I grew up and went to school in France. Therefore, I read many classic French authors at school. Some of them are definitely hard to miss if you are attending a French high school. I set up a list of classic books that most French students read in high school.
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Classic Books that French students read in high school (part one): 17th and 18th century authors
The Princess of Cleves is often seen as one of the very first psychological novels. This is the story of a young and beautiful aristocrat. Her mother brings her to the court of Henri II to find her a husband. She finally gets married to the Prince of Cleves. However, after the wedding, she meets the handsome Duke of Nemours. The duke and the princess fall in love with each other but cannot have a relationship because the princess is married. The book shows the inner struggle of the princess between her duty as a wife and her love for the Duke of Nemours. The princess finally confesses her feelings to her husband. Her husband, who was madly in love with her, is terribly hurt. He becomes ill and dies. The princess would now be free to marry the duke of Nemours but she feels guilty for the death of her husband and chooses to go to a convent.
In case that you are wondering, the author, Madame de la Fayette, is not the wife of the marquis de La Fayette who fought in the American Revolutionary War but they were both relatives.
Corneille, Racine and Moliere are the three most famous French dramatists. The three of them lived in the seventeenth century. Racine and Corneille, who were both tragedians, hated each other.
The Cid is one of the most studied theater play in France. The main characters, Rodrigue and Chimene, are Spanish aristocrats. Chime and Rodrigue are in love with each other and want to marry. However, their father have a fight and Chimene’s father offends Rodrigue’s elderly father. To save his honor, Rodrigue is compelled to kill Chimene’s father, even if it means that he won’t be able to marry Chimene any more. But as he becomes a war hero (the Cid) and saves Spain from invasion, the king of Spain claims that Chimene has done enough to avenge her father and that she and Rodrigue can marry.
Andromaque is the widow of Hector, the Troyan hero that died during the Troyan war. After the Greeks won the war, Andromaque became the prisoner of Pyrrhus, Achille’s son. Pyrrhus was to marry Hermione, the daughter of Menelas and Helen, but he falls in love with Andromaque. Orest, the son of Agamemnon, is sent by the Greeks to ask Pyrrhus to kill Andromaque and her son Astyanax, as they fear he could later want to avenge his father. But Oreste is in love with Hermione. The play is often summarized with this only sentence: Oreste loves Hermione who loves Pyrrhus who loves Andromaque who loves Hector who is dead.
Moliere’s comedies are still very popular in France and it is difficult to find which one is most studied in French high schools. Molière’S work includes plays like Tartuffe, Don Juan, or the Impostures of Scapin.
The Misanthrope is often seen as Molière’s best play. The misanthrope, a young man called Alceste, is rejecting the social conventions of the 17th century French high society, which he sees as hypocritical and superficial. Yet, he is in love with Celimene, a flighty and frivolous young woman who is a symbol of everything Alceste hates.
Voltaire is one of the most known French authors of the 18th century and a major figure of the French Enlightenment. His novellas are often studied in French high schools.
Candide is a young man living in the castle of a Westphalian baron. He is in love with Cunegonde, the daughter of the baron. Another important character, is his mentor Pangloss (Pangloss is a caricature of Leibniz philosophy) Candide is sent away from the castle as he and Cunegonde are seen kissing. Candide has many adventures, during which he meets Cunegonde and Pangloss again and again. Although Pangloss experiences great hardships, he still claims that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Voltaire is a satirist and in Candide, he is making fun of everything: religion, philosophy, social convention, sexuality, aristocrats and so on. It is definitely not politically correct.
Other popular authors
For the 17th century, other popular authors are La Fontaine (a famous fabulist), La Rochefoucauld (moralist) and Blaise Pascal (scientist, mathematician and jansenist philosoph)
For the 18th century, other popular authors are Marivaux (dramatist), Beaumarchais (dramatist), Rousseau (philosophy) or Diderot (philosophy)