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French Literature

romanticism movement, French writing, literary styles, epic poetry, literary genres

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French Literature, the literature of France, from the mid-800s until the present. French literature is considered one of the richest and most varied national literatures, noted especially for its examination of human society and the individual’s place within society. French literature does not include francophone literature—works written in the French language but originating in other countries, such as Canada or Senegal.

French literature reflects the cultural and political history of France. Until the French Revolution of 1789, France had a social and political system that was arranged by rank or class, with rules governing how members of one class interacted with members of another. Every aspect of culture and society followed a hierarchical structure, including literary genres and literary styles. The hierarchy of genres had epic poetry at the top and the more common prose genres, such as the novel, at the bottom.

The French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, was a crucial time in French history, and it signaled a change in the French literary landscape as well. Conducted in the name of equality and freedom, it brought a democratic spirit that leveled rank, privilege, and hierarchical order in government and all other areas of society. Thus, for example, in the early 1800s writers associated with the romanticism movement called for the abolition of all the literary rules established by the L’Academie Francaise (The French Academy), which had been the chief institution of literary regulation under the old regime.

Since the time of the Revolution, French writing has been characterized by creative freedom and innovation, culminating in such 20th-century movements as dada, surrealism, existentialism, theater of the absurd, the new novel, and postmodernism. Paradoxically, despite these experiments and innovations, French literary traditions have endured, as have the values of the old order. Thus, the inventive and rebellious Albert Camus saw himself in the tradition of classical novelist Madame de La Fayette, and the 20th-century exponent of existentialism Jean-Paul Sartre claimed kinship with 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille.


Cosper, D. Dale, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Professor, Department of French, Whitman College.

Article key phrases:

romanticism movement, French writing, literary styles, epic poetry, literary genres, surrealism, old regime, postmodernism, hierarchical structure, French history, French Academy, French Literature, French Revolution, dada, abolition, old order, kinship, aspect of culture, political system, French language, Fayette, privilege, Senegal, Canada, freedom, equality, Revolution, society, novel, present, experiments, innovations, theater, government, values, place, time, rank, countries, example, class, change, members

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