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FR11: Desire and power in 19th-century French culture

This paper is available for the academic year 2023-24.

This paper is about nineteenth-century France's most visible cultural form: the novel. It introduces students to ultra-canonical literary fiction of the period, and other less well-known novels, in asking how writers tackle some of the most pressing ideological questions of their age. We pay close attention to the political history of the period, which was marked by a tumultuous series of revolutions, changes to its colonial empire, the rise of socialism, and civil and foreign wars. We also explore the legal, institutional, and cultural powers that sought to regulate private lives and desires, gender roles, marital and familial relationships, and sexual freedoms. Across our reading on the paper, we ask: how did literary fiction participate in debates about the politics of sex, gender, race, and nation? What roles could the novel play in reproducing, critiquing, or endorsing the social worlds it described?

This broad thematic approach has the double advantage of reflecting specialist research interests in the French Section while simultaneously reflecting some of the most important and fruitful critical approaches to the subject that have developed in recent decades.

Learning Objectives

  • To introduce students to a robust corpus of primary texts, including both ultra-canonical and some less well-known works, with a stress on prose fiction;
  • To provide you with a broad contextual knowledge within which to situate the set texts;
  • To foster a precise understanding of how the novel form worked: the shapes and devices of its plots, its modes of narration, the voices it included, etc.
  • To improve your knowledge of the cultural and political history of nineteenth-century France;
  • To acquaint you with some of the major conceptual strands of research in nineteenth-century French studies over the past thirty years;
  • To alert you to the usefulness and to the limitations of gender, class, race and sexuality for literary and historical analysis.

Topics and Texts for 2023/24:

A.  Novels of the People: Class Politics

  • George Sand, La Petite Fadette
  • Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Germinie Lacerteux
  • Émile Zola: Germinal

 B. Empire, Nation, and the Nineteenth-Century Novel

  • Émeric Bergeaud, Stella
  • George Sand: Indiana
  • Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami

C.  Romance Plots: Love Triangles and Other Narrative Shapes

  • Benjamin Constant, Adolphe
  • Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
  • Anatole France, Le Lys rouge

In most cases, students can use any modern paperback edition (GF or Folio, for instance). In the case of Émeric Bergeaud's Stella, we recommend the ZOE edition (ed. Anne Marty). ISBN-13: ‎ 978-2881826504. A 19th century edition of Stella is freely available in full online on the Digital Library of the Caribbean. Click link to open resource.

Content Notes

Please be aware that the set texts in this paper do evoke difficult and sensitive subjects. These include race and racism (Bergeaud, Maupassant, Goncourts), slavery (Bergeaud, Sand's Indiana), sexual violence (the Goncourts, Zola), anti-Semitism (Maupassant) and suicide (Flaubert, Sand).

Preparatory reading: 

For preparatory reading, and a list of recommended critical material, visit the FR11 Moodle page.

Teaching and learning: 

Students taking paper Fr11 will follow, over Michaelmas, Lent and Easter terms, a single, 16-20 lecture core course. This is divided into  three separately titled ‘topics’, plus additional introductory and revision lectures.

  • Each topic will take the form of three or four lectures and be supported by two supervisions. In addition, there will be two further revision supervisions.
  • Ample reading lists will be provided to encourage wider critical and contextual reading.
Course Contacts: 
Dr Claire White (Michaelmas Term 2023)
Professor Nick White (Lent & Easter Terms 2024)