Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (fils) 1707–1777
French novelist, short story writer, and dramatist.
The following entry presents a selection of criticism from 1962 to the present. For additional information on Crébillon's life and works see Literature Criticism from 1400–1800, Volume 1.
Crébillon's works examine the psychology and ethics of sexuality in the aristocratic society of eighteenth-century France. Scientific advances during the Enlightenment, along with the belief that reason could free humanity from superstition and prejudice, led to an age of broad intellectual tolerance and cosmopolitanism; for the aristocracy, it was also a relatively peaceful and prosperous era during which they were left with few pursuits besides social gatherings, conversation, and dilettantish diversions. Crébillon's characters are aristocrats who fill their time with amateur interests in art and science, and with the pursuit of sensual pleasures. Consistent with the Enlightenment desire to study all aspects of human experience, Crébillon attempted to reconcile pleasure with virtue, and depicted the power and attraction of eroticism without suggesting it as proof of man's fallen nature. Because interest in sexual relations pervaded his world, Crébillon's dissections of the game of seduction reveal as much about his society, in all its aspects, as they do about the psychology of sex.
Crébillon was the son of Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (père), a tragic dramatist whose reputation, in his day, rivalled that of Voltaire's. Although the younger Crébillon's first literary works were also written for the theater, he was drawn to dramatic burlesque and farces rather than tragedy. Following this early theatrical work Crébillon turned to short fiction: his first success, L'Ecumoire; ou, Tanzaï et Néadarné (1734; The Skimmer; or, The History of Tanzaï and Néadarné), is a collection of satirical tales based on the lives of prominent social figures. Because the work was considered slanderous, Crébillon was imprisoned for a short time. The stories in this and his next satirical work, Le Sopha (1740; The Sofa), which has been called "the most elegantly immoral of all French books," are based on the format of the Arabian Nights. The Sofa also scandalized court society and earned Crébillon a brief exile from Paris. Throughout his career Crébillon was prominent in social and literary circles, and relied on his knowledge of both in the composition of his witty and penetrating novels. Except for the publication and wide popularity of his novels, there was little
of significance in the remainder of Crébillon's long life; ironically, though, the writer who scandalized Paris early in his career was made royal literary censor in 1759.
As the innovator of the elegantly erotic novel of fashionable manners, Crébillon helped create a genre—the memoir novel—that was popular in France from about 1730 to 1770. His masterpiece of the form, Les Egarements du coeur et de l'esprit (1736–38; The Wayward Head and Heart), is the study of a young man's introduction to sexuality and the sexual mores of his society. More than just a novel of initiation, The Wayward Head and Heart also portrays the difficulty of resolving the conflicts between reason and passion. Even though Crébillon never adopted a formal moral philosophy, there is implicit in the book serious criticism of his society's shallowness and callousness—criticism that is especially effective because it does not depend solely on didactic statement, but is demonstrated through the behavior of characters who condemn themselves by their own actions. Crébillon also wrote several Oriental romances, of which The Skimmer and The Sofa, both full of satire and sexual themes, are regarded as his best. The Skimmer deals with the young couple Tanzaï and Néadarné and their search for an understanding of their love. The Sofa focuses on the experience of the narrator, a Hindu whose soul has been forced to move from one sofa to another until it finds one upon which two virgins will consummate their desire. P. L. M. Fein has noted, "The main intention in writing those tales that have a fashionable oriental setting seems to have been to satirize French social conventions in an exotic milieu."
Contemporary criticism of Crébillon has been primarily favorable. He has been praised for his psychological insight, wit, and brilliant description of early eighteenth-century society. Nineteenth-century English critics, who in general found the French novel inferior to the English, criticized Crébillon as a defective observer of the social scene with an insufficient command of the techniques of novel writing; however, critics now believe that Crébillon's merit has been obscured by moral prejudice, and many consider his works misunderstood and underrated by earlier critics. Most modern critics focus their attention on Crébillon's masterpiece, The Wayward Head and Heart; they find it a brilliantly understated examination of the immorality of popular conceptions of love in the author's time, not an immoral work concerned solely with erotic titillation. Crébillon's fiction has been the subject of several excellent critical studies in recent years. Vivienne Mylne has asserted that "it seems clear that Crébillon deserves serious attention as a literary craftsman," and Thomas M. Kavanagh has stated, "The pleasure of reading Crébillon lies in admiring how his characters find new ways to surprise, parry, and elude the rhetorical traps they continually set for one another." Martin Turnell and Peter Brooks, in particular, have written lengthy, perceptive essays on the author's work. In addition to the light Crébillon throws upon the age in which he lived, these critics argue that he provides an important and compelling study of the various conflicts surrounding the nature of love and lust, and the games of social intercourse.