Re-addressing Paul et Virginie: The Case of Space

Christie Margrave

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie was first published in 1788, and has seen itself interpreted and adapted through many media. The present paper will return to the original text to re-address two well-known and accepted features of Bernardin’s novella. It will ultimately show how re-examining these issues can contribute significantly to other frequently and extensively debated issues concerning the text.

Firstly, it is widely known that the novel provides detailed pastoral description of nature on the Ile de France. Yet, what impact does this spatial description have on the story itself? Is it merely appropriate backdrop? This paper illustrates the ways in which space and time interact both to provoke the novel’s events and to elicit pathos, anger and surprise from the reader. Through narrative analysis of Paul et Virginie, including a revisiting of Bakhtin’s chronotopic paradigm, this paper argues that space is capable of exerting an influence over narrative events and the audience’s response to these, rather than merely providing a setting in which they are permitted to take place.

Secondly, many, including Robinson (1986), have accepted that the story can be comfortably divided into two parts – according to Virginie’s presence or absence. This paper will challenge the acceptance of a bipartite arrangement of the novel.

The paper begins by focussing on the three major spaces in the novel: Mauritius, France, and the sea in between the two. My discussion analyses how each space functions in terms of the features attributed to it, how it gives form to the characters within it, and how it is received by the reader. The paper then takes a step back and offers an overview of how these spaces interact with each other, influencing narrative possibilities and the ultimate temporal progression of the novel’s events. The final section of the paper examines the narrative set-up of the text, showing how the novel’s spaces are clearly delineated by its temporal narrative framework. Whilst the majority of the story is told in flashback, a series of returns to the narrative ‘present’ (the first level of the narrative) reinsert and ultimately invite the presence of the reader.

This paper demonstrates that a narratological analysis of space in Bernardin’s novel adds significantly to an understanding of the progression of the story and to the impact it has upon its readers, and also allows the previously accepted bipartite division of the novel to be replaced by a tripartite division, delineated by narrative markers. It will be demonstrated how such an approach and such a new understanding fundamentally offer a significant contribution to academic debates on the aesthetic and ethical significance of the text, particularly focused on the death of Virginie (Mylne, Cherpack, Thomas).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • eighteenth century
  • French literature
  • narratology
  • Bernardin de Saint-Pierre
  • space

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