Analysis of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood photo

An analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer born in 1931, who studied literature in Toronto. In the 1960s, she was a graduate specialist in Harvard and then came back to Canada to teach literature. She was a well-known poet with The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Life before man (1979), The Robber Bride (1993).

Margaret Atwood is a very prolific artist, involved in the feminist movement and human rights issues on the international scene. She takes an interest in the narrative form and draws on different literary genres : Gothic romance, fairy tale, spy thriller, science fiction and history. She challenges the limits of traditional genres.

She takes an interest in social and political issues :

  • relations between men and women
  • fundamentalism and excess of puritanism
  • ecological interest
  • strong defense of basic human rights
  • a warning against oppression

She takes side to protest : The Handmaid’s Tale is a protest, a denunciation of the American way of life and imperialism :

In the States, the machinery of government is out of control, it’s too big […], it runs right over your great democratic ideals.

— Margaret Atwood

America is a starting point to denounce politics. The Handmaid’s Tale encourages a wider view and is set in no specific space and time.


The Handmaid’s Tale is set in  a near future in the USA. A group of the right-wing fundamentalists has assassinated the American President, over-thrown the elected Congress and denied both jobs and education to women.

All this was facilitated by technological progress:

All they needed to do is to push few buttons. We are cut off.

The Handmaid’s Tale, p107.

They established a new republic called Gilead, on patriarchal lines, derived from the Old Testament in the Bible, 17th century American puritanism and the American New Right from the 1980’s. Women became slaves and homosexuals “gender traitors” (p53). Homosexuals, old women and non-white people are sent to the colonies because they are unwanted.

Infertile women (the result of pollution and nuclear plants accidents leading to a rise in birth defects) are sent to the colonies as well.

Fertile women are indoctrinated by the “Rachel and Leah Centre”, also known as the “Red Centre” and parcelled out to “Commanders”. They are called Handmaids and have to bear the children of the elite.

Women are pressed in 1 of 8 categories :

  • Commanders’ wives
  • Widows
  • Aunts
  • Handmaids
  • Marthas
  • Econowives
  • Jezebels
  • Unwomen (sent to the colonies)

Men do not escape characterization either:

  • Commanders
  • Sons of Jacobs
  • The Eyes (of the Lord)
  • The Angels
  • The Guardians of the Faith

Offred is the narrator of her own story. She is the speaking voice of the novel. As a handmaid, Offred’s body is at the service of a Commander, “for reproductive purposes” (p316). She’s a “national resource”.

Yet, she resists the all-powerful patriarchal laws based on the Bible to tell her story of the silenced female servants.

From the opening line, we are presented a survival narrative and a female resistance :

  • survival of love : affair with Nick
  • flashbacks, sudden jumps backwards in time
  • focus on pre-Gilead (pornography, artificial insemination) and the moral decay associated to such a period.

Her discourse of survival revolves around various contemporary issues : religion (fanaticism and excess), feminism (patriarchal control of women’s bodies), ecology (troubles), a critique of the return to traditional values, and the paradoxes of contemporary feminism.

The historical notes make the epilogue. They give another view on Gilead’s regime and make you think. The narrator is Professor Piexoto, and his speech is delivered at the University of Denay, Nunavit, in the year 2195, a long time after Offred’s narrative. We are encouraged to believe Offred’s story.

The two goals of the historical notes are :

  • fill in some of the background information regarding Gilead and tell how Offred’s story is discovered.
  • it never stops to charge us readers, especially on questions of interpretation : it’s a totally different story with prejudiced views of Offred’s story.

As a conclusion, we shouldn’t forget that the whole novel is full of irony. The truth is out there and not in Piexoto’s speech. Truth is never to be found.

We have the power to choose, to take some distance from what we read. All has been set to make the readers think: “are there any questions?” is addressed to the readers. “Context is all” (p202) : it smacks off the puritan ethos/values.

The New Right is represented by Reagan and Bush. It was very powerful and harked back to puritan inheritance. Gilead is an extreme yet satirized version of the ideology. To what extent does Gilead endorse the shackles (values) of Puritanism ?

  • absolute authority over the population by a male elite acting in the name of God.
  • biblical references  to underwrite its choices and attitudes. (“The penalty for rape is death”) :

It’s a way of imposing a new ideology:

  • intolerance towards the others
  • very rigid hierarchy, with categories of people
  • imposed common rules : self-denial, obedience, strict upbringing and education of women.

Women are supposed to be productive : it’s a narrow-minded and puritan attitude. Offred is nameless : she’s “Of Fred” and “offered”.

Offred is the woman on whom puritan values are applied :

  • side of the captors: she analyses the system.
  • side of the prisoners : she tells her own story.

Offred is not simply a witness, she reveals details on an unknown community. She’s challenging the system. She’s faithful to her values and expresses her distress in theocracy (the combination of politics and religion).

