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.
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...
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