From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment

From Savage to Citizen: The Invention of the Peasant in the French Enlightenment

Synopsis

"From Savage to Citizen examines the invention of the peasant in the literature, theater, and painting of the French Enlightenment. It contends that, much like the noble savage, the peasant is one of the major constructions of the Enlightenment, and that its articulation and development are consonant with changes in the social order and the development of bourgeois ideologies over the course of the century. Placing the works of canonical and popular authors and artists within the context of contemporary trends in philosophical thought, aesthetic theory, and political economy, it illuminates the cultural forces that worked to elevate the peasant to such a prominent place in French national consciousness in the eighteenth century and beyond." "Using methodologies derived from cultural studies, new historicism, and the history of ideas, Amy S. Wyngaard argues that changing ideas of individual, class, and national identity in the eighteenth century were elaborated around portrayals of the peasant." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

Between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, striking changes occurred in the way French authors and artists depicted the peasantry. No longer the tragic brute of La Bruyère, the dirty and barefooted laborer of the Le Nains, or Molière’s comically ignorant villager, the peasant of eighteenth-century fiction and painting was ambitious, virtuous, and happy. While the seventeenth-century peasant was portrayed as an “other” to be ridiculed or avoided, its eighteenth-century counterpart inspired the public’s admiration, identification, and envy. Throughout the eighteenth century, authors and artists such as Marivaux, Rétif de la Bretonne, Greuze, and Fragonard fed the public’s seemingly insatiable demand for portrayals of the countryside and its inhabitants. Arguably the single most popular subject of Enlightenment literature and art, the peasant was featured in hundreds of novels, plays, short stories, poems, and paintings from the 1710s to the 1790s.

Along with the noble savage, the peasant can be seen as one of the major inventions of the French Enlightenment. As this study will suggest, the two figures are inextricably linked, embodying the contradiction between philosophy and practice central to many Enlightenment constructions. Much like the noble savage, who was idealized in literary treatises but ultimately served to justify slavery and the colonialist project, the fictional peasant effectively glossed over the harsh realities of the contemporary countryside. Also like the noble savage, although the figure of the peasant was based in certain realities, it was above all a cultural projection that reveals much about the way in which the eighteenth-century French public conceived of itself and the nation. As I will argue, the peasant played a central role in the formation of notions of individual, class, and national identity in Enlightenment France. Over the course of the century, the peasant came to represent the core of France and what it meant to be French. Significantly, the images and ideals formulated around the peasant during the Enlightenment remain at the center of conceptions of French identity to-

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