MASTERS AND SERVANTS IN THE FRENCH NOVEL, 1715-1789
VIDAL, KATHRYN SIMPSON
Doctor of Philosophy
The appearance of the servant-hero in prominent eighteenth-century works such as Lesage's Gil Blas, Marivaux's Le Paysan parvenu and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste reveals a continuing preoccupation with the problem of the subservience of the individual in society. Stereotypes of inferiority subtly persist in the diverse manifestations of the character of the servant, and his social ascension does not automatically grant him acceptance or power. In general, elitist social attitudes common to the literature of the Ancien Regime continue to inhibit egalitarian trends suggested by the servant's rise to literary prominence. In the novels under consideration, the servant's role as a serious literary personage undergoes an evolution towards greater sophistication and complexity. From the acceptance of servitude found in Gil Blas, the former servant negates it entirely in Le Paysan parvenu, whereas there are hints in Jacques le fataliste that servitude might also offer access to liberation. These novels best exemplify the three levels of meaning associated with the servant and the matter of servitude: a literary level, most closely linked to the conventional and comic role of the valet; a social level, the image of man's interaction in a social environment; and finally a philosophical level, an interrogation into the problem of human freedom. Each of these novels is also structured around the continual formation and dissolution of the master-servant relationship, both literally and figuratively. Interaction among men is consistently defined between the poles of domination and servitude, on all levels of the social hierarchy. Parallels with the Hegelian paradigm of Master and Slave exist, but these eighteenth-century models fail to achieve a dialectical resolution. Only Diderot effectively suggests the liberating force of the slave. Finally, the nature of the narrative voice in each novel is also linked to the servitude of the hero. The servant participates more and more actively in the telling of the story, just as the narrator shows an increasing degree of control. However, the servant's struggle for power, like the narrator's quest, remains ultimately unresolved. The narrator must face his own subservience to his audience and to literary structures which, like the social structures they embrace, remain resistant to change.