Literary Criticism of Germaine de Staël

Germaine de Staël’s (1766–1817) life and writings intersect profoundly with a number of political, intellectual, and literary movements. To begin with, she was one of the heirs of Enlightenment thought; her friends and acquaintances included the Encyclopedists Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert. From her mother, influenced by Rousseau’s views of education, she inherited an independence and a passion for freedom. Her family was also intimately connected with the incipient events of the French Revolution: her father was finance minister to King Louis XVI of France and extremely popular with the people; his dismissal was part of the series of events that triggered the onset of the Revolution. Yet she also had affiliations with Romanticism, moving in a circle that included writers such as Goethe and Lord Byron.

Given her extraordinary abilities and lifestyle, it is not surprising that Madame de Staël was embroiled in various controversies, political, personal, and literary. She had numerous lovers, gave birth to four children outside of wedlock, and hosted a salon frequented by many of the leading literary figures of her day. Her writings offended Napoleon, who exiled her from Paris. Politically, she espoused a constitutional monarchy; in letters she advanced the cause of Romanticism while anticipating later developments in realism; she was a staunch believer in freedom and the notion of historical progress. She published two novels, Delphine (1802) and Corinne, or Italy (1807); her important contributions to literary criticism are contained in her Essay on Fiction (1795) and her longer work, On Literature Considered in its Relationship to Social Institutions (1800).

In the introduction to her Essay on Fiction, de Staël states that man has only two distinct faculties, reason and imagination. And it is the imagination which is the most valuable of the two. The province of reason is limited and cannot alone satisfy the human mind or heart because metaphysical precision cannot be applied to man’s emotions. Human beings need distraction and pleasure. Yet fictions, whose province is the imagination, have a more important function than providing merely pleasure; they can influence greatly our moral ideas and they may be the “most powerful means of guidance or enlightenment.”1

Madame_de_Staël (1)De Staël divides fictions into three types: marvelous or allegorical; historical; and fictions, consisting of “events at once entirely invented and imitated, in which nothing is true but everything is believable” (“EF,” 203). She is concerned to show that it is this last type, the realistic fiction, that takes “life as it is,” which is the most useful. These realist or “natural fictions,” as de Staël calls them, must present their material such that everything looks true to life. She does not include tragedies among these since they usually present an extraordinary situation, and their morality applies to few people. Nor does she include comedy because theatrical conventions allow only for broadly defined situations, with little room for commentary. And life itself, she says, is not concentrated in such a way. Only the modern novel, she says, can achieve the persistent and accurate usefulness we can get from the portrayal of our ordinary, habitual feelings. A novel need not be focused on one principal idea, since the author is bound to follow the rules of probability, which may not allow such focus. Of all creations of the human mind, the novel is one of the most influential on individual morality, which ultimately determines public morality (“EF,” 204–205).

The novel has a bad reputation, according to de Staël, because it is considered to be devoted exclusively to portraying love. And yet love is something we experience largely during our youth. The novel needs to broaden its scope, then, to include the various passions and interests which preoccupy the later stages of life (“EF,” 205). She also answers the objection here that one might simply go to history for an accurate record of men’s various passions. History, she says, does not usually touch the lives of private people; the lessons of history are public; they apply to nations, not individuals. Hence the “moral” offered by history is often unclear, and history leaves lacunae as far as private happiness and misery are concerned. Moreover, reality itself often fails to make an impact whereas novels can depict characters and feelings with such force and vivacity that they will make a moral impression. And the morality expressed in novels relates not so much to the events they relate as to the development of the “inner emotions of the heart” (“EF,” 206).

Another objection against novels is that they falsify reality. De Staël retorts that, while this may be true of poor novels, good novels provide an “intimate understanding of the human heart,” employing great detail rather than generalities (“EF,” 206–207). She offers a somewhat refined notion of verisimilitude. Even if people could give an accurate and truthful account of their lives, it “would be necessary to add to the truth a kind of dramatic effect.” Nature sometimes presents things all on the same level; and if we were to imitate her in a slavish manner, we would actually be distorting nature. A scrupulously detailed account of an ordinary event “diminishes its credibility rather than adding to it.” Our representation itself must possess harmony, and the only truth fiction has is “the impression it produces” (“EF,” 207).

Nor can moral philosophy somehow replace this function of novels. A simple statement of moral duty will not make an impression. Virtue must be “animated.” Novels make moral truths tangible by “putting them into action.” And the more power the novel has for moving people, the more important it becomes to “extend its influence to the emotions of people of all ages and to the obligations of all classes” (“EF,” 208). Indeed, the novel would thereby aid in avoiding negative passions because it would allow those passions to be recognized and analyzed. While the impression the novel makes might resemble the impression we derive from real facts we have witnessed, the fictional impression has more unity and is less distracting, because it is always “directed toward the same end.” Reality, in contrast, is often a “disconnected picture of events,” from which we could draw no clear moral lesson. The novel might foster the ability to be moved by examples of vice and virtue (“EF,” 208–209).

In On Literature Considered in its Relationship to Social Institutions de Staël examines the various social obstacles to the success of women writers. She points out that the existence of women is still “uncertain” in many ways; they belong “neither to the natural nor to the social order.”2 Women are likely to be forgiven for negligence in their domestic virtues or for mental mediocrity; they will be forgiven even for sacrificing their household occupations for the sake of society and its pleasures (GS, 202); they will not be forgiven by the public for displaying unusual talent. De Staël places her analysis of women’s literary possibilities in historical context, discussing both monarchies and republics. In a monarchy, she explains, “the sense of right and proper is so acute that any unusual act or impulse to change one’s situation looks ridiculous right away” (GS, 201–202). Moreover, in the French monarchy there still lingered a “spirit of chivalry” which frowned upon the excessive cultivation of letters even among men; it disdained such pursuits all the more among women, since such interests distracted them from “their primary concern, the sentiments of the heart” (GS, 202). One would not expect to find such disadvantages in republics, especially in republics that allegedly encouraged the process of enlightenment. However, she notes that since the Revolution, “men have deemed it politically and morally useful to reduce women to a state of the most absurd mediocrity” (GS, 203).

De Staël urges that women must be enlightened and taught together with men; this is necessary, she warns, in order to establish any “permanent social or political relationships.” The development of reason in women will promote “both enlightenment and the happiness of society in general” (GS, 205). Without such education, women would not be able to direct their children’s education, they would not be able to allay men’s “furious passions,” they would not be able to contribute to society life and, above all, they “would no longer have any useful influence over opinion” (GS, 204). She makes the important point that women “are the only human beings outside the realm of political interest and the career of ambition, able to pour scorn on base actions, point out ingratitude, and honor even disgrace if that disgrace is caused by noble sentiments” (GS, 204). She here sees women as occupying not only a position of externality to the public sphere, but also one of disinterestedness, whereby they can act as a voice of conscience in this sphere since they have no direct interests vested in it. The public’s prejudice against female talent and genius, she explains, is based on the safeguards of routine and mediocrity. A woman provides the most vulnerable target because she is unable to defend herself and no one comes to her aid, not even other women (GS, 206–207).


1 Germaine de Staël, “Essay on Fiction,” in Madame de Staël on Politics, Literature and National Character, trans. Morroe Berger (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1964), p. 203. Hereafter cited as “EF.”
2 Germaine de Staël, On Literature Considered in its Relationship to Social Institutions, in An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings of Germaine de Staël, trans. Vivian Folkenflik (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), p. 201. Hereafter cited as GS.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Romanticism

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