries a nineteenth century version of the great eighteenth century rationalists, Voltaire and Denis Diderot.

In 1897, like many of the French, France was suddenly caught up in the Dreyfus Affair. Influenced in part by Madame de Caillavet, a woman of Jewish ancestry, France signed Émile Zola’s famous petition, I Accuse, and wrote frequent articles attacking the prejudices of the army and the Catholic Church. His next three novels were violently partisan; The Elm Tree on the Mall, The Wicker Work Woman, and The Amethyst Ring were all dissections of the narrowness and prejudice of all classes of French society. These novels vilified the church and the army as the bastions of ignorant and provincial French life. Reference to the Dreyfus case became even more explicit in Monsieur Bergeret in Paris.

France’s connection with the Dreyfus case and his attacks on Catholicism brought him into closer contact with the Left in French politics. He began to speak at radical meetings, and after 1900 he at various times embraced socialist and anarchist causes. He could not long remain a violent partisan, however, for his sense of irony and his genuine skepticism soon led him to treat the parties and institutions of the Left with the same ironic attitude he had once applied to the church and to scholarship. In fact, his best-known work, Penguin Island, poked fun at all of French society: the socialists, the Dreyfusards, and those who would establish a perfect human society, as well as at the familiar targets of the church and the army. Similarly, his other well-known works of later years, The Gods Are Athirst and The Revolt of the Angels, berate all organizations in society and lift the satire to a universal plane.

France is still noted for his style, a sense of language touched with irony at all the foibles of humanity. This style was not at its best as an instrument for partisan causes, and, unlike Zola, France is not remembered primarily as a Dreyfusard or a social reformer. France was at his best in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, Penguin Island, and The Revolt of the Angels, works in which he exercised his gift for satire, rationally probing at all the pretense and foolishness of people and their institutions.

France was widely honored in his later years. Although his books were placed on the Index (banned) by papal decree in 1922, he was venerated throughout France and most of the Western world. He was regarded as a patriotic hero throughout World War I when he wrote articles championing the Allied cause and looking forward to world peace. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1921 for “the most remarkable literary work of idealistic stamp.”

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