Classic books that French students read in high school (part two)

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As already evoked in an earlier post, I grew up in France and read therefore many French books at school. In an earlier post, I presented books that are particularly often studied in school and that were written by 17th and 18th century authors. For this post, I am going to evoke 19th century authors.

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Classic Books that French students read in high school (part one): 19th century authors

Father Goriot (Balzac)

it is difficult to pick a book by Balzac because his collection of novels, The Human Comedy, is composed of more than 90 interlinked novels. In Balzac’s books, characters will pop up rom one novel to another. Balzac’s novels include for instance Father Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, Cousine Bette or Lost Illusions.

Father Goriot is the story of a man who loves his daughter so much that he constantly sacrifices themselves for them. He is living in poverty, giving all the money he still has to his daughters. His daughters live in luxury, one being married to a banker and the other one to an aristocrat. However, they show little gratitude and will only see him in private as they are ashamed of him.

This is also the first novel in which Eugene de Rastignac appears. Eugene de Rastignac is there still a naive law student who begins an adulterous relationship with Delphine de Nucingen, Goriot’s daughter. Eugene de Rastignac will appear regularly in other novels as he becomes an unscrupulous financier and politician.

Another important recurring character is Vautrin. Vautrin is a criminal run away who creates a crime empire. In Father Goriot, he tries to convince Rastignac to seduce a young heiress abandoned by her father. Vautrin would then murder the father and Rastignac would be rich. Rastignac refuses his offer but the influence of Vautrin and the lonely death of Goriot convince him to lose all scruples and get all that he can from society.

Germinal (Emile Zola)

Emile Zola is also the author of a cycle of 20 novels, the Rougon-Macquart, which follows the lives of the members of an extended family during the Second French Empire. Zola belongs to the naturalism literary movement.

The book’s main character, Etienne Lantier, is also part of the Rougon-Macquard family. In Germinal, he is a young worker who starts working in a coal mine. He gets interested in socialist ideas and becomes the leader of the local miners’ strike. However, the mining company is not ready to negotiate with the miners and the strike ends up tragically.

The book describes very accurately and precisely the hard living conditions of miners in France in the 19th century. The name of the book, Germinal, is actually a month of the revolutionary calendar that was used in France for a few years following the French Revolution.

Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)

Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s most famous novel. The main character, Emma Bovary, is the wife of a country’s doctor. She is a romantic young woman with a vivid imagination. However, her fantasies about love and lie, mainly inspired by cheap romance novels, lead her to cheat on her husband and leave beyond her means, until her situation becomes desperate.

Other books by Flaubert include Sentimental Education, Salammbo and Three Tales.

The Red and the Black (Stendhal)

The Red and the Black is Stendhal’s most famous novel. The main character, Julien Sorel is a the son of a carpenter in a little French village. His is scorned by his father but he is ambitious. He manages to get the attention o the local priest after he learns the Bible by heart in latin and he is hired as a tutor or the children of Monsieur de Renal, the mayor of the village. He begins a love affair with Madame de Renal.

When the affair is disclosed, he has to go to a seminary. The seminary director likes Julien but doubts his religious vocation. He introduces him to the Marquis de la Mole, who takes him as a private secretary. He begins then a relationship with Mathilde, the marquis’ daughter. They want to marry but the union is threatened by a letter that Madame de Renal sends to the marquis under the influence of her confessor.

The Red and the Black is a widely beloved book. Stendhal is able to make us feel deeply or his character without hiding any of their defaults. Julien is hypocritical and simulates faith to climb the social ladder. However, he is still a lovable character.

Bel-Ami (Guy de Maupassant)

Guy de Maupassant was a friend of Flaubert, who acted as his mentor. Maupassant is often studied in French Highschool because he wrote hundreds of short stories.

His most famous novel is Bel-Ami. This is the story of an attractive young man, Georges Duroy, who climbs the social ladder thanks to the women he seduces.

Other authors

Other important authors include of course Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris, Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo), Francois-René de Chateaubriand, Jules Verne and George Sand.


  • ecohorizons

    You remind me of the tales of 2 cities that is related to a story taling place during the French revolution.
    In Lebanon , during the protests of October in Lebanon , I hear people talking about the unfolding events after the French revolution that has made a great development in France and even all of Europe eventually . It took tens of years to evolve into the modern France we know today …

    • momslovelearning

      I loved a Tale of Two Cities a lot too, but this is of course a very British view of the French Revolution 😊
      You are totally right about the long time needed to have a modern republic after the revolution. And somehow, the oppositions that emerged during the French Revolution are still very present in French politics today.

    • momslovelearning

      A bit, actually. There are two “potential” kings who both have a tiny group of supporters and who hate each other. There is also a tiny bonapartist party. They do not have a big influence though.
      Robespierre, on the other hand, has still quite a few supporters. Some people will see him as a hero and others as a monster.
      I meant actually rather that the French Revolution still has an impact on the way French people deal with political issues today. For instance, the debate in France about the islamic headscarf at school is influenced by the history of the young French Republic. Before the Revolution, France was indeed seen as the “eldest daughter” of the Catholic Church and the king in France was seen as chosen by God. As the pope condemned the French Revolution, the French Republic decided to break from catholicism, especially with a very strict ban on conspicuous religious symbols in schools. School teachers were supposed to fight the influence of the Catholic Church among the population. Therefore, many French people get very upset when people are displaying religious symbols.

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