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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

But sensibility with Marivaux is not profound


As a moralist Lesage is the reverse of severe, but he is far from being base. "All is easy and good-humoured," wrote Sir Walter Scott, "gay, light, and lively; even the cavern of the robbers is illuminated with a ray of that wit with which Lesage enlightens his whole narrative. It is a work which renders the reader pleased with himself and with mankind, where faults are placed before him in the light of follies rather than vices, and where misfortunes are so interwoven with the ludicrous that we laugh in the very act of sympathising with them." In the earlier portion incidents preponderate over character; in the close, some signs of the writer's fatigue appear. Of Lesage's other tales and translations, _Le Bachelier de Salamanque_ (1736) takes deservedly the highest rank.

With PIERRE CARLET DE CHAMBLAIN DE MARIVAUX (1688-1763) the novel ceases to be primarily a study of manners or a romance of adventures; it becomes an analysis of passions to which manners and adventures are subordinate. As a journalist he may be said to have proceeded from Addison; by his novels he prepared the way for Richardson and for Rousseau. His early travesties of Homer and of Fenelon's _Telemaque_ seem to indicate a tendency towards realism, but Marivaux's realism took the form not so much of observation of society in its breadth and variety as of psychological analysis. If he did not know the broad highway of the heart, he traversed many of its secret paths. His was a feminine spirit, delicate, fragile, curious, unconcerned about general ideas; and yet, while untiring in his anatomy of the passions, he was not truly passionate; his heart may be said to have been in his head.

In the opening of the eighteenth century there was a revival of preciosity, which Moliere had never really killed, and in the _salon_ of Madame de Lambert, Marivaux may have learned something of his metaphysics of love and something of his subtleties or affectations of style. He anticipates the sensibility of the later part of the century; but sensibility with Marivaux is not profound, and it is relieved by intellectual vivacity. His conception of love has in it not a little of mere gallantry. Like later eighteenth-century writers, he at once exalts "virtue," and indulges his fancy in a licence which does not tend towards good morals or manners. His _Vie de Marianne_ (1731-41), which occupied him during many years, is a picture of social life, and a study, sometimes infinitely subtle, of the emotions of his heroine; her genius for coquetry is finely allied to her maiden pride; the hypocrite, M. de Climal--old angel fallen--is a new variety of the family of Tartufe. _Le Paysan Parvenu_ (1735-36), which tells of the successes of one whom women favour, is on a lower level of art and of morals. Both novels were left unfinished; and while both attract, they also repel, and finally weary the reader.[2] Their influence was considerable in converting the romance of adventures into the romance of emotional incident and analysis.

[Footnote 2: The twelfth part of _Marianne_ is by Madam Riccoboni. Only five parts of the _Paysan_ are by Marivaux.]

The work of Marivaux for the stage is more important than his work in prose fiction. His comedy has been described as the tragedy of Racine transposed, with love leading to marriage, not to death. Love is his central theme--sometimes in conflict with self-love--and women are his protagonists. He discovers passion in its germ, and traces it through its shy developments. His plays are little romances handled in dramatic fashion; each records some delicate adventure of the heart. He wrote much for the Comedie-Italienne, where he did not suffer from the tyranny of rules and models, and where his graceful fancy had free play. Of his large repertoire, the most admirable pieces are _Le Jeu de l'Amour et du Hasard_ (1730) and _Les Fausses Confidences_ (1732). In the former the heroine and her chambermaid exchange costumes; the hero and his valet make a like exchange; yet love is not misled, and heroine and hero find each other through their disguises. In _Les Fausses Confidences_ the young widow Araminte is won to a second love in spite of her resolve, and becomes the happy victim of her own tender heart and of the devices of her assailants. The "marivaudage" of Marivaux is sometimes a refined and novel mode of expressing delicate shades and half-shades of feeling; sometimes an over-refined or over-subtle attempt to express ingenuities of sentiment, and the result is then frigid, pretentious, or pedantic. No one excelled him in the art, described by Voltaire, of weighing flies' eggs in gossamer scales.


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