Unhappy Families? Deviance and Order in Early Modern French Literature (MLF3077)

StaffDr Helena Taylor - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level6
Pre-requisitesMLF 2001 or equivalent
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

This module aims to introduce students to a varied selection of seventeenth-century texts, which use the family and family relations to think through questions about identity, society and the extremes of human nature. We will consider the representation of the different upbringings boys and girls enjoyed; explore the role of the family in state politics; analyse representations of marriage and sexuality; and examine how rivalry, jealousy, hatred and desire are heightened in the context of blood ties and lines of alliance. Underpinning our approach will be an awareness of the social implications and literary uses of such representations. How does depicting the family enable writers to examine and challenge the forces that control certain norms and to explore deviations from them? 

Students will learn to read critically and comparatively by developing close reading skills and a refined understanding of the particular social, historical and cultural context in which these texts were written. Students will also become familiar with different modern approaches to notions of the family, blood ties and marriage from psychoanalysis to queer theory; and be challenged to consider theoretical questions about the timelessness of stories and their historical specificity;  the use of myth and fable; and cultural ones relating to gender; the body and the state; and societal norms.  

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Demonstrate a sound understanding of the set texts, including reference to their place in the historic, literary and cultural context of their time.
  • 2. Demonstrate competence in reading and analysing literary French verse and prose (seventeenth-century French has been modernized in prescribed editions).
  • 3. Demonstrate sensitivity to the cultural and historical particularities of seventeenth-century French representations of the family and, if appropriate, identity points of comparison with modern perspectives.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. With some guidance from the tutor, evaluate and apply a range of critical approaches to the material covered.
  • 5. Mount a detailed argument in the appropriate register, drawing upon a range of textual or other evidence in its support.
  • 6. Access and use printed and, where appropriate, electronic learning resources identified as useful by the course tutor, and, to a limited extent, discover other useful materials independently.
  • 7. Analyse selected texts, relating them to significant elements in their cultural/historical/generic context.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 8. Undertake defined learning activities with a measure of autonomy, asking for guidance where necessary.
  • 9. Adopt a critical approach to the selection and organization of material in order to produce, to a deadline, a cogent written or oral argument.
  • 10. Present a cogent and sustained argument orally/in writing, in English, on a topic chosen from a range of options provided, following broad guidelines but selecting and adapting them as required.
  • 11. Using course material provided, research, plan and write an essay on a chosen aspect of the subject, to a specified length and deadline.

Syllabus plan

This module looks at the representation of familial relations in five very different seventeenth-century French texts, taken from four literary genres: a theatrical comedy by Molière about a young woman’s education; a tragedy by Racine about feuding brothers and their impact on family and state; a short story about the happy, though apparently unconventional, romance of a boy brought up as a girl who falls in love with a handsome Marquis, who turns out to be a woman fond of cross-dressing as a man; a fairy tale whose light-hearted touch masks darker threats and Corneille’s version of Medea which challenges the artistic limits of the stage and the psychological limits of human nature.

Lectures will introduce the historical, literary and theoretical context for each text in turn, examining the particular family dynamic it represents.  Lectures will be supported by ten seminars (one introductory, two on each play and the short story; one on the conte, and a final concluding round table). In the text-based seminars, we will focus on passages from the set texts and from critical works, using comparative analysis if appropriate.

There’ll also be a film screening of Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne (1970)

-Mothers: Corneille, Médée (1635)

- Médée: the limits of representation.

-Feuding brothers: Racine, La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis (1664)

- La Thébaïde: ancestors and identity.

- La Thébaïde: the family and the state.

- Bringing up girls: Molière, L’Ecole des Femmes (1662).

- L’ Ecole des Femmes: women’s education.

- L’ Ecole des Femmes: social satire?

- The Marriage Plot: Abbé de Choisy et al., Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville (1695).

- Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville: cross-dressing, identity, sexuality.

- Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville: plotting norms?

-Fathers and fairy tales: Charles Perrault, Peau d’âne (1694)

- Peau d’âne: fathers, daughters, fairy godmothers.

- Conclusion and Overview

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities5Lectures Tutor-led presentation of key ideas/introductions to set texts. (5 x 1-hour Lectures)
Scheduled learning and teaching activities10Seminars Material to be prepared in advance on guidance from course tutor; short presentations on prepared material will be required on occasion. (10 x 1 hour seminars)
Scheduled learning and teaching activities1Conclusion
Guided Independent Study134Private Study (reading of set texts; preparation for seminars; preparation of summative assessment).

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Mini Essay750 wordsallWritten comments on feedback form and oral feedback via consultation and/or tutorial.

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay1003000 wordsAllWritten and Oral

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssayAllref-def period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Corneille, Médée (any edition with numbered lines)

Racine, La Thébaïde ou les frères ennemis (any edition with numbered lines)

Molière, L’Ecole des Femmes (any edition with numbered lines)

Abbé de Choisy et al., Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville (MLA editions).

Charles Perrault, Peau d’âne (supplied online)

Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Other resources

-Mitchell Greenberg, Subjectivity and Subjugation in Seventeenth-Century French Drama and Prose: The Family Romance of French Classicism (Cambridge: CUP, 1992)

--- Racine: from Ancient Myth to Tragic Modernity (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

Merry Wiesner-Hanks, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, multiple reprints).

Joseph Harris, Hidden Agendas: Cross-Dressing in 17th-Century France (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2005).

Lewis C. Seifert, Fairy tales, Sexuality and Gender in France 1690-1715 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (London: Vintage, 1994)

Amy Wygant, Medea, Magic and Modernity in France: Stages and Histories, 1553-1797 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)

Domna Stanton, The Dynamics of Gender in Early Modern France: women writ, women writing (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2014

Extracts from Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. by Rivkin and Ryan, 2nd edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) will be provided online.

Available as distance learning?


Origin date


Last revision date


Key words search

Family, France, Seventeenth-Century, Literature