Marriage and Domestic Violence
in Eighteenth-Century French Literature
Course Description and Objectives
Over the past fifteen years, domestic violence has become the subject of a national dialogue in the United States and of discussion in international forums, most notably at the Women's Conference in Beijing. This has led to the passage of new laws and to the establishment of organizations and programs designed to help the victims of such abuse and to increase public awareness of the problem. The heightened awareness of this issue has in turn led sociologists, social historians, legal scholars, and literary critics to examine the attitudes, practices, and laws concerning domestic violence in past generations and other cultures. In an article published in 1984 titled "Domestic Violence in Literature: A Preliminary Study," Ruth Nadelhaft observed that "domestic violence has not yet been identified, let alone studied, systematically in literature." Although the issue has received a great deal of attention among literary critics in the seventeen years since the appearance of Nadelhaft's essay, relatively little work has been published to date concerning domestic violence in eighteenth-century France and descriptions of it in the literature of the period. By examining the evolution of attitudes, practices, and laws regarding spousal abuse in the eighteenth century and the accounts of such abuse in the literature of the period, we can gain a better understanding of the issue of domestic violence today.
To better understand the higher expectations
for marital happiness that developed in the second half of the eighteenth
century, we will begin the course by reading excerpts from Rousseau's
novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, the first major
literary work in France extolling companionate marriage. We will then
read several works that challenged the ideal of companionate marriage
set forth by Rousseau: Samuel de Constant's Le Mari sentimental,
Isabelle de Charrière's Lettres de Mistress Henley (which
responds to Constant's novel as well), and excerpts from Louise d'Epinay's
Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant.
The course met for sixteen weeks for three hours one evening each week. A two-hour final exam was given in the seventeenth week.
Course Requirements and Assignments
The students all wrote one term paper, but the expectations were different for undergraduates and graduate students. The paper (due the last week of the semester) was a comparison of a fictional work we had read with a court case read we had studied. Undergraduates were expected to read at least one critical study of the fictional work chosen (in addition to any studies read for class) and one pertinent study of the social or legal history of the period (in addition to those read for class) and then to respond to these studies in their own analysis. Papers written by undergraduates were to be a minimum of nine pages and a maximum of twelve (excluding endnotes).
to the students, both in the syllabus and in class, that by "responding to" these
studies, I did not mean simply to quote or cite them, but to react
them-either to agree or disagree, based on their own analysis of the
texts. I pointed out that there is often more than one valid way
interpret a given text, that scholars (both literary critics and historians)
often disagree with each other in their interpretations, and that
kind of debate is what makes scholarship exciting. At the same time,
I cautioned students not to get bogged down in the introductory,
material, stressing that the focus should be on the two primary texts-on
their analysis and comparison of them. The point of the paper was
build on the insights the students had gained concerning the attitudes,
laws, and practices concerning marriage, separation, and spousal
in eighteenth-century France and then to use the interpretive skills
they had acquired to probe the meaning of the two main texts.
Students were asked to turn in a formal prospectus (summary of topic, outline, and abstract) at least two weeks before the paper was due. The purpose of the prospectus was to help them plan their paper in advance, to give their interpretation and arguments adequate time to develop, and to give them feedback on their project before they began writing. The students were given detailed instructions for the prospectus (see instructions for prospectus on pp. 93 -94).
Two exams were given. The midterm exam covered works read during the first eight weeks of the course and consisted of two parts: (1) a twenty-point multiple-choice section on the required background readings the students had done thus far, and (2) an eighty-point essay section (a choice of two out of three essay questions each worth forty points). The final exam consisted of three essay questions and covered works read during the second half of the semester. To help students prepare for the exams, a set of summary questions were handed out and discussed in advance. (See the two sets of "Questions for Summary Discussion of Texts," pp. 97-99).
Preparation/participation in class
Teaching Materials and Strategies
In order to draw comparisons among
texts of different periods and genres and to help trace the evolution
of attitudes and practices over the course of the century, the same
set of eleven questions were used for discussion of each of the primary
texts. (See discussion questions, p. 95) These questions helped give
continuity and coherence to discussions of the social and textual issues
central to the course. They also encouraged students to go beyond purely
thematic commentary to deal with broader institutional problems, as
well questions of genre, voice, point of view, tone, and rhetoric. These
questions served not only as a framework for class discussions, but
also helped students formulate the topics for their term papers.
The questions for the summary discussion
of the texts encouraged students to make connections and comparisons
on a broader scale. These summary questions also helped the class prepare
for the midterm and final exams.
To serve as
a framework for discussion of the primary texts, I had students read
three kinds of background
materials: (1) writings on marriage and spousal abuse by eighteenth-century
French moralists, theologians, legal scholars, social critics, and
(2) studies by twentieth-century social historians on the attitudes,
practices, and laws in eighteenth-century France regarding marital
spousal abuse, and separation; and (3) pertinent studies of the primary
texts by twentieth-century literary critics. The first group of works
included Antoine Blanchard's confessional tracts "Péchés
des Maris à l'égard de leurs Femmes" [Sins of Husbands
toward their Wives] and "Péchés de l'épouse
à l'égard de son mary" [Sins of the Wife toward
Her Husband] (1713), pertinent articles from two editions of Rousseau
la Combe's Recueil de Jurisprudence Civile (published in 1736
and 1769) and from Guyot's 1785 Repertoire universel et raisonné de
jurisprudence (to trace the evolution in the laws regarding separation
and spousal abuse), excerpts from Mercier's Tableau de Paris
(1785), and Mme de Cailli's Griefs et plaintes des femmes malmariées
[The Unhappily Married Women's Lament] (1789).
Among the historical studies we read were selected chapters from James Traer's Marriage and the Family in Eighteenth-Century France, Roderick Phillips's Family Breakdown in Late Eighteenth-Century France: Divorce in Rouen, 1792-1803, Nadine Bérenguier's essay "Victorious Victims: Women and Publicity in Mémoires Judiciaires," and an essay of mine titled "Conflicting Views of Marriage and Spousal Abuse in Pre-Revolutionary France" (that examines one of the separation cases we read). To broaden the scope of our inquiry, we also read the medieval fabliau "Sire Hain et dame Anïeuse," which gives a comic description of spousal abuse, as well as excerpts from the essay "Wife-Torture in England" published in 1878 by British reformer Frances Power Cobbe and Benoîte Groult's preface to the French edition of Erin Pizzey's ground-breaking study Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear (first published in 1973).
Assessment of the Course
As it turned out, thirteen of the
fifteen students in the course were undergraduates, and most had never
taken a 300-level literature or culture course before. The cultural/historical
background of the students and their overall skill level was the weakest
I had yet encountered in a 300-level course at Illinois State. It soon
became clear to me that my original goals for the course-both in terms
of the amount of reading and the level of critical analysis I could
reasonably expect-were overly ambitious.
In the early
weeks of the semester, I spent a fair amount of time rethinking my
expectations for the course,
cutting down the length and number of reading assignments, and devising
strategies to help the students better understand the material and
historical context. The course schedule given below is taken from the
revised syllabus, as is the list of required texts. The original
had included an additional separation case and several more historical
studies and critical works. It was above all the literary criticism
that I reluctantly sacrificed in order to make the reading assignments
more manageable. (I did manage to keep critical studies of the most
important literary texts we read-those by Rousseau, d'Epinay, Constant,
Charrière, and Restif de la Bretonne.) I did my best to compensate
for these omissions by citing other literary studies in class and
offering critical insights of my own as much as time allowed. Requiring
students to read at least one critical study of the fictional work
chose for their research paper and one pertinent study of the social
or legal history of the period (in addition to any studies read for
class) also helped deepen their understanding.
A certain amount of depth was nevertheless
sacrificed in order to maintain the breadth of the course. I felt that
this choice was justified in light of the two main objectives I had
articulated for the course: (1) to gain insight into the attitudes,
laws, and practices in eighteenth-century France concerning marital
discord, spousal abuse, and separation; and (2) to explore the interconnections
between life and literature by comparing incidents of marital strife
and abuse described by actual victims in letters, memoirs, andcourt
testimonies and fictional or fictionalized depictions of such incidents
in the literature of the period.
A week prior to each class meeting,
I divided the students into four study groups of three to four students-taking
care to place one strong student in each group-and held each group responsible
for three of the discussion questions. Students were given fifteen to
twenty minutes at the beginning of each three-hour class to discuss
the questions among themselves, before presenting their answers to the
class as a whole. I found the use of these small group discussions helpful
in improving the weaker students' understanding of the texts and in
encouraging them to engage in class discussions.
for the midterm exam (which included a multiple-choice section on
the required background
readings), I e-mailed students an outline of the historical information
they would be expected to know. A set of summary questions were given
to students and discussed prior to each exam to help them prepare.
the two sets of "Questions for Summary Discussion of Texts," pp.
97-99.) The essay questions on the exams were drawn from these summary
Requiring students to submit a formal
prospectus for their term papers two weeks before the due date encouraged
them to plan their papers in advance and gave them feedback on their
project before they began writing. Since most of the students had never
done a formal prospectus before and several had only limited experience
writing research papers, I showed the class sample prospectuses using
an overhead projector and gave students extensive coaching (both orally
and in writing) on how to go about researching and writing their papers.
(See instructions for the
Given the problems described above,
I did not look forward to reading the evaluations for this course. However,
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the students' response to the
course was generally positive. In the open-ended comments, several mentioned
that they appreciated the effort I had made to cut down the readings
and to tailor the course to their level. Most found the readings quite
stimulating and the topic of the course refreshingly different from
that of their other courses, especially because of the way it tied in
with present-day discussions of domestic violence. A few complained
that there was still too much reading and that some of the court cases
were somewhat redundant. When I teach the course again, I plan to omit
one of the court cases from the syllabus.
I look forward to teaching this course again, but at the 400 level (that is, in a seminar limited to students in our M.A. program in French and to advanced undergraduate French majors invited to take the course).
To buy at the university bookstore:
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Julie,
ou la Nouvelle Héloïse. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1967.
Course packet to buy:
Anon. [Cerfvol?]. Lettre du marquis de C*** au comte de F*** contre le divorce. Paris: Desenne, 1790.
Selected judicial memoirs on separation cases (in order of assignment):
"Plaidoyer pour Dame Anne de
Merelessart . . . contre le sieur de Mailly, son mari" (Quatrième
Plaidoyer) . In
of Mme Germain . In Louis-François Mettra, Correspondance
et littéraire. Neuwied
Bibliography/Texts on reserve:
Class 2: Traer, James. Marriage
and the Family in Eighteenth-Century France. Read Introduction (15-21);
Rousseau, Julie (1967/1988
Garnier ed.), pp. 9-21, 23-28 1, 32-35, 42 3-43 3, 51-75, 78-84, 95-101,
107 (bottom )-
DISCUSSION QUESTION: What do Laclos's
novel Liaisons Dangereuses and Rousseau's novel Julie
reveal about the
Class 3: Rousseau, Julie,
pp. 169 (bottom )-170 (top ), 182 (bottom )-183, 220 (bottom )-263,
268 (bottom )-278,
Trouille, Mary. "La
Femme Mal Mariée: Mme d'Epinay's Challenge to Julie and
Emile." In Sexual Politics in the
d'Epinay, Les Contre-Confessions:
Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant , pp. 189-191 2, 192-207, 213-251,
Class 5: Constant, Le Mari
sentimental, pp. 67-228, but OMIT the following passages: 70 2 through
72, 74 (lines 7 through
Kohler, Introduction and notes to
Le Mari sentimental, pp. 12 3 through 16 2, 20 2 through 21 4,
36 2 through 50, 58
Class 6: Charrière, Lettres de Mistress Henley, pp. 3-45 & Introduction, pp. xi-xxii [53 p.].
Class 7: Riccoboni, Marie-Jeanne.
Lettres de Madame de Sancerre, pp. 155-338; OMIT pp. 175 3-180
Diderot, Denis. "Madame
de la Carlière," in Quatre Contes, pp. 105-34. Read
pp. 106 (lines 36-53 only), 109-134.
Total pages to read: 120.
Class 9: Midterm exam
Class 10: "Plaidoyer pour Dame Anne de Merelessart . . . contre le sieur de Mailly, son mari" .
Antoine [Prieur de Saint-Mars-les-Vendôme].
"Péchés des Maris à l'égard de leurs
Femmes" and "Péchés
Class 11: "Mémoire
pour Demoiselle Charlotte Dorneau contre Nicolas Hutinet, son mari ." In Annales du
Going Public, pp. 62-78 [16
p.] (on reserve) Graffigny, Letters to father , in Correspondance,
v. 1, pp. 1-3 [3 p.] (on
. New York: MLA, 1993, pp. 135-46 [12 p.] (on reserve). What autobiographical
Views of Marriage and Spousal Abuse in Pre-Revolutionary France." [30
p.] (in packet)
Desessarts, Causes célèbres,
v. 105, Cause 341, pp. 23-126. Separation case of Jeanne F. v. sieur
R. (Toulouse, 1782).
Class 13: Restif de la Bretonne,
Nicolas-Edme. Ingénue Saxancour ou La Femme séparée .
Paris: Lattès, 1979,
Class 14 Causes
v. 158, Cause 577 , pp. 97-207. Dame D. . . v. sieur D. Read 97-164,
de la Duchesse de C***," in Adèle et Théodore
, 79-197 (in packet) [118 p.].
Mettra, Louis-François. Correspondance secrète politique et littéraire,
v. 9 , 426-29 (on proliferation of separation
Cerfvol (?). Lettre du marquis de C* au comte de F* contre le divorce. Paris: Desenne, 1790. (in packet)
Cailli, Mme de. Griefs
et plaintes des femmes malmariées. Paris, 1789 (in packet)
Week 17: Term papers due by 10:00 AM Monday of Week 17.
Class 17: Final exam (Tuesday evening of Week 17)
The purpose of the prospectus is to help you plan your paper in advance, to give your interpretation and arguments adequate time to develop, and to give you feedback on your project before you begin writing. The prospectus consists of three parts: (1) an abstract, (2) a detailed outline, and (3) a bibliography. All three parts should be TYPED and DOUBLE SPACED on separate sheets. Use of the French spell-check program is required. Computers in the department computer lab are equipped with foreign-language word processing software; spell-check capabilities and foreign-language dictionaries (including Le Robert Electronique) are available for inlab use.
For both the abstract and outline, include your name in the upper right corner and center the title of your paper above the text. Models of all three parts will be presented in class beforehand to help you prepare. Remember that the prospectus counts for 10% of your overall grade for the course, so take time to do a good job!
Use the ideas you have generated to
write two paragraphs summarizing your paper. The first paragraph will
serve as the
Your title should give the reader a clear sense of your topic, the text(s) you plan to examine, and the names of their authors. Itshould be descriptive, yet "catchy" enough to capture the reader's interest. Do not underline your title, but do underline (or italicize) the titles of novels, plays, or films that you discuss. The titles of journal articles, essays, chapters, short stories (such as Diderot's "Madame de la Carlière"), and novellas (such as Genlis's "Histoire de la Duchesse de C*") should be set off with double quotation marks, but not underlined or italicized. Follow the models presented in class and in the syllabus.
Prepare a detailed outline using either topic or sentence format following the models presented in class. (Either format is acceptable, so long as you use it consistently.) The outline should be typed, double spaced, and properly formatted, using roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, etc. It should run one and half to three pages in length. Remember that a sentence outline uses complete sentences with periods at the end throughout, while a topic outline does not. (The best topic outlines generally use nouns, rather than verbal forms, with parallel structures within the same section.) Remember to center the title of your paper above the text. Do not include quotations or page references in a formal outline.
Outline all the main points you wish to make in the order you plan to make them. A well-crafted outline will help you organize your arguments in a coherent, effective manner and can serve as the framework for the body of your paper.
The bibliography should list the primary texts as well as the critical and historical studies you plan to use. Undergraduates will be expected to read at least one critical study of the fictional work chosen (in addition to any studies read for class) and one pertinent study of the social or legal history of the period (in addition to those read for class). Graduate students will be expected to read at least two critical studies of the fictional work chosen (in addition to any studies read for class) and one pertinent study of the social or legal history of the period (in addition to those read for class). Remember that if you list a critical study in the final bibliography, you must respond to it in your paper.
Give complete publication information for each title, following the models presented in class and in the bibliography for the course. You may also wish to consult the MLA Handbook. Copies of the Handbook can be found in the reference section at the university library or at the bookstores.
In order to draw comparisons among texts of different periods and genres and to trace the evolution of social structures and attitudes over the course of the century, the same set of questions were used for each of the primary texts. Below is an English translation of those questions, which were handed out and discussed in French:
1. Genre and voice: What kind of text
is involved: essay, treatise, judicial memoirs, personal memoirs, short
2. Context: In what time period and locale(s) does the story take place? Are the husband and wife from the same socio-economic class or from different milieus? Describe their socio-economic and family background(s). What do they each bring to the marriage in terms of financial assets? How do their social origins and financial assets influence their relations and the success (or failure) of the marriage?
3. Characters: Describe the main characters (the spouses and the other key characters in their story). Describe the circumstances and motivations behind the marriage. Did their parents and friends approve of the match? Why or why not? Was it an arranged marriage? A forced marriage? What character traits and what circumstances predisposed the couple to problems in their marriage?
4. Conflicts: What are the sources of tension in this marriage? How are these tensions expressed? Who is at fault? In your opinion, are the problems due entirely to one spouse or the other or are they equally responsible for the conflicts in the marriage? Is there a possible solution to these problems? Why or why not?
5. Violence: If violence is involved, what form(s) does it take? How often and how severe is the violent behavior and how soon after the marriage does it begin? What specifically provokes the violence? What are its consequences? Does anyone intervene to try to stop the violence? Is their intervention successful in stopping the violent behavior or in reducing its severity?
6. Point of view: From whose point of view is the narrative presented? Is the narrative told in the first or third person? To whom is the narrative addressed? Is the addressee (audience) fictitious or real? What motives-reformist, reactionary, sensationalist, vindicatory-prompted the author to write and publish his or her account? In presenting his or her story, does the narrator/author seem to have polemical and reformist goals in mind, or is the story told for strictly personal reasons? What reforms (if any) are proposed? Is the view of marriage presented prescriptive or descriptive, idealized or realistic?
7. Tone: What tone(s) does the author adopt (tragic, comic, melodramatic, satirical, sarcastic, matter-of-fact)? How does this choice of tone(s) reflect the author's point of view and motives? How does the choice of tone(s) affect the impact of the narrative on the audience? Give specific examples to support your answer.
8. Rhetoric: What arguments do the spouses and their lawyers or other advocates present against each other? Are these arguments well structured and presented in a convincing manner? Why or why not? What rhetorical strategies are used? (Give at least three examples.) If we are dealing with a separation or divorce suit, what legal precedents do the two sides cite to support their case? (Give at least one example for each side.)
9. If the couple has children, do they play an important role in the story's outcome? As readers two centuries later, are we surprised by the children's importance-or lack thereof-in the couple's marital problems and in the separation cases? Do the children tend to play a more important role in the fictional works than in the judicial memoirs and personal memoirs? What does this difference suggest concerning the social or sentimental function of literature?
10. Reaction of family circle and magistrates: How does the couple's family circle-relatives, friends, neighbors, servants-react to their marital problems? What decision do the judges reach (if the couple files for separation)? Do you agree with the family circle's response and (in the case of a separation case) with the magistrate's decision? Why or why not?
11. Institutional problems: What does this couple's story reveal about the problems underlying the institution of marriage in eighteenth-century France-in the prevailing laws, customs, social structures, and attitudes? Based on the texts we have read thus far, what changes and evolution do we see in the social and judicial structures and in the attitudes concerning marital conflicts and domestic violence?
Questions for Summary Discussion of Texts Read Weeks 1-8
1. Compare the Wolmars' marriage to that of M. and Mme de Montbrillant. To what extent can we consider Louise d'Epinay's novel Histoire de Madame de Montbrillant as a response-and challenge-to the ideal of companionate marriage advocated by Rousseau in Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse? What do the stories of these two couples reveal about the problems underlying the institution of marriage in eighteenth-century France-in the prevailing laws, customs, social structures, and attitudes?
2. Compare the Bomprés' marriage to that of the Henleys. How does Isabelle de Charrière's Lettres de Mistress Henley respond to-and challenge-the view of marriage presented in Samuel Constant's Mari Sentimental? What do the stories of these two couples (the Bomprés and Henleys) reveal about the problems underlying the institution of marriage in the eighteenth century-in the prevailing laws, customs, social structures, and attitudes?
3. Compare Mme de Sancerre's marriage to that of Mme de la Carlière. Describe the motivations and circumstances behind the two marriages. Was there anything unusual about those circumstances and motivations? Were they arranged marriages? Forced marriages? What character traits and what circumstances predisposed the couples to conjugal problems? What are the sources of tension in these marriages and how are they expressed? In your opinion, are the problems due entirely to one spouse or the other or are they equally responsible for the conflicts in the marriage? Is there a possible solution to these problems? Why or why not? How does the couple's family circle-relatives, friends, neighbors, servants-react to their marital problems? Is their reaction justified? Finally, can we see these works as cautionary tales? If so, what lessons do they teach?
Questions for Summary Discussion of Texts Read Weeks 9-16
1. What arguments in favor of divorce are presented in the texts by Cailli and Cerfvol? How does Cerfvol play with tone and point of view to strengthen his arguments? Which of these two texts do you find more persuasive and why? What are the advantages and disadvantages of expressing one's views in a work of fiction rather than in essay form? Give specific examples to support your answer.
2. Compare the Marquis de C's treatment of his wife with the behavior of Collet toward his wife (the Marquise de Mézières), that of sieur D. toward his wife (la Dame D.), and of M. Germain toward his wife (in the case reported by Mettra, pp. 428-29). What parallels do you see in the motives that led these four men to marry? Compare the accusations of spousal abuse made by the four wives. What do these couples' stories reveal about the problems underlying the institution of marriage in eighteenth-century France-in the prevailing laws, customs, social structures, and attitudes? How does the plight of these wives demonstrate the inadequacy of existing separation laws and the need for the legalization of divorce?
the marriages of Ingénue
Saxancour (heroine of Restif de la Bretonne's novel) with that of the
Duchesse de C* (heroine of the tale embedded in Mme de Genlis's novel
Adèle et Théodore.) Describe the motivations and circumstances
behind the two marriages. Was there anything unusual about those circumstances
and motivations? Were they arranged marriages? Forced marriages? What
character traits and what circumstances predisposed the couples to
problems? What are the sources of tension in these marriages and how
are they expressed? In your opinion, are the problems due entirely
one spouse or the other or are they equally responsible for the conflicts
in the marriage? Is there a possible solution to these problems? Why
or why not? How does the couple's family circle-relatives, friends,
neighbors, servants-react to their marital problems? Is their reaction
justified? Finally, can we see these works as cautionary tales? If
what lessons do they teach?
to Teaching Pamphlet #8