Modern French Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Modern French Literature


Modern French Literature

The history of French literature is closely linked to the state of French politics, ideology, and culture, often reflecting and shaping these realities in France. Equally important is the place given to the French language; language has often been perceived in both French literature and critical study as being instrumental in creating the order and hierarchy of society. The political and social dimensions of the French literary canon, therefore, are central to the study of modern French literature.

French writers have consistently used their work to expostulate political and philosophical ideology, and thus, the relationship between literature and social and political attitudes has been acutely important in French society. Many scholars of French literature have remarked on the importance the French place on literary figures in their society, including electing a number of them to political power. And often, French opposition literature has had enormous influence with the citizenry of France as well as intellectuals throughout Europe. Although politically motivated literature has seen a decline in France in the latter half of the twentieth century, primarily due to the increasing popularity of other media, the French literary scene continues to experiment with new forms and techniques, now focusing more consciously on the development of form rather than content.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the French literary scene was dominated by the popularity of naturalist writers and their mode of realistic, mostly linear narratives, reflecting the social and political realities of their time. A significant change to this legacy began in the works of such authors as Marcel Proust, and his novel À la recherché du temps perdu (1954; Remembrance of Things Past), published posthumously, is considered one of the seminal works marking the departure from naturalist thinking. With its examination of the nature of literature in the narrative, as well as its themes of the search for permanence and coherence in human identity, Proust's writing, note critics, is a blend of realism, philosophy, and psychology, and ultimately represents the struggle between reality and experience versus the primacy of art. The advent of World War I, the most violent and widespread conflict in human history at the time, had engendered in many French intellectuals the feeling that the entire European cultural tradition had been dishonored. Many writers saw the slaughter of thousands as deeply disheartening, final proof of the negative impact of the culture of rationalism on which the common language and culture of the time was based. This disillusionment was in part what led to the creation of the Dadaist movement. Although it originated in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916, the main activity of this movement took place in France, involving such authors as Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Benjamin Péret. The movement eventually evolved into the Surrealist philosophy, focusing on an agenda of literary and political revolution.

By the 1930s, however, there was growing tension between writers and political figures, symbolized most clearly by the relationship between the Surrealists and the French communists, leading to an acute polarization along political lines among French intellectuals. André Malraux, disheartened by the decline of western culture in the face of western bourgeosie individualism in the colonies, wrote La Condition humaine (1933; Man's Fate), a novel that reflects his perception of the struggle between these opposing forces. The beginning of World War II forced a new strain of French literature to emerge, where the writing mainly became a branch of political and military activity of collaboration or resistance. At the end of the second World War, the French literary scene was dominated by Existential activity and the work of such authors as Jean-Paul Sartre, who aimed to establish existentialist values as a replacement for the bankrupt values of prewar France. Sartre explored issues of commitment in such works as L'Être et le néant (1943; Being and Nothingness) and L'Âge de raison (1945; The Age of Reason). Another major literary figure of the time was Albert Camus, whose L'Etranger (1942; The Stranger) epitomized his philosophy of revolt. Camus rejected the possibility of an afterlife, believing only in the certainty of death.

While the idea of the French Resistance remained an integral part of French popular literature well into the 1960s, several writers began to question the myth of French national unity and sacrifice as exemplified by the Resistance, and works of such authors as Roger Nimier offered an alternative, disillusioned view of the bond forged during the war. However, it is Samuel Beckett who is often regarded as the most serious challenger to the humanist ideals of the postwar years. In works such as En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot) Beckett put forth the challenge to the existing novel tradition, facilitating the move away from Existentialist literature. Now concern focused on language and narrative technique and not political and ethical ideology, and a new phase of experimentation emerged. Based on the narrative techniques of American authors such as William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, the nouveau roman (new novel) created a new relationship between author and reader.

Equally relevant in the development of modern French literature is the growth of French theater, which in many ways paralleled the development of French fiction. During the early half of the twentieth century and even up to the Second World War, French theater was mainly based in Paris. A major change occurred at the end of the war, when performances moved away from Paris and into the rest of the country. Evolving from an austere and elite literary style to a more diverse mixture that allowed for a wider selection in performance and production, French theater in the 1930s, led by such directors as Jacques Copeau, saw a revival of the classics as well as staging of quality contemporary plays. Copeau, along with Louis Jouvet, Charles Dullin, and others formed what became known as the Cartel, the objective being to promote respect for the text, simplicity in staging, and poetic impact in contrast to spectacular effect. After the 1940s, theater activity focused in Paris again, with new writers emerging, showcasing complex dramas of multiple viewpoints. The period between the 1930s and the 1940s, led by the Cartel, is often referred to as one of the best in French theater, with both new and established authors writing. Major authors of the time included such established playwrights as Camus, Sartre, Henry del Montherlant and Marcel Aymé, as well as newcomers to the literary scene such as Eugène Ionesco, Vauthier, Beckett, and others. In the 1970s, French theater had evolved again, with playwrights now used more as literary consultants rather than creators of the script that actors then produced. Instead, as David Bradby notes in his book on modern French theater, the writer became almost secondary to the production and actors.

A major trend in the critical study of modern French literature has been the marginalization of women authors. Much of this rejection is traced to the dominance of fascist and other right-wing political influences in France in the early twentieth century. In their book discussing fascism and French politics, Richard Golsan and Melanie Hawthorne discuss the role of women in fascist ideology and psychology as well as in the history of fascist movements, parties, and regimes. They suggest that male sexuality and misogyny form crucial building blocks of the fascist male psyche that dominated France through the early twentieth century, shutting out the feminine perspective in both political and intellectual arenas. The postwar years, however, have seen a revival of female writing as well as interest in critical study of female authors who continued to write during the war years, including Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, and others.

Representative Works

Simone de Beauvoir
L'Invitée [She Came to Stay] (novel) 1943
Le Sang des autres [The Blood of Others] (novel) 1945
Le Deuxième Sexe [The Second Sex] (prose) 1949
Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée [Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter] (prose) 1958
La Femme rompue [The Woman Destroyed] (novel) 1968

Samuel Beckett
Malone meurt [Malone Dies] (play) 1951
Molloy (play) 1951
En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (play) 1952
L'Innommable [The Unnamable] (play) 1953
Mercier et Camier [Mercier and Camier] (play) 1970

Yves Bonnefoy
Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve [On the Motion and Immobility of Douve] (poetry) 1953
L'Improbable (poetry) 1959
Pierre écrite [Words in Stone] (poetry) 1965
Un rêve fait à Mantoue (poetry) 1967

Albert Camus
L'Etranger [The Stranger] (novel) 1942
Le Mythe de Sisyphe [The Myth of Sisyphus] (novel) 1942
La Peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947

Michel Deutsch
Dimanche (play) 1974
Partage (play) 1981

Marguerite Duras
Un Barrage contre le Pacifique [The Sea Wall] (novel) 1950
Moderato cantabile (novel) 1958
Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein [The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein] (novel) 1964
L'Amour (novel) 1971
L'Amant [The Lover] (novel) 1984

Violette Leduc
La Bâtarde (autobiography) 1964

André Malraux
La Condition humaine [Man's Fate] (novel) 1933

Georges Michel
La Promenade du Dimanche [The Sunday Walk] (play) 1967
Arbalètes et vieilles rapiers (play) 1969

Roger Nimier
Les Éspées (novel) 1948
Le Hussard Bleu (novel) 1950

Paul Nizan
Antoine Bloyé (novel) 1933
Le Cheval de Troie [The Trojan Horse] (novel) 1935
La Conspiration [The Conspiracy] (novel) 1938

Georges Perec
Zazie dans le metro (play) 1959
La Disparition [A Void] (play) 1969
La Vie ode d'emploi [Life, A User's Manual] (play) 1978

Marcel Proust
Du côté de chez Swann [Swann's Way] (novel) 1913
Sodome et Gomorrhe (novel) 1922
Le Temps retrouvé [The Past Recaptured] (novel) 1927
À la recherché du temps perdu [Remembrance of Things Past] (novel) 1954

Nathalie Sarraute
Portrait d'un inconnu [Portrait of a Man Unknown] (novel) 1948
Martereau (novel) 1953
Le Planétarium [The Planetarium] (novel) 1959
Entre la vie et la mort [Between Life and Death] (novel) 1968

Jean-Paul Sartre
La Nausée [Nausea] (novel) 1938
L'Être et le néant [Being and Nothingness] (novel) 1943
Les Mouches [The Flies] (novel) 1943
L'Âge de raison [The Age of Reason] (novel) 1945
Le Sursis [The Reprieve] (novel) 1945

Michel Tournier
Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique [Friday, or The Other Island] (novel) 1967
Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar [The Four Wise Men] (novel) 1980
Gilles et Jeanne (novel) 1983

Michel Vinaver
Les Coréens (play) 1956
Iphigénie Hotel (play) 1977

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Birkett, Jennifer, and James Kearns. “Changing Forms and Subjects.” In A Guide to French Literature: From Early Modern to Postmodern, pp. 200-75. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

[In the following essay, Birkett and Kearns provide a detailed history of modern French literature, including an overview of novels, plays, and poetry.]



