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

This paper is available for 2021-22.

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 2021/22:

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

  • George Sand: Indiana.
  • Alexandre Dumas pèreGeorges
  • Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami

 B. Romance Plots: Love Triangles and Other Narrative Shapes

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

C. The Bourgeoisie Behind Closed Doors: Novels of the Maid

  • Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Germinie Lacerteux
  • Émile Zola: Pot-Bouille
  • Octave Mirbeau, Le Journal d'une femme de chambre

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

Content Notes

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

Preparatory reading: 

Please see the paper reading list.

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.

The exam will be comprised of three sections: A, B and C. Students will answer one question from each section.

  • Section A: this section focuses on the different topics covered in lectures over the year, and offers two questions on each specific topic. Students will be expected to make reference to at least three of the texts they have studied.
  • Section B: this section offers questions on particular texts to elicit more focused, detailed responses. Of the nine set texts prescribed for the course, eight will be covered by the questions. Students will be expected to answer on a text thry have not focused on in Section A.
  • Section C: a critical commentary exercise on one of a choice of two texts, which will be taken from ‘unseen’ works (i.e. not those works prescribed for the course).
Course Contacts: 
Dr Edmund Birch (2021-22)