Offred is part of Atwood’s life because she expresses her own distress and disgust for the American system.

At the beginning of the novel, there is a dedication “For Mary Webster…” – Mary Webster was a witch, hanged in the 1680’s and also Atwood’s relative – “and Perry Miller”, who was a great scholar in Harvard.

The dedication is a combination of puritanism of the 17th and 20th centuries, which shows that history repeats itself. Gilead is not the first society poisoned with fanaticism (not the first and won’t be the last) – Roumania with Ceaucescu springs to mind but there are heaps of examples.

We have to be careful and avoid a nightmare like Gilead for our own future. Theocracies should not prevail as the price exacted is slavery and all loss of freedoms.

Utopia and Dystopia

Utopia was first defined in Plato’s Republic (-350 BC). Imaginary and fictions and ideals were praised by Thomas More in Utopia (1516). The better society coincides with the discovery of America.

When you imagine a better society, you condemn the ills of your own society. Thomas More dreams of another society, where you demand social and technological improvements.

Utopia is nowhere to be found. I’m not being critical, utopia is nowhere. It’s a creation of my own. The Handmaid’s Tale is not a utopia for Offred but a dystopia, with an imperfect society but maybe she’s describing a utopia with dystopian elements: a negative vision of tyranny, an ecological disaster. She tells about the negative side of the system and the limits of utopias (which are two in the novel: Gilead and the feminist utopia: how sectarian thinking leads to chaos).

Margaret Atwood rejects the “unique thought”. The exploitation and servitude of women make up the dystopia, as well as the denunciation of totalitarianism (p115) and the denunciation of the dangers of propaganda through the manipulation and abuses of language in Gilead: “Aunts” and “Angels” bear a reassuring emotional connotation when they are in fact instruments of oppression. Offred will find indirect ways of denouncing the system put in place in Gilead.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream : synopsis photo

A Midsummer Night’s Dream : synopsis

A Midsummer Night's Dream : synopsis photo

Act I

Scene 1

Theseus and Hippolyta look ahead to their wedding day, in four days’ time. Hermia plans to defy her father and elope with Lysander, but Helena reveals their plan to Lysander’s rival, Demetrius.

The scene takes place in Athens. The characters are :

  • Duke Theseus
  • Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. 
  • Egeus and his daughter Hermia
  • Two suitors : Lysander and Demetrius

Hermia is in love with Lysander. Egeus wants her to marry Demetrius or die. Helena loves Demetrius.

Scene 2

A group of craftsmen from Athens have decided to stage a play, “Pyramus and Thisbe”, to celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. They cast the play and plan the rehearsal.

Peter Quince is a carpenter. He wrote the play and organized the rehearsal. Nick Bottom is a weaver. He wants to play every part of the play.

The secret rehearsal takes place in the wood.

Act II

Scene 1

The King and Queen of the Fairies, Oberon and Titania, quarrel in the wood over possession of a human boy. In revenge, Oberon sends his helper Robin for magic juice to put on Titania’s eyes, which will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees. When Oberon observes Demetrius spurning Helena, he decides that the magic juice should be applied to Demetrius’ eyes too, so that he would fall in love with her.

Scene 2

Oberon anoints the eyes of the sleeping Titania. Robin, however, mistakenly applies the juice to Lysander, who suddenly falls in love with Helena and abandons Hermia.


Scene 1

The craftsmen arrive in the wood to rehearse their play but their performance is disrupted by the mischievous Robin who uses magic to give Bottom the head of an ass. After the others have fled from him in terror, Titania awakens and, under the spell of the magic juice, falls in love with the transformed Bottom.

Scene 2

Demetrius has met with Hermia, who continues to reject his love. Oberon observes them quarreling and realizes that Robin’s intervention has misfired. Trying to put the situation right, he applies the juice to Demetrius’ eyes when Helena is nearby : as a consequence, Demetrius and Lysander become rivals for Helena’s love.

Helena believes both of them are tormenting her, with the connivence of Hermia. To prevent violence, Oberon orders Robin to intervene, drawing the lovers apart. Once they have grown weary and fallen asleep, Robin puts an antidote juice on Lysander’s eyes to take away his love for Helena. There is no fear of tragic ending.

Act IV

Scene 1

Oberon and Robin remove the magic spells from Titania and Bottom, and the King and Queen of Fairies are reunited. Theseus and his companions, out early in the morning, discover the four lovers, who explain their changed feelings. Theseus overrules Egeus’ objections and declares that the two young couples shall be married alongside Hippolyta and him. When everyone has left, Bottom awakens and reflects on his strange “dream”.

Scene 2

The other craftsmen are lamenting Bottom’s loss and the consequent cancellation of their play, when he arrives to announce that all is well and their play may be staged after all.

Act V

Scene 1

On the evening of the three marriages, Theseus agrees to the staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe”. The play is badly written and acted but this increases people’s entertainment.

