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Women and reason in French narrative of the eighteenth century

Purdue University
Publication Date
  • Literature
  • Modern|Literature
  • Romance|Women'S Studies
  • Law
  • Literature
  • Philosophy


This project analyzes the representation of women in novels of the French Enlightenment, focusing on works by Françoise de Graffigny, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni and Isabelle de Charrière. Counter to the prevailing eighteenth-century belief in the inferiority of women's reason, these authors demonstrate women's intelligence and capacity for fruitful participation in the public sphere. A more general framework is provided by inquiry into the socio-historical situation of eighteenth-century French women. Discourse on reason provides an eminently useful link between narrative text and social context, since dominant views on women and reason had enormous impact upon both the legal and the customary exclusion of women from the public sphere. While the belief that women lack reason was inherited from prior centuries, in the Enlightenment period one finds this idea juxtaposed with arguments for universal equality. The three authors that form the basis for this study respond to social constraints by couching commentary on reason and public-sphere issues within sentimental narratives. The views on reason expressed in these eighteenth-century literary texts share similarities with current philosophical debates, and involve issues that continue to have vital importance in our world today. ^

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