Marivaux built his early reputation on novels parodying classical forms and a mock epic in verse. In 1717, at age 30, he began publishing a series of articles in Le Nouveau Mercure de France (The new Mercury of France) entitled Lettres sur les habitants de Paris (Letters on the inhabitants of Paris), inspired by Charles Dufresny’s Amusements sérieux et comiques d’un Siamois (1699; Amusements Serious and Comical) and to a lesser extent by La Bruyere’s Caractères (1688; Characters). Interesting for their portrayal of various aspects of Parisian life, they are even more so for his thoughts on the form he is adopting and for the way in which these reflections foreshadow the mature aesthetic of the essay he will put into practice in his essay masterpiece, Le Spectateur Français (The French spectator). Calling himself a “Théophraste moderne” (a modern Theophrastus) he declares the following traits to be essential to his manner of writing: a great number and variety of subjects; a mixture of the grave and the lighthearted; an ordering of subject matter that depends heavily on chance—for example, beginning with a subject that happens to be at hand, continuing more or less haphazardly, and concluding at whatever point he pleases; a free rein given to his nature as un esprit libertin, that is, one who hates constraint and prefers to follow his fancy and his natural bent; and finally, the freedom to please himself, since he has “no other object in mind than myself.”
An important additional feature emerges from his philosophical reflections, Pensées sur différents sujets (Thoughts on different subjects), published two years later (1719) in the same periodical. This is his concept of “nature’s sublime” as opposed to “man’s sublime,” a distinction with far-reaching implications for all Marivaux’s work, theater and novel as well as essay. He compares the ordering of the various parts of a work to “an indivisible fabric…whose manner of taking shape we do not know, which is produced in us but not by us.” Finished, polished, consciously controlled thought may be sacrificed in this kind of writing, but it is in the interests of something more valuable: thought-in-process, “thought taking shape under our very eyes,” as the great Marivaux scholar, Frédéric Deloffre (1967), describes it. Of all the affinities Marivaux has with Montaigne (some of which are obvious from the traits listed earlier), this power to create the impression of thought-in-themaking is probably the deepest.
From 1721 to 1724 Marivaux published a kind of “oneman periodical journal” in 25 issues or feuilles, each about ten pages long in the modern Garnier editions (1969, 1988), to which he gave the title Le Spectateur Français, honoring Addison’s and Steele’s Spectator, available in French translation since 1714. (The individual essays bear no titles.) His imitation of the Spectator is very free in nature; he uses the work as a springboard for innovation. What he seems to have valued most in the pioneer English essay work was its freedom of form, which encouraged him in his revolt against the hierarchy of genres inherited from 17th-century French classicism and in his propensity to literary experimentation. Once again, as in Le Nouveau Mercure, the element of chance plays a key role in composition. In the first feuille we find this striking selfdescription of his manner: “I know not how to invent, all I know is how to catch by surprise thoughts that chance causes to arise in me.” The effect of le naturel continues to be faithfully sought by Marivaux, as when he aims to give a portrait truly resembling himself which is at the same time “a portrait of the human mind in its natural form” (a distinct echo of Montaigne). Clarifying a point that remained a bit puzzling in his Lettres sur les habitants de Paris—his relationship with his reader—he affirms on the one hand his intention of writing only for himself and on the other hand his need to engage his reader in a kind of dialogue. Giovanni Bonaccorso (1973) has shown how he provokes the reader, anticipates criticisms, answers critics whose objections to this or that point of his he has heard in salons and cafés—an approach that will also be characteristic of his two great novels, La Vie de Marianne (1731–42; The Life of Marianne) and Le Paysan parvenu (1734–35; The Upstart Peasant).
Abundant variety of matter and apparent randomness of form continue to be dominant features. There is much less sequentiality between issues than in the Spectator, Marivaux’s trademark being the sudden interruption and change of subject. The many stories included in the feuilles (Montaigne also was fond of incorporating stories in his essays) are often unresolved or simply unfinished, the better, Marivaux argued, to stimulate the reader to reflect about them. The loose structures, full of fortuitous, unforeseen elements and discontinuities, suggest another important link between Marivaux’s essays and his fiction. Whatever the source of his delight in such freedom of form—whether it was his fondness for “the surprises of improvisation” (Jean Rousset, 1962), his view of inconstancy in love (Robert Mauzi, 1960), or simply the coquettish play of author with reader (Felicia Sturzer, 1982; Henri Coulet and Michel Gilot, 1973)— this attitude lies at the heart of his essayist’s art, and may be summed up in his remark,
“Follow me, dear Reader. To tell the truth, I am not sure where I am going, but the pleasure lies in the journey itself.”
