Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Fables of ReasonA Study of Voltaire's Contes Philosophiques$

Roger Pearson

Print publication date: 1993

Print ISBN-13: 9780198158806

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198158806.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 14 November 2018

Hearts and Minds: LʼIngénu

Hearts and Minds: LʼIngénu

(p.168) 10 Hearts and Minds: LʼIngénu
The Fables of Reason


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses one of Voltaire's popular works, LʼIngénu, which is a comic satire which was published in July 1767. This work features a ‘noble savage’, and by the end of the story readers are left confused about what Voltaire was actually trying to say. The discussions included in this chapter are the relations and similarities LʼIngénu has with Rousseau, and the constant metamorphosis that goes on in the story. One concept introduced in this work is that of textual politics.

Keywords:   Voltaire, comic satire, July 1767, LʼIngénu, Rousseau, metamorphosis, textual politics, noble savage

  • La lecture agrandit lʼâme.
  • (317)

LʼIngénu was another bestseller. Begun in the late autumn of 17661 and written mainly in the following spring and early summer, it was published in Geneva by the Cramers probably in the last week or so of July 1767. A Parisian edition appeared with ‘permission tacite’ on 3 September, and some three and a half thousand copies were sold within four or five days. Permission to publish was withdrawn on 17 September; but by the end of the year the conte had nevertheless appeared in at least nine editions. It was the subject of countless imitations, ‘Sequels’ by other writers, and theatrical adaptations. By 1785 the work itself had gone through no less than thirty-nine editions.

Reasons for the popularity of LʼIngénu are not hard to find, such is the powerful cocktail of comic satire and righteous indignation which it presents. Drawing on the tradition of the ‘noble savage’, playing on the fashion for the sentimental novel, echoing the current debate about education, mindful of the recent expulsion of the Jesuits and the growing power of the Jansenist-dominated Parlements, and conscious of increasing provincial resistance to Parisian authority, Voltaire produced a conte which must have touched just about every possible nerve in his increasingly wide readership. But whereas the eponymous hero professes to owe his nickname to the fact that ‘je dis toujours naïvement cc quc je pense’ (288), the tale itself has left most readers in a quandary as to what its author was actually trying to say. Was he just having fun at the expense of a number of sacred cows, or is there some more profound lesson?

(p.169) The dual nature of the work has proved particularly problematic, and various attempts have been made to come to terms with the way in which the conte philosophique of the first part (approximately chs. 1–12) relates to what is perceived as the roman sensible of the second (ch. 13 to the end). Critics have been loath to see artistic failure in this apparent disjunction of register; but this is chronologically the last of Voltaire's contes to escape the prevalent view that the septuagenarian story-teller began to lose his touch. Indeed Jean Starobinski actually calls LʼIngénu ‘le dernier récit de Voltaire’.2

‘Histoire Véritable’

Before examining the ambiguity of LʼIngénu further, it may be helpful to look at some of the ingredients of Voltaire's cocktail more closely. The story is subtitled ‘Histoire véritable tirée des manuscrits du P. Quesne’. As the leading Jansenist after the death of Arnauld, Père Quesnel (1634–1719) is in one respect an appropriate choice of putative author since LʼIngénu paints such an unflattering portrait of the Jesuits. But he is also, of course, wildly incongruous, since a rather risqué conte about circumcision, adult baptism in the nude, marriage ‘à la Huron’, and fornication as the most efficient means to justice is about the last thing the austere Jansenist might have written. Indeed what he did write was the Réflexions morales sur le Nouveau Testament (1671), of which one hundred and one propositions were subsequently condemned by Clement XI in the Papal Bull Unigenitus in 1713. Since this Bull became a focus of the struggle between Jesuit and Jansenist, Crown and Parlements, the fictional attribution of LʼIngénu to Quesnel places the conte at the very heart of the political and religious turmoil of the day. Moreover, in the Ingénuʼs reading of the New Testament and in its debate on the nature of virtue, the story constitutes Voltaire's own ‘réflexions morales sur le Nouveau Testament’. But where Quesnel had produced schism, Voltaire's aim is tolerance. ‘Ingénu’, meaning frank and free from deception, originally meant ‘free-born’.3 To translate (p.170) the title of Voltaire's conte as ‘Born Free’ would doubtless be to lionize its hero unduly: but its author seeks also to liberate his reader from the prison of theological dispute and set him or her on the path to free thought. LʼIngénu is thus a celebration of ‘le bien le plus précieux des homrnes, la liberié’ (314).

