Paul et Virginie

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"Paul and Virginia" redirects here. For the legal case, see Paul v. Virginia.
For the Thanhouser film, see Paul and Virginia (1910 film).
Paul et Virginie, 1844 by Henri Pierre Léon Pharamond Blanchard
Bernardin de Saint-Pierre is lost in thought, in his memorial in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris; beneath: Paul and Virginie

Paul et Virginie (or Paul and Virginia) is a novel by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, first published in 1788. The novel's title characters are very good friends since birth who fall in love. The story is set in the island of Mauritius under French rule, then named Île de France, which the author had visited. Written on the eve of the French Revolution, the novel is hailed as Bernardin's finest work. It records the fate of a child of nature corrupted by the false, artificial sentimentality that prevailed at the time among the upper classes of France.

The Nuttall Encyclopedia says of it, quoting Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution: A History, "[it is a novel in which] there rises melodiously, as it were, the wail of a moribund world: everywhere wholesome Nature in unequal conflict with diseased, perfidious art; cannot escape from it in the lowest hut, in the remotest island of the sea."[1]

Saint-Pierre attacked the issues of divided social classes present in eighteenth century French society (see Estates general). In Paul et Virginie, Saint-Pierre describes perfect equality occurring on Mauritius, where inhabitants share the same possessions, have equal amounts of land, and all work to cultivate it. They live in harmony, without violence or unrest. These beliefs of Saint-Pierre's echo those of Enlightenment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Furthermore, Saint-Pierre argues for the emancipation of slaves; in real life, he was a friend of Mahé de La Bourdonnais, the governor of Mauritius who provided training and encouragement for the island's natives. Although Paul and Virginie own slaves, they appreciate their labour and do not treat them badly. When other slaves in the novel are mistreated, the book's heroes confront the cruel masters.

The book also presents an Enlightenment view of religion: that God, or "Providence," had perfectly designed the world to be harmonious and pleasing. The characters of Paul et Virginie live off the land without needing technology or man-made interference. For instance, they tell time by looking at the shadows of the trees. Norman Hampson mentions that Saint-Pierre’s idea of divine Providence was evident in that he "admired the forethought which ensured that dark-coloured fleas should be conspicuous on white skin", believing "that the earth was designed for man’s terrestrial happiness and convenience".

The book was turned into a hugely successful opera with music by Jean-François Le Sueur, premiering at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris on 13 January 1794. English author William Hurrell Mallock named his 1878 satirical novel The New Paul and Virginia after Saint-Pierre's work. Victor Massé wrote a very successful opera on the subject in 1876. The British novelist Natasha Soobramanien published Genie & Paul based on the story of Paul et Virginie, in 2012.


  1. ^ Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Chapter VIII "Printed Paper": Second last paragraph, Sentence 3

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