In 1727 Marivaux produced his most unconventional and daring work, another “oneman journal,” L’lndigent Philosophe, in which he uses as alter ego a pauper philosopher, or “philosopher bum,” as Edward Greene (1961) has called him. The work was indeed so bold, in both form and content, that it first appeared anonymously. The seven feuilles comprising it constitute a much more unified and continuous whole than Le Spectateur Français. Presented by the author as a type of “Mémoires,” the work reads, in fact, much like the “memoir-novels” of The Life of Marianne and The Upstart Peasant, except for its much smaller size. But its essayistic qualities are undeniable, as is the influence of Montaigne, greater here than in any of Marivaux’s other works. Addison had spoken of the “wildness” of which the essay form was capable (“On Method in Discourse,” Spectator no. 476). In L’lndigent Philosophe Marivaux goes beyond anything Addison might have imagined. In his foreword to the work he describes it as “an essay of what could be done by writing haphazardly whatever might strike the imagination.”
A final one-man journal from Marivaux’s pen, Le Cabinet du Philosophe (1734), consisting of n feuilles, adds little that is new to his concept or practice of the essay. He himself called it “detached pieces, fragments of thought on a great variety of subjects.” It is hardly comparable in brilliance to its predecessors, and Greene is probably correct in surmising that Marivaux used the work as a receptacle for leftovers, miscellaneous notes, and the like. Marivaux ranks among the greatest French and world essayists thanks to the highly personal kind of artful disorder (in reality a new kind of order) that he brought to the essay form as well as the variety and depth of his observations on human society and human nature. He is best known, perhaps, for his insights into the complexities of love, or for what one of his contemporary admirers called “the metaphysics of the heart.” His genre, more precisely, is the feuille périodique or essai journalistique, short prose pieces best read in sequence, since they are not fully independent or autonomous and are not part of any “collections of essays” (the latter, in any case, being a more modern phenomenon). His achievement as an essayist, especially in affirming what he called his “libertinage d’idées” (following his fancy, more or less at random), was one of the fruits (the others being his fictional and theatrical creations) of his rebellion against the French classical aesthetics of the anciens. In the quarrel of Ancients and Moderns raging in his time he was a modern of the extreme avant-garde, challenging unceasingly, as Oscar Haac (1973) has pointed out, the “accepted mold” of literary theory and practice. His innovations embraced linguistic details such as vocabulary and syntax as well as larger forms, and the “disorder” of a sentence or paragraph in a given essay often presents a microcosm of the essay as a whole.
Marivaux’s reputation as an essayist has been slow in establishing itself. The recognition of his genius in this field has more or less coincided with another important discovery: namely, that his total work forms an organic whole made up of three levels or zones of artistic inquiry, closely related and often intersecting, which correspond to the three genres—essay, fiction, theater—in which he excelled. Thus unlike Montaigne, the full-time essayist, or Sainte-Beuve, the essayist out of failure to succeed as poet and novelist, or many writers whose essays were a sideline, Marivaux incorporates the essay into the very heart of his literary enterprise, the exploration of human existence in all its mystery.
Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux. Born Pierre Carlet, 4 February 1688 in Paris.
Family moved to Riom in central France, 1699. Studied at the Faculty of Law, Paris, 1710–13 (moved permanently to Paris in 1712), law degree, 1721. Began writing plays, 1712; first used the name Marivaux c. 1712.; name first published in full, 1716; published and/or produced over 30 comedies during his life. Married Colombe Bollogne, 1717
(died, probably 1723): one daughter. Took up journalism, from 1717, writing sketches for Le Nouveau Mercure de France; published the periodicals Le Spectateur Français, 1721–24, L’lndigent Philosophe, 1727, and Le Cabinet du Philosophe, 1734. Frequented salons, including those of Mesdames de Lambert, de Tencin, Geoffrin, and du Deffand.
Lived with Mademoiselle de Jean, from 1744. Elected member, 1743, chancellor, 1750, and director, 1759, French Academy. Died in Paris, 12 February 1763.