When all the humans have gone to bed, the fairies enter the house and bless those who reside there and their children to come.

Robin stays behind to deliver an epilogue. The play concludes where it started, in Athens.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee : chapter analysis photo

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee : chapter analysis

Here is an analysis of each chapter in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

A general summary

In Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee recalls his childhood and adolescence. He was one of seven children in a close family headed by his mother : he grew up in England, in a Cotswold village governed by tradition.

The book is organised in accord with his own early exploration of his widening world. He examines his infant sensations, his cottage, his yard, his village and Cotswold valley, then local superstitions, village education, his neighbours, public tragedies, private life-stories, his childhood games, village celebrations, sexual initiations, and the eventual changes as his childhood, his close family life, and the traditional village life pass away for ever.

Chapter 1 : First Light

In this chapter, Lee gives a three-year-old’s perceptions and misconceptions : small in relation to objects around him, Laurie crawls among “forests” of household objects : he believes autumn is a season and the war’s end means the end of the world. Lee uses metaphors and similes (often of water) to communicate the child’s sense of adventure.

This chapter introduces most of the themes that will be developed in the story throughout the different episodes of Laurie’s childhood: the importance of family ties, the constant presence and role of the women in his own development and the absence of a father, the magic in the world surrounding him causing numerous fears, the importance of the seasons and the overwhelming presence of nature and death.

Chapter 2 : First Names

The second chapter is divided into three sections. It begins in dark winter with peace and the men returning from war and it ends in the “long hot summer of 1921”. It roughly has to do with night-time feelings: dreams, terrors and superstitions.

The village legends : ignorance and superstition were common features shared by all the people of the village, and they led them to fear a world which seemed totally unpredictable and was governed by magic laws. Some animals or natural phenomena were given a particular meaning and there were ill omens that brought bad luck to those who crossed their path.

The village freaks : the freaks such as Cabbage Stump Charlie, Albert the Devil, Percy from Painswick… were all more or less physically or mentally peculiar. The reader might be surprised at the number of handicapped people who populated the area.

This phenomenon could be explained by the fact that there was so great mixing of the population, which led to the problem of consanguinity. Besides, diseases and malnutrition must have led to further handicap. These freaks with their “cartoon” nicknames were probably the most striking and frightening people whom the little boy had heard of or seen in his narrow world.

The flood : the chapter ends then with another apocalyptic scene : the flood following a particularly dry summer. This part enables the narrator to emphasize the role religion played for the villagers at that time.

In their eyes, the world was driven by magic forces that could be influenced, either by appeals to god, the Christian God, or if this did not work, by resorting to other methods: “as the drought continued, prayer was abandoned and more devilish steps adopted”.

Chapter 3 : Village school

The third chapter focuses on Laurie’s school experiences, from his first day of the Infant Room to the day he left Miss Warldey’s Big Room forever. The realization that he had to leave the house one morning and go to school came as a shock.

This second stage in the process of growing up proved as frustrating and painful as the first one (leaving his mother’s bed): he discovered a world which appeared to be hostile, violent, and full of dangers.

It is as if his progressive discovery of the world followed a recurring pattern : shock, terror, the impression of being alone in an hostile world, then a final, unexpected rescue when things seemed to be at their worst.

School was the place where Laurie learnt how to discriminate between right and wrong, which was his first step toward losing his innocence. School was also the means through which tradition was perpetuated. It enabled the children to accept those who, for some reason, were different, by forcing them to mix together.

Chapter 4 : The Kitchen

In this chapter, he presents his home life – centered on the kitchen – on a typical day (using the same pattern as in other chapters), thus he catches the atmosphere which was predominant in his early childhood.

He emphasizes the importance of the light in the room and the necessity of a good fire. Laurie Lee’s mother’s behaviour around the fire suggests that keeping the fire alive was a question of life and death.

Chapter 5 : Grannies in the Wainscot

Chapter 5 is devoted to the history of the Lee’s seventeenth century Cotswold house. It was once a country manor, then a “public beer-house” or a pub, and it was later divided into three “poor cottages”.

In the other two cottages lived Granny Wallon and Granny Trill, two old ladies who were life-long enemies. Their death happened sometime during Laurie’s childhood.

Chapter 6 : Public Death, Private Murder

The events recounted here (Vincent’s murder, Miss Flynn’s suicide and the death of old Mr Davies) date back to an early period of Laurie’s childhood. Following the recollection of those tragic events, the narrator reflects upon the values and beliefs of the people in this valley, insisting once again on the durability or persistence of ancient traditions and attitudes.

At that time, death was no directly feared. What the villagers seemed to fear most was the presence of ghosts, haunted spots, ominous sighs from the sky, weird looking creatures which were actually substitutes for death itself. The villagers’ metaphysical fear of death had shifted to other objects.

