The Natural World as Depicted in Francophone Literature (Double Major: French Studies)

Student name: Lauren Scott
Contact email: Available to logged-in users only
Advisor: Jim Proctor
Updated: October 27, 2014

Environmental Discourses
Environmental Attitudes and Behavior


French culture has been a dominating force throughout global history for many centuries, however this cultural influence in not restrained to borders of l’Hexagone, it permeates the globe through all of the Francophone countries. A country is considered Francophone because it is french speaking, due to their history’s deep...

Concentration Summary

French culture has been a dominating force throughout global history for many centuries, however this cultural influence in not restrained to borders of l’Hexagone, it permeates the globe through all of the Francophone countries. A country is considered Francophone because it is french speaking, due to their history’s deep ties to France. These countries became Francophone though colonization. French colonization, beginning as early as 1534 and lasting until 1980, with the most active period during the 1800s, mostly stemmed from religious and Republican desires (Daughton 2006). These two motivations often contradicted each other and caused a great deal of political conflict during this period. However, there existed an overarching concept in both French Catholic and Republican ideologies that it was their responsibility to their ideology as the superior race to spread their beliefs to the rest of the world and to conquer and civilize these inferior groups. This was the grand motivator that lead France to seek other nations to add to their empire. However, it was for specific interests in trade and political world dominance that led France to situate their colonies where they did. Though many of these once french colonies are now independent states, they still have close relations to France and its culture has left a great mark on their own.

French literature has been an object of national pride for France’s citizens throughout history, and this extends to the greater francophone  nations (Kay et al. 2003). Francophone countries, especially France, have also been one of the largest contributors to the collective global literature and philosophical thought communities. The large importance of literature in french culture makes it an powerful tool for investigating certain aspects of french thought and culture; these overarching ideas present in a country’s culture are most prominently represented in their classic works of literature. Going further, through examining a nation’s culture through literature, we can gain greater insight into their attitudes and behaviors. “Literature is a powerful force in communicating ideas in sometimes an imperceptible but pervasive way,” and can provide insight into both the environmental attitudes present within a culture but also how these attitudes are being acted upon, through people’s behaviors, as highlighted by the Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors SGE Theme page (Shafer et al. 2013).

Within my concentration I hope to explore the environmental discourse in francophone countries through the cultural magnifying lense of literature as a means of interpreting how they view the natural world. This exploration will focus specifically on their definition of “nature” (i.e. their social construction of nature) as well as the prominent themes of the nature vs. culture, or similarly, the pastoral vs. urban dichotomy in many works of classic francophone literature (Ryder 2013). Going further, through looking at the conceptions of nature within the cultural francophone environmental discourses, I hope to examine how it has changed over time and draw connections between these ideas of nature and the national attitude towards the environment and environmental issues. The relevance of doing so is  highlighted well by the Environmental Discourses SGE Theme page: Current statements of environment and nature are informed by the narrative of these words, meaning that studying the narrative (or cultural history) behind these words can shed light onto the current conceptions of of these topics (Holz 2013). Studying the ideas behind these Big Words in environmental discourses will provide the contextual background for situated problems because environmental discourses creates the foundation for studying modern environmental issues.

As mentioned above, an overarching theme in many works of francophone literature is a the nature vs. culture or pastoral vs. urban dichotomy (Ryder 2013). A time and place where this idea can be situated and put into context is France in the 19th century, a prolific time in for french literature where this concept was widely prominent and included important periods of Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism (Kay et al. 2003). At this time, many authors were moving from the rural countryside, to the urban cultural hub of Paris. This physical shift from the simplified rural land that they called home to the urban intellectual jungle greatly was reflected in their works and set the tone for how they perceived the two areas. The natural landscape of the rural countryside was seen as the simplistic land of origin, their birthplace, the land of physical creation; whereas the city, though viewed as a cultural hub and the land of human assemblage, was considered both complex and dirty in both the visual and metaphorical sense. Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud, a french poet of this epoch, clearly illustrates the pastoral vs. urban dichotomy when describing the two separate landscapes in his works (Ryder 2013). His descriptions of urbanism is bleak and apocalyptic: “What does it matter to us, my heart, the sheets of blood and of red-hot coals, and a thousand murders, and long howls of rage . . . I feel myself tremble, the old earth, on me who am more and more yours! The earth melts” (2013). This dark display of urbanism is greatly contrasted with remembrance and pining for his rural past: “Nostalgia for the thick young arms of pure green” (2013).  These small snippets provide a small window into a central idea of this time period, but would provide greater significance to this great divide between nature and culture when compared to the works of other prolific writers of the time. Going further, through this concentration, I would investigate how this idea of separation between urban versus pastoral landscapes compares to the modernized France today, where the lines between rural and urban are now blurred in a current industrialized state.

Another context in which the depiction of the natural world through the nature vs. culture dichotomy could be situated is through the depiction of the plight of Northern African immigrants in France during the 20th century and their established perception of “Europe as civilization and North Africa as a wilderness” through the works of Maghrebi novelists (Decouvelaere 2011). Similar to the cited essay by Stephanie Decouvelaere, in which she compares the works of three Maghrebi novelists and the civilization/wilderness binary that they establish resulting from the effects of European colonization in Northern Africa, this concentration could examine to what degree the effects of European colonization had on the Maghrebi perception of the natural world. In her essay, Decouvelaere highlights the common theme of nature being identified as home or a place of origin in contrast with civilization being the place of human assemblage, where the large percent of humanity seems to accumulate. This exemplifies that this separation between nature and culture is an overarching theme within francophone cultures, as magnified through literature, and merits further investigation to see the broader implications this division has on these society’s perceptions and attitudes to issues pertaining to the natural environment in whole.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Columbia University Press.

Daughton, J. P. 2006. An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Decouvelaere, Stephanie. 2011. “Exiting the Scene of Civilization: Wilderness as Implied Framework in Three Francophone Maghrebi Novels of Immigration.” Romance Studies 29 (3) (July): 164–176. doi:10.1179/174581511X13063236265127.

Holz, Zach. 2013. “Environmental Discourses.” Situating the Global Environment. Lewis & Clark Environmental Studies Program.

Kay, Sarah, Terence Cave, and Malcolm Bowie. 2003. A Short History of French Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Lehan, Richard Daniel. 2005. Realism and Naturalism: The Novel in an Age of Transition. Univ of Wisconsin Press.

Ryder, Andrew. 2013. “BAUDELAIRE, RIMBAUD, TOOMER The Urban Stranger and ‘Bad Blood’ in French and African American Modernism.” Callaloo 36 (3): 802–810.

Shafer, Samantha, Jhana Taylor Valentine, Sarah Ruggiere, and Finn Marino-Sweeney. 2013. “Environmental Attitudes and Behavior.” Situating the Global Environment. Lewis & Clark Environmental Studies Program.

Concentration Questions

Temporal Comparisons:

  • Descriptive: In what ways is “‘nature” represented in contemporary francophone literature?In what ways was it represented in the 19th century with the advent of the naturalist literary movement? In what other francophone literary periods was there a prominent change in discourses surrounding nature in francophone literature?

  • Explanatory: How has the concept of nature in francophone countries evolved over time? How has literature in francophone countries reflected this common conception over time? How do the two conceptions noted in the previous question compare, and in what way is this a reflection of environmental discourses of the times compared? In other words, based on what was discovered from the first descriptive question, what can we infer about the types of environmental discourses used at these periods in francophone cultures?

Spatial Comparisons:

  • Descriptive: What are the differences between the environmental discourses present in France versus the francophone countries which were once under the political control of France in the time of colonialism?

  • Explanatory: To what extent has French thought, through a history of colonialism, influenced the current  ideas of nature and the natural world in the Maghreb (i.e. Northern Africa)?

Bigger Context:

Explanatory: In what way do both the past and the current conceptions of nature/the natural world among francophone countries and their respective cultures shape attitudes towards and response to environmental issues?


Concentration Tools

Social Theory: Gaining further understanding in this realm would enhance my knowledge of analyzing social phenomena including ethnicity, modernity, social structures, gender and power. It could provide me with the proper tools to analyze the complex motivations, workings, and history of French colonialism and to what degree that influenced the development of culture in francophone countries.

Cultural Anthropology: This tool would enhance my knowledge of analyzing cultures through anthropological theory and ethnographies. Having a solid base in cultural anthropology is vital for understanding and analyzing the evolution of and comparing aspects of francophone countries.  

Literary Analysis: This skill would strengthen my ability to understand the deeper meanings within important works of literature and enlarge these deeper meanings in historical and cultural contexts. It is important to ameliorate these skills for my area of interest so that I can infer what the concepts of nature are present in francophone literature and how these concepts translate to environmental discourses and shape environmental attitudes and behaviors.

French History: Having a solid basis in French history will provide me with a contextual background in which I can use to draw conclusions on the evolution of certain concepts and ideas of nature, culture, society, wilderness, etc. that I hope to examine through French literature. Deepening my understanding of French history will allow me to better situate the works of literature I hope to examine in the timeline of the evolution of themes and theories within french literature.


Concentration Courses
Arts & Humanities Breadth Elective
Philosophy 215: No
History 261: Yes


FREN 330 (Francophone Literature, 4 credits): Fall 2014. This is a course specifically on francophone literature, which is extremely pertinent to my concentration, and will provide a good base knowledge for period and movements within this classification of literature. I can potentially use works read and analyzed in this course towards answering the my concentration question. 

Concentration Revisions


  • Title: I changed my title, removing “The Nature/Culture Dichotomy,” because I feel it made my concentration too specific. I plan at focusing mostly on the nature/culture binary, but am open to analyzing other constructions of nature that may appear, and don’t want to limit myself on just this.

  • Summary: I changed the organization of my summary paragraphs, breaking them down a bit more to add a better flow to the ideas presented. I started first with a description of what constitutes as a francophone country, then discuss the importance of literature in francophone countries, as a means of providing some context for what I want to study within my concentration. I then laid out the main concept I would like to investigate, adding in the relevance of the two themes I chose to include to my area of interest, and in doing so justified my concentration’s significance to ENVS. This was included in my last summary, I just made it more explicit this time. Finally, I made grammatical edits to the summary overall and added some more information from better quality sources that I had found.

  • Sources: I removed one and added five more sources that I used and are relevant to my summary of my proposal and concentration in whole.

  • Questions: I reworked and relabeled my previous questions into more appropriate categories. For example, in I made sure that the questions that I wrote as descriptive, but were actually explanatory as explanatory, and wrote new associated descriptive questions. I also grouped questions that related and built off of each other into three different groups as a means of offering more clarity and significance to each question.

  • Tools: I clarified and stated more explicitly what tools I plan to use in my concentration and in what way I plan on using them.


  • Questions: I rewrote my descriptive questions in the Temporal Comparisons section. I also added an additional question to my explanatory questions in this same section. 
  • A&H Breadth Course: I updated this section, changing it so it shows that I am going to take both HIST 261 and FREN 330 as my breadth courses for my concentration and not PHIL 215, due to the fact that it is only to be offered during my remaining time at LC while I am abroad in Senegal in Spring 2015. 

About the author

Lauren Scott

Hi there! Bonjour! Asalamm malikum! I am Lauren Scott, a senior Environmental Studies and French Studies double major at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. I am a Vermont native, but I like to fly far from the nest. I’ve spent time abroad in Paris, France during my gap year, relocated to Portland for college, and I studied abroad in Dakar, Senegal in the spring and summer of 2015. I am interested in language, discourse, place/space and environmental theory.