Paul et Virginie

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Paul et Virginie, 1844 by Henri Pierre Léon Pharamond Blanchard
Bernardin de Saint-Pierre memorial in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris; Paul and Virginie in the pedestal.

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 friends since birth who fall in love. The story is set on the island of Mauritius under French rule, then named Île de France. Written on the eve of the French Revolution, the novel is recognized as Bernardin's finest work. It records the fate of a child of nature corrupted by the artificial sentimentality of the French upper classes in the late eighteenth century. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre lived on the island for a time and based part of the novel on a shipwreck he witnessed there.[1]

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's novel criticizes the social class divisions found in eighteenth-century French society. He describes the perfect equality of social relations on Mauritius, whose inhabitants share their possessions, have equal amounts of land, and all work to cultivate it. They live in harmony, without violence or unrest. The author's beliefs echo those of Enlightenment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[2] He argues for the emancipation of slaves. He was a friend of Mahé de La Bourdonnais, the governor of Mauritius, who appears in the novel providing 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 novel presents an Enlightenment view of religion: that God, or "Providence," has designed a world that is 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 observing the shadows of the trees. One critic noted that Bernadin de Saint-Pierre "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".

Thomas Carlyle in The French Revolution: A History, wrote: "[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."[3]

The novel's fame was such that when the participants at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1920 considered the status of Mauritius, the New York Times headlined its coverage:[4]

"Sentimental Domain"

Island of Mauritius, Scene of Paul et Virginie, Seeks Return to French Control

Literary references and adaptations[edit]

  • Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary (1856) described how Emma's experience of literature formed her imagination: "She had read Paul et Virginie, and she had fantasized about the little bamboo cottage, the Negro Domingo, the dog Fidèle, but even more the sweet friendship of some good little brother who would go and gather ripe fruits for you from great trees taller than spires, or who would run barefoot in the sand, bringing you a bird's nest."[5] In Un Cœur simple (A Simple Heart) (1877), he used the names Paul and Virginie for the two children of Madame Aubain, Félicité's employer.[6]
  • Guy de Maupassant in Bel Ami (1885) described a desolate room with minimal furnishings that include "two coloured pictures representing Paul and Virginie".[7]
  • In Le Curé de village (The country parson) (1839), Honoré de Balzac described how "the revelation of love came through a charming book from the hand of a genius" and then more clearly identified the work: "sweet fancies of love derived from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's book".[8]
  • The novel served as the basis for a hugely successful opera of the same name, composed by Jean-François Le Sueur, which premiered at the Théâtre Feydeau in Paris on 13 January 1794.
  • The novel inspired, and served as title for, a duet for clarinet and violin with piano accompaniment by Amilcare Ponchielli, which was published in 1857.
  • Victor Massé wrote a very successful opera on the subject in 1876.[9]
  • The English author William Hurrell Mallock titled his 1878 satirical novel The New Paul and Virginia after Bernadin de Saint-Pierre's work.
  • It served as the basis for an American short silent film Paul and Virginia in 1910.
  • Natasha Soobramanien, a British novelist of Mauritian descent, published Genie and Paul, loosely derived from Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's novel, in 2012.[10]
  • In Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, Birkin makes reference to Paul et Virginie when taking Ursula on a punt (Chapter 11).
  • Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World
  • The movie The Blue Lagoon is inspired by Paul et Virginie


  1. ^ "The First Idea of Paul and Virginia". New York Times. 8 November 1874. Retrieved 23 June 2015.  The New York Times article cites the British magazine Belgravia as its source.
  2. ^ "St. Pierre". New York Times. 20 September 1905. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 
  3. ^ Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution, Chapter VIII "Printed Paper": Second last paragraph, Sentence 3
  4. ^ "Sentimental Domain". New York Times. 11 January 1920. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 
  5. ^ Flaubert, Gustave (2009). Madame Bovary. Hackett Publishing Company. p. 31. Retrieved June 24, 2015. 
  6. ^ Flaubert, Gustave (1924). Three Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 9. Retrieved June 24, 2015. 
  7. ^ de Maupassant, Guy (2001). Bel-Ami. Oxford University Press. p. 165. Retrieved June 24, 2015. 
  8. ^ de Balzac, Honoré (1996). Comédie Humaine: The country parson. New York: Macmillan Company. pp. 18, 26. Retrieved June 24, 2015. 
  9. ^ "Affairs in France". New York Times. 26 November 1876. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 
  10. ^ Kappala-Ramsamy, Gemma (15 September 2012). "Debut author: Natasha Soobramanien". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 June 2015. 

External links[edit]