Chapter 7 : Mother

A whole chapter is dedicated to Laurie’s mother. It encompasses her whole life, from her birth to her death, at which time the narrator was an adult. He insists on his mother’s personality and the characteristics that made her so unique, so exceptional.

It is no surprise that Laurie Lee’s mother should occupy the central chapter of the book : in the same way, she occupied the center of his life when he was a child.

Chapter 8 : Winter and Summer

Life in the village was dominated by two main seasons – Winter and Summer. In chapter 8, Lee condenses a childhood of summer and winter days into an account : one typical winter day and one typical summer day.

The chapter is constructed on a symmetrical plan : early morning lights and sounds, then outdoor activities, helping farmers with their cattle and playing with other boys, then roaming the countryside in the evening.

In the week before Christmas, they spent the evening singing Christmas carols in the whole area. Each section revolves around Jone’s pond, which is described at length.

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19th century literary movements : Realism and Naturalism photo

19th Century Literary Movements : Realism and Naturalism


Realism and Naturalism are a reaction against Romanticism (imagination, poetry and prose, as well as the main themes : nature, exoticism, history, and heroes depicted as exceptional individuals) because it was thought to have lost touch with the contemporary.

Three revolutions took place during the 19th century : the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and the moral revolution.

In Great Britain, the Victorian Era lasted from 1837 to 1901. In the USA, the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

19th century literary movements : Realism and Naturalism photo
Jean-François Millet, Des Glaneuses, 1857.

The industrial revolution

The Industrial Revolution was started by the invention of the steam machine (coal, railways, factories).

All this happened in the cities : the increase of the population led to misery and social problems such as alcoholism, tuberculosis, prostitution… There was a shift from a belief in progress to an increasing pessimism.

The scientific revolution

The Scientific Revolution expanded in the transport revolution, started by the steam engine:

  • 1830: Manchester-Liverpool railway
  • 1869: Transcontinental railway in the USA
  • Thomas Edison invents the gramophone, the light bulb and the electric chair
  • Pierre and Marie Curie discover radioactivity…

The world was changing extremely fast.

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is at the origin of a philosophical theory called Positivism. He devised the “law of three stages” : (1) the theological, (2) the metaphysical, and (3) the positive.

The theological phase of man was based on whole-hearted belief in all things with reference to God. God, Comte says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre-Enlightenment. Humanity’s place in society was governed by its association with the divine presences and with the church.

The theological phase deals with humankind’s accepting the doctrines of the church (or place of worship) rather than relying on its rational powers to explore basic questions about existence.

Comte describes the metaphysical phase of humanity as the time since the Enlightenment, a time steeped in logical rationalism, to the time right after the French Revolution. This second phase states that the universal rights of humanity are most important.

The central idea is that humanity is invested with certain rights that must be respected. In this phase, democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempts to maintain the innate rights of humanity.

The final stage of the trilogy of Comte’s universal law is the scientific, or positive, stage. The central idea of this phase is that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Science is paramount and can give man absolute knowledge and power.

The moral revolution

The moral revolution marked the end of the hypocrisy of the Victorian morality. In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin suggested for the first time that man descended from apes : there was no need for God, just a struggle for life (“survival of the fittest”).

Darwin influenced Marx (communism and class warfare) and Nietsche (vision of super-man).

Conflicts and struggles define the future of society. It was a time of intense philosophy, and moral and scientific changes.


Realism is the fact of being faithful to reality. It was a movement away from romantic illusion, in order to get closer to the social and psychological reality of the time. It is the belief there can be a correspondence between reality and its representation.

Reality is a subject matter : the life of ordinary people in ordinary situations – for instance the bourgeois middle-class as exceptional people are not realistic. Balzac talked about every classes of society but very often, he selected.

Reality is also a matter of verisimilitude : how characters are determined by their environment, chronological narratives, psychological dimension of the characters, presence of an omniscient narrator.

Realism in England

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was a realistic who lived during romanticism but she was not romantic at all. She described middle classes in the countryside (how to get married) with two types of heroines : romantic on the one hand and reasonable and realistic on the other hand.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) defined realism with a strong social dimension: he portrayed the working class and the poor and dealt with poverty and revolt against injustice. Dickens’ characters are defenseless orphans in a cruel world and his novels were used for social reforms.

In Oliver Twist (1838), there is sentimentality and pathos (influence of melodrama) but also humour and caricature to alleviate tensions.

Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1850) is evil, ugly, red-haired and smelled a fish. This romantic realism depicted social problems as well as imagination and sentimentality.

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Questions d'orthographe :

Questions d’orthographe : “1,9 gramme” ou “1,9 grammes” ? “moins de deux heures suffira” ou “moins de deux heures suffiront” ?

