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French literature

Rationalism: The Eighteenth Century

The great French rationalists of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason—François-Marie Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu—produced some of the most powerful and influential political and philosophical writing in Western history. The political and religious opinions expressed by the compilers of the Encyclopédie (completed 1765), led by Denis Diderot and the mathematician Jean d'Alembert, had great impact on French and foreign thought.

The period was also notable for advances in drama and fiction. Successful writers of tragic drama, other than Voltaire, include Antoine Houdar de La Motte and Buyrette de Belloy; the great writers of comedy were Pierre de Marivaux and Pierre de Beaumarchais. The French novel—Diderot and Marivaux contributed to its literary form—gained popularity with the works of Alain René Le Sage, Abbé Prevost, and Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, and by the end of the century was among the foremost of literary genres. Another significant form of literature was the memoir; among the many writers of the period who excelled at this sort of autobiography were Mathieu Marais, Edmond Barbier, and Jean François Marmontel.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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