Paul Bourget

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Paul Charles Joseph Bourget
Paul Bourget 7.jpg
Paul Bourget in 1899
Born (1852-09-02)2 September 1852
Died 25 December 1935(1935-12-25) (aged 83)
Resting place Montparnasse Cemetery
Occupation Novelist, critic
Nationality French
Alma mater Lycée Louis-le-Grand, École des Hautes Études
Notable works Le Disciple

Paul Charles Joseph Bourget (French: [buʁʒɛ]; 2 September 1852 – 25 December 1935) was a French novelist and critic.[1]


He was born in Amiens in the Somme département of Picardy, France. His father, a professor of mathematics, was later appointed to a post in the college at Clermont-Ferrand, where Bourget received his early education. He afterwards studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the École des Hautes Études. During 1872–1873 he produced a volume of verse, Au bord de la mer, which was followed by others, the last, Les Aveux, appearing in 1882. Meanwhile he was making a name in literary journalism, and in 1883 he published Essais de psychologie contemporaine, studies of eminent writers first printed in the Nouvelle Revue, and now brought together. In 1884 Bourget paid a long visit to Britain, where he wrote his first published story (L'Irréparable). Cruelle Enigme followed in 1885; then André Cornelis (1886) and Mensonges (1887) - inspired by Octave Mirbeau's life - were received with much favour.[2]

Bourget, who had abandoned Catholicism in 1867, began a gradual return to it in 1889, fully converting only in 1901. In 1893, in an interview he gave in America, he spoke about his changed views: "For many years I, like most young men in modern cities, was content to drift along in agnosticism, but I was brought to my senses at last by the growing realization that...the life of a man who simply said 'I don't know, and not knowing I do the thing that pleases me,' was not only empty in itself and full of disappointment and suffering, but was a positive influence for evil upon the lives of others." On the other hand, "those men and women who follow the teachings of the church are in a great measure protected from the moral disasters which...almost invariably follow when men and women allow themselves to be guided and swayed by their senses, passions and weaknesses."[3] These were the themes of his novel Le Disciple (1889), which he wrote, as he says in his American interview, just after abandoning his "drifting and comfortable belief in agnosticism". It is the story of philosopher Adrien Sixte, whose advocacy of materialism and positivism wields a terrible influence over an admiring but unstable student, Robert Geslon, whose actions, in turn, lead to the tragic death of a young woman.[4] Le Disciple caused a stir in France and became a bestseller. Exemplifying the novelist's graver side, it was one of Gladstone's favourite books.[3]

Bourget early in his career.

Études et portraits, first published in 1888, contains impressions of Bourget's stay in England and Ireland—especially reminiscences of the months which he spent at Oxford and in 1891 Sensations d'Italie, notes of a tour in that country, revealed a fresh phase of his powers; and Outre-Mer (1895), a book in two volumes, is his critical journal of a visit to the United States in 1893. Also in 1891 appeared the novel Coeur de femme, and Nouveaux Pastels, "types" of the characters of men, the sequel to a similar gallery of female types (Pastels, 1890). His later novels include La Terre promise (1892); Cosmopolis (1892), a psychological novel, with Rome as a background; Une Idylle tragique (1896); La Duchesse bleue (1897); Le Fantôme (1901); Les Deux Sœurs (1905); and some volumes of shorter stories—Complications sentimentales (1896), the powerful Drames de famille (1898), and Un Homme d'affaires (1900). L'Etape (1902) was a study of the inability of a family raised too rapidly from the peasant class to adapt itself to new conditions. This powerful study of contemporary manners was followed by Un Divorce (1904), a defence of the Roman Catholic position that divorce is a violation of natural laws. He was admitted to the Académie française in 1894, and in 1895 was promoted to be an officer of the Légion d'honneur, having received the decoration of the order ten years before.[2]

Several new novels were to follow, including La Vie Passe (1910), Le Sens de la Mort (1915), Lazarine (1917), Némésis (1918), and Laurence Albani (1920), as well as three volumes of short stories and plays, La Barricade (1910) and Le Tribun (1912). Two other plays, Un Cas de Conscience (1910) and La Crise (1912) were written by him in collaboration with others. A volume of critical studies appeared in 1912, and another set of travel sketches, Le Démon du Midi, in 1914.[5]

In March 1914, he was present in the offices of the newspaper, Le Figaro when the newspaper's editor, his friend Gaston Calmette was shot and killed by Henriette Caillaux the wife of a former President of France. Her subsequent trial caused an enormous scandal at the time.[6]

Bourget died, aged 83, in Paris.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

As a writer of verse Bourget's poems, which were collected in two volumes (1885–1887), throw light upon his mature method and the later products of his art. It was in criticism that he excelled. Notable are the Sensations d'Italie (1891), and the various psychological studies.[2]

Bourget's reputation as a novelist is assured in some academic and intellectual circles but while they were widely popular in his time, his novels have long been largely forgotten by the general reading public. Impressed by the art of Henry Beyle (Stendhal), he struck out on a new course at a moment when the realist school was the vogue in French fiction. With Bourget, observation was mainly directed to the human character. At first his purpose seemed to be purely artistic, but when Le Disciple appeared, in 1889, the preface to that story revealed his moral enthusiasm. After that, he varied between his earlier and his later manner, but his work in general was more seriously conceived. He painted the intricate emotions of women, whether wronged, erring or actually vicious; and he described the ideas, passions and failures of the young men of France.

One of his poems was the inspiration for an art song by Claude Debussy titled Beau Soir. Other settings by Debussy of poems by Bourget include 'Romance' and 'Les Cloches'.


  1. ^ Marsile, M. J. "Paul Bourget and French Literature," The Globe, Vol. IV, N°. 13, August/November, 1893.
  2. ^ a b c Public Domain One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bourget, Paul". Encyclopædia Britannica 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.  This cites:
    • C. Lecigne, L'Évolution morale et religieuse de M. Paul Bourget (1903)
    • Sargeret, Les Grands Convertis (1906).
  3. ^ a b "Paul Bourget in New York", The Pittsburg Press, August 21, 1893.
  4. ^ Matthew M. Anger. "Faith and Fiction", Seattle Catholic, 18 October 2004.
  5. ^ Public Domain One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Bourget, Paul". Encyclopædia Britannica 30 (12th ed.). London & New York. p. 486. 
  6. ^ Martin, Benjamin F. (1984). The Hypocrisy of Justice in the Belle Epoque. Louisiana State University Press. p. 152. 

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