Paul et Virginie [Paul and Virginie] is the tale of two children raised by single mothers in Mauritius (then a French colony). The work is reputed to have had more separate editions since its original publication than any other French novel. It has been translated or adapted into numerous languages as well as being performed on stage. Its enduring success is primarily connected to its setting in a remote island, appealing to the imagination of generations of readers. Its portrayal of the innocence of children raised in a seemingly idyllic environment still possesses a great draw for those wishing to escape the pressures of instant communication in a globalised world. Arguably a further attraction has been the advance of ecological concerns. Bernardin was well aware that the life-style of his small community was not a model to be adopted wholesale, but rather a means of raising issues (it recalls the community cultivating their garden in the conclusion of Voltaire’s Candide). The tale first appeared in 1788 as a fourth volume to Bernardin’s best-seller, the Études de la Nature (originally published in 1784). It depicted in fictional form various concerns of his philosophical blockbuster. Its first separate publication was in 1789 with three illustrations by Jean-Michel Moreau and one by his friend, Joseph Vernet (the famous painter of harbour scenes). There it was in a small format so that it could fit into pockets or small bags and be easily transported to be read in the countryside.
The opening paragraphs of this tale of two children describe a setting, not people. Bernardin, trained as a military engineer, uses a geometrical precision to present the ruins of two huts in their natural environment as well as in the wider global-commercial context. The scene contains references to colour, sounds and the weather (Bernardin liked to depict meteorological elements). The anonymous first narrator is revisiting a cherished spot which provides an extensive vista and a satisfying feeling of solitude. (In this work, solitude is not linked to loneliness.) He is, in a sense, the representative of the reader who shows curiosity and empathy. He encounters an old man (the Vieillard) and enquires about the residents of the huts. The Vieillard replies in a ‘once upon a time’ fashion. He states that the huts were occupied by two happy families who lived in poverty and kept to themselves. Their story is moving, but would not interest Europeans who care only for tales of the great. His questioner thinks otherwise and is eager to listen. The Vieillard obliges.
Marguerite and Mme de la Tour have both taken refuge in the Indian Ocean as victims of French/European prejudices. Marguerite, a peasant from Britanny, had been seduced by a nobleman who abandoned her upon her pregancy. Mme de la Tour had married below her social station and had been disowned by her family. Her husband had died from fever in Madagascar. Mme de la Tour found comfort in a location where Marguerite was already established, on the margins of Mauritian society. Marguerite had a boy (Paul) and her new companion soon gave birth to Virginie. The women became friends through their mutual misfortunes and sensibilities (friendship is central to the text). Neither sought new sexual partners but were content to set up home together. They are aided by a male and a female slave, and they survive on a subsistence economy, selling any surpluses. Theirs is a small-holding (Bernardin favoured small farms, disliking great estates). Here, manual labour is seen as wholesome and not a biblical curse. Telling the tale in the area where the events happened adds an immediacy to the moment of telling, as if providing a stepping stone into the world of the protagonists, thus giving readers the impression of observing their story, as well as listening to it.
The unnamed Vieillard, obviously much younger at the time of the events, has been a helpful neighbour to the two women. He is an educated Frenchman who claims that apart from having a female partner, the best life for a man is to live alone. Solitude brings people to a natural happiness away from social ills and re-establishes harmony between body and soul. Such solitude does not imply cutting oneself off from other humans or from the rest of nature. The Vieillard works his land and reads wise books. He is comforted through the knowledge of being safe from the turmoils of the world (there are autobiographical echoes of Bernardin here).