As to its being an ‘histoire véritable’, Voltaire is at one level guying the case with which this tag was affixed to the most implausible of tales.4 Partly to this end also, presumably, he begins LʼIngénu with the quaintest of legendary accounts of how the ‘prieuré de la Montagne’ came to be founded. But another reason for this folkloric opening is a tongue-in-cheek imitation of the kind of historiography which, later in the story, the Ingénu himself so scathingly and punningly attacks:

Une chose me frappe surtout dans cette ancienne histoire de la Chine, cʼest que presque tout y est vraisemblable et naturel. Je lʼadmire en ce quʼil nʼy a rien de merveilleux. Pourquoi toutes les autres nations se sont-elles donné des origines fabuleuses? (317)

‘Tout y est vraisemblable et naturel’. One is reminded of Voltaire's own notorious comment on LʼIngénu itself: ‘LʼIngénu vaut mieux que Candide, en ce quʼil est infiniment plus vraisemblable.’5 LʼIngénu, too, is a ‘history’, and one in which Voltaire seeks to go beyond the fabulous in his presentation of the truth but without espousing the false ‘realism’ of the conte moral or the sentimental novel. As the Ingénu writes, famously, at the end of his essay on ancient history: ‘Ah! sʼil nous faut des fables, que ces fables soient du moins lʼemblème de la vérité! Jʼaime les fables des philosophes, je ris de celles des enfants, et je hais celles des imposteurs’ (318).

Before considering the ways in which LʼIngénu is a reply to the impostors, it is important to note just how much of an ‘histoire veritable’ this conte actually is. Both the Histoire des voyages de Scarmentado and Candide are notable for the way in which Voltaire goes beyond Zadig in basing his illustration of the problem of evil on real events. But in these contes, as in Pot-pourri, the historical evidence is presented through a mist of fantasy. LʼIngénu not only dispels this (p.171) mist but is also the most historically based of all Voltaire's contes. Accordingly, the first two paragraphs of the story dealing with Saint Dunstan are followed by a third which begins with resounding precision: ‘En lʼannée 1689, le 15 juillet au soir.’ LʼIngénu is thus set four years after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had put an end to such tolerance as the Protestant, or Huguenot, minority had enjoyed in France since the promulgation of the original edict in 1598. Complementing the chronological accuracy with which the story of the Ingénu begins, many of the characters whom he and Mile de Saint-Yves subsequently encounter are historical figures: notably Saint-Pouange and the commis Alexandre, but also (by letter or hearsay) Frère Vadbled, the marquis de Louvois, and the King himself. This is the world of Jesuit dominance, with Père François de La Chaise, the King's confessor (from 1675 to 1709), enjoying the power to persecute Huguenot and Jansenist alike. This is the world of the infamous lettres de cachet, those orders signed by the King and countersigned by a minister (and even by bishops or lesser governmental and ecclesiastical officials) for the imprisonment without trial of anyone who had incurred official, and often not so official, displeasure.