L’autre soir, tranquillement installés dans le canapé au coin du feu, nous dégustions un bon plateau de fromage et prenions connaissance des résultats de cette vie politique actuellement tourmentée, lorsqu’une question d’orthographe pour le moins brûlante a interrompu notre bouchée de Maroilles.

Faut-il donc écrire: “1,5 million” ou “1,5 millions” ? “1,9 gramme” ou “1,9 grammes” ?

“1,9 gramme” ou “1,9 grammes” ?

Puisque, concernant ce sujet, les articles sont quasiment inexistants sur le web et les grammaires peu prolixes, j’ai compris qu’il était grand temps d’élucider ce mystère.

J’ai sorti mon ultime outil, mon bon vieux livre vert de grammaire* qui fait plus d’un millier de pages en papier à cigarettes avec de tout petits petits caractères.

Je dois écrire ici que je suis extrêmement et paradoxalement attachée à ce livre vert de grammaire qui fut le bourreau de mes nuits durant deux années de préparation au CAPES puis à l’Agrégation.

J’ai consacré un nombre d’heures infini à m’efforcer de comprendre puis d’engloutir ce millier de pages qui recense et finalement, expose l’implacable logique de toutes les subtilités offrant toute leur saveur à la langue française.

J’aime donc intimement ressortir ce bon vieux livre vert de grammaire de mon étagère, qui me fait revivre ces moments d’intense concentration finalement couronnés par la satisfaction d’avoir progressé, ne serait-ce que très humblement.

Alors, faut-il écrire “1,9 gramme” ou “1,9 grammes” ?

  • La solution :

On écrit 1.9 gramme.

  • L’explication :

Peu importe la présence de la décimale, c’est le numéral “un” qui commande l’accord.

De fait, l’accord se fait au singulier. Très logiquement, le verbe se conjuguera lui aussi au singulier.

La même règle s’applique à des tournures telles que “plus d’un” : l’accord du verbe se fait au singulier car le numéral “un” est considéré comme le noyau du groupe nominal.

Ainsi, on écrira “plus d’un citoyen est venu”.

Faut-il écrire: “1,5 millions de votants” ou “1,5 million de votants” ?

  • La solution :

On écrit 1,5 millions.

  • L’explication :

Les numéraux cardinaux sont en principe invariables, à l’exception de un, vingt, cent, millier, million, billion et milliard. Ils sont considérés comme des noms.

Avec le substantif numéral million on fait toujours l’accord avec son complément, y compris lorsque celui-ci est implicite.

Ainsi, 1,2 millions de votants se sont déplacés aujourd’hui.

Faut-il écrire: “moins de deux heures suffira” ou “moins de deux heures suffiront” ?

  • La solution :

On écrit “moins de deux heures suffiront pour effectuer ce trajet”.

  • L’explication :

La logique est exactement la même lorsqu’il s’agit d’expressions telles que “moins de deux”: là encore, c’est le numéral “deux” qui commande l’accord.

Puisque “deux” est pluriel, on accordera le verbe au pluriel et on écrira donc : “moins de deux heures suffiront pour effectuer ce trajet”.

Ca y est, on peut enfin terminer cette bouchée de Maroilles…

* Si vous aussi, vous souhaitez vous plonger dans ce bon vieux livre vert de grammaire que je vous recommande chaleureusement, en voici les références : Martin Riegel, Jean-Christophe Pellat, René Rioul, Grammaire Méthodique du français, PUF, 1994.

A la fac, on l’appelait le “RPR”, acronyme formé des initiales de ses trois auteurs. Un nom comme cela, ça ne s’oublie pas !

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, an oil painting composed in 1818 by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich

The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature

Definition of Romanticism

Romanticism (also the Romantic era or the Romantic period) is an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850.

Romanticism is characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical. It is a reaction to the ideas of the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalization of nature.

The meaning of romanticism has changed with time. In the 17th century, “romantic” meant imaginative or fictitious due to the birth of a new literary genre : the novel. Novels, that is to say texts of fiction, were written in vernacular (romance languages), as opposed to religious texts written in Latin.

In the 18th century, romanticism is eclipsed by the Age of Enlightenment, where everything is perceived through the prism of science and reason.

In the 19th century, “romantic” means sentimental : lyricism and the expression of personal emotions are emphasized. Feelings and sentiments are very much present in romantic works.

Thus, so many things are called romantic that it is difficult to see the common points between the novels by Victor Hugo, the paintings by Eugène Delacroix or the music by Ludwig Von Beethoven.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich, 1818.

The romantic international

Romanticism is not limited to one country, it was an international vision of the world.

The romantic international started in Germany at the end of the 18th century with “Storm and Stress”. The two most famous poets are Goethe and Schiller and many philosophers such as Fichte, Schlegel, Schelling and Herder.

Romanticism was then adopted in England. Poets are divided in two generations :

  • first generation : William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
  • second generation : George Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats.