The women share the upbringing of their children. The latter regard themselves as brother and sister despite the absence of blood ties. Mme de la Tour was the only member of the little society who could read and write. Paul and Virginie lead an almost idyllic childhood and are compared to Adam and Eve. They live on a healthy diet (seemingly vegetarian) which fosters their physical development. Their occupations are gendered with Virginie having domestic tasks and Paul labouring on the land. Their view of the world is limited to their immediate surroundings. They are illiterate as they have no formal education and are described as ‘ignorant as creoles’ (people born in the colonies).They learn from their natural surroundings, and time is experienced through the rhythm of the seasons. Their theology is based on feelings comparable to those of nature and the practical morality of the Gospels. Europeans are addressed with the claim that the prejudices of their upbringing prevent them from appreciating the gifts bestowed by nature. Their families are self-sufficient and seek no reputation outside their immediate home. They have only occasional contact with other white settlers on the island, some of whom receive charity from the mothers. Their blissful existence is rarely disturbed. One such disturbance is a hurricane which destroys some of their crops and shows that the powers of nature are not exclusively beneficient (it also foreshadows the storm at sea which leads to Virginie’s death). A more sinister occurrence is when the children meet a runaway slave who has been brutalised by her master. They are moved by her distress and beg her master for better treatment. The latter dishonestly accepts their pleas, but does not mend his ways. (References to black slaves recur in the text where they are portrayed positively as worthy of humane treatment, but the abolitionist cause is not advanced as the adolescent Paul talks of purchasing slaves.) The children become lost but are saved through the intervention of Providence and their trusty dog, Fidèle (meaning 'faithful'). Their kindness is recognised by a band of runaway slaves who carry them back to their home. However, the human evil of the slave owner is not the predominant factor in ending the illusions of their protected world. That factor will have a natural cause: the onset of puberty for Virginie.
Puberty, described as a ‘mal inconnu’ (an unknown ailment), has a destablising effect on the young girl. The hot weather becomes unbearable. She avoids the tender embrace of the uncomprehending Paul. The symptoms are recognised by her mother. Both Mme de la Tour and Marguerite realise the impact that this will have on the relationship between their children who are clearly ‘meant for each other’. They are still too young to marry and thoughts are turned to sending Paul away to acquire some money. He is aghast at the prospect. A different opportunity arises when an unmarried aunt contacts the island’s authorities with the invitation to send Virginie to France. The proposal is supported by a cleric who enthuses: "Vous voilà riches" (You’re rich). (Although possessing an unshakeable belief in God, Bernardin was anticlerical.) Virginie is appalled at the idea; the Vieillard is also hostile. The women worry nevertheless about their increasing age and the diminishing capacity of their slaves to work. So the decision is finally taken that the young girl’s future would be best served by the acceptance of this offer.
Paul is devasted by her departure and decides that he must achieve literacy. When he is able to read, he does not like history or geography and is dismayed by what he learns about French society. The Vieillard does his utmost to console him, but is frank in his opinions. In a Q & A session, he opens Paul’s eyes to a number of European prejudices. Paul’s lack of ‘naissance’ (birth) would prohibit him from major posts and membership of prestigious bodies. France has changed for the worse, everything is now governed by money and everything is the preserve of a few families. Paul wonders whether he might find a protector to advance his cause. Impossible, retorts the Vieillard, as he would be obliged to disregard his moral integrity. Even exemplary conduct would get him nowhere. Paul should serve God and mankind in the fulfilment of virtuous conduct. Providence has placed him somewhere where deception, flattery and self-abasement are not necessary, unlike those who seek their fortunes in Europe. The Gospels preach only equality, friendship, and concord (a keyword for Bernardin), yet they have been used as a pretext for European savagery, a situation that endures. Sages of antiquity have suffered persecution for teaching the truth (Bernardin saw himself following in this tradition). Paul has learned that women are devious in Europe through reading literary texts supplied by the Vieillard. The latter confirms this opinion by stating that men are tyrants and use violence. The recourse to ‘ruse’ is the only female defence (it is worth noting that ruse is the response of women against male abuse in Beaumarchais’s comedies, composed at about the same time). Paul is astonished to learn that agricultural labour is despised in Europe and that the rich are not really happy. Indeed the poor may know greater contentment in occasional instances of pleasure and the exercise of virtue. The latter quality is achieved through effort to benefit others and thus please God. The Vieillard sings the praises of writers who have passed on their wisdom and declares that ‘Un bon livre est un bon ami’ (A good book is a good friend). Yet Paul still feels that nothing will equal the consoling presence of Virginie and he yearns for her return.