But in the France of 1767 lettres de cachet were no less widely used as an instrument of repression and persecution. By a clever twist the authentic seventeenth-century setting of LʼIngénu is also a veiled portrait of contemporary France. For Jesuit, read Jansenist.6 As M. Husson had already suggested in Pot-pourri, the departure of the Jesuits and the new ascendancy of the Jansenists was not necessarily something to be welcomed: ‘Songez que les fanatiques sont plus dangereux que les fripons’ (240). In fact, despite their expulsion, the Jesuits were still a potent force in French politics. But clearly one of the lessons of LʼIngénu is that, when it comes to religious persecution: ‘plus ça change, plus cʼest la meme chose.’ With some historical licence Voltaire shows the Jesuits abusing their power in 1689 and both the Huguenots in Saumur and the Jansenists (represented by Gordon) as the victims of their oppression. In contemporary France, following inter alia the Calas, Sirven, and La Barre cases, Voltaire is only too aware of the religious prejudice warping the judgements pronounced by the Jansenist-dominated Parlements. (p.172) Saint-Pouange has his modern counterpart in Louis de Saint-Florentin (1705–1777), Louis XV's minister who was responsible for Protestant affairs and the administration of lettres de cachet; and the Ingénuʼs period as an incarcerated autodidact may suggest La Chalotais, the advocate of a new kind of education who ends up in the Bastille.

Not only La Chalotais but the whole episode of the Breton Parlement's refusal in 1764 to levy new taxes may also partly account for the setting of LʼIngénu. While Lower Brittany was simply synonymous with provincial dullness, it is no accident that the cream of local society who come to supper at the Priory should include Me bailli, le receveur des tailles et leurs femmes' (287) since magistrates and tax-collecting were now what Brittany was most famous for. Moreover, given Voltaire's opposition to the growing power of the Parlements, it is not surprising that the ‘bailli’ should be so mercilessly ridiculed along with his ‘grand nigaud de fils’ (294), nor that of all the main characters in the story they alone should not evolve and mature as a result of their experiences. Add to this the verbatim reference to the Bélisaire affair (318) and the fact that the Ingénuʼs portrait of the ideal Minister of War is a description of the due de Choiseul, Louis XV's most powerful minister at this time, and it is evident that in its historical aim LʼIngénu is as well primed in its eighteenth-century as in its seventeenth-century barrel. Its target is ‘lʼinfâme’, ‘lʼinfâme’ of all ages, the intolerance and fanaticism born of religion and fed by internecine dispute.


Another target is once more Rousseau, whose works epitomized for Voltaire the ‘fables des imposteurs’ which the Ingénu decries. In Candide Pangloss is a caricature not only of Leibniz but also of the author of the Discours sur lʼinégalité, whom Voltaire later dubbed ‘le docteur Pansophe’. Pangloss preaches the natural goodness of primitive man (151), equality in a state of nature (179), and the injustice of unequally distributed wealth (165). Together with the metaphysician's somewhat lubricious sexuality, not to mention the young Oreillon ladies who enjoy having their bottoms nibbled by monkeys (180),7 these articles of faith serve to evoke another of (p.173) the ‘systems’ which Candide sets out to undermine. Moreover it is generally accepted that Voltaire added the section on Candide's visit to the marquise de Parolignac in 176:1 as a ‘re-write’ of Saint-Preux's visit to the brothel in Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse.8 And in Jeannot et Colin, as we have seen, both the Discours and Emile are very much to the forefront of its author's mind.

In LʼIngénu the entire Rousseau œuvre to date seems to be in the firing line. The tradition of the ‘noble savage’, of course, did not begin with the Discours sur lʼinégalité: it can be traced back at least as far as Gabriel Sagard Théodat's Grand Voyage an pays des Hurons … avec un dictionnaire de la langue huronne (1632), a copy of which, donated by the author, is consulted by the Prior to establish the Ingénuʼs bona fides (289). Subsequently the author of a history of Canada (1636), Sagard Théodat was a Recollect missionary, the Recollects being a reformed Franciscan order who sought detachment from the created and recollection in God. They found much to admire in the life of the Hurons, a small tribe who had become the allies of the French and were later almost wiped out by the Iroquois. From the beginning, therefore, the ‘noble savage’ was a useful ‘fable’, a convenient representative of dignified humanity in its original, untainted form with which to highlight the corruption and hidebound artificiality of the Old World.

