De Staël, Germaine

Assigned: De Staël, Germaine Necker. From “Essay on Fictions” and “On Women Writers” (517-30). Also read the editors’ introduction (515-17).

From “Essay on Fictions” (1795)


1. On 517-18 (“Man’s most valuable faculty is…”), what fundamental defense of fiction does Germaine Necker de Staël offer, and why does she think realist novels; i.e., “fictions in which everything is both invented and imitated” (518), are better than drama or satires like Voltaire’s Candide? Consider her statement, “the advantage of fictions is not the pleasure they bring” (518): what, then, is the benefit of fictional stories and of art generally?


2. On 518-22 (“The third and last part of…”), to what extent does de Staël share Samuel Johnson’s anxiety about the moral effects of realistic fiction (review Johnson’s Rambler #4, Leitch 387-90)? In what ways, according to her, have “bad writers” (519) lent plausibility to such anxiety? In particular, how has an over-emphasis on “the portrayal of love” (520) contributed to the problem? How does de Staël propose to address this problem, and how does she defend novelistic fiction in terms of what it portrays realistically, how it moves readers emotionally, and the morals it instills?

3. On 523-25 (“There is still one serious objection to…”), de Staël writes that novels, unlike philosophical writing, offer “a sort of supplement to existence” (524). On 525, too, she declares that the best realistic fiction is capable of “suspending the action of the passions by substituting independent pleasures for them….” How do these claims speak to the power and usefulness of literary fictions for real-life readers? What capacity to make sense of life and to deal with the alienation and isolation of individuals does de Staël ascribe to literature? And finally, to what extent dos she try to rescue literary fiction from the simplistic charge that it does not in all points accurately describe external reality? (524-25)

4. General question: Does Madame de Staël’s commentary in “Essay on Fictions” sound similar to you in comparison with some older defenses of literature such as Sir Philip Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy” (Leitch 260-91) or Aristotle’s careful delineation of drama’s value in Poetics? (Leitch 99-127) If so, how? What seems to connect such authors by way of common threads of argument about the relative authenticity of representations and the moral value of the arts?

From On Literature in Its Relationship to Social Institutions (1800)

On Women Writers

1. On 525-29 (“The existence of women in society…”), how does Germaine Necker de Staël detail the angry accusation often leveled by men against women who dare to write or show intellectual superiority, and how do men themselves escape such censure? (526) Furthermore, how might de Staël’s remarks on these pages be taken as criticisms of the current political culture in Republican France? (The piece was written after the Revolution and before Napoleon declared himself Emperor.) According to de Staël, how and why are the men of France not living up to their Enlightenment-derived principles? What impassioned plea does she make about women’s need for education and the importance of that education to French culture in its entirety? (527-29)

2. On 529-30 (“And if there were to be some…”), what special disadvantage does de Staël argue that female intellectuals confront as soon as they become “celebrities” and as soon as they attempt to defend themselves from unjust assumptions? How does “public opinion” treat “a recognizably superior woman” (530)? What does de Staël identify as the underlying reason for these disadvantages? Namely, when men defend themselves, what do they appeal to, and in what sense is that kind of appeal not available to women?

3. General question: In “On Women Writers” from On Literature in Its Relationship to Social Institutions, to what extent does Germaine Necker de Staël accept the ancient habit of essentializing male and female behavior (i.e., of saying that men and women simply are innately a certain way, aside from the influence of environmental factors)? To what use does she put such assumptions, insofar as she accepts them?

4. General question: If you have read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women, or Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (Leitch 1211-21), what similarities do you find between Germaine Necker de Staël’s arguments in the chapter “On Women Writers” from On Literature in Its Relationship to Social Institutions and the arguments set forth in one or more of those other texts concerned with the capacities, experiences, rights and treatment of women? What differences do you find?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake