French literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

French literature

French literature, writings in medieval French dialects and standard modern French. Writings in Provençal and Breton are considered separately, as are works in French produced abroad (as at Canadian literature, French).

Medieval Literature

Until the 12th cent. AD most forms of writing in Gaul were in Latin. Old French emerged from the Latin vernacular of the south known as the langue d'oïl. Because of the French Crusades and military interests abroad (1050–1210), Old French became an international tongue, and a literature arose that reflected the attitudes and activities of the military, as in the Chanson de Roland (c.1100; see Roland). A tradition of epic poetry was developed by traveling minstrels, or jongleurs. Lengthy narratives were recited in groups of laisses, 10- to 12-syllable lines rhyming in groups of varied lengths (see chansons de geste).

Another early literary strain developed in the 12th cent. from the stories of saints and heroes and the Celtic romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Later, more refined romances and allegories include the philosophical Roman de la Rose and the witty Reynard the Fox.Marie de France and others created new forms, including the lai, animal fable, and fabliau (rhymed anecdotal piece). Many of these were based on themes from classical mythology. The works of Ovid and Aesop were especially popular sources, as was Arthurian legend.

French lyric poetry developed with the songs of the troubadours and the trouvères and from the more personal works of professional poets. Among the best-known lyric poets of the Middle Ages are Colin Muset, Rutebeuf, Christine de Pisan, Alain Chartier, Charles d'Orléans, and the outstanding poet of Old French, François Villon. The earliest French drama consisted of religious plays, the most familiar of which are the anonymous mystères (such as the Mystère d'Adam) of the 12th cent. The miracle plays of the 13th cent. include Jehan Bodel's Jeu de St. Nicolas (1200). By the end of the century secular and didactic pieces, many of them comedies and fantasies, were being performed by nonclerics. French prose literature began with the writings of the chroniclers and historians, among them Geoffroi de Villehardouin, Jean de Joinville, Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Comines, last of the major medieval historians.

Renaissance Literature

The late 15th and early 16th cent. saw the flowering of the Renaissance in France. Three giants of world literature—François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard, and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne—towered over a host of brilliant but lesser figures in the 16th cent. Italian influence was strong in the poetry of Clément Marot and the dramas of Éstienne Jodelle and Robert Garnier. The poet Ronsard and the six poets known collectively as the Pléiade (see Pleiad) reacted against Italian influence to produce a body of French poetry to rival Italian achievement. The early 17th-century critic François de Malherbe attacked the excesses of the Pléiade; his zeal for the correct choice of words has marked French literature ever since.

The civil and religious strife of the later 16th cent. was reflected clearly in the works of the period, particularly in the poetry of Théodore d'Aubigné, Guillaume de Bartas, and Jean de Sponde. The greatest prose of the period was produced in the fiction of the ebullient Rabelais and in the magnificent essays of Montaigne. Under the stable and prosperous Bourbon monarchy Paris became the glittering cultural center of Western civilization.

Classicism: The Seventeenth Century

The 17th cent. produced the great academies and coteries of French literature. The elegant, controlled aesthetic of French classicism was the hallmark of the age: in the brilliant dramas of Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière; in the poetry and satire of Jean de La Fontaine and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux; in the prose of Blaise Pascal, Marie, marquise de Sévigné, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette, and François, duc de La Rochefoucauld. The works of the ecclesiastic François de la Mothe Fénelon, the social philosopher Claude Henri, comte de Saint-Simon, and the satirist and classical scholar Jean de La Bruyère belong to this illustrious period as well as to the 18th cent.

These great writers vary enormously in their attitudes and interests but share a style that is lucid, polished, and restrained. They are, as a group, chiefly concerned with observing the subtleties of human behavior. Their works display qualities that have become permanently identified with the best French writing: wit, sophistication, imagination, and delight in debate.

From the mid-1680s French prose writers honed their critical facility as poetical and theatrical works waned in number and distinction. Ecclesiastical writing abounded and among the foremost figures in this field were Fénelon, Esprit Fléchier, Pasquier Quesnel, and Richard Simon. Major precursors of the Enlightenment of the 18th cent. were the philosophers Bernard de Fontenelle and Pierre Bayle.

Rationalism: The Eighteenth Century

The great French rationalists of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason—François-Marie Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu—produced some of the most powerful and influential political and philosophical writing in Western history. The political and religious opinions expressed by the compilers of the Encyclopédie (completed 1765), led by Denis Diderot and the mathematician Jean d'Alembert, had great impact on French and foreign thought.

The period was also notable for advances in drama and fiction. Successful writers of tragic drama, other than Voltaire, include Antoine Houdar de La Motte and Buyrette de Belloy; the great writers of comedy were Pierre de Marivaux and Pierre de Beaumarchais. The French novel—Diderot and Marivaux contributed to its literary form—gained popularity with the works of Alain René Le Sage, Abbé Prevost, and Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and by the end of the century was among the foremost of literary genres. Another significant form of literature was the memoir; among the many writers of the period who excelled at this sort of autobiography were Mathieu Marais, Edmond Barbier, and Jean François Marmontel.

Romanticism, Realism, and Other Movements: The Nineteenth Century

The upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era were accompanied by new intellectual trends. Romanticism, greatly influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau, was heralded in the writings of Germaine de Staël and François René, vicomte de Chateaubriand. The principal figures of the Romantic period include Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred, comte de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, Gérard de Nerval, Prosper Mérimée, Alexandre Dumas, père, and Théophile Gautier.

