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- century.

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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. (502)
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.