Abandonment in the eighteenth-century French novel : a call to feminine heroisms

McKeown, Joanne Marie, Department of French Language and Literature, University of Virginia
Gies, David, Department for Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, University of Virginia

By the eighteenth century, the abandoned woman was a literary convention. The predicament of the deserted heroine, a common literary type, is a popular subject of the more renowned male novelists including Diderot, Marivaux, Prévost, Crébillon fils and Laclos, and some female novelists Grafigny. including Riccoboni, de la Charrière, and de By focusing on the methods used to confront abandonment, we come to an appreciation of how the Enlightenment interpretations of this theme, whose popularity dates from Antiquity, reflect evolving conceptions of femininity characteristic of the period.

Eighteenth-century abandoned heroines experience temporary or permanent separation from a person or persons who represent security, support, and/or love to them. In Chapter One we examine the varied implications of these types of abandonment. Loss of a husband, lover, fiancé, or parent obliges the heroines to confront unexpected and difficult problems of a psychological, emotional, or social nature. Their responses to this experience, which constitute the organizing principle of the study, depend on the circumstances of the losses, and on conditions preceding them that shape the heroines' characterizations. We explore these determining factors in detail in Chapters Two, Three, and Four, where heroines choose renunciation and retreat, retaliation, or reconciliation and adaptation as ways of confronting the disconcerting, disappointing, and challenging implications of abandonment.

In the last chapter, we examine similarities and differences in the treatment of this subject by male and female novelists. In this, the most original part of the study, we see that the latter typically create within a limited thematic framework characterized by the victimization of passive heroines in love who generally enjoy a moral victory at best. The male novelists, on the other hand, explore a much larger field of adventure wherein the heroines, to whom they attribute character traits typically associated with heros rather than with heroines, do not conform to stereoptycial characterizations. Furthermore, the masculine imagination, unlike the female one, produces a novel response to abandonment which appears to reflect an evolving conception of women characteristic of eighteenth century idealism. In the concluding remarks, we allude to the sociological and historical significance of these differences in representation of the abandoned women by men and women.

Within the thematic framework of abandonment, the novelists conceive a feminine code of response which represents powerful, if generally ineffective, manifestations of "heroism, reflective of different and evolving notions about the nature of the female sex. We investigate classic and modern categories of response in eighteenth-century prose narrative, focusing on how they reflect a social consciousness formed by a powerful, ever present past, and challenged by an alluring and celebrated present.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Novelists, French -- France -- Themes, motives, Women in literature, French literature -- 18th century
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