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Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850). Old Goriot.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

The Novel in France

THE FRENCH, not without reason, pride themselves on the skillful technique of their works of fiction. During the whole period of modern French literature, the authors, whether of five and ten volume romances like Mlle. de Scudéry, or of short tales like Alphonse Daudet and Guy de Maupassant, have been conscious literary artists. Moreover, except during the romantic outburst of our first half of the nineteenth century, which produced the exuberant fantasies of persons like Alexandre Dumas the elder, they have usually sought psychological analysis and the presentation of character. This aim has, on the whole, been consistently pursued in both divisions of French fiction, the idealistic and the realistic novels.

Works of these two types appear, judging from their names, to move in different planes. But the connection of both kinds with life has been fairly close, and, in the seventeenth century, discussion of popular romances was so much the preoccupation of social circles such as the Hôtel de Rambouillet, that not only did the novelist try to portray characters he saw, but the leisure classes often sought to model their life after the pattern of the fiction they read.

At the threshold of the seventeenth century we come upon one of the most important novels ever written in France because of its influence, even if to-day unread except by specialists, the great pastoral romance “Astrée.” Though the scenes of the story take place in a world impossible and unreal by its anachronisms, and though the characters are as untrue as can be to the civilization of the Gaul in which they are supposed to live, nevertheless the author, Honoré d’Urfé, would have us see in his creations human beings, perhaps in some cases to be identified by a key. Their language, highflown and sentimental though it be, fulfills the author’s desire to analyze feelings. So the shepherds and the shepherdesses, the knights and the nymphs of the story, discuss love in all its actions and reactions, and try to define the various kinds of love, faithful, fickle, or Platonic. “My shepherdesses are not needy ones who have to earn a living,” D’Urfé admitted. But he supposed, at least, that their sentimental experiences were those of human beings.

The same purpose may safely be attributed to the successors of D’Urfé down to the middle of the seventeenth century and to the novels of Mlle. de Scudéry. In their stories of fantastic experience and of Romanesque incident, or of romantic adventure in distant lands, the authors would have us believe in the verisimilitude, if not in the truth of the characters they describe. So the novels of Mlle. de Scudéry, though they are supposed to take place in the days of the great Cyrus or of early Rome, are nevertheless intended to be read in the light of history contemporaneous with the author.

If this statement be true of the professionally idealistic romance, it is the more so of the realistic novel. The “Roman bourgeois” of Furetière and the “Roman comique” of Scarron are most useful documents for the knowledge of life in the seventeenth century and the character of individual people.

We come to the same conclusion about Madame de la Fayette’s “Princesse de Clèves,” which, as a reaction against the long romance of fantasy and chivalry, has been called the “first modern French novel.” Certainly no better example of the literary spirit of its period could be found. Brief and to the point in its descriptions, it is the psychological analysis of a woman’s heart written by a woman, and is no less truthful than the great tragedies of Racine.

The eighteenth century was, on the whole, very matter of fact. It was an age of rationalism and of science. Consequently its novels have much the same quality. A satirical writer like Voltaire permits himself whimsical unrealities in his stories, but most writers pose as truthful chroniclers. Lesage’s picaresque novel “Gil Blas,” Marivaux’s “Marianne,” and the Abbé Prévost’s “Manon Lescaut” seek to impart the effect of reality. Even Rousseau’s emotional “Julie” would fain be a painstaking and accurate picture of human nature.

Rousseau is looked upon as the source of the romantic school which, after his death, occupied so important a place in the literary history of the earlier nineteenth century. This school consciously reacted against what it considered the cut-and-dried rationalism of the hitherto reigning literature, and advocated the cult of feeling and a return to nature. This nature included the outer world of mountains and rivers, and intellectual descendants of Rousseau such as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, author of “Paul and Virginia,” and Chateaubriand run riot amid the flora and fauna of exotic landscapes. But, strange as it sometimes seems now, the romanticists thought themselves better portrayers of human nature than their opponents had been. It is true that to us the fiction of the romantic age is apt to appear a chaos of imaginative weavings. But if we eliminate the vagaries of which has been called the “lower romanticism,” with its fantastic and melodramatic incidents often foreign in origin, if we omit also the exuberance of Dumas, we find that the French romantic novelist was usually intent on portraying human nature, just as the classicist before him. We are prone to call the heroes of romanticism a motley herd of eccentrics. The romanticist said that life consists of varied experiences, that souls are multiform, and that the drab monotony of classicism portrays only commonplaces which do not make up the whole of life.

