Libertins sensibles : Crebillon, Laclos, Diderot

Mallery, Karen Suzanne, Department of French Language & Literature, University of Virginia

Novelistic representation in the eighteenth-century French novel manifests social and cultural change. The libertine novel represents the Classical legacy of the seventeenth century; the novel of sentiment portrays the values of the bourgeoisie. In examining the interplay of libertine and sentimental discourse in certain novels, we will see changes not only in the ways novels act as manuals of exemplary conduct, both personal and societal. The libertine novel values rational system and classification; the success of a libertine public persona is measured by its adherence to a behavioral and linguistic code, combined with an erotic life that defies penetration and exposure.

The sentimental novel, however, envisions a new example, primarily for its female readers. Seeking to remedy the moral deficiencies of the genre, it offers visions of a transparent, passionate and authentic world that turns its gaze inward to family and motherhood. The concept of the self and its responsibilities to society were changed profoundly; the separation of the public and private self was to be eradicated, engendering an individual whose moral focus was trained primarily on self-surveillance.

Crébillon fils, an austere voice who echoes the values of <i>le Grand Siècle</i>, portrays the libertine world of erotic conquest and pleasure; the moral vision of his novels is never didactic, but rather coolly illustrative of the perils of iii libertine system. Late in his career, however, he attempted-- and failed-- to adopt the sentimental tone popular in the 1750's, demonstrating the incapacity of worldly discourse to include any value outside itself. Laclos represents a virtually seamless union of libertine method and sentimental values; ever the relentless strategist, he exposes the strengths and the weaknesses of each, in a conflict where neither side can claim a clear victory. Diderot's fictions present an interesting fusion of sentimental esthetic and libertine tastes. Diderot presented sensual and erotic scenes of potential excess and suffering; the cruelty implicit in observing such scenes is defused by the sympathetic sharing of emotion by the beholder.
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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
libertine, novel, sentimental novel, French literature 18th century, M. Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, Choderlos de Laclos, Denis Diderot
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