Persian Letters by Montesquieu

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(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

In these 161 letters written by various fictional correspondents, Montesquieu gives a sharp picture of many facets of Parisian society and the customs of the early eighteenth century. The correspondence also reveals much of the thinking of the time on comparative religions.

Although the writing is in a formal mode in keeping with the status of the correspondents, Montesquieu’s tone and style never become stiff or artificial. The satire is by turns muted in the mellowness of friendly correspondence and proclaimed in the harshness of intentional criticism. Unlike many similar collections of letters, however, PERSIAN LETTERS is entertaining, pleasant reading. The concise, clear sentences have a conversational tone. In spite of Montesquieu’s title, the aim of the writing is not a sociological picture of life in a Persian harem. It is a subtle, accurate satire of French society, pointing up the decadent attitudes and loose morals, from 1712, in the last years of the reign of Louis XIV and the regime of Philip Duc de Orleans, during the minority of Louis XV. In PERSIAN LETTERS there are numerous resemblances to Dufresney’s AMUSEMENTS, THE SPECTATOR, and the DECAMERON, writings known to have been among Montesquieu’s favorite books.

PERSIAN LETTERS, printed in Amsterdam and published anonymously in 1721, was an immediate success. As a friend of Montesquieu had predicted, copies of the work “sold like loaves.”

Because of a thin thread of story, PERSIAN LETTERS may be said to contain a sustained narrative. Usbek, from his youth a courtier, was given to sincerity in his resolution to remain uncorrupted by wordly concerns. Finally the ministers came to question his intentions because he was not given to flattery. Persecuted, he resolved to go to Europe and eventually to visit Paris. Rica, a young friend, went as his companion. Other Persians with whom these two exchanged letters were Ibben, in Smyrna, and Rhedi, in Venice.

Letters to Usbek from his wives, the eunuchs, and other servants reported unrest in the harem. These letters told of the jealousies and the temperamental behavior of the wives, the inadequacies of underlings with responsibility but without authority, and the efforts of those persons to maintain their status through Usbek’s support.

The revolt continued; violence grew. The wives wrote, variously proclaiming their devotion to, or their hatred of, Usbek. The chief eunuch was killed while attempting to maintain order in the harem. Roxana, the most recent of Usbek’s wives, had been the instigator of that unrest and violence. Hers is the last letter in the book; in it, she tells of having betrayed Usbek. Personifying liberated womanhood (a transition apparent in eighteenth-century France), Roxana wrote:Yes, I have deceived you; I have led away your eunuchs . . . and I have known how to turn your frightful seraglio into a place of pleasure and delight. . . . How could you think that I was such a weakling as to imagine there was nothing for me in the world but to worship your caprices; that while you indulged all your desires, you should have the right to thwart me in all mine? . . . I have remodelled your laws upon those of nature; and my mind has always maintained its independence. . . .

Rica, good-humored and sardonic, represents the lighter side of Montesquieu’s nature. Rica jibed at groups and individuals, at religion and government, at customs and beliefs. Nothing escaped his cynical eye. It was his observation that the King of France was much wealthier than the King of Spain; even though the latter owned mines of gold and silver, the French king’s wealth came from a more inexhaustible source, the vanity of his subjects. The gullibility of the French people, Rica wrote, was so great that should the king be short of money, he had only to suggest that a piece of paper was the coin of the realm, and the people were at once convinced of its value.

In Rica’s estimation, the Christian religion consisted of an immense...

(The entire section is 1,129 words.)