The tradition of the ‘noble savage’ is thus closely akin to the Utopian travel literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which Voltaire had already travestied in Micromégas and Candide. As with the Sirian, here in LʼIngénu the alien visits rather than being visited; but his ‘voyage of reason’, profoundly educative though it will turn out to be, is now not so much a gentleman's Grand Tour as the journey of an orphaned tourist: ‘de mon naturel jʼaime passionnement à voir du pays’ (288). He has a native curiosity which contrasts with the indolent stupor of Rousseau's natural man in the Discours sur lʼinégalité. At the same time he has some (supposed) attributes of the savage which it suited Rousseau to overlook such as impetuousness and a taste for ‘firewater’. But at least he is not a cannibal, though his story about the slaying of the Algonquin serves as a timely reminder of this further un-Rousseauistic aspect of life in the wild (as indeed does the death of Abacaba, devoured by a bear: 290). Not for nothing had Voltaire conversed with the four savages (p.174) brought to the Court at Fontainebleau in 1725 and enquired of one female savage on what she fed her menfolk.9 As ever, Voltaire looks to the facts and takes to task one who, as Rousseau undeniably does in the Discours, blurs the distinction between historical evidence and allegorical hypothesis.10 The facts tell him what the Ingénu concludes in his essay: that Canadians, having no sense of time or history, represent ‘lʼétat naturel de lʼhomme’, whereas ‘Lʼespèce de ce continent-ci me paraît supérieure à celle de lʼautre. Elle a augmenté son être depuis plusieurs siècles par les arts et par les connaissances’ (317). So much, in Voltaire's view, for the argument of Rousseau's first two Discours.

As in the case of Jeannot et Colin, Emile also looms large in the background of LʼIngénu. Not only do all the elaborate images of organic growth (notably at the beginning of ch. 12) recall the first page of Emile, but the education of a young man is also accompanied by that of a young woman.11 The Ingénuʼs syllabus in the Bastille excludes ancient history in favour of modern history, whereas Rousseau had proscribed the latter in favour of the former:12 and the education takes place in a setting which seems designed to pastiche the famous sentence from the beginning of Du contrat social: ‘je suis né libre comme lʼair’, objects the Ingénu, ‘Nous voici tous deux dans les fers’ (326). Whereas Rousseau insists that Emile must grow up in the countryside so that he can learn from nature and be spared the corruptions of the city, the Ingénu has to rely solely on books and seems to thrive in conditions approximating to those of an English boarding-school.

Further, the whole question of the freedom of the individual and the need for laws is debated, if cursorily, by the Ingénu and the abbé de Saint-Yves (303); and Voltaire plainly takes the side of Hobbes against Rousseau. For Hobbes, Voltaire, and the abbé de Saint-Yves the state of nature, governed by natural ‘law’, is a world of ‘brigandage (p.175) nature!’; les conventions faites entre les hommes' are therefore indispensable. Rousseau would agree that such ‘conventions’ are needed but only because the natural virtue obtaining in the state of nature has been corrupted, requiring the reform of man's ‘état social’ in such a way that this will simulate the ideal conditions which prevailed during the golden age. For Voltaire, and Hobbes, nature is something to be controlled rather than simulated, and the abbé de Saint-Yves's speech makes clear that the ‘savage’ is no different from anyone else in this respect:

Il y a, dit-il, je lʼavoue, beaucoup dʼinconstants et de fripons parmi nous, et il y en aurait autant chez les Hurons sʼils étaient rassemblés dans une grande ville; mais aussi il y a des âmes sages, honnêtes, éclairées, et ce sont ces hommes-là qui ont fait les lois. Plus on est homme de bien, plus on doit sʼy soumettre; on donne lʼexemple aux vicieux, qui respectent un frein que la vertu sʼest donné elle-même.

These references to inconstancy and virtue take on an ironic edge in the light of subsequent events, and indeed prepare for the implicit debate which is to come concerning just what an ‘âme sage, honnête, éclairée’ may or may not regard as morally acceptable. The story of Mile de Saint-Yves herself, of course, is not without relevance to that other work of Rousseau's which Voltaire had already lambasted at length: Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761),13 the length, plot, and high moral tone of which he found all particularly dreadful. As René Pomeau has suggested, the death of Mile de Saint-Yves in Lʼlngénu is an attempt to ‘re-write’ the end of La Nouvelle Héloïse,14 substituting a franker, less ennobling version of brutal reality, an ‘histoire véritable’, for alleged Rousseauistic cant.