Essays and Related Prose
Lettres sur les habitants de Paris, in Le Nouveau Mercure de France, September 1717– August 1718
Pensées sur différents sujets, in Le Nouveau Mercure de France, April 1719
Lettres contenant une aventure, in Le Nouveau Mercure de France, December 1719– April 1720
Le Spectateur Français, 25 issues, July 1721–September 1724
L’lndigent Philosophe, 7 issues, 1727
Le Cabinet du Philosophe, 11 issues, January-April 1734
Journaux et osuvres diverses (Garnier Edition), edited by Frédéric Deloffre and Michel Gilot, 1969; revised edition, 1988
Other writings: over 30 comedies and one tragedy, journalism, and fiction (including two memoir-novels, La Vie de Marianne [The Life of Marianne], 11 vols., 1731–42; Le
Paysan parvenu [The Upstart Peasant], 5 vols., 1734–35).
Collected works edition: OEuvres complètes, 12 vols, 1781.
Arland, Marcel, Marivaux, Paris: Gallimard, 1950
Badir, Magdy, and Vivien Bosley, editors, Le Triomphe de Marivaux: A Colloquium Commemorating the Tricentenary of the Birth of Marivaux, 1688–1988, Edmonton: University of Alberta Department of Romance Languages, 1989
Baldwin, Edward, “Marivaux’s Place in the Development of Character Portrayal,” PMLA 27 (1912):168–87
Bonaccorso, Giovanni, “Le Dialogue de Marivaux avec ses lecteurs,” Cahiers de I’Association Internationale des Études Françaises 25 (1973):209–23
Chadbourne, Richard, “Marivaux’s ‘Libertinage d’ldées’ in Le Spectateur Français,” in Man and Nature/L’Homme et la Nature, edited by Nicholas Hudson and Rosena Davison, Edmonton: Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 8, 1989
Chadbourne, Richard, “Discovering Marivaux the Essayist, or ‘How many writers are there in Marivaux?’,” in Le Triomphe de Marivaux, edited by Magdy Badir and Vivien Bosley, Edmonton: University of Alberta Department of Romance Languages, 1989
Coulet, Henri, and Michel Gilot, Marivaux, un humanisme expérimental, Paris: Larousse, 1973
Dédeyan, Charles, “Marivaux à l’école d’Addison et de Steele,” Annales de I’Université de Paris 25 (1955):5–17
Deloffre, Frédéric, “Etat présent des études sur Marivaux,” L’lnformation Littéraire 16 (1964):191–99
Deloffre, Frédéric, Marivaux et le marivaudage, une preciosité nouvelle, Paris: Colin, 1967
Ehrard, Jean, “Marivaux ou les chemins de la liberté,” in his Le XVIIIe Siècle, I: 1720– 1750, Paris: Arthaud, 1974
Gelobter, Hanna, “Le Spectateur” von Pierre Marivaux und die englischen moraliscben Wochenschriften, Limburg: Limburger Vereinsdruckerei, 1936
Gilot, Michel, Les Journaux de Marivaux: Itinéraire moral et accomplissement esthétique, Paris: Champion, 2. vols., 1975
Greene, Edward, “Marivaux’s Philosophical Bum,” L’Esprit Createur 1 (1961):190–95
Greene, Edward, Marivaux, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965
Haac, Oscar A., Marivaux, New York: Twayne, 1973
Jacoebée, Pierre, La Persuasion de la charité: Thèmes, formes et structures dans les “Journaux et oeuvres diverses de Marivaux”, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1976
Lagrave, Henri, Marivaux et sa fortune littéraire, Bordeaux: Ducros, 1970
Matucci, Mario, in L’opera narrativa di Marivaux, Naples: Pironti, 1962
Mauzi, Robert, “Le Mouvement et la vie de l’âme,” in his L’ldée du bonheur dans la littérature et la pensée françaises au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Colin, 1960
Poulet, Georges, “Marivaux,” in his Études sur le temps humain, II: La Distance intérieure, Paris: Plon, 1952
Rousset, Jean, “Marivaux ou la structure du double registre,” in his Forme et
signification: Essais sur les structures littéraires de Corneille à Claudel, Paris: Corti, 1962.
Roy, Claude, Lire Marivaux, Neuchâtel: La Baconnière, and Paris: Le Seuil, 1947
Sturzer, Felicia, “Exclusion and Coquetterie: First-Person Narrative in Marivaux’s ‘L’Indigent philosophe’,” French Review 54 (1982): 471–77
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