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Chammas, Jacqueline, «L’inceste romanesque en France, 1715-1789», Montréal, Université de Montréal, thèse de doctorat, août 2003, 2 vol., xii/651 p. Dir. : Benoît Melançon.


The great number of novels dealing with incest between the accession of the Regent (1715) and the Revolution (1789) is worth consideration. The objective of this dissertation is threefold: to describe and analyze the portrayal of incest in those novels; to examine the fictional outcome of this illicit act in the light of the law and of the “natural law” claimed by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, as well as with regards to incest as a social fact; to perceive how the representation of such a strong taboo is part of the history of ideas. The corpus consists of about fifty novels published between 1715 and 1789. Some take place in exotic-utopic surroundings, others describe incests committed by contemporaries, and a third category is set in the religious world (it is then known as “spiritual incest”).

In the historical reality of the Eighteenth century, incest was considered a horrible crime and its punishment was death by fire or beheading. Why then did the philosophes feed incestuous libertinage to their readers? This dissertation sets out to show that the portrait of incest, in this century of fast evolution of philosophical ideas, contributed strongly, on one hand, towards the denunciation of a legal system considered obsolete, on the other, towards the acknowledgement of the dislocation of the family, due mainly to the rigidity of a regime which claimed a right and imposed its laws on the functioning of the family. Moreover, the image of the incestuous act as an erotic act, which had to be concealed, reinforced the aspiration to intimacy arising tentatively in a setting where political and natural rights exerted a constant pressure over all citizens.

The meaning given to incest by Eighteenth-century jurists, its implications and its consequences are first elucidated. An overview of the contemporary reality presents the state of the morals at the court, in the nobility and of the third estate, so as to better grasp the stakes of the fictional world. In addition, and before beginning to analyze the texts, the philosophical notions of the “eternal and immutable natural law”, which invites its followers to happiness and liberty, are explained. The novels are then examined and analyzed separately but also through their mutual relationships. The utopical novel shows the extent and the limits of natural law. The incestuous contemporary characters first confirm the state of confusion of the family but, in the last quarter of the century, they discover happiness and a certain form of liberty in the adoption of solutions promoted by the utopists of incest. Finally, the “spiritual incest” unveils the disarray of a clergy also in search of intimacy in its private life.

In the second half of the century, the evolution of the incestuous characters inner life attests to the change of mentalities and to the march of history. The philosophy of nature in the incest novels is no longer legitimized by natural law, on the eve of the French Revolution, but by public opinion.

Keywords: Incest • Law • Nature • Family • Novel • Eighteenth Century

Publication: Chammas, Jacqueline, l’Inceste romanesque au siècle des Lumières. De la Régence à la Révolution (1715-1789), Paris, Honoré Champion, coll. «Les dix-huitièmes siècles», 162, 2011, 433 p.


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