Julie's departure from this world is, like that of Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe, too protracted to be quoted in full, but brief extracts may give some idea of the sentiments and style of writing which Lʼlngénu is, so to speak, written against:

Ainsi se passèrent les entretiens de cette journée, où la sécurité, lʼespérance, le repos de lʼâme, brillèrent plus que jamais dans celle de Julie, et lui donnaient dʼavance, au jugement du ministre, la paix des bienheureux dont elle allait augmenter le nombre. Jamais elle ne fut plus tendre, plus vraie, plus caressante, plus aimable, en υη mot plus elle-même. Si quelquefois elle (p.176) contraignait les plaintes que la souffrance aurait dû lui arracher, ce nʼétait point pour jouer lʼintrépidité stoïque, cʼétait de peur de navrer ceux qui étaient autour dʼelle; et quand les horreurs de la mort faisaient quelque instant pâtir la nature, elle ne cachait point ses frayeurs, elle se laissait consoler. Sitôt quʼelle était remise, elle consolait les autres … elle plaisait plus, elle était plus aimable quʼen santé même; et le dernier jour de sa vie en fut aussi le plus charmant.15

Compare the last moments of Mlle de Saint-Yves:

La belle et infortunée Saint-Yves sentait déjà sa fin approcher; elle était dans le calme, mais dans ce calme affreux de la nature affaissée qui nʼa plus la force de combattre … Elle ne se parait pas dʼune vaine fermeté; elle ne concevait pas cette misérable gloire de faire dire à quelques voisins: ‘Elle est morte avec courage.’ Qui peut perdre à vingt ans son amant, sa vie, et ce quʼon appelle lʼhonneur, sans regrets et sans déchirements? Elle sentait toute lʼhorreur de son état, et le faisait sentir par ces mots et par ces regards mourants qui parlent avec tant dʼempire. Enfin elle pleurait comme les autres dans les moments où elle cut la force de pleurer. (344–5)

The physical cause of her apparent serenity, the reality of her regrets, the lack of vanity, all serve as counterpoint to the grand manner of Rousseau's account; and the moment of death itself, rather than being lingered over as in Rousseau and made the subject of a quasi-Christian resurrection, is replaced by a demythification of the very notion of a noble death:

Que dʼautres cherchent à louer les morts fastucuses de ceux qui entrent dans la destruction avec insensibilité: cʼest le sort de tous les animaux. Nous ne mourons comme eux avec indifférence que quand lʼâge ou la maladie nous rend semblables à eux par la stupidité de nos organes. Quiconque fait une grande perte a de grands regrets; sʼil les étouffe, cʼest quʼil porte la vanité jusque dans les bras de la mort. (345)

For Voltaire, Rousseau's heroine is simply not human, and to present her as if she were is a dangerous lie on a par with the various ‘systems’ which all his contes seek to undermine. Sectarian divisions are bad enough, but actually to invent an alternative gospel in which virtue is natural, civilization automatically corrupt, and Julie the new Christ represents the antithesis of what Voltaire understood by enlightenment:

LʼIngénu … plaignit les hommes qui, non contents de tant de discorde (p.177) que leurs intérêts allument, se font de nouveaux maux pour des intérêts chimériques, et pour des absurdités inintelligibles … les convives écoutaient avec émotion et sʼéclairaient dʼune lumière nouvelle. (338–9)

In Voltaire's view, moral evil is endemic in the human condition, and man's virtue lies in coming to terms with it as best he may:

On parla de la longueur de nos infortunes et de la brièveté de la vie. On remarqua que chaque profession a un vice et un danger qui lui sont attachés, et que, depuis le prince jusquʼau dernier des mendiants, tout semble accuser la nature. Comment se trouve-t-il tant dʼhommes qui, pour si peu dʼargent, se font les persécuteurs, les satellites, les bourreaux des autres hommes? Avec quelle indifférence inhumaine un homme en place signe la destruction dʼune famille, et avec quelle joie plus barbare des merccnaires lʼexécutent! (339)

If this interpretation of the anti-Rousseau emphases in LʼIngénu is correct, it may be that its hero turns out to be more virtuous in the end than the woman who has died for him. It all depends on what lessons one should learn from life, and what one means by virtue.