All has not been going well for Virginie. Like Paul she has acquired literacy and has then written to her mother. However, she realises that these letters have been intercepted and passed on to her aunt. Virginie uses a school friend to send another letter surreptitiously (for the first time in her life, she has been forced to employ a ruse). She relates that her aunt was scandalised by her illiteracy and declared that she had been brought up like a servant. She was dispatched as a boarder to a religious institution. There she hates the lessons and is humiliated (Bernardin wrote about the deficiences of French education). She is given fine dresses, but has no control over her life. Her aunt tells her that she is now a countess. In her letter, Virginie sends seeds that she has collected. Her maids remind her that she is French and must forget her past in "le pays des sauvages" (the land of the uncivilised). Virginie, on the contrary, feels that she is in a "pays de sauvages" (land of uncivilised people); Paul describes it as a "pays barbare" (a barbarous country). (Similar statements reversing conventional European values are found in other major eighteenth-century texts.) She feels alone and alienated. She signs her letter Virginie de la Tour despite having been informed by her aunt that she should adopt her mother’s maiden name. Much to his relief, there is a postscript written solely for Paul. Eventually, Virginie cannot cope with such a hostile environment. She cannot adapt to the wishes of her manipulative aunt, refuses to accept an arranged marriage and resolves to return to Mauritius. Just off the coast of the island, her vessel is overwhelmed by a violent storm. All are forced to abandon ship but she refuses to undress in an attempt to save herself. Her ‘pudeur’ (modesty) can be interpreted as a gesture of maintaining her purity for an impossible union with Paul, it has an angelic quality. Her drowning is witnessed from the shore by her beloved and others. All are devastated on the island and all members of her own ‘family’ follow her one by one to the grave. Back in France, the wicked aunt lives on in torment, apparently as a punishment, torn between atheism and superstition (both views detested by Bernardin) before expiring herself. The only survivor is the Vieillard who lives on to tell the tale.
However, preceding the deaths in her close circle, Bernardin describes Virginie’s extraordinary funeral. The event is attended by the whole population of the island: the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the slaves and the free. This can be understood as Bernardin signalling a universal recognition of her virtuous, almost saintly characteristics. All humanity can admire the qualities of this humble young woman, brought up in this colonial outpost. On the other hand, a postcolonial reading might see the funeral as an opportunity to register the dawning awareness of a multicultural, multiracial identity in Mauritius (the island had only immigrants, there was no indigenous population). In conversation with Paul, the Vieillard gives voice to the dead Virginie. She explains that she has escaped the trials and tribulations of earthly life and is now ‘pure et inaltérable comme une particule de lumière’ (pure and unchanging as a particle of light). Her light shines from beyond the grave.
In the eighteenth century there was an increasing interest in childhood and Bernardin believed that early experiences were crucial in the formation of not just adults, but also of citizens. Choosing first names for the title of his tale was unusual and a challenge. Why should European readers follow the fictional lives of young children into their teenage years? The vast majority of readers would have known little or nothing about Mauritius. Hence there is a great appeal to the imagination which was buttressed by the circumscribed geographical space that an island provides (Tahiti played a similar role at the time, for example in Diderot's Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville). The sense of being transported out of their everyday environment was generated through the use of vocabulary for exotic plants which would have been unknown to the text’s first readers (and indeed to twenty-first century readers). Bernardin is a writer who paints. We see his young people in their surroundings and share their delight and surprises. We wish them well, even envy their life-style. Yet Bernardin knows, as we do, that their fictional lives cannot be lived out in the real world. Bernardin is not offering a viable alternative to the European world, but a fable which questions aspects of it – people could do better. Real or imagined travel throws into doubt features of civilisation/s. Bernardin suffered during his colonial posting to the Indian Ocean (1768-1771), but he was not opposed to all forms of colonial settlement or indeed colonial commerce so much as European and above all French practices.
In his writing, Bernardin did not follow the classical French practice of unity of tone, but favoured hybrid texts. He believed that contrasts could be made to harmonise, accordingly the evocations of nature could coexist in a text with scathing comments on France/Europe. Given the Vieillard’s praise of the wisdom of select writers, there is no doubt that Bernardin, then a celebrity, wrote Paul et Virginie both for his own time and for posterity. The reader, like the first narrator, will still be moved by the death of Virginie, the end of a dream, but may also appreciate the Vieillard’s barbs at the money-grubbing attitudes and the amoral aspects of so-called civilisation. We can close the physical book called Paul et Virginie, but its imagined world is shelved in our mental libraries.
Œuvres complètes de Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, tome 1,
ed. Jean-Michel Racault, Guilhem Armand, Colas Duflo et Chantale
Meure, Classiques Garnier, Paris, 2014. This edition contains most
of Bernardin’s fiction. Paul et Virginie and connected
documents occupies pp. 103-434.
Paul et Virginie, ed. Jean-Michel Racault, Le Livre de Poche, Paris, 1999. This is the best paperback edition currently available.
Citation: Davies, Simon. "Paul et Virginie". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 09 January 2019 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=21588, accessed 24 May 2022.]