Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac 1619-1655

French satirist and dramatist.

Cyrano de Bergerac was an imaginative and evocative writer, a freethinker, and a pioneer in the science fiction genre. He is best known for his two-part satirical novel L'Autre Monde (c. 1648-50), which chronicles imaginary voyages to the sun and the moon, where the hero finds numerous wonders and encounters societies manifestly superior to those on earth.

Biographical Information

Cyrano was born Savinien de Cyrano in Paris, the son of a successful and socially mobile lawyer. The elder Cyrano was, for a time, the owner of an estate at Bergerac, near Paris, from which the author derived his name. Cyrano was educated at the Collège de Beauvais before entering Carbon de Casteljoux's Company of Guards at age nineteen. He served in a unit of gentlemen during the Thirty Years war, earning a reputation as a skilled duelist. Twice wounded, Cyrano retired from the service. Although there is some debate over the matter, some scholars believe that he continued his education at the Collège de Lisieux in Paris and studied under the Epicurean philosopher Pierre Gassendi, who had an important influence on a number of freethinkers of the period, including Cyrano. During this time Cyrano led a wild life and embarked upon a writing career, at which he was somewhat successful. His plays and essays, containing provocative and controversial material, earned him a reputation as an atheist and a libertine. In 1654 Cyrano was seriously injured in an accident; he died the following year. Two years later Les Etats et empires de la lune, the first volume of L'Autre Monde, was published; the unfinished second volume, Les Etats et empires du soleil was printed in 1662.

Major Works

Cyrano's collection of writing is small but varied: he is known to have written two plays, a collection of essays, and a two-part novel. His body of work reflects an interest in philosophy and radical ideas, a highly developed sense of satire, and a bold imagination. His first play, Le Pédant Joué, was written 1645 but probably never performed. A prose satire, the play lampoons the colleges and educational system. His second play, the verse tragedy La Mort d'Agrippine (written in 1646) caused a sensation when it was staged in 1654; theater patrons were scandalized by the atheistic views it purportedly espoused. His volume of Lettres, which was published in 1654, does not comprise a series of reprinted letters as much as a collection of essays, composed between 1648 and 1654, treating various philosophical matters. Each epistle is only nominally addressed to a person; some even contain fictional events and characters. Cyrano's most famous work, L'Autre Monde, relating imaginary voyages to the moon and the sun, is variously seen as two separate novels or as a single novel in two parts. In Les Etats et empires de la lune Cyrano, who is the main character, travels to the moon, succeeding mainly through chance. On the moon he finds a sophisticated society which is in many ways the reverse of the one he left on earth. For instance, fathers must obey their sons, poems act as currency, and no one believes in God. Cyrano presents the culture in great detail, providing descriptions of moving cities, talking books, and electric lights. In Les Etats et empires du soleil the character Cyrano escapes from prison on earth to seek sanctuary on the sun. Again he finds a land utterly different from anything on earth, encountering talking trees, a society of birds, and a utopia of philosophers where Cyrano encounters René Descartes. More than just an inventive adventure story, L'Autre Monde offers complex social commentaries on science, religion, cosmology, and philosophy. Variously described as satire or utopian writing in the tradition of Thomas More or Tommaso Campanella, L'Autre Monde is also recognized as one of the first examples of science fiction writing.

Critical Reception

Critics are united in their praise of Cyrano's evocative imagination and skillful use of humor. They view Cyrano's rich and detailed descriptions of alternative societies and his transformation of scientific ideas into imaginative details in L'Autre Monde as laying the groundwork of science fiction writing. Critics note that the philosophies of many eminent scholars and scientists shaped Cyrano's thinking, including those of Galileo, Descartes, Gassendi, and Campanella. Some observe that he presents several schools of thought at one time, often without combining or reconciling them. Critics also point to the ironic and satirical aspects of Cyrano's writing, discussing the author's interest in exploring ideas at odds with mainstream thought and in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Combining penetrating critiques of accepted values and beliefs with exuberant flights of the imagination, Cyrano's works are hailed as bold fusions of reason and fantasy.