Literature - a Mirror of Society


The literature of a country is affected and influenced by how 
the people of that country live. This paper will prove that The 
French Revolution greatly influenced 19th Century French Romanticism. 
 First, the cultural values of the revolution will be identified. 
Then, the different aspects of Romanticism will be presented. The 
cultural values of The French Revolution and Romanticism will then be 
linked. Finally, literary examples will be shown to support this 
connection between the two movements.
 Before the Revolution, the citizens of France lived in a 
strict, confined society with no freedom to express their feelings. 
Government had imposed strong, unfair laws on the common people 
(Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia "French Revolution"). They 
wanted a voice in a stable government with a strong economy (Johnson 
105) and a strong sense of individuality and independence within the 
people. (Moss and Wilson 180) 
 Eighteenth- century literature was much like the society in 
which it was produced, restrained. Society was divided into 
privileged and unprivileged classes, (Leinward 452) with Eighteenth- 
century writers focusing on the lives of the upper class. (Thompson 
857) These writers followed "formal rules"(Thorlby 282), and based 
their works on scientific observations and logic (Thompson 895). 
 The Revolution gave the common people and writers more freedom 
to express feelings and stimulated them to use reason. According to 
Thompson, The Revolution "had a major impact on Nineteenth- Century 
European Life." (895) It sent a strong wave of emotion and revival 
throughout France (Peyre 59). This lead to new laws and standards for 
the citizens, including newer, less imposing literary standards.
 Romanticism marked a profound change in both literature and 
thought. Romanticism, according to Webster's Dictionary, is defined 
as "a literary movement (as in early 19th century Europe) marked 
especially by an emphasis on the imagination and emotions and by the 
use of autobiographical material." Although this may be true, there 
is no single commonly accepted definition of Romanticism, but it has 
some features upon which there is general agreement. First, it 
emphasized upon human reason, feeling, emotion, and expression 
(Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, "Romanticism") while emphasizing 
the love of nature, beauty, and liberty. (Leinward 528-529) Thompson 
defines Romanticism as " a major literary and cultural movement" that 
was inspired by the imaginations, inner feelings, and emotions of the 
Romantics. (895)
 If one term can be used to describe the forces that have 
shaped the modern world, it is Romanticism. (Peyre, 2) Romanticism 
has had such a profound effect on the world since the late 18th 
century that one author has called it "the profoundest cultural 
transformation in human history since the invention of the city." 
(Compton's Encyclopedia, "Romanticism") 
 Harvey and Heseltine state that "The outstanding 
characteristic of 18th-century French literature had been attached to 
reason.... About the turn of the century.... literature became a 
matter of senses and emotions." (633) They also say that the 
movement of Romanticism "gave practical expression to the new 
spirit..." because it recognized that the bounds on literature were 
"too rigid". (634)
 There are many direct relations how the French Revolution 
influenced the French Romanticism that followed it in the Nineteenth- 
 The French Revolution had a major impact on the timeline and 
progression of Romanticism. Vinaver states that "Neither a revolt or 
a reaction, Romanticism was a revolutionary fulfillment... And this in 
turn explains why the European event known as the French Revolution is 
at once the climax [of Romanticism]...It's [French Revolution} date, 
1789, conveniently divides the Pre- Romanticism [era] from the full 
flowering of the new culture." (6) Romanticism starts in about 1774, 
but does not take off until the last decade of the 18th- century, the 
same time as the Revolution.
 The French Revolution provided for many of the problems and 
basis for many Romantic literary works. First of all, the political 
change brought by the Revolution, along with the intellectual 
reverberations brought upon Romanticism. (Harvey and Heseltine 634) 
Also, Thompson states that " [Romanticism was] shaped by the ideals of 
the French Revolution." (895) Finally, Vinaver declares that the 
Revolution served as "a great source of the problems and tendencies of 
Romantic proper." (6) 
 The Revolution also inspired many writers to write 
romantically. Peyre points this out when he says that it is wrong to 
call writers "revolutionaries" but when he writes about revolution- 
inspired works, he states: "in almost all of them [revolution- 
inspired romantic writers] could be detected a feeling of 
revolt...inspired by passion and directed against morals which were 
considered too constraining." (59) This shows how the writers stood 
for and supported the revolution that had occurred forty years before. 
 Thompson makes a clear point along this line when he states that 
"Romanticism was a major literary and cultural movement that emerged 
out of the French Revolutionary spirit of the late 1700's..." (895) 
 In France, the Romantic Poets, especially Victor Hugo and 
Alfred de Vigney, gave their attention towards the problems arising 
out of the French Revolution. (Peyre 59) Alfred de Musset wrote 
philosophically moving lyrics. (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 
"French Literature") Alphonse de Lamartine "delicately analyzed his 
own emotions". (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia "French 
Literature") Joseph de Maistre, another major figure whose strong 
political views made him totally oppose the war, still took the 
Revolution in to consideration when writing. (60) Leinward supports 
this idea when he says "Poets were moved by the great events of their 
lives, including the French Revolution." (528)
 Hugo, the greatest poet of the 19th century France, perhaps of 
all French Literature, was the major figure of the Romantic Movement. 
 (Harvey and Halestine 350) His Hernani helped win the revolt against 
the classic rules of literature. (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia, 
"French Literature") His most famous work, Les Miserables, was a 
novel about the suffering of humanity during the Revolution. 
(Leinward 529) 
 Vigney, a poet, dramatist, and novelist, played a large role 
in the Romanticism of the 1820's. His play, Chatterton, dramatized 
the misfortune of the poet in a "materialist and pitiless" society. 
(Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia "Vigny")
 Alfred de Musset's philosophical poetry played a major role in 
the Romanticism of the 1820's. (Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia 
"French Literature") Harvey and Heseltine say that "Musset is usually 
classed with Hugo, Lamartine, and Vigny as one of the four great 
figures of the Romantic Movement..." (Harvey and Heseltine 502) His 
lyrical poetry mixed suffering and passion such as in Le Souvenir. 
 Lamartine, described by Harvey and Heseltine as "one of the 
four great poets of the Romantic Movement" (390), expressed his 
appreciation for nature as a "reflection of his own moods" in his 
Meditations poetiques. (390) This shows how Romantic poets could 
display their love for nature and human qualities of thought at the 
same time.
 Joseph de Maistre whose "inconsistent and impassioned ideas 
[about the Revolution] influenced Vigny, was impressed by the divine 
greatness of the Revolution...." (Peyne 59) The Revolution and the 
idea how it was "controlled by a mighty force" inspired him to write 
and celebrate it as being divine in Te Deum. (59)
 The research presented in this paper has shown that the French 
Revolution of 1789 greatly influenced the Romantic literature of the 
proceeding 19th century France. The French cultural values before and 
during the revolution have been presented. The different aspects of 
Romanticism have been reviewed in detail. Then relations with 
examples between the Revolution and Romanticism were presented. In 
closing, I have shown how the French Revolution has had a remarkable 
effect on French Romantic literature in the 19th century.


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