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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Jean de La Bruyère (1645–1696)

THE GREAT French satirist La Bruyère has left a comprehensive portrait gallery of his contemporaries, where one searches vainly for the brilliant collector himself. One feels his desire to entertain, almost hears his amused ironical laugh at human follies; but his presence is intangible. He never took the world cordially into confidence, and we know little now of his uneventful life. He was born at Paris, educated with the Oratorians, and then studied law; but when about twenty-eight he gave up practice, and bought a treasurership at Caen, which he sold again twelve years later. To his friend and admirer Bossuet may be attributed his literary success; for, recommended by him, he became in 1684 instructor in history to the young Duc de Bourbon, grandson of the famous Condé. He received a salary of a thousand crowns, and seems to have taught his charge a variety of subjects. The stormy Condés liked this genial quiet gentleman-teacher and his ready tact. They may have stormed sometimes, after their wont; but La Bruyère knew how to be amiable while preserving his own respect and winning theirs. When his pupil left him, to marry the daughter of Louis XIV. and Madame de Montespan, he was asked to stay on as gentleman-in-waiting; and did so until his death of apoplexy at the Hôtel Condé, when only fifty-one.

With the Condés the witty bourgeois had every opportunity to gather material for his famous Characters. He was a keen observer, with the clear impartial vision possessed only by an unconcerned spectator. Though he knew the King and all the powerful noblemen of France, though he was familiar with every court intrigue, he must often have been made to feel that he was a recognized inferior. There was quiet malice in his outward respect for these men and women, and in the merciless analysis with which he exposed their misplaced pride and ridiculous foibles.

The ‘Characters’ (Les Caractères), suggested as its name indicates by the work of Theophrastus, and partly modeled after it, appeared in 1687; and La Bruyère found his literary pastime, his solace to wounded vanity, winning an immediate success. It is said that he had offered to give the manuscript to a bookseller friend, the possible profits to become a dowry for his child. The hesitating bookseller finally printed it, and thus made a large fortune.

La Bruyère has definitely stated the purpose of his work: “Of the sixteen chapters which compose it, there are fifteen wholly employed in detecting the fallacy and absurdity to be found in the objects of human passions and inclinations, and in demolishing such obstacles as at first weaken, and afterwards extinguish, any knowledge of God in mankind: therefore these chapters are merely preparatory to the sixteenth and last, wherein atheism is attacked, and perhaps routed; wherein the proofs of a God, such at least as weak man is capable of receiving, are produced; wherein the providence of God is defended against the insults and complaints of free-thinkers.”

The continuity of the sixteen chapters is not very evident. Each begins with general moral reflections upon ‘Merit,’ ‘Women,’ the ‘Affections,’ and similar subjects; and ends with a series of literary portraits. La Bruyère was not a profound psychologist, but a careful superficial observer, with a gift for witty description. Although he used fictitious names, the sketches were too like living originals to be mistaken. Naturally they caused resentment and personal enmities, which twice prevented his election to the Academy, finally achieved in 1693. Everybody read the ‘Characters,’ charmed by the delicate, forceful style, and by the shrewd moral reasoning which enriched the language with wise sayings. Key after key appeared, identifying his personages; but La Bruyère repudiated them all, declaring that he had represented types, not copied individuals.

The influence of this early realist was very great. But for him Lesage’s famous novel ‘Gil Blas’ might never have been written. He is said to have inspired the ‘Persian Letters’ (Lettres Persanes) of Montesquieu. Translated into English as early as 1698, the ‘Characters’ had a wide influence upon our literature. “There is no doubt,” says Saintsbury, “that the English essayists of the Queen Anne school modeled themselves upon it.”

Its success called forth many feeble imitations, among them ‘The Little La Bruyère, or Characters and Morals of Children of this Century’; and ‘The La Bruyère for Domestics,’ by Madame de Genlis, besides a ‘La Bruyère for Boys’ and a ‘La Bruyère for Girls.’

His other works—a translation of Theophrastus, and an unfinished work upon ‘Quietism,’ materially altered by the Abbé du Pin, and published after La Bruyère’s death—are not noteworthy. But the ‘Characters’ still constitute a delightful model of style, and a wise and witty commentary on social life.