The most profound challenge to the Naturalist legacy in the novel came from Marcel Proust (1871-1922) in À la recherche du temps perdu (published 1913-27). All of Proust's early work was in one form or another a preparation for this...

(The entire section is 34134 words.)

Criticism: French Theater

David Bradby (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Bradby, David. “Introduction: The Inter-War Years.” In Modern French Drama: 1940-1980, pp. 1-15. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

[In the following introduction to Modern French Drama: 1940-1980, Bradby presents a brief overview of the state of French theater following World War I.]

When the second war broke out in Europe, the French theatre had come to the end of an era. The inter-war period had witnessed the triumph of literary drama and poetic production style; Jouvet, Dullin and other outstanding directors had achieved world-wide fame with glittering productions of plays by a new school of playwrights led by Giraudoux,...

(The entire section is 8163 words.)

David Bradby (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Bradby, David. “Playwrights of the Seventies.” In Modern French Drama: 1940-1980, pp. 224-49. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Bradby discusses major French dramatists and directors of the 1970s, focusing on both playwriting and staging issues.]

In the course of the seventies, major changes have taken place in French playwriting which are still difficult to assess. In the excitement of the création collective experiments, during the early years of the decade, the traditional role of the playwright almost seemed to have disappeared: instead of starting with a text, theatre companies started from an idea,...

(The entire section is 13360 words.)

Jeanyves Guérin (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Guérin, Jeanyves. “Is There Something Rotten in the State of French Theater?” In Myths and Realities of Contemporary French Theater: Comparative Views, edited by Patricia M. Hopkins and Wendell A. Aycock, pp. 13-35. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Guérin traces the development of French theater from the 1930s to the 1960s, noting that the non-establishment authors of the 1960s are now part of the established French literary scene and as such are focusing on experimentation that is based in realism and the use of traditional imagery.]

During the nineteenth century, the French theater went through a long period of decline....

(The entire section is 9333 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. Introduction to French Theater: 1918-1939, pp. 1-14. London: Macmillan, 1985.

[In the following essay, Knapp provides a brief history of French playwrights and directors during the years between the two world wars.]

11 November 1918. The Armistice. The end of World War I. A spirit of intense joy swept over France. Jazz bands howled out their brash sounds and rhythmic beats; dancing became popular once again; parades filled the streets. Theatre flourished. Entertainment and excitement were the rule of the day. A counterpoise, certainly, to the harsh facts of war: one and a half million Frenchmen had died; countless had suffered in the trenches;...

(The entire section is 3663 words.)

Criticism: Gender Issues And French Women Writers

Adele King (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: King, Adele. “Nathalie Sarraute.” In French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style, pp. 85-107. London: Macmillan, 1989.

[In the following essay, King examines the works of Nathalie Sarraute, noting that the writer did not associate her strong sense of political feminism with her work.]

When I write, I am neither man nor woman, cat nor dog. I am not me. … I don't exist.

(Rykiel, 1984, p. 40)

I have never understood how some writers can display their life as they do. … What counts is the books.

(Saporta, 1984, p. 23)


(The entire section is 9634 words.)

Adele King (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: King, Adele. “Marguerite Duras.” In French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style, pp. 134-63. London: Macmillan, 1989.

[In the following essay, King presents an overview of Duras's writing, focusing mainly on her novels.]

Woman is desire. … We don't write at all from the same place as men. And when women don't write in the space of desire, they don't write.

(Duras, 1977, p. 102)

Of all twentieth-century French women writers, it is Marguerite Duras who is most often cited as an example of a feminine author.1 Hélène Cixous, for instance, does not see Nathalie Sarraute...

(The entire section is 13021 words.)

Elizabeth Fallaize (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Fallaize, Elizabeth. “Resisting Romance: Simone de Beauvoir, ‘The Woman Destroyed’ and the Romance Script.” In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 15-25. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Fallaize examines de Beauvoir's ideology of romance in the context of The Woman Destroyed.]

The feminist credentials of Simone de Beauvoir's fictional texts are sometimes assumed to be guaranteed by the fact that their author also produced The Second Sex, and indeed Beauvoir's fiction is most usually read against her essays (or Sartre's)....

