Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution

By Sara E. Melzer; Leslie W. Rabine | Go to book overview
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Triste Amérique: Atala and the
Postrevolutionary Construction of Woman


Historians and art historians have in recent years begun to recognize the extraordinary significance of the prevalence of feminine civic allegory in the iconography produced by the French Revolution. As Lynn Hunt writes: "The appearance of feminine allegorization was momentous for it became associated with the Republic ever after." 1 Though, as Hunt beautifully documents, the figure of Marianne, emblem of Liberty and of the French Republic, did not immediately impose itself as the unique, consensual icon of national sovereignty, from the time of its first appearance in 1792 it became an increasingly powerful visual source of legitimation for the successive revolutionary regimes that ruled France and eventually, after periods of eclipse and contestation, the official symbol of the state. 2

Curiously, however, literary critics and historians—myself included—have been slow to draw the consequences of this important iconographic shift for the representation of women in nineteenth-century French fiction. And yet arguably the most lasting effect of the French Revolution on nineteenth- century French representations of women from Chateaubriand's virginal Atala to Zola's courtesan, Nana, may well have been the powerful revolutionary conflation of the feminine and the state, the tendency for representations of woman in post-absolutist France to be collapsed with the stabilization and destabilization of the new social order instituted by 1789.

So heavily politicized and so insistently genderized is representation in the wake of the revolution that the feminine subject in postrevolutionary French fiction from early romanticism through naturalism becomes fully intelligible only when viewed in light of the historical circumstances that presided over its construction. Because of the widespread feminization of republican iconography in France, the nineteenth-century heroine, in contradistinction to her eighteenth-century predecessor, is always inhabited by the uncanny shadow of the state whose very laws serve to silence and oppress her. This allegorical specter, sometimes muted, sometimes boldly foregrounded, encumbers the female protagonist in the nineteenth-century French novel with an ideological charge that neither prerevolutionary female protagonists in French novels nor


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Rebel Daughters: Women and the French Revolution
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