It has often been said that French is the
language of "L'amour, toujours l'amours". French literature
is the longest and probably the richest literature in Europe.
In the Middle Ages, epic poems on courtly love and romantic tales
of Tristan and Lancelot were the dominating literatures. The
legend of Tristan and Iseult establishes the theme of romantic
love and conflict between lover and marriage in French culture.
The love between Tristan and Iseult is of an adulterous one.
Iseult is betrothed to Marc, but the man she loves is Tristan.
Their passion was so great that ultimately, both lovers died
for it. The lover's struggles form the basis of the story which
pattern throughout French literature in the Middle Ages. The
medieval literature expressed passionate and sexual love either
obstructed by the conventional marriage or circumstances beyond
human abilities. The plot usually involves an idealized love
object and an aspiring lover, both of which belong to the aristocratic
class. In its quintessential form, the heroine is put on the
pedestal for her exquisite beauty and grace. The lady is usually
distant, removed, to the point of unattainable, and most likely,
she is in a conventional marriage. In medieval literature, love
and marriage are treated as separate subjects. Marriage
meant restriction and convention while love is idealized with
chivalry and adventure. In the Lais of Marie de France, love
was the central subject. A woman can be unfaithful to her husband
to whom she does not have to love, but if she were unfaithful
to her lover, some terrible consequence would come about.
The Renaissance was a time of turmoil for
France. The social order, which had been feudal since the Middle
Ages, became Monarchy, in which the King summed absolute power,
and the middle class, the bourgeois class rose to domination.
During the period of social turmoil, no epic love poems, no great
tragedy or drama was composed in French literature. From the
Renaissance until the late 18th century, literatures wane away
from the romantic notion.
During the 18th century, frequently called
the Age of Reason, the literature was thought of as dry and lucid.
Poetry became so reasonable and intellectualized that it loses
all its appeal to the senses and the imagination. Because of
the dominating bourgeois power, the emphasis now was on marriage
rather than love. The ultimate goal in most late 18th and 19th
century leads marriage. It was thought logically that marriage
leads to love, which opposed the typical medieval literature.
During the Age of Reason, there were men
writers such as Diderot and Rousseau, whom modern scholars would
call the preromantics. Romanticism in France was developed quite
late compared to England and Germany due to their preoccupation
with the Revolution. During the time of the Revolution, France
produced very few literatures. It was not until 1820's that Romanticism
flourished in France. During this period, French literature returned
to the genre of romantic love. The Romantic Movement in literature
is the revival of the past, or rather, the multiple pasts which
preceding centuries had neglected (Peyre, 91). The notion of
romantic love typified in the Middle Ages is restored. For instance,
Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary undeniably one of the greatest
works of French literature. The heroine in this novel struggles
through the conflict between the ideal of passionate, romantic
love and her unsatisfactory marriage. The novels of adventure
and chivalry Emma read in her adolescene are the direct descendents
of the Tristan legend. Through her literary ideal of the Medieval
love, Emma finds disillusionment not only in her marriage, but
also in her adulterous liaisons as well.
However, due to the rising faith in religion,
the literature based love on marriage more and more. Marriage
was the ultimate goal instead of love but marriage involve romantic
love as well. Although the Romantics revived the notion of romantic
love, they also modified it as well. Adultery is considered sinful
and abstinence is put on the pedestal. Similar to the Middle
Ages, Romanticism placed woman
on the pedestal. In Les Miserables,
a woman is described as "the angel spirit
the approaching warmth [of woman], and, with [her] coming, serenity,
our gaiety and estacy overflowed; we [men] are radiant in our
darkness." (Hugo, 162).
Throughout the history of French literature,
love and marriage have been the main topics written about. The
Middle Ages invented the notion of romantic love full of gallantry
and chivalry. It also places love more important than marriage.
The literatures after the Renaissance France placed less value
on love. Rather, love was less tradegic and less idealized. Love
in the idealized sense is revived during the Romantic Movement
in 19th century. Although love was romanticized as in the literature
of Medieval Age, it was also modified to which love and marriage