French literature, the body of written works in the French language produced within the geographic and political boundaries of France. The French language was one of the five major Romance languages to develop from Vulgar Latin as a result of the Roman occupation of western Europe.
Since the Middle Ages, France has enjoyed an exceptional position in European intellectual life. Though its literary culture has no single figure whose influence can be compared to that of Italy’s Dante or England’s Shakespeare, successive periods have seen its writers and their language exercise an influence far beyond its borders. In medieval times, because of the far-reaching and complex system of feudal allegiances (not least the links of France and England), the networks of the monastic orders, the universality of Latin, and the similarities of the languages derived from Latin, there was a continual process of exchange, in form and content, among the literatures of western Europe. The evolution of the nation-states and the rise in prestige of vernacular languages gradually eroded the unifying force of these relationships. From the early modern period onward, France developed its own distinctive and many-stranded cultural tradition, which, while never losing sight of the riches of the medieval base and the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition, has come chiefly to be thought of as Mediterranean in its allegiance, rooted in the imitation of Classical models as these were mediated through the great writers and thinkers of Renaissance Italy.
The version of French tradition that began in the 17th century and has established itself in the cultural histories and the schoolbooks was given fresh force in the early 20th century by the philosopher-poet Paul Valéry and, especially, his English admirers in the context of the political and cultural struggle with Germany. In this version, French culture prizes reason, formal perfection, and purity of language and is to be admired for its thinkers as much as for its writers. By the end of the ancien régime, the logic of Descartes, the restraint of Racine, and the wit of Voltaire were seen as the hallmarks of French culture and were emulated throughout the courts and salons of the Continent. Other aspects of this legacy—the skepticism of Descartes, calling into question authoritarian axioms; the violent, self-seeking intensity of Racinian passion, fueled by repression and guilt; and the abrasive irony that Voltaire turned against established bigotry, prejudice, and injustice—were less well viewed in the circles of established order. Frequently forced underground, these and their inheritors nevertheless gave energy to the revolutionary ethos that constituted another, equally French, contribution to the radical traditions of western Europe.
The political and philosophical revolutions installed by the end of the 18th century, in the name of science and reason, were accompanied by transformations in the form and content of French writing. Over the turn of the 19th century and beyond, an emergent Romantic sensibility challenged the Neoclassical ideal, which had become a pale and timid imitation of its former self. The new orthodoxy asserted the claims of imagination and feeling against reason and of individual desire against social and moral convention. The 12-syllable alexandrine that had been used to such effect by Jean Racine remained the standard line in verse, but the form was relaxed and reinvigorated; and the thematic domain of poetry was extended successively by Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Charles Baudelaire, and Arthur Rimbaud. All poetic form was thrown into the melting pot by the Modernist revolutions at the turn of the 20th century.
As the novel overtook poetry and drama to become the dominant literary form in the 19th century, French writers explored the possibilities of the genre and, in some cases, reinvented it. The novel cycles of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola developed a new mode of social realism to celebrate and challenge the processes at work in a nation that was being transformed by industrial and economic revolution. In the work of other writers, such as Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, and Marcel Proust, each following his own distinctive path, a different kind of realism emerged, focused on a preoccupation with the analysis of individual action, motivation, and desire as well as a fascination with form. Between them, the 19th-century French novelists traced the fate of the individualistic sensibilities born of aristocratic and high bourgeois culture as they engaged with the collectivizing forms of a nation moving toward mass culture and the threshold of democracy. Joris-Karl Huysmans’s aristocratic hero, Des Esseintes, in À rebours (1884; Against Nature or Against the Grain), offered a traditionalist, pessimistic version of the final outcome. Halfway through the next century, Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy Les Chemins de la liberté (1945; Roads to Freedom) responded to a world in which the balance of the argument had visibly shifted.
During the first half of the 20th century, Paris remained the hub of European intellectual and artistic life. Its position was challenged from the 1930s, and especially after World War II, by Anglo-American writers, many of whom honed their own skills within its culture and its borders; but it still continued to generate modes of thinking and writing that others followed. From the 1950s, proponents of the nouveau roman, or New Novel, mounted a radical attack on the conventions of the genre. At the same time, boulevard drama felt on its neck the breath of the avant-garde; and from the 1960s onward French writers began stimulating new approaches to almost every field of rational inquiry. The international status of the French language has declined steadily since World War II, with the rise of American market hegemony and, especially, with the rapid spread of decolonization. French is still, however, the preferred medium of creative expression for many in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, France’s former colonies in Africa and Asia, and its Caribbean dependencies. The contribution of Francophone authors outside its borders to the renewal of French literary traditions has become increasingly significant.