Romanticism reached France at the beginning of the 19th century with François-René de Chateaubriand – Atala (1801), René (1802), Le Génie du Christianisme (1802) – and Germaine de Staël : De l’Allemagne (1813).

Romanticism was a renewal, a revolution is artistic forms in paintings, literature and theatre. In Germany and Russia, romanticism created the national literature. It influenced the whole vision of art.

It was also the origin of contemporary ideas : modern individualism, the vision of nature, the vision of the work of art as an isolated object.

Joseph Mallord William Turner – The Fighting Téméraire (1836)
Joseph Mallord William Turner – The Fighting Téméraire (1836)

Political dimension : the birth of Romanticism

Romanticism represents a break with the universalistic outlook of the Enlightenment. Reason is something universal and the Enlightenment found its models in classical France and Rome : all men are the same because there are all reasonable. Romanticism if a fragmentation of consciousness, with no universalistic ideas left.

The French Revolution was characterized by universalistic ideas such as all men are created equal. It corresponds to the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The nation is born out of a social contract : it means that you are free to choose to belong to one nation or another.

It is different in Germany where you don’t choose your country, that is where you were born (organic nation).

There’s a difference between the first and second generation of poets. British poets were rather progressive and close to dissenters.

The French Revolution was full of hope of equality but it quickly changed when in 1793, it gave way to the Terror and the beheading of the King.

The first generation of British romantic poets

Only William Blake remained a radical, unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge. There was an incredible pressure in England at the time. The Prime Minister, Pitts, suspended the Habeas Corpus and adopted the Sedition Act, which was meant to prevent the freedom of press. It turned away the first generation from their ideals.

Blake wrote a visionary, imaginary poetry, really difficult to understand. Wordsworth and Coleridge were reactionary to the French Revolution.

Wordsworth turned away from the excesses of the revolution and wrote a simple poetry in a democratic style.

Coleridge was inspired by the Middle Ages and German thought and was a reactionary Christian nationalist.

The second generation of British romantic poets

The second generation remains more radical but the political climate was so oppressive that the radicals left England or made more indirect political comments.

The Mask of Anarchy by Shelley was inspired by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. In Prometheus Unbound, a man fights against political and religious oppression.

Romanticism was connected with politics of the time. Romantic poets could be either conservative or progressive, depending on their vision of the world.

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Sommaire de la série 19th Century Literary Movements

  1. The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature
The Gothic and the Fantastic photo

The Gothic and the Fantastic

The Gothic and the Fantastic are two literary genres both related and different.

A genre can characterize many types of literature such as poetry, drama, or the novel. It is a specific type of writing, obeying a number of rules, or recognizable through a number of themes or structural elements like suspense, plot, or characters.

I. Definitions of the Gothic

The Gothic is the ancestor of the modern horror stories. It is based on the bizarre, the macabre and the supernatural, and it very often deals with aberrant psychological states (terror, fear, anxiety). The setting could typically be a dark castle or church at night…

1. The Sublime

The Sublime is the concept developed by Edmund Burke in On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) which is based on two principles:

1. Beauty is small, smooth, not angular but curved, clear, light and delicate, with harmony in proportions. It is something rather feminine, with human proportions, based on pleasure.

2. the Sublime is great, rugged, straight and angular, dark and massive. It is rather masculine, inhuman because too vast, excessive and powerful for man, based on pain.

There is a dialectic like Eros (love and pleasure) and Thanatos (pain and death) : these two elements, both opposed and complementary, structured the mentalities and the mental productions of the 19th century.

It is also related to primitivism as neoclassicism expressed harmony in proportions (beauty) while the revival of the Gothic was in relation with the sublime, based on pre-christian religions, legends and superstitions and the Middle Ages.

2. Major Gothic Works

Horace Walpole, nephew of a former MP and himself a rich and noble MP, was inspired by Shakespeare’s plays (especially monsters) and wrote The Castle of Otranto (1764). His book is divided into five chapters, like the five acts of a play. It can be considered the first Gothic novel.

William Beckford published Vathek in 1782. It was first written in French and inspired by The Arabian Nights.

Gothic novels met a real success as it was a very feminine genre : women were writing, reading and had access to culture.

Other major Gothic novels include :

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
  • The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis
  • Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley
  • Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) by James Hogg

3. A better definition

According to Marilyn Butler:

  • there is a contrast between the sublime and the beautiful,
  • the frail, young and fragile heroine usually falls in love with a nice guy,
  • gloomy and large elements belong to the sublime,
  • the dominant emotion is fear,
  • there is a chiaroscuro : a contrast between light and darkness.

For example, The Mysteries of Udolpho is a novel set in 1584 in southern France and northern Italy which focuses on the plight of Emily St. Aubert, a young French woman who is orphaned after the death of her father.

Emily suffers imprisonment in the castle Udolpho at the hands of Signor Montoni, an Italian brigand who has married her aunt and guardian Madame Cheron. Emily’s romance with the dashing Valancourt is frustrated by Montoni and others. Emily also investigates the mysterious relationship between her father and the Marchioness de Villeroi, and its connection to the castle at Udolpho.

Emily conceives strange things: she can hear voices such as her dead father’s, see moving paintings, or see a man appear from nowhere in her room. They are trying to make her mad to get her heritage.

It is a Gothic novel removed from the world (sublime) and very down-to-earth. There are no supernatural elements (no ghosts and all) but a nightmarish atmosphere full of fear and shadows.

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Sommaire de la série 19th Century Literary Movements

  1. The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature

“If” – by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

— Rudyard Kipling, “If”, 1895

The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment photo

The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment


The 18th Century can be dubbed “the Age of Enlightenment” as it was marked by French philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau or Diderot (the Encyclopédie was published in 1761).

The Enlightenment is characterized by the belief of natural goodness of man : man is perfectible, it is the idea of progress obtained through the use of reason.

Since man is naturally good, all bad things come from society : if we could fight prejudices and oppressive social institutions, man would be better. It’s a question of education : political and social reforms would bring man happiness. These are the principles of the French Revolution.

The situation is different in the United Kingdom. The revolution has already been made : the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 established a parliamentary monarchy but it was not a democracy since you needed to be rich to go to Parliament.

John Locke, a famous British philosopher, influenced the notion of parliamentary democracy. He was a predecessor of the Enlightenment but his ideas were only applied in America after the War of Independence (1776-1782).

The American Constitution was applied in 1789. In the USA, there is a republican government with a president and a principle of equality in front of the law: “everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. There is a truly optimistic belief in man and happiness, and in progress and reason.

The end of the 18th century saw an evolution : the development of the rational and the irrational. There were general changes in taste in arts in the 1750’s :

  • rococo and its myriad of details
  • primitivism (more simple) and its two sides : neoclassicism and its imitation of Greek and Latin architecture (strict and rational), and the Gothic revival.
reading voltaire s tragedy l orphelin de la chine at madame geoffrin s salon painted in 1812 by gabriel lemonnier 1743 1824 oil on canvas 129 5 x196 162278848 58e6e3323df78c516266d3a6
Reading Voltaire’s tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine at Madame Geoffrin’s salon, painted in 1812 by Gabriel Lemonnier (1743-1824). DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images


Primitivism is connected to a new vision of nature. Instead of being addicted to laws, nature became a sentimental reference. It helps you meditate, find yourself – it’s a new conception of life.

Nature is not a rational entity any longer but it is sentimentalized. This shift can also be seen in gardening: French gardens were less controlled, more spontaneous than British gardens for example.

Cult of “sensibility”

Feelings were seen as an essential part of human nature, that should be expressed rather than repressed:

  • romanticism is based on the expression of feelings
  • humanitarianism is the sentimental promotion of feelings and asks how feelings affect our minds through compassion for the poor and unhappy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in La Nouvelle Héloïse glorifies passions and feelings, and as such can be considered a pre-romantic writer.
  • the development of a new type of psychology : our sensations influence our minds.

The Rise of the Novel

During the 18th century, the modern novel came into being and became the most important genre in literature.

The novel is characterized by its realism and simplicity :

  • the characters are not noble but middle-class characters
  • it is often presented as autobiographies, letters or journals : it looks ordinary, the language is not difficult, the style is simple – all that make novels very realistic.

Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Defoe created a new way of thinking. He was Protestant and took side for the Protestant capitalistic values, advocating thrift and perseverance.

Samuel Richardson, who wrote Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), was a pioneer in the sentimental novel and psychological novel.

Henry Fielding, who wrote Joseph Andrew (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), was a specialist in comedy and parody. His books are anti-sentimental.

Lawrence Sterne, author of Tristan Shandy (1759), showed the artificiality of the novel. He questioned the conventions of the genre through the use of digressions, self-referentiality and puns.

Two traumatic events can explain the context of Gothic and Romanticism : the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Sommaire de la série 19th Century Literary Movements

  1. The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature
Questions d’orthographe: écrit-on

Questions d’orthographe: écrit-on “Elles se sont succédées” ou “elles se sont succédé”?

Il arrive fréquemment que l’on me pose cette question : “elles se sont succédées” ou “elles se sont succédé”?

Une question épineuse, dont la réponse est surprenante… alors je vous propose un petit point grammaire.

L’accord correct

C’est : “elles se sont succédé”.

La règle

L’exemple présenté fait partie des verbes pronominaux: ce sont des verbes qui se construisent avec “se”, pronom qui renvoie au sujet de la phrase.

