fin de siecle (Writer)


French for “end of the century,” fin de siecle first came about as a literary movement in 1871 when German troops withdrew from Paris after the Franco-Prussian War. French anarchists were able to establish the Commune of Paris briefly, which, although it did not last for an extended period of time, was instrumental in creating an atmosphere in French culture in which radical ideas in literature, theater, and the visual arts began to thrive. Paris, at this time, became one of the centers of avant-garde culture. decadence, drug abuse, degradation, and surrealism are commonly associated with the era, as were the fascination with prostitution by male writers, the development of lesbianism as an artistic trend, and an increased focus on sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual.

Among the most influential writers of this period was Victor hugo, whose works, including Les Miserables (1862), were published in the middle of the century and greatly influenced the next generation of artists. In particular, his portrayal of bohemians and student revolutionaries was consistent with fin de siecle dark idealism. Other writers, such as Guy de maupassant (whose works dealt chiefly with the Franco-Prussian war and fashionable life in Paris) and the prominent symbolist poets Stephan mallarme and Charles baudelaire and their often dark and unconventional ideas flourished at the turn of the century as well.

The tone of the fin de siecle movement was dark without the expected, accompanying melancholy. It was a time of political scandal, the most notable of which was the Dreyfus affair in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted of spying for the Germans during the war. He was sentenced to serve time on Devil’s Island, French Guiana. Angered by this, and feeling that the charges were largely a result of anti-Semitism, the writer Emile Zola wrote a letter that openly criticized Dreyfus’s conviction and subsequent imprisonment. Titled J’Accuse (January 13, 1898), Zola’s letter passionately defended Dreyfus. As a result, the case was reopened and the conviction ultimately overturned. The situation, however, was typical of the prevailing mood of the time, and art was used to effect for social change and rebellion.

Another fin de siecle scandal involved the poet Arthur rimbaud. He had already caused quite an artistic commotion with his dark, introspective A Season in Hell (1873; translated 1932), in which he described his own intense and often tortured existence. He had further scandalized Parisian society when he left his wife for a man, poet Paul verlaine. This affair was an integral part of A Season in Hell and also typical of the tumultuousness of the age.

The social, literary, and artistic changes that were occurring at this time affected the theater as well. Actresses began to interpret the works of writers such as colette, whose simulated sexual performance on stage caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge. Women, in particular, began to display their sensuality openly. Bored aristocrats, such as lovers Natalie Barney and poet Rene Vivien, often gave private yet elaborate shows in their own homes. The concept of lesbian chic emerged and flourished in these venues.

As a movement, the fin de siecle officially came to an end in 1905. It had achieved such momentum that it ultimately reached a breaking point; however, many of the influences that came out of the movement and other avant-garde and experimental art forms continued into the next century, shaping future trends in literature, culture, and the arts, not just in France but also internationally.

Works about the Fin de Siecle

Chadwick, Kay, and Timothy Unwin, eds. New Perspectives on the Fin-de-Siecle in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century France. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2000.

McGuinness, Patrick, ed. Symbolism, Decadence and the Fin de Siecle: French and European Perspectives. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000.

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