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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Art and morality in the novels of Restif de la Bretonne Grannis, Elizabeth Ann


The present study is an analysis of the structural and thematic relationship between the earliest novels of Restif de la Bretonne (those inspired by popular writers such as Mme Riccoboni, Voltaire, Prevost, Marivaux and Rousseau), and the first of his autobiographical novels, Le Paysan perverti, published in 1775. Restif criticism has tended to focus on aspects of realism manifest in the series of autobiographical novels initiated by Le Paysan perverti. This critical focus neglects both the pre-Paysan novels, which manifest a strong tendency to propagandize in favor of bourgeois morality, and the author's own assertions that he consistently wrote moral novels. The present comparison between Restifs non-autobiographical novels and Le Paysan perverti attempts to show that Restif's earliest novels, and his affirmations of moral concern, may in fact be included in a coherent definition of his contribution to fiction. Both the non-autobiographical novels and Le Paysan perverti explore a common moral problem, for all of the characters are involved in surmounting the obstacle of passion in order to attain happiness in conformity to social values. The heroes of the non-autobiographical novels are distinguished by their easy success in this regard, in contrast to the multiple difficulties encountered by the characters of Le Paysan perverti. Analysis of the plot structures, or the reasons for the characters' success or failure in attaining happiness, reveals, however, that the novels share a pessimistic vision of the possibilities of practicing virtue, however essential to happiness it may be. The first chapter deals with the early non-autobiographical novels, from La Famille vertueuse (1767) through La Femme dans les trois etats (1773). These novels are shown to be characterized by plots in which the hero is passive, for his ultimate happiness in virtue is brought about by his family and friends, and/or coincidence. These forces conspire to create a world in which the hero's passional motivations appear to be sources of unhappiness. This emphasis on causes external to the main characters implies that in the Restivian view, human nature (of which the qualite maitresse is sensibility) does not of itself cause the individual to elect virtue as the only source of happiness. Although sensibility disposes to a sentimental attachment to virtue, it also disposes to passion, which is likely to dominate the individual's behavior in the absence of rigid control. The second chapter shows that by focusing on the sensibility of the hero as the dynamic element in the action, Le Paysan perverti develops directly the implications of the earlier novels. When the hero is deprived of the pressures of social context and coincidence, the passional aspect of his sensibility does in fact separate him from virtue. Passion also separates him from happiness, because it frustrates the sentimental aspirations to virtue that he shares with the earlier heroes. The plots of the secondary characters in Le Paysan perverti are discussed as complementary illustrations of the individual's inability to dominate his nature in the interest of happiness. The study leads to the conclusion that in the novels examined, a world view emerges in which the human condition is represented as a conflict between the individual's aspiration to permanence and stability, on the one hand, and the rarely surmountable mobility of a human nature that tends to create chaos, on the other. The study concludes with a sketch of the ways in which this vision is prolonged in Restif's later novels.

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