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French Literature In The Age Of Reason

Essay, Research Paper

French Literature in the Age of Reason

Essay submitted by 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 Encylopedie (1751-1772). The

Encylopedie 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 Rene Lesage. Manon Lescaut (1731), a sentimental novel

written by Abbe Prevost. 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