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Painting by Rodolpho Amoedo (1883)
|Author||François-René de Chateaubriand|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Atala is an early novella by François-René de Chateaubriand, first published on 12 germinal IX (2 April 1801). The work, inspired by his travels in North America, had an immense impact on early Romanticism, and went through five editions in its first year. It was adapted frequently for stage, and translated into many languages.
Along with René, it began as a discarded fragment from a long prose epic the author had composed between 1793 and 1799, Les Natchez, which would not be made public until 1826. In 1802 both Atala and René were published as part of Chateaubriand's Génie du christianisme.
Contrasting the cruelty and warfare of the Indians with the saintliness of the missionary, it is intended as a condemnation of the philosophes' praise of the "noble savage"; the author insisted that the Natchez Indian Chactas was "more than half civilised", and positive values are considered more or less synonymous with Christianity and Europeanisation. Nevertheless the decision to portray at least two Indians sympathetically irked later generations of readers whose attitudes had been shaped by "scientific racism", and even today it is often assumed by casual readers (who do not read the prefaces) that Chateaubriand was a promulgator rather than a denouncer of the "noble savage" concept.
While the book's accuracy on the subject of the North American flora is a controversial matter, it seems to be agreed that Chateaubriand never saw much of the southern territories he describes, and his descriptions are based on naturalists' books.
The story is told from the point of view of the 73-year-old hero, Chactas, whose story is preserved by an oral tradition among the Seminoles.
The frame story: A young disillusioned Frenchman, René, has joined an Indian tribe and married a woman named Céluta. On a hunting expedition, one moonlit night, René asks Chactas, the old man who adopted him, to relate the story of his life.
At the age of seventeen, the Natchez Chactas loses his father during a battle against the Muscogees. He flees to St Augustine, Florida, where he is raised in the household of the Spaniard Lopez. After 2½ years, he sets out for home, but is captured by the Muscogees and Seminoles. The chief Simagan sentences him to be burnt in their village.
The women take pity on him during the weeks of travel, and each night bring him gifts. Atala, the half-caste Christian daughter of Simagan, tries in vain to help him escape. On arrival at Apalachucla, his bonds are loosed and he is saved from death by her intervention. They run away and roam the wilderness for 27 days before being caught in a huge storm. While they are sheltering, Atala tells Chactas that her father was Lopez, and he realises that she is the daughter of his erstwhile benefactor.
Lightning strikes a tree close by, and they run at random before hearing a church bell. Encountering a dog, they are met by its owner, Père Aubry, and he leads them through the storm to his idyllic mission. Aubry's kindness and force of personality impress Chactas greatly.
Atala falls in love with Chactas, but cannot marry him as she has taken a vow of chastity. In despair she takes poison. Aubry assumes that she is merely ill, but in the presence of Chactas she reveals what she has done, and Chactas is filled with anger until the missionary tells them that in fact Christianity permits the renunciation of vows. They tend her, but she dies, and the day after the funeral, Chactas takes Aubry's advice and leaves the mission.
In an epilogue it is revealed that Aubry was later killed by Cherokees, and that, according to Chactas's granddaughter, neither René nor the aged Chactas survived a massacre during an uprising. The full account of Chactas's wanderings after Atala's death, in Les Natchez, gives a somewhat different version of their fates.
- In later writings on Indians, Chateaubriand conceded a surprising amount of ground to Rousseau, but continued to insist on the primacy of Christianity over all other religions and forms of spirituality. See T. J. Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage, University of California Press, 2001.