Sophie Cottin’s Moral Tales of Exile and Return: Regenerating the Nation Through the Feminine and the ‘Other’

Christie Margrave

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper

Abstract

This paper argues that Cottin’s novel Elisabeth ou les exilés de Sibérie (1806) and prose poem La prise de Jéricho, ou la pécheresse convertie (1803) — frequently published together — function as moral tales. They underline the fall of the corrupt and the rise of those who embody duty, honour, devotion, virtue and wisdom. Published at a time of socio-political turmoil in France and in the wake of the failings of the Revolution, both works can be read as a call for the moral regeneration of French society. They also signal the vital role that women play in such a regeneration. Both stories stand in stark contrast to Cottin’s other works, whose heroines draw power from rebellion against social expectations and patriarchal hierarchy in order to secure their own happiness and freedom. Instead, Elisabeth and Rahab derive their power and courage from filial devotion, religious piety and moral virtue. They then use this power to secure the successful reclaiming of a lost homeland: Elisabeth obtains permission for her exiled father to return to Poland, whilst Rahab assists the return to Israel of the exiled Jews under the command of Joshua. Presenting patriarchal figures’ reliance upon women for their ends to be achieved, Cottin shows the need to recognise a woman’s vital socio-political role in a society which continued to deny her rights and citizenship. However, the texts go even further, for the figures to be emulated are not only female, they are also Eastern: Rahab is a Canaanite and Elisabeth identifies as Siberian. Ultimately, the texts superimpose two intersecting axes: the symbolic vertical axis of the fall of the unvirtuous and the resurrection of the righteous, and the horizontal axis of an East-West spatial trajectory. Elisabeth must travel from Siberia to Europe to obtain pardon for her father; the Jewish tribes must travel west across the River Jordan and defeat the Canaanites at Jericho with the aid of Rahab. Echoing, in her own way, Orientalist discourse typical of her era, Cottin shows ‘Self’ meeting ‘Other’ as East meets West. Ultimately, she calls for the regeneration of the nation not only through writing moral and religious instruction, and not only through her creation of powerful female models, but also through presenting the West to itself by means of the ‘Other’.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - Apr 2018

Keywords

  • nineteenth century
  • French literature
  • women's writing
  • orientalism

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