French literature

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 Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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