Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

Romance Languages and Literatures: French Language and Literature


English (en)

Date of Award

Winter 1-1-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Pascal Ifri


In my dissertation, I study the constants and the variables of the representation of: mostly left-wing) militants in 20th century French literature and film. I demonstrate that they are young idealists seeking personal rejuvenation through political violence. Moreover, I show how those works are a reflection of major trends in French cultural and political history during specific time-periods such as the inter-war period, the occupation of France by Nazi Germany or the Algerian War of Independence. My theoretical approach is a "sociology of literature" influenced by the theories of Lucien Goldmann and Marc Angenot. However, I also occasionally use postcolonial and post-structuralist theory in my analysis.

The first chapter includes a study of six novels published during the interwar period. I show that the "terrorists" depicted by Malraux, Nizan and Yourcenar are young adventurers who seek personal redemption through political "engagement". However, the outcome of their political involvement results in failure and disillusion at best, self-destruction at worst.

The second chapter is a study of four novels about the French underground during Vichy France. These novels - by Beauvoir, Kessel, Gary and Roger Vailland - are paradoxical in so far as the activities of the Resistance are perceived as regenerating for both the individual and France as a country. However, justifications of political violence are never fully satisfactory and the protagonists of these novels have to come to terms with the moral imperfection of their actions.

The third chapter shows how Sartre and Camus engaged in a philosophical and political dialogue through their plays. Under the influence of Russian culture, Albert Camus was consistent in his rejection of "terrorism". According to him, it could only lead to political tyranny, if successful. Sartre remained an advocate of realpolitik. At first, he underlined the conflict opposing adventurers and party authorities in Dirty Hands yet later showed that both parts could find common ground.

The last chapter underlines the similarities of Jean-Luc Godard's and Jean Genet's ideological paths. Moreover, they used similar theatrical techniques to represent the contradictions of both European leftists and third-world liberation movements. Finally, in their works, the dilemmas of the creators mirror those of their characters.


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