As Haydn Mason has observed, the essential unity of LʼIngénu is ‘of an evolutionary nature, a metamorphosis’.16 Indeed the Ingénu himself is aware that his own story is a modern version of ancient myth: ‘Je serais tenté, dit-il, de croire aux métamorphoses, car jʼai été changé de brute en homme’ (317). Just as Candide and the Homme aux quarante écus begin as ciphers and arc gradually humanized in the course of their respective contes, so too Hercule de Kerkabon becomes ‘one of us’—so much so that this man who starts out with simply a nickname ends up as a famous living contemporary whose anonymity must be preserved: ‘lʼIngénu … a paru sous un autre nom à Paris et dans les armées, avec lʼapprobation de tous les honnêtes gens, et qui a été à la fois un guerrier et un philosophe intrépide’ (347). Like M. André a year later in LʼHovime aux quarante écus, he may even be a friend of the narrator's.

The Ingénuʼs education is presented as a progression from fable to actuality and from superstition to enlightenment — like the history of a nation: ‘Je mʼimagine que les nations ont été longtemps comme moi, quʼelles ne se sont instruites que fort tard’ (317). Spared the (p.178) mind-warping fictions of French education (294, 325) ‘il voyait les choses comme elles sont’ (325) and is a quick learner (288). He is unmoved by the pretensions of Lower Brittany (287, 296) and debonair in the midst of its noisy social whirl (287). After one night in the place he would seem already to have matured when he makes his hosts a gift of his lucky talisman (291): smile as the recipients may at his naivety, the ‘petit brimborion’ appears to be more suited to their intellectual level than his (though it turns out to be true that, having relinquished this charm, its donor will never again be as happy). The Ingénuʼs encounters with the New Testament and the sacraments of baptism and marriage confirm his intellectual superiority.

Like France itself in the 1760s, the Ingénu then undergoes the transition from a Jesuit to a Jansenist educational system. During his religious instruction in preparation for baptism the abbé de Saint-Yves is obliged to resort to a ‘jésuite bas-breton’ for advice on the more ticklish points which the straight-thinking Ingénu raises; but in the end only supernatural agency is effective: ‘Enfin la grâce opéra’ (295). His education then continues in prison under the tutelage of the Jansenist Gordon, a man who counts on ‘la grâce efficace’. Voltaire now indulges in lively parody of Pascal: for here the two prisoners are, ‘séparés de lʼunivers entier’ (312), locked in a ‘cachot’ (320), and condemned to gaze into the void rather than at the wondrous spectacle of the stars (319). Their ‘divertissement’, however, is education, and once more the Ingénu displays his ‘bons sens naturel’ (318) and confounds his new adviser with the soundness of his judgement. There may be a touch of Rousseau in Gordon's amazement (‘il nʼécoute que la simple nature’: 318), but Voltaire's message is clear. Curiosity, common sense, a willingness to concede error (295), and the courage of one's convictions (320), are all the qualifications one needs for the metamorphosis from brute into man.

And openness to experience. As in Jeannot et Colin, geometry, modern philosophy, history, astronomy, and literature are presented as the ideal curriculum (314–21). Since Jeannot never learns these subjects, we never find out whether the curriculum is adequate. In LʼIngénu, however, it is evident that they need to be complemented by life. Thus the Ingénu finds Molière and Racine superior to Corneille because the latter leaves him unmoved. Moliere's Tartuffe, on the other hand, is relevant to his own situation (and Gordon's), as is the tragic love depicted by the author of Phèdre, Andromaque, and (p.179) Iphigénie. Similarly with novels: ‘Il lut quelques romans nouveaux; il en trouva peu qui lui peignissent la situation de son âme. Il sentait que son cœur allait toujours au-delà de ce quʼil lisait’ (326).

