The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

3
Sexual Politics: Marivaux's La Colonie

Jeanne Fuchs

French women won the right to vote in 1944. How can we reconcile this brutal fact with the celebrated slogan of the French Revolution, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity?" It would seem that the last word, fraternity, must be interpreted in its most narrow meaning--for it clearly excludes women--and thereby calls into question the validity of the other two words in the phrase, liberty and equality.

Although French women did not attain equal rights in the political arena until long after the 1789 Revolution, they fared better on the literary stage. A case in point is the work of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux whose writings had a major impact on that most revolutionary of writers, Beaumarchais, but whose own works have not usually been considered especially rebellious.

Born in 1688, Marivaux was a contemporary of Montesquieu, and it is fair to say that the philosopher's thought played a key role in Marivaux's own ideas and work.

In French literature, Montesquieu--whose main subject was liberty-- remains one of the beacons of freedom for women. His heroine, Roxanne, in the Persian Letters, makes a powerful statement of individual liberty and human dignity with her suicide, which represents the ultimate act of liberty and freedom of choice.

With Marivaux we are a long way from such dramatic choices, and although one does not usually think of placing Marivaux with such socially aware and critical authors as Molière, Montesquieu, Voltaire, or Rousseau, to name only the most famous of them, there exists a trio of lesser known plays in which social awareness in terms of liberty and equality for all remains the mainspring of motivation in the plots.

These three plays could well be subtitled "the island plays" since that is the locale of each. They are the Ile des Esclaves ( 1725) ( Slave Island), the Ile de la Raison ou les Petits Hommes ( 1727) (The Isle of Reason or the Little Men), and La Nouvelle Colonie ou la Ligue des Femmes ( 1729) ( The New Colony or the League of Women), rewritten in 1750 and retitled La Colonie.

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