(The entire section is 4599 words.)

Elizabeth A. Houlding (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Houlding, Elizabeth A. “‘L'Envers de la guerre’: The Occupation of Violette Leduc.” In Gender and Fascism in Modern France, edited by Melanie Hawthorne and Richard J. Golsan, pp. 83-100. Hanover, England: University Press of New England, 1997.

[In the following essay, Houlding examines feminine and gender issues occupying French intellectuals during the war years based on an examination of Violette Leduc's La Bâtarde.]

At night I dreamed that the war was over, that the people with real ability had returned, that I was scurrying like a mangy dog to the refuge of an unemployment bureau. I would wake up soaked with sweat, convince...

(The entire section is 10325 words.)

Criticism: Ideology And Politics

SOURCE: Anderson, Kirsteen H. R. “Imagination and Ideology: Ethical Tensions in Twentieth-Century French Writing.” Modern Language Review 96 (January 2001): 47-60.

[In the following essay, Anderson traces the development of the French ethical imagination in the twentieth century, noting that as the century progressed, French intellectuals moved away from forms of thought that were morally accountable to their historical and cultural context.]

Four prophetic presences could be taken to represent stages in the development of the French ethical imagination in the course of the twentieth century. Valéry's Hamlet, questioning the very ground on which European...

(The entire section is 8234 words.)

Criticism: Modern French Poetry

Anna Balakian (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Balakian, Anna. “From Mallarmé to Breton: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Poetics of Ambiguity.” In Writing in a Modern Temper: Essays on French Literature and Thought in Honor of Henri Peyre, edited by Mary Ann Caws, pp. 118-34. Saratoga, CA: Amna Libri, 1984.

[In the following essay, Balakian traces the path of modern French poetry with an examination of the works of Stéphane Mallarmé and André Breton.]

Separated by half a century, Stéphane Mallarmé and André Breton follow each other like two milestones on the path of modern poetics, and their roles as heads of literary schools, symbolism and surrealism, invite comparison. Their positions as...

(The entire section is 7627 words.)

Michael Bishop (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Bishop, Michael. “Yves Bonnefoy.” In The Contemporary Poetry of France: Eight Studies, pp. 117-36. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1985.

[In the following essay, Bishop presents an overview of Bonnefoy's poetry, characterizing the poet as one of the most influential in modern French letters.]

Les mots comme le ciel
Mais tout entier soudain dans la flaque brêve(1)

From the publication in 1953 of his first major collection of poetry, Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve, Yves Bonnefoy has exercised a fascination and influence in the realm of French letters that, having steadily grown, may now be said to have reached their point of full...

(The entire section is 9695 words.)

Criticism: Resistance Literature

Ian Higgins (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Higgins, Ian. Introduction to Anthology of Second World War French Poetry, pp. 1-51. London: Methuen, 1982.

[In the following excerpt from the introduction to Anthology of Second World War French Poetry, Higgins provides a critical analysis of French war poetry.]


A remarkable literary feature of the war was the sudden popularity of poetry. Many looked to it, both as readers and as writers, for a crystallization of their suffering and grief. The same was true, though less spectacularly, in Britain. But poetry also had practical advantages for résistants wanting maximum impact in clandestine publications. For...

(The entire section is 8591 words.)

Margaret Atack (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Atack, Margaret. “Structures of Irony.” In Literature and the French Resistance: Cultural Politics and Narrative Forms, 1940-1950, pp. 208-31. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Atack examines postwar French literature.]


In L'Univers concentrationnaire (The Concentration Camp World), David Rousset places the concentration camps under the patronage of the modern masters of the grotesque, Jarry's Ubu, Kafka and Céline,2 to present the incongruous juxtaposition of terror and bureaucratic order; but the discovery of the grotesque absurdity...

(The entire section is 9264 words.)

Further Reading


Britton, Celia. The Nouveau Roman: Fiction, Theory, and Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992, 231 p.

Focuses on the nouveau roman style of novel-writing in France, leading into a discussion of the counter-reaction to this style of writing during the 1980s.

Hamer, Kathyryn. “Cultural (Pre)Occupation: Comoedia and French Identity, 1941-44.” Literature and History 10 (spring 2001): 42-53.

A discussion of literary activity in France during the second world war.

Hodson, Leighton, ed. Marcel Proust: The Critical Heritage. London and New York: Routledge, 1989, 421...

(The entire section is 251 words.)