France Literature in the 19th Century

The literature of the Consulate and the Empire does not present particularly valuable results. A significant broadening of horizons, which will have its full development in Romanticism, is announced by writers such as J. de Maistre, E.-P. de Sénancour, B. Constant, de Staël, continuator of the work of Montesquieu and Rousseau, although projected with her critical works and novels towards Romanticism, and France-A.-R. Chateaubriand, which exalts the beauty of the Christian faith and in the story René (1802) provides the first representation of the mal du siècle, a sort of existential melancholy widespread among young people above all due to the uncertainty that dominated the years immediately following the Revolution. Romanticism, as a school, is imposed in France later than elsewhere and its destiny is played in the theater, having its point of reference in V. Hugo (Préface de Cromwell, 1827); the staging of Hernani (1830) given the romantic revolution that took place.

Poetry is reborn from its ashes as the imagination has finally been released. Among the poets stand out above all A. de Lamartine, V. Hugo, A. De Vigny, a very fine poet who makes use of the ‘symbol’ ante litteram, and A. de Musset, a bitter supporter of an excessively effusive and sentimental poem. We should also remember T. Gautier, initiator of the school of art pour art, and G. de Nerval, for his recourse to the dream in the meaning that later will be of C. Baudelaire and S. Mallarmé.

According to MATHGENERAL, the theater production is rich, but mediocre; many poets also write for the stage. The debate on the ‘rules’ is important; Stendhal (Racine et Shakespeare, 1823-25) supports the use of prose for the “tragédie nationale”, the abandonment of the three units and the adoption of arguments and themes of national history (which P. Mérimée will do in his Théâtre de Clara Gazul, 1835); Hugo, in the Préface mentioned above, reiterates the rejection of the three units in favor of a “unité d’ensemble”, but retains the verse and demands realism in the new drama, a contrast between the sublime and the grotesque. The latter will be the prevailing address in the theater of the period (A. Dumas).

After a few examples of historical fiction, H. de Balzac’s novel of modern costume is established, orienting all the literature of the century with the Comédie humaine. Stendhal’s novels will have the deserved success only many years after the author’s death, while the fame of G. Sand declines. Dumas and E. Sue will enjoy great favor with the public. THERE IS. Nodier, G. de Nerval, P. Mérimée and T. Gautier excel in the art of novella and fantastic tale, in the wake of ETA Hoffmann’s translations. The great poets also gave numerous novels, including Les misérables (1862) by V. Hugo and Le Capitaine Fracasse (1863) by Gautier.

Romanticism involves a fervent renewal of all ideas, a prerequisite for a change in historical, social and religious studies: numerous writers on politics and religion (F.-R. de La Mennais, France-P.-G. Guizot, C.-A.-H. de Tocqueville), the socialist reformers (C.-H. de Saint-Simon, France-M.-C. Fourier), historians (M.-J.-L. Thiers, J.-N.-A. Thierry, J. Michelet, E. Quinet). The criticism is completely renewed: it becomes historical criticism with A.-F. Villemain and essentially psychological with C.-A. Sainte-Beuve.

The political defeat of the revolution of 1848 provokes a harsh reaction even against the more sentimental aspects of Romanticism. Gautier in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) had already rejected the principle of a committed and useful art: impersonal and Parnassian poetry triumphed after 1848 not only in the Émaux et camées (1852) by Gautier himself, but above all in the poetry of C. Leconte de Lisle and T. de Banville, Sully-Prudhomme, France Coppée and J.-M. de Hérédia. J.-E. Renan and H.-A. Taine are the masters of the new generation.

C. Baudelaire with his Fleurs du mal (1857), in a perfect equidistance from Parnassianism and Romanticism, opens the way to true modern poetry and, after him, P. Verlaine and A. Rimbaud continue his work in research of a universal poem.

The new philosophical currents (H. Bergson) and the Catholic awakening react in a spiritualist sense to materialist and rationalistic positivism ; in the literary field, symbolism and decadence arrive. Among the decadent we should mention S. Mallarmé, P.-A.-M. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and J. Laforgue, the most original in the attempt to exorcise, through play and irony, the lucid awareness of human misery. Symbolism has more defined characteristics, as evidenced by the manifesto published by J. Moréas on the Figaro (1886). Among the symbolists we must remember at least A. Samain, H. de Régnier, France Jammes, P. Fort.

The realist novel significantly asserted itself in the same year as the Fleurs du mal con Madame Bovary by G. Flaubert. The brothers E. and J. de Goncourt pave the way for É’s naturalism. Zola, who with the cycle Les Rougon-Macquart (1871-93) tells in a crude way the society of the Second Empire. Les soirées de Medan (1880), a collection of short stories, becomes a sort of school manifesto, with the contribution of G. de Maupassant, P. Alexis, L. Hennique, H. Céard and J.-K. Huysmans; in 1887 some of them signed the ‘manifesto of the five’, which codified the crisis of the naturalist novel. The traditional novel, however, has its own path open with A. Daudet, E. Fromentin, P. Bourget, P. Loti, A. France. J. Renardremains an intimate naturalist and attentive to the simple aspects of reality.

The theater has a clear reaction against the great romantic dramas. The comedies of É. Augier and A. Dumas son dominate the scene throughout the Second Empire, with their simplicity and naturalness; the plays, vaudeville and comedies of E.-M. Labiche, H. Meilhac, L. Halévy, V. Sardou. In the last years of the century various other trends were highlighted: the plays of H. Becque, the Théâtre libre by A. Antoine, the Théâtre d’art by P. Fort, the Théâtre d’idées by France de Curel, up to to Ubu Roi (1896) by A. Jarry, an ante litteram surrealist work and to Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) by E. Rostand, who brings the verse drama back to some success.

France Literature in the 19th Century

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