Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

Marivaux’s eleven-volume tale about the vicissitudes of a young woman thrust upon the world with no clear-cut social identity ranks with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741) and Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748) as one of the first modern psychological novels. It is a pity that Marivaux did not finish the work; it was completed by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni. The unfinished novel stops before the nun finishes her story and before Marianne is jilted, suffers various tribulations, and at last marries Valville.

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Writing in the early decades of the eighteenth century, Marivaux used a variety of devices already common in the fiction of the day to give his work an air of verisimilitude. Using the device of the memoir and telling the story in the epistolary form were both well-tried techniques that helped readers accept the story as plausible and the behavior of the characters as realistic.

Marivaux is successful in creating lifelike characters because, unlike many of his predecessors and contemporaries, he concentrates on the exploration of emotion rather than on development of action. He goes beyond a number of novelists of his time to achieve a sense of realism by including language spoken by commoners, a device scorned by earlier writers who attempted to maintain standards of decorum prescribed by neoclassical theories of literature in vogue at the time. Marivaux often uses the language of the streets when appropriate for the scene and situation he is depicting. As a result, a number of his characters become individualized through their language, an accomplishment that links the author with the realistic tradition.

The writer’s major success in The Life of Marianne is his creation of a heroine whose behavior seems psychologically sound. Marianne is a complex character who succeeds by her wits and charm rather than by social position. Throughout the story, she struggles to find her rightful place in society. She is unable simply to claim that right because her origins are unknown, so she must earn her social rewards by acting in such a way that those in the upper classes of society will accept her. Her efforts are not always successful, and often she stumbles because she makes poor decisions. She is not always a sound judge of character, nor does she always make the right choices, but she is resilient and resourceful. As she admits, she is often blessed by good fortune; circumstance and coincidence play no small role in extricating her from potentially devastating situations. She is not presented as perfect, however; Marivaux and his eighteenth century contemporaries make that distinction between their heroines and those of earlier ages, whose virtues are often so great that they become mere pasteboard figures rather than believable human beings. Marianne has her faults, but she also has a certain inner strength that allows her to appreciate her triumphs without becoming too elated and to deal realistically with her tragedies. This is especially true when she loses Valville to the vapid Mlle Varthon.

Although there is no evidence that Marivaux modeled his work on that of any of the English writers, clear parallels exist between Marianne and that paragon of resourcefulness, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Like Defoe, Marivaux structures his tale so that the elder Marianne tells readers of her life as a younger woman. Doing so allows her to serve, in the same fashion as Moll Flanders does, as commentator and judge of her own past behavior. Unlike Moll, Marianne is not forced to resort to a life of crime to preserve herself; however, the two women share a certain quality of self-awareness and an understanding that being true to oneself is often more critical to one’s psychological health than being accepted in the eyes of society.

Because Marivaux did not finish The Life of Marianne, it is impossible to know exactly what he had planned for his heroine in her struggle to retrieve her good name and her heritage. Hints in the novelist’s writings suggest that eventually she would have discovered the identity of her parents and been restored to her rightful place in society. Nevertheless, the materials available indicate that Marivaux is more interested in character development than in knitting together the disparate strands of plot; action, for him, seems simply an excuse for character revelation.

Perhaps the most significant contribution Marivaux makes to French literature stems from his decision to concentrate not on the nobility but on the middle classes. No writer before him had chosen as the subject for such an extended romantic tale a woman whose claim to nobility could be disputed. His focus throughout the eleven volumes is on the lower classes of society. He paints meticulous, favorable portraits of characters such as Madame Dutour, the simple shopkeeper with whom Marianne lives for a time. His interest in the common people of France precedes the work of the greatest of all French chroniclers of everyday life, the nineteenth century novelist Honoré de Balzac. So accurate and detailed are Marivaux’s descriptions that one critic has asserted about The Life of Marianne that even Balzac “has done nothing better than this realistic study of a little bourgeois milieu.”

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