French Literature

French Literature
  • French authors
  • Literature in the Middle Ages
  • Renaissance Literature
  • Classicist Literature
  • Rationalist Literature
  • 19th century Literature
  • 20th century Literature

19th century literature in France

Historically, politically and socially, France underwent many changes during the nineteenth century, and the world of literature reflected these changes. Several movements emerged, only to be replaced by others. The first to surface was Romanticism, which was influenced to a great extent by Rousseau's philosophy. The Romantic writers sought freedom from the restrictions of the classical literary style. Main figures of the Romantic period included Victor Hugo, Alphonse de Lamartine, Alfred, Comte de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, Gérard de Nerval, Prosper Mérimée, Alexandre Dumas père, and Théophile Gautier.

The Romantic period then gave way to Realism with writers, especially novelists, such as Stendhal, George Sand, and Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. The Realist movement began in the mid-19th century, as a form of reacting to the focus and approach used by Romanticism, which was a lot more subjective. The realists tried to describe human behaviour and surroundings exactly as they act or appear in life.

Realism was followed by Naturalism, a much more subtle change than that between both earlier movements. Naturalists believed that an objective and empirical presentation of human beings should be used to use as a basis for literary works. This objective presentation of life shows how human behaviour is controlled by instincts, emotion, social and economic conditions. They tended to adopt the biological determinism presented by Charles Darwin and likewise, Karl Marx's economic determinism. Main exponents of this literary movement in France include the novelist Émile Zola and the brothers Edmond Louis Antoine and Jules Alfred Huot de Goncourt.

Another literary movement to appear in France during this century was what was known as Symbolism. This line of thinking made writers express their thoughts, opinions, values and ideas through the use of symbols, or vague suggestions, instead of straight forward and more direct statements. This aesthetic movement emerged as a reaction to the other 19th century movements, and held the view that the true interpreter of reality was in fact the imagination. Prominent French writers which contributed to this movement included Gérard de Nerval, Charles Baudelaire, Jules Laforgue, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry Rémy de Gourmont.