The Works of Sophie Cottin: Examining the Feminine and Oriental “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 played by women. Elisabeth and Rahab derive power and courage from filial devotion, religious piety and moral virtue, and use this power to secure the successful reclaiming of a lost homeland. Elisabeth obtains permission for her exiled father to return to Poland; 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 further, for the figures to be emulated 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’. Brief comparison will also be made to Cottin’s Mathilde (1805) as the paper demonstrates that, engaging with contemporary theories of the Middle East, Cottin creates a ‘landscape of one’s own’ in all three of the aforementioned works which both grants to her heroines a power usually denied to women, and becomes a platform from which one might make subtle comments on the treatment of women in patriarchal society in general.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2018

Keywords

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

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