Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

Denis Diderot’s The Nun was originally a series of letters written as a ruse played on Marc-Antoine-Nicolas, marquis de Croismare. Diderot and a group of his friends were attempting to bring the marquis, who had gone to Normandy on a business matter, back to Paris. The novel is based on a true incident. Before leaving Paris, the marquis had been helping a woman who had been cloistered without her consent. The goal of the letters was to persuade the marquis that the woman had escaped by fleeing from the convent and needed his help. In the 1780’s, Diderot expanded the letters into a memoir novel. The author snared himself in the trap set for the marquis, as Suzanne became a real person for Diderot, and he could be found shedding tears as he wrote about her.

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In addition to the novel having its genesis in reality, it also has origins in Diderot’s own life. His sister Angélique took vows as an Ursuline nun. She lost her sanity and died at the age of twenty-eight. Her death was attributed to exhaustion from the debilitating life of excessive work in the convent. In addition to Diderot’s personal animosity for convents and the cloistering of women, he found the practice philosophically unacceptable. Thus, in his novel, Diderot depicts the convent as an oppressive institution where natural instincts are repressed and an abnormal lifestyle is forced upon its members. The convent corrupts and degrades human nature, bringing about aberrant sexual behavior. For Diderot, Madame de Moni’s mystic exultation that drives her to insanity, Sister Sainte Christine’s sadistic cruelty, and Mme ***’s lesbianism are all manifestations of deviant sexual behavior that result from the convent’s forbidding “normal” heterosexual activity.

Diderot’s novel also reflects his admiration for the sentimental novels of Samuel Richardson. Diderot was moved to tears whenever he read these novels. For him, Richardson was a master of creating emotion and pathos in the novel. Richardson’s innocent and helpless young woman abandoned by her family and at the mercy of the cruel and unscrupulous is the model for Suzanne. However, Diderot’s heroine is more complex. Although Diderot was given to sentimentalism, he was also a rationalist. Suzanne suffers excessively; she is innocent and rejected by her family. Suzanne is also very intelligent, however, and she never stops trying to liberate herself from the convent. She devises the ruse of refusing her vows publically in order to call attention to her plight. She manages to engage M. Manouri to seek a legal solution to her case.

In addition, Diderot was interested in the novel as a genre and in the techniques of novel-writing. In The Nun, he uses narrative elements found in his other novels, such as Jacques le fataliste et son maître (wr. c. 1771, pb. 1796; Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, 1797).

The character Suzanne has many qualities of an unreliable narrator. The entire novel is written from her viewpoint. Suzanne stresses her innocence, her virtue, and her naivete too much, while at the same time manipulating her narrative. She represents herself as helpless, naïve, and innocent of any subterfuge. She is concerned...

(The entire section contains 820 words.)

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