In such a novel as Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame” we have a characteristic example of romantic fiction. Here the author has sought to reconstruct the Paris of the late Middle Ages, though modern scientific objective historians may say he has not succeeded; he has tried to people this city of his imaginative reconstruction with varied characters, each one intended to show more individuality and more vigor than the anaemic kings and heroes of late neo-classic tragedy. Something new and different was always the aim, because life and character are protean. But so it also comes about that this novel, engrossing as it may be to the reader, seems a gallery of curiosities more than a collection of human beings. Victor Hugo would not have understood that his novels might, after his time, derive their chief interest less from this portrayal of character than from their incidents, and particularly from their tearful emotionalism and the vague humanitarianism which is in the spirit of modern democracy.

Of George Sand we are less justified in saying that she tries to copy life exactly. The object of art, she says in the first chapter of “La Mare au Diable,” is to make us love the objects of its interest and it need not be blamed if it occasionally flatters.

  • “Art is not a study of positive reality; it is a quest for ideal truth, and the Vicar of Wakefield was a more useful and a healthier book than the Paysan perverti and the Liaisons dangereuses.”
  • In some of her novels she tries to reconstruct social Utopias and indulges in a semirhapsodic mysticism, in others like the “Marquis de Villemer” she at least means to portray life. But in stories like “La Mare au Diable” and “La Petite Fadette” she frankly idealizes the existence of the peasants in her native Berry and composes pretty prose pastorals with an individuality of charm that we do not find elsewhere.

    The effect of a novel by Balzac is totally different from that of one by Hugo. Yet Balzac, the realist, like Hugo, the romanticist, is trying to portray human nature. But though Balzac had passed through a brief romantic discipleship in youth, his great literary production belongs to a very different school. Instead of seeking exceptional heroes, apt therefore to appear morbid eccentrics, instead of making these characters vehicles for the author’s moralizings and his views on civilization, Balzac aimed at the close and painstaking study of the men and women of his time. His plan of composition illustrates his careful method. No longer handling his pen, as Hugo did, like a broad brush, Balzac corrected and recorrected his work in proof until the original text was unrecognizable in its final form.

    Balzac’s men and women are, in their way, as individual as any character of romanticism. Nobody is likely to forget old man Goriot, or the miser Grandet, or to confuse them with other characters in fiction. But Balzac, if we neglect the epic sweep of his constructive imagination in devising and harmonizing the multitudinous characters of his “Comédie humaine,” helped to initiate the new realistic school which succeeded romanticism. This was the method of the photograph or of the daguerreotype, the close reproduction of details of life and manners. Consequently, the novels of Balzac are most valuable documents for the study of the period they chiefly describe, the reign of Louis Philippe, when the moneyed bourgeoisie or middle-class was in control, and when material interests were much more prevalent than one would infer from reading the romanticists alone. Balzac’s stories are apt to deal with the selfish and sordid side of life, but that results rather from the social conditions of the time or from the bias of his mind than from the inherent demands of his method.

    The perfection of realism is to be found in Gustave Flaubert, in a such a book as “Madame Bovary.” There the accurate portrayal is faithfully carried out, and the men and women of the Norman province whom he seeks to describe are not only photographic in their exactness but live by the touch of genius.

    Realism might appear in theory the perfect literary method in fiction, if verisimilitude be accepted as the author’s goal. Yet the personal bias of the writer may, no less than in romanticism, make the novel deviate from the truth of life through the cult of the exceptional. Much of the moral disapprobation which has been expressed for the modern French novel during the past generation is based on dislike for the “naturalism” of authors like the Goncourt brothers and Emile Zola. The naturalists delighted in description of vice and disease, the dramshop, the hospital and the brothel.

    That such a literary treatment of life does not necessarily belong to realism can be seen in the works of Alphonse Daudet and in some of those of Guy de Maupassant. Both of them wrote novels, but some of the best work of both, certainly of Maupassant, was done in the short story, or nouvelle. Alphonse Daudet has often been called the “French Dickens,” and his realism has much that is akin to that of the English writer. His characters stand out as individualities to be remembered, they have their little peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, and his narrative is interwoven with constant sentimental and pathetic incidents to touch the reader’s feelings. Moreover, as in “Le Petit Chose,” like Dickens in “David Copperfield,” he writes from the full memory of his own youthful hardships. In his short stories he has composed little masterpieces of grace and tenderness, as well as often of brisk wit and good-humored satire.

    Guy de Maupassant was the literary disciple of Flaubert, consequently a more objective realist than Daudet. Some of his writings unfortunately astound by the crudeness and brutality of the narrative and descriptions, but yet when he wishes, no author in French literature portrays more faithfully and more unerringly.

    Thus it may be inferred that the great masters of French literature have generally aimed to copy life. This does not imply that the fanciful and the whimsical have been banished—Alfred de Musset’s “White Blackbird” is a proof of the contrary. But the romantic tendency, however popular, has been less genuinely French in its sources and influence, and the various complicated schools of art for art’s sake have almost always had a transient rather than a permanent effect. But the great writers of realism have been masters in creating children of the brain whose actions and characters we may discuss almost with the vivid interest we feel for men and women of history.

    C. H. C. W.