Par exemple, dans “Jean se regarde” : Jean regarde quoi ? -> “se”, c’est-à-dire lui-même. Même exemple dans “Je me maquille”, “Ils se coiffent”, “Nous nous parlons”, etc…

Comment savoir si le participe s’accorde ou non ? Tout dépend de la construction du verbe:

1. Le participe passé s’accorde avec le sujet de la phrase

Si le verbe se construit avec un COD, dans ce cas, le pronom “se, me, te…” est COD du verbe, c’est à dire répond à la question QUOI / QUI ?

Par exemple, “Je me suis coiffée” : j’ai coiffé QUI ? -> me, c’est-à-dire moi. Autre exemple, “Elles se sont lavées”: Elles ont lavé QUI ? -> Se, c’est-à-dire elles-mêmes.

2. Le participe passé reste invariable

Si le verbe se construit avec un COI, dans ce cas, le pronom “se, me, te, …” est COI du verbe, c’est à dire qu’il répond à A QUOI / A QUI ?

par exemple : “je lui parle” : je parle A QUI ? -> à lui. Autre exemple, “Je leur succède”: je succède A QUI ? -> à eux.

Donc, dans “elles se sont succédées”, on dit “succéder A quelqu’un” et pas “succéder quelqu’un”, donc, succéder se construit avec un COI.

Donc, “elles se sont succédé”, elles se sont parlé, …

Ça y est, vous êtes incollables !

Questions d'orthographe : écrit-on :

Questions d’orthographe : écrit-on : “les pommes que j’ai mangées” ou “les pommes que j’ai mangé”?


Aujourd’hui, dans Questions d’orthographe, nous allons nous intéresser à l’accord du participe passé.

L’accord correct

C’est “les pommes que j’ai mangées“.

La règle

Cette phrase interroge sur l’accord du participe passé :

Mini-rappel pour ceux à qui ce terme paraît flou : le participe passé est cette forme du verbe qui sert, à l’aide de l’auxiliaire être ou avoir, à former les temps composés des verbes.

Par exemple, dans “j’ai mangé”: “j” est le sujet, “ai” est l’auxiliaire avoir et “mangé” est le participe passé du verbe manger.

Comment faire pour savoir s’il faut accorder ou non le participe passé ?

Pour savoir si le participe passé s’accorde ou non, on regarde tout simplement l’auxiliaire qui l’accompagne.

Si c’est l’auxiliaire ETRE qui accompagne le participe passé :  le participe passé s’accorde toujours avec le sujet de la phrase.

Par exemple: “Claudine est sortie”: Claudine est un sujet féminin, donc accord du participe passé au féminin.

Si c’est l’auxiliaire AVOIR qui accompagne le participe passé, peu importe le sujet, on regarde le COD. (Rappel, pour trouver le COD, on pose la question “quoi?/”qui?” après le verbe.

Par exemple,  “je mange des pommes” : je mange quoi ? -> des pommes.)

Si le COD est placé devant le verbe, le participe passé s’accorde avec le COD.

Par exemple, “les pommes qu‘il a mangées”: le COD “que” est placé avant le verbe. Comme il renvoie aux pommes (féminin pluriel) le participe passé s’accorde au féminin pluriel.

 Si le COD est placé après le verbe, le participe passé reste toujours invariable

Par exemple, “il a mangé des pommes”.

Et voilà, maintenant, on peut manger des pommes en toute tranquillité !

trombonnes de couleurs variées

Questions d’orthographe : dit-on “des pièces ci-joint” ou “des pièces ci-jointes” ?

Au cours d’un déjeuner avec Jac, on en est venus à parler grammaire et nous avons évoqué ce problème récurrent qui se pose souvent lorsque l’on écrit un mail : doit-on écrire des pièces”ci-joint” ou “ci-jointes” lorsque l’on attache des fichiers ?

Alors, voici la règle pour savoir quand on doit l’accorder.

1. “Ci-joint” reste invariable:

Si votre phrase commence par “ci-joint” : (par exemple : “ci-joint ces documents”). Dans ce cas, “ci-joint” est comparable à “il y a” (“il y a des pièces jointes”) qui ne s’accorde pas.

Quand “ci-joint” se trouve juste après un verbe : (exemple : “vous trouverez ci-joint les documents”).

Dans ce cas, “ci-joint” est comparable à “ici” (par exemple: “vous trouverez ici des documents”). Il joue alors le rôle d’un adverbe et ne s’accorde donc jamais.

2. “Ci-joint” s’accorde:

Quand “ci-joint” est placé juste après le nom qu’il accompagne : (exemple : “vous trouverez les fiches ci-jointes”).

Dans ce cas, “ci-joint” est envisagé comme un adjectif qualificatif (exemple : “vous trouverez des fiches vertes”) et doit donc impérativement s’accorder.

Ça y est, vous pouvez maintenant envoyer des mails en toute tranquillité !

L’envie me prend de commencer une série sur des questions de langue épineuses : avez-vous d’autres points d’orthographe ou de grammaire à élucider ?