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Title: Representations of convicts in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French culture
Author: Falgas-Ravry, Cécilia
ISNI:       0000 0004 5346 9814
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2014
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From the 1820s, forçats were widely portrayed in French culture across a variety of fictional and non-fictional genres. This thesis analyses this ‘convict tradition’, and relates it to the emergence of industrial literature in France, with its resolutely reader-centred approach. It argues that convicts acquired a central cultural importance in the nineteenth century because they embodied a form of transgressive individualism which fascinated bourgeois readers. Convicts functioned as screens onto which readers could project their own forbidden desires. The study analyses canonical novels by Sand, Balzac, Hugo and Zola alongside a large corpus of non-fiction, including biographies, penological or philanthropic texts, physiologies and travel literature. The circulation of stereotypes and stylistic tropes between these different genres shows the constant interaction between mainstream and elite writing, and the influence of literary representations on the perception of criminals, which shaped political decisions and penal policy. The first chapter of the study suggests that convicts gave a face to nineteenth-century concerns about the proliferation of the criminal classes, thereby allowing readers to explore these fears. At the same time, descriptions of crime were a source of scopophilic pleasure, allowing readers to indulge repressed transgressive desires, while partaking in a potentially subversive celebration of carnivalesque disorder. Chapter 2 shows how these dynamics inform Balzac’s writing in his ‘Vautrin cycle’, drawing readers into a game of open secrets and deferred recognition, which mirrors contemporary concerns about urban illegibility and illegitimate social promotion. Chapter 3 explores a competing tradition which portrayed convicts as sublime, betraying the ambiguity of nineteenth-century attitudes to imprisonment, which could be a sign of infamy or of martyrdom. Sublime convicts reassured readers about the human ability to overcome trials, and to attain salvation through spiritual means (ataraxia) or physical resistance (escape). These differing traditions show that narratives tended to be centred upon their readers’ concerns, which may explain why criminals themselves were discouraged from writing. Chapter 4 presents the obstacles to convict self-expression as well as various attempts by inmates to ‘write back’, culminating with Genet’s and Charrière’s subversive reappropriation of literary discourse. Chapter 5 examines the ways in which the interplay between political events, commercial imperatives, literary evolutions (the rise of the detective novel) and new cultural practices like the cinema changed twentieth-century representations of convicts. This thesis analyses a large corpus of understudied material and fills a gap in existing scholarship, but more importantly it uses convicts to explore nineteenth-century reading practices, and to probe cultural fault lines in post-revolutionary French society. Convicts exemplify the ambiguity of nineteenth-century attitudes to social marginality, and highlight the conflicted nature of bourgeois identity. Their portrayal also draws attention to the important structural changes undergone by the literary field from the 1830s onwards, which paved the way for the advent of mass culture in the twentieth century.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: convict ; forçat ; bagne ; prison ; Balzac ; Victor Hugo ; "Les Misérables" ; Vautrin ; bagne de Guyane ; popular literature ; crime ; crime writing ; autobiography