The period that saw the transformation from romanticism to the realism of Gustave Flaubert was spanned by the writings of the great 19th-century novelists Stendhal, George Sand, and Honoré de Balzac. The romantics and realists alike wrote of the painful discovery of self-awareness and the torments of the inner life and, in differing degrees, concerned themselves with contemporary social mores. Hugo and Balzac both wrote much-imitated historical novels. Balzac's multivolume panoramic description of French society, entitled La Comédie humaine, stands as a unique literary monument to individual genius and a remarkable portrait of an era. The outstanding critic of the era was Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, whose literary essays were models of perceptive criticism.

In the later part of the century major writers of fiction included Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, renowned for his short stories. The movement toward naturalism had its foremost French representative in the prolific novelist Émile Zola. The plays of Eugène Labiche, Émile Augier, the younger Alexandre Dumas, and later of Edmond Rostand won popularity in France and abroad. Major 19th-century French writers of history include Augustin Thierry, Jules Michelet, and François Guizot. Hippolyte Taine and Ferdinand Brunetière were outstanding critics, and Anatole France is considered the leading satirist of the age.

In poetry the Fleurs du mal (1857) of Charles Baudelaire had enormous influence, both at the time it was published and for many decades thereafter. In the later 19th cent. several circles, or schools, of literary figures became a prominent feature of Parisian letters: the Parnassians, led by Charles Marie Leconte de Lisle; the group around the Goncourt brothers; the symbolists, who were followers of Stéphane Mallarmé; and the decadents, who sought to glorify Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. The great poets of the age, including Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud, Péguy, and later Paul Valéry, worked for the most part outside such groups.

The Twentieth Century

The Novel

In the 20th cent., as in the 19th, the novel was the chief form of literary achievement. Although the impact on fiction writing of such factors as the vast changes in political climate, the new concentration on modern culture, the great wars, the development of major publishing houses, the introduction of the paperback, and the evolution of the movies has been very great, French writing has maintained a concern for moral questions, individual liberty and character, and, above all, respect for language and form.

The novelists Paul Bourget, Maurice Barrès, and Pierre Loti explore the psychological explanation of human behavior. Colette, in her novels, stories, and journals, expresses penetrating insight into human nature. Marcel Proust, in his great novel cycle À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) makes subtle use of subconscious memory. Psychological examination continues in the works of André Gide. The cyclical novels of Jules Romains and Roger Martin Du Gard comment on society and morality. The surge of writing with strong Catholic inspiration include the works of François Mauriac and the novels of Georges Bernanos.

Jean Giraudoux's dramas are distinguished for exquisite style and treatment, as are the varied works of Henri de Montherlant. The novels of André Malraux, Édouard Peisson, Roger Vercel, and Joseph Kessel treat humanity's commitment to action, while the extraordinary and complex works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir developed a form of existentialist philosophy to express the pain of living. Existentialism was also a primary aspect of the early writing of Albert Camus.

In the mid-20th cent. the standard novel form was abandoned by many writers of fiction, including Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vercors, Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, Roger Vailland, and Romain Gary. The post–World War II writers established a type of novel not greatly related to earlier works of fiction. The nouveau roman or new novel, sometimes called the antinovel, dispensed with previous notions of plot, character, style, theme, psychology, chronology, and message. By the latter part of the century it had created a tradition of its own and was widely considered to have diminished the stature of French fiction and to have forced a self-indulgent subjectivity onto the novel form.

Among the authors who continued working in a more traditional and still popular vein are the detective-story writer Georges Simenon and the novelists Françoise Mallet-Joris, Jean Cau, Boris Vian, Marguerite Yourcenar, Gilbert Cesbron, Jean Louis Curtis, Pierre Daninos, Henri Queffelec, and Roger Peyrefitte.


At the end of the 19th cent. the Théâtre Libre was founded, the first of a number of theatrical groups that invigorated the French stage. Alfred Jarry scandalized Paris with Ubu Roi (1896), a play now seen as ancestral to the theater of the mid-1900s. François de Curel, Georges de Porto-Riche, Jules Renard, and Eugène Brieux adapted the new social realism to drama.

Symbolism was fitted to the drama by Maurice Maeterlinck and later by Paul Claudel. Tristan Bernard and Henri-René Lenormand exploited psychoanalytical techniques. The experimental plays and films of Jean Cocteau reflect his astonishing versatility. Sartre and Camus brought to the stage a deep concern for man's predicament. The human situation is described as tragically absurd in the theater of Jean Anouilh, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Eugène Ionesco. The brilliant plays of Michel de Ghelderode were granted tardy recognition.


The early years of the 20th cent. proved a fertile time for poetic writing. Among outstanding works are the powerful verses of Paul Claudel, the experimental poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, and the elusive imagery of Paul Valéry. In the 1920s André Breton issued a manifesto of surrealism, rallying around him Paul Éluard, Philippe Soupault, René Char, Tristan Tzara, Louis Aragon, and Elsa Triolet.

Poets who reacted against the force of surrealism include Francis Carco, Léon Paul Fargue, Robert Desnos, and Pierre-Jean Jouve. The poetry of Alexis Saint-Léger Léger is distinguished for its imagery. Among the outstanding poets of the decades after World War II are Jacques Prévert, Francis Ponge, Jules Supervielle, Raymond Queneau, Patrice de la Tour du Pin, Pierre Emmanuel, Jean Tardieu, Jean Follain, Georges Clencier, Andrée Chédid, and Kateb Yacine.


See P. Harvey and J. E. Heseltine, ed., The Oxford Companion to French Literature (1959); J. Cruikshank, ed., French Literature and Its Background (6 vol., 1968–70); J. M. H. Reid, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of French Literature (1976); 17th and 18th cent.: A. A. Tilley, The Decline of the Age of Louis XIV (1968); 19th cent.: A. Thibaudet, French Literature from 1795 to Our Era (1968); I. Babbitt, The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912, repr. 1981); 20th cent.: J. O'Brien, The French Literary Horizon (1967); H. Peyre, French Novelists of Today (rev. ed. 1967).

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