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The romantic tendencies implicit in the 18th century had by 1830 become a full-fledged and triumphant movement affecting every area of French letters--poetry, drama, the novel, history, and criticism. Poetry completely recovered its elan, while the novel, as the most suitable genre for registering the social upheavals brought first by the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars and then by the expansion of capitalism and the industrial revolution, ultimately became the dominant mode of expression. The century-long conflicts between reactionaries and liberals, the church and the anticlericals, and the bourgeoisie and the proletariat provided ample scope for the literary giants of the age--Hugo, Balzac, Michelet, and Zola, each endowed with a prodigious productivity.

The aristocratic Vicomte de Chateaubriand ushered in the century with an aggressive defense of Catholicism, Le Genie du christianisme (1802; trans. as The Beauties of Christianity, 1815), and two novels set among the American Indians. His Memoires d'outre-tombe (Eng. trans., 1902), composed between 1811 and 1841 in a romantic vein, is considered a classic of French autobiographical writing. Madame de Stael, notable chiefly as a literary critic, became the champion of German romantic literature in her De L'Allemagne (1813; trans. as Germany, 1913). Her influence can be seen in Benjamin Constant's novel Adolphe (1816; Eng. trans., 1817), analyzing the waning passion of a young man for an older woman, which suggests many parallels with Constant and de Stael's own tortuous relationship.

Alphonse de Lamartine, with his Meditations poetiques (1820; Eng. trans., 1839), brought French poetry back to its lyric roots. He was the first in a line of great French romantic poets that included Alfred de Vigny, who came to prominence with his Poemes antiques et modernes (1826); Alfred de Musset, known alike for his Byronic poetry--alternately impish and moving--and his affair with George Sand, herself a romantic novelist and early feminist; and the giant among them, Victor Hugo, who for 65 years would magnificently amplify every possible poetic theme and reign as chief spokesman and practitioner of the romantic credo.

The first break with romanticism was made by Théophile Gautier, a onetime enthusiast whose art-for-art's-sake credo announced the arrival of the PARNASSIANS, a group of poets infatuated with formal perfection and objectivity and hostile to the romantics' subjective effusions. Led by Charles Marie Leconte de Lisle in the 1860s, the Parnassians saw their ideals best realized in the sonnet collection Les Trophees (1893; Eng. trans., 1897) of Jose Maria de Heredia.

Influenced by the Parnassians but determined to create beauty even out of the horrors of life, Charles Baudelaire in The Flowers of Evil (1857; Eng. trans., 1909) sounded a new note--obsessive, morbid, presenting the poet as an accursed being--that would significantly influence all subsequent French poetry. Arthur Rimbaud, in A Season in Hell (1873; Eng. trans., 1932) and Illuminations (1886; Eng. trans., 1932), reached an absolute of revolt, experimenting with mixtures of verse and prose, with rhythms, and with the juxtaposition of unrelated words. His older friend and lover Paul Verlaine brought to French poetry a musical, melodic quality it had not previously attained, seen especially in his collection Jadis et naguere (Once Upon a Time and Not Long Ago, 1884). Stéphane Mallarmé, whose most celebrated poem was Afternoon of a Faun (1876; Eng. trans., 1951), which Debussy later set to music, guided poetry toward even more abstruse paths and, as the leader of the symbolists in the 1880s and 1890s, exercised an enormous influence over his contemporaries that is still lively today.

The 50 years between 1830 and 1880 witnessed enormous changes in the shape of the novel as it was molded by a succession of innovators. Madame George Sand, exemplifying romanticism in its most individualistic form, in Lelia (1833; Eng. trans., 1978) championed the ultimate moral claim of passion over convention, though her novels of country life, such as The Country Waif (1847; Eng. trans., 1976) and Fanchon the Cricket (1848; Eng. trans., 1977), have endured better. Stendhal, who also portrayed the dominant role of passion as a motivating force in life, nevertheless injected into his two great novels, The Red and the Black (1830; Eng. trans., 1916) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839; Eng. trans., 1901), an ironic tone and analytical power that foreshadowed the 20th-century psychological novel. Victor Hugo, in his evocation of medieval Parisian life, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831; Eng. trans., 1833), and Alexandre Dumas père, in a whole series of adventures covering high points of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in France, made the historical novel a genre to be reckoned with. Hugo's later work, Les Misérables (1862; Eng. trans., 1862), recounting the redemption of a convict emerging from the lower depths, successfully merged high drama with questions of social morality.

The colossus of 19th-century French novelists, however, was Honoré de Balzac, whose prodigious, multivolume Human Comedy (1842-48; Eng. trans., 1895-98), encompassing more than 2,000 characters drawn from every rank and walk of life and sweeping imaginatively over 40 years of French history, brilliantly delineated a major society in flux. His genius for realistic detail, together with his emphasis on material gain as the engine of human behavior, directly links Balzac with the novelistic REALISM that won the day in the second half of the century.

This was most triumphantly realized in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857; Eng. trans., 1886), the story of a provincial adulteress whose bleak life ends in tragedy--a novel as notable for its perfection of style as for its unerring observation. A disciple of Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, excelled in the sparely told, realistic, often ironic short story, as in such collections as La Maison Tellier (1881; Eng. trans., 1910) and Mademoiselle Fifi (1882; Eng. trans., 1917). Influenced by contemporary determinist thought, Émile Zola sought to make the novel a more scientific reflection of reality. His 20-volume fictional examination of every level of social life during the Second Empire, Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-93), with its emphasis on the sordid and the depressing, remains the outstanding exemplar of NATURALISM whose influence as a movement it spanned.

History and criticism also came to maturity during the 19th century. Jules Michelet, whose immense 17-volume History of France (1833-43, 1855-67; Eng. trans., 1882-87) vibrantly resurrected the past, exemplified the romantic narrative tradition at its best. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his probing Democracy in America (1835, 1840; both trans. the same years), offered analyses of American politics and character in large part still valid today. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, in his astute study Port-Royal (1840-59) and in his in-depth analyses of French literary figures, gave to literary criticism the importance it has retained since. In applying his erudition as Hebrew scholar and philologist to religion in The Origins of Christianity (7 vols., 1863-83; Eng. trans., 1888-89), Ernest Renan established modern critical methods in France. Simultaneously, the philosopher and historian Hippolyte Taine, seeking a scientific explanation for historical and cultural phenomena, professed to discover in the interplay of physical and psychological factors the cause of national and individual variations. Zola's naturalistic oeuvre was the application of this hypothesis to literature.

The French theater was at first dominated by the romantic dramas of Hugo, whose Hernani (1830; Eng. trans., 1830) liberated playwrights from the confining traditions of the past, and by those of Dumas père. These were followed in popularity by the well-made plays of Eugène Scribe, Victorien Sardou, and Alexandre Dumas fils, who also defended social theses.

Jean Boorsch.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #8, ©1996.

Introduction to French Literature || The Middle Ages

The French Renaissance || The Triumph of Classicism

The French Enlightenment

19th Century || 20th Century


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