French Literature in the Age of Reason

Carri Fjell

The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, was a period in France during the 1700's following the classical age. Within this time, philosophers placed the emphasis on reason as the best method for learning. It explored issues in education, law philosophy, and politics. It attacked tyranny, social injustice, superstition, and ignorance. This time produced advances in such areas as anatomy, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. These were the ideals taken up for both the American and French revolutions. A significant amount of the literature produced was philosophical, and written by important thinkers such as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Of the above, Voltaire was the most well-known literary figure of the time. He fought against intolerance and bigotry, and worked to promote rationalism through his literary skills. His most famous work is the novel Candide (1759). As well, Voltaire wrote tragedies influenced by the works of William Shakespeare. Through his many works on European and world history, he helped develop the principles of historical writing for modern times. Denis Diderot is most famously known for editing one of the great intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment, the French Encylop?die (1751-1772). The Encylop?die is a collection of articles written by many writers in several fields. The purpose of the book was to try and rationally explain recent scientific discoveries while attacking religous authority, economic inequality, and abuses of justice.

In his novel The New Heloise (1761), Jean Jacques Rousseau suggested changes in French society, and in Emile (1762) put forward the idea of change in education. The autobiography Confessions (published in 1782 and 1789 after his death) helped to create the modern works that provoke self-analysis. Rousseau, with his sensitivity to nature, brought a more lyrical and meditative sensation back to French literature. An example of this can be found in Reveries of the Solitary Stroller (1782).

There are several other major writers and works that helped contribute to the literary expression during the Age of Reason. There was Montesquieu, who wrote wittingly about social critisism in Persian Letters (1721). The well-known satirical novel Gil Blas (1715-1735) written by Alain Ren? Lesage. Manon Lescaut (1731), a sentimental novel written by Abb? Pr?vost. Novels of middle-class society, and problems of falling in love from a woman's perspective created by Pierre Marivaux. Pierre Beaumarchais' plays of satirical comedy, such as The Barber of Seville (1775) and The Marriage of Figaro (1784). All of the above are centered on the irrational nature of aristocratic privilages, and played a part to encouraging these ideas which led to the beginning of the French Revolution.