French Literature From 1800 to the First World War Part I


In addition to the political one, the French Revolution had brought about a social reorganization that put an end to the aristocratic salon culture. Writers belonging to the liberal opposition left Napoleon I’s France and wrote about their exile experiences. The most famous émigré, Germaine de Staël, derived in her work “De la littérature…” (1804; German “About literature…”) the independence of the individual national literatures from the close connection between social, religious, state and literary life. The non-classical epochs of French literature (for example the Middle Ages and the Renaissance) were now considered to be culturally relevant. With her book “De l’Allemagne” (1810; German “Über Deutschland”), Madame de Staël drew attention to contemporary German literature and philosophy, which she understood as romantic in the sense of internalization, a feeling for nature, genius and religious inspiration, and thus pointed the way for a literary reorientation.

The social problem of women who were unusually emancipated from the conventions of the time – which was also their own – she dealt with in her novel “Corinne ou l’Italie” (1807; German “Corinna or Italy”); the glorification of the Apennine peninsula as a realm of – in the romantic sense – free love, points to Stendhal’s enthusiasm for Italy and his concept of »amour passion«.

Another important early Romantic was F. R. de Chateaubriand. In “Le génie du christianisme” (1802; German “The Spirit of Christianity”) he emphasized the aesthetic and emotional aspects of Christianity and those moments that stimulate the artistic imagination. In doing so, he took a stand against rationalism and the religious indifference of the Enlightenment. In the novel »René« (1802; German) – with the love that is shaped here by an incest motif and which typically violates the conventions of the time – he described originally romantic moods: soulful (nature) experience, cultural fatigue, loneliness, passivity, inner turmoil. One of the main themes of romantic literature is Weltschmerz (“mal du siècle” in French), which is based on the awareness of spiritual exile. The suffering in the world experienced in constant self-reflection is also a topic of É. P. de Senancour’s confessional novel “Oberman” (1804; German “Obermann”); B. Constant described in his also partly autobiographical novel “Adolphe” (1816; German “Adolph”), reflecting the author’s love affair with Madame de Staël, a weak-willed, doubting protagonist who is not capable of unconditional romantic passion.


The actually romantic writers gathered in the Cénacles from the 1820s, first around C. Nodier, and later around V. Hugo. The solution to the norms of the classical period was connected with a conception of literature as a medium through which the contradictions of the contemporary state of mind could be represented. It was the experience of the loss of the old order, and in part also of the Enlightenment’s belief in progress, that triggered the search for a new (philosophical, religious or humanitarian) ideality. The new understanding of poetry and self was first formulated in poetry. At A. de Lamartine melancholy-tinged sensitivity (“Méditations”, 1820; German “Poetic considerations”) combined with religious inspiration; his poem “Le lac” (German “Der See”) exemplifies the tendency of the romantics to project their own feelings into nature. Hugo’s poetry (including »Odes et ballades«, 1826; German »Oden und Balladen«), which also set itself apart formally from classical poetry through innovative meters and stanzas, ranged thematically from intimate autobiography to philosophical-religious and political humanitarian issues with a clear turn into the visionary. In the distant (thought) poetry of A. de Vignys the problem of the (poetic) existence alienated from society was articulated and thus a strongly pessimistic worldview. A. de Musset portrayed romantic-resigned moods in his varied work (dramas, novels, stories, poetry), some of which were ironically broken. Traces of his liaison with George Sand can be found in the play “On ne badine pas avec l’amour” (1834, German “One does not play with love”), where the looming relationship fails due to the two-sided arrogance of the lovers. Popular poetry P.-J. de Bérangers reveals the opposition to the Bourbons and the – widespread – internal rejection of the restoration regime. With clear references to Nodier’s workand on the translations of works by E. T. A. Hoffmann, inter alia. A. Bertrand– who with “Gaspard de la nuit” (1842; German) is considered the creator of the prose poem – and G. de Nerval of poetry the areas of the dreamy, fantastic and supernatural, which were taken up again by the poetry of symbolism and surrealism. Check to see more about France and other countries in the world.

Hugo laid the foundations for a new aesthetic with the preface (“Préface”) to his drama “Cromwell” (1827; German). The theater should express the world in its totality, comedy and tragedy, sublime and grotesque should be combined in it (following the example of Shakespeare). This also meant a rejection of classical poetics and the rule of the three units, an abolition of the style and genre boundaries and an orientation not towards the ideally beautiful, but towards the individual and characteristic. Hugos The drama »Hernani ou l’honneur castillan« (1830; German »Hernani or Castilianische Ehre«), which broke up the traditional Alexandrian nerve and dared to present a social outsider as the protagonist, sparked a theatrical feud between supporters of Classical and Romanticism, in the latter remained victorious. The importance of the romantic drama lay more in the approach to formal and thematic opening; despite artistically significant dramas (including “Ruy Blas”, 1838, German, by Hugo; “Chatterton”, 1835, German, by Vigny; and the “Lorenzaccio”, 1834, German, by Musset, which transferred the postulate of freedom typical of the time to politics)), however, the portrayal of overall reality expected from drama was provided by the novel, which developed into the dominant genre.

In his novel “Confessions d’un enfant du siècle”, 1836, Musset reflected the awareness of his generation that he was only born after the heroic period of the revolution, which offered opportunities for advancement and development, and that he had to live in the period of social stagnation, which was again erecting class barriers; German »confession of a child of his time«). Stimulated by the romantic interest in the Middle Ages and the intrinsic value of historical epochs, the turn to the historical novel took place, favored by the reception of W. Scott’s novels. The historical novels served not only to portray a bygone era, but also aimed at understanding and critical view of one’s own time (»Cinq-Mars«, 1826, German, from Vigny; “Chronique du règne de Charles IX”, 1829, German “The Bartholomew Night”, by P. Mérimée; »Quatre-vingt-treize«, 1874, German »Dreiundneunzig« von Hugo), and this even in texts in which the picturesque moment dominated, such as in Hugo’s »Notre-Dame de Paris« (1831; German »The Hunchback of Notre -Lady”). In this novel, Hugo also implemented the romantic aesthetic he had formulated on the basis of the drama. The historical novel partly took up elements of the adventure and features novel (“Les trois mousquetaires”, 1844, German “The Three Musketeers”; “Le comte de Monte-Cristo”, 1845–46, German “The Count of Monte Christo”), both by A. Dumas père). The interest in the past and the understanding of historical contexts also enlivened historiography (J. Michelet, A. Thierry, A. de Tocqueville and others) and literary criticism (C. A. de Sainte-Beuve).

French Literature From 1800 to the First World War 1