This is a crucial point. Here, as during Candide's visit to Pococurante's library, we are being told that the most valuable response to a work of art is not one of admiration based on received notions of good taste (as with Rodogune) but one which involves the receiver both intellectually and emotionally in the subject: both ‘lʼesprit’ and ‘le cœur’. By extension, life itself is the best educator. The end of LʼIngénu shows that the many surprises which have befallen the hero have rendered him circumspect and judicious. Where originally he literally leapt into the story and to the reader's (and Mile de Kerkabon's) attention (286), now he looks before he leaps: ‘il avait appris à joindre la discrétion à tous les dons heureux que la nature lui avait prodigués, et le sentiment prompt des bienséances commençait à dominer dans lui’ (341). Whether such discretion is an undivided blessing remains to be seen, but at least there is some evidence that the Ingénuʼs new accommodation with the ways of the Old World has not compromised his essential moral integrity: ‘LʼIngénu, reprenant son caractère, qui revient toujours dans les grands mouvements de lʼâme, déchira la lettre [from Vadbled] par morceaux et les jeta au nez du courier: “Voilà ma réponse”’ (344).17

In exactly parallel fashion Mlle de Saint-Yves is also educated by life. Like the Ingénu she first appears in the story as a cipher or stereotype: the nubile ward playing opposite the Ingénu's socially unsuitable foundling. Her pedigree is all, as the punning quasi-canine description suggests: ‘jeune Basse-Brette, fort jolie et très bien élevée’ (287). Her perfection is ‘fabulous’:

Cependant, comme elle était bien élevée et fort modeste, elle nʼosait convener tout à Fait avec elle-même de ses tendres sentiments; mais sʼil lui échappait un regard, un mot, un geste, une pensée, elle enveloppait tout cela dʼun voile de pudeur infiniment aimable. Elle était tendre, vive et sage. (299–300)

But there is irony in this insistence on how ‘sage’ and ‘bien élevée’ she is, for she knows nothing about life and is not in the least wise (though she may be well-behaved). Indeed it would seem that her curriculum to date has had but one objective, the prohibition of sex: (p.180) ‘et en effet, [lʼIngénu] lʼépousait [sic], si elle ne sʼétait pas débattue avec toute lʼhonnêteté dʼune personne qui a de lʼeducation’ (302).

Like the Ingénu she is then incarcerated—in a convent—where she undertakes her own education. The male chauvinism of the day, of course, dictates that, like Emma Bovary ninety years later: ‘elle sʼétait bien formée dans son couvent par les romans quʼelle avait lus à la dérobée’ (323). Despite the model of Mme du Châtelet, not for her the masculine world of geometry and metaphysics. But, as with the Ingénu, even her bookish instruction needs to be complemented by life. When Saint-Pouange makes his ‘propositions délicates’, the art of feigned innocence (328) merely exacerbates her predicament. Being unfaithful in order to be faithful is something they never taught her back in Saint-Malo.

Gender stereotypes are the one ‘system’ which LʼIngénu actually perpetuates, as becomes clear when the narrator makes the parallel between the Ingénu and Mlle de Saint-Yves explicit:

Ce nʼétait plus cette fille simple dont une éducation provinciale avait rétréci les idées. Lʼamour et le malheur lʼavaient formée. Le sentiment avait fait autant de progrès en elle que la raison en avait fait dans lʼesprit de son amant infortuné. Les filles apprennent à sentir plus aisément que les hommes nʼapprennent à penser. Son aventure etait plus instructive que quatre ans de couvent. (333)

For all that some modern readers may find this stereotyping unacceptable, however,18 it plays an important role in the allegory of education contained in LʼIngénu. Part of this allegory concerns the important question of ‘sensibilité’. While ‘sensibilite’ is here presented as a female preserve, it is notable, for example, that Gordon's metamorphosis (‘il était changé en homme, ainsi que le Huron’) is presented as a progression from cold, unfeeling moral austerity to warