For many centuries, France has had a high reputation in European intellectual culture, and its literature is no exception. French authors have produced works known around the world, pioneered and reinvented genres, and explored everything from marriage to revolution.
Our list of ten of the most famous French classics includes novels from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. These books have all been written in the modern French language, so are perfectly suitable for language learners. Equally, they’ve all been translated into English editions that successfully capture the elegance of the original writing.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Victor Hugo, 1831)
Set in 15th century Paris, this popular novel by Victor Hugo tells the story of Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre-Dame Cathedral, and his unrequited love for Esmeralda, the beautiful gypsy dancer. Quasimodo is a pitiful character: kind at heart but ridiculed and misunderstood for his deformed appearance – he was even abandoned outside the cathedral as an infant on the Sunday after Easter, Quasimodo Sunday.
With his poetic descriptions of Notre-Dame Cathedral and its Gothic architecture, Victor Hugo inspired a campaign to restore Notre-Dame Cathedral itself, which had been severely damaged during the French Revolution (1789-1799). Extensive restoration led by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc soon began in the 1840s, and there was a renewed appreciation for the Gothic style. Without The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, its very possible that Notre-Dame would not have become such an iconic symbol of the French nation.
Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert, 1856)
First serialised in 1856 in the Revue de Paris and later published in two volumes in 1857, Madame Bovary is the debut novel of Gustave Flaubert. It centres on the life of Emma Bovary after her marriage to Charles Bovary, a dull but good-natured doctor. When she first meets Charles, Emma is a farm girl who has been raised in a convent; she is an avid reader of romance novels, which have galvanised in her a desire for high romance, luxury and a better social status.
She initially believes marriage to Charles will give her these things, but soon finds herself disappointed and bored, even after the arrival of their daughter. In her search for passion and excitement, Emma has two affairs, both of which bring her disappointment, and carelessly spends her money on luxury items. Eventually, she is brought to the verge of ruin.
When Madame Bovary was serialised in 1856, public prosecutors accused Flaubert of obscenity, leading to a trial that ended in the author’s acquittal. All this brought the novel great publicity, and when it published in 1857, it quickly became a bestseller. Today, the novel is often considered the masterpiece and the first work of the realist genre.
In Search of Lost Time (Marcel Proust, 1913-1927)
In Search of Lost Time is impressive to say the least: it holds Guinness World Record for the longest novel, it won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1919 for its second volume, and is considered by many to be the greatest novel of the 20th century, or even of all time. It is composed of seven volumes that were published between 1913 and 1927, the last three of which were published posthumously. It is a pseudo-autobiography, charting the memories of an unnamed protagonist who is essentially a thinly-veiled version of the author himself, and through this character’s remembered experiences, Proust recounts his own.
The most well-known episode of the novel comes in the first volume, Swann’s Way, when the narrator tastes a madeleine (a type small sponge cake) dipped in tea, and suddenly he had memories of spending time in his aunt’s house in the countryside during the summer as a child. This had led to the expression “Proustian moment“, or “madeleine moment”, which is when one tastes or smells something that provokes fond memories.
As well as exploring memory, time, love and war, In Search of Lost Time is also a nostalgic evocation of the Belle Époque in France, a period that ended with World War One, during which the novel concludes.
The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas, 1844)
Undoubtedly the most famous “swashbuckling novel” of all time, The Three Musketeers is a tale of comradery and adventure that is one of the well-known pieces of French literature outside of France itself. In the beginning of the novel we are introduced to d’Artagan, who arrives in Paris to become a member of the King’s Musketeers and soon becomes close friends with Aramis, Athos and Porthos, otherwise known as the “three musketeers”.
The novel charts their various escapades, which are entwined with romance, espionage and murder.
This novel is one of over 250 books that Dumas wrote with the aid of his army of assistants, including the historian Auguste Maquet, who is often credited for devising the premise of The Three Musketeers. The novel was followed by two sequels titled Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne.
Les Misérables (Victor Hugo, 1862)
Les Misérables centres on the life of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who we meet in 1815 – he has just been let out of jail, having finished a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread (as well as various escape attempts).
Upon his release, he steals silverware from a bishop who gives him food and shelter, only for the police to quickly find him with the stolen items. However, the bishop lies to the police, telling them it was gift, and Valjean vows to change his ways. The story then follows this path of redemption, along with various other marginalised people who Valjean encounters.
Hugo uses his novel to explore the need for reform in France, such as in the criminal justice system and in the treatment of the poor. The political upheavals taking place in France during the period that he novel is set (1815-1832) are also crucial to the narrative, which culminates in the June Rebellion of 1832, which unsuccessfully attempted to remove Louis-Phillippe from the throne and re-establish a French Republic.
Père Goriot (Honoré de Balzac, 1835)
Père Goriot is one of the most famous works in Balzac’s The Human Comedy, a vast series of over 90 novels and novellas that examine society from the French Revolution (1789-99) to the eve of the 1848 Revolution, which led to the establishment of the Second Republic.
In this particular novel, Balzac traces the intertwining lives of three main characters: Eugène de Rastignac, an ambitious young man looking to achieve success in Paris; Carlos Herrera-Vautrin, a mysterious criminal, and Père Goriot, a retired merchant who has sacrificed everything for his two daughters. Eugène de Rastignac appeared in many other works of The Human Comedy, and it is in Père Goriot that he is first introduced.
Candide (Voltaire, 1759)
Along with Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire was one of the most famous thinkers of the Enlightenment – a European intellectual movement that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries – and among his extensive body of work, it is Candide which is probably the most well-known.
In this satirical novel, Voltaire traces the life of the titular character Candide, who is kicked out of the German castle where he had previously lived a comfortable life, and is soon confronted with the harsh realities of the world. He embarks on a journey in which he encounters war, slavery, theft, cannibalism and natural disaster.
Voltaire uses the fictional life of Candide to criticise Leibnizian Optimism, a popular philosophical doctrine in the 18th century which argued that the world, even with all its evil, is the best world that God could possibly create. At the start of the novel, Candide believes in Leibnizian Optimism, but after seeing the horrors of the world, comes to reject it. Although Candide may seem like a heavy read, it is in fact quite short and does have something of a light tone.
Indiana (George Sand, 1832)
George Sand was the penname, or non de plume, of female author of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who was one of the most popular novelists of her day, even more so than the likes of Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo. As well as her novels, she was also famous for breaking the social conventions of her day by wearing men’s clothes and smoking tobacco in public. Indiana was her first novel under the name George Sand, and brought her immediate fame.
The plot revolves around Indiana, a young French Creole women, and her unhappy marriage to a much older man, her love for her handsome neighbour Raymon, and her relationship with her loyal cousin Ralph. The central themes include adultery, class, the French colonies (the novel is set in both France and Bourbon Island, now known as Réunion) and marriage – Indiana is often noted for protesting against the law’s unequal treatment of wives in relation to their husbands in the 19th century.
The Red and the Black (Stendhal, 1830)
With this novel, Stendhal gives a satirical portrayal of French society during the Bourbon Restoration (1815-1830), focusing on political opportunism, materialism, and corruption. Originally, the novel was to be titled after the main character, Julien, a determined social climber who uses deceit and seduction to advance himself. He’s a complex and contradictory character: sensitive and cruel, vulnerable and careerist, and timid and hot-tempered.
As well as being a character study of Julien, we are also given insightful portraits of Madame de Rênal and Mathilde, two women who both fall in love with Julien.
Although Stendhal, whose real name was Henri Marie Beyle, did not achieve literary fame during his lifetime, he has come to be appreciated as one of the greatest French novelists of the 19th century. The Red and the Black, along with his later novel The Charterhouse of Parma, are generally considered his two masterpieces.
Germinal (Émile Zola 1885)
Generally considered Zola’s masterpiece, Germinal is one of the 20 novels in his famous series, Les Rougen-Macquart. Published between 1871 and 1893, the series follows the lives of various members of the fictional Rougen-Macquart family. In this particular novel, Zola depicts life in a mining community in northern France, in which the miners work in utterly appalling conditions for very little pay, and are consequently starving and ill-housed. The community is made up of generations of miners, who have inherited physical deformities and having been taught no better, lead wretched and brutal lives.
The protagonist of the novel, Étienne Lantier – a member of the Rougen-Macquart family – finds work in these mines, and eventually leads a strike to try and relieve the plight of him and his fellow miners, only for it to have disastrous consequences.
A few weeks before writing the novel, a miners’ strike broke out in Anzin, in the north of France, which Zola visited himself to gain insight into the conditions that the miners worked in, and those that they lived in. Although the novel deals with class and workers’ rights, Zola stated that Germinal was “a work of compassion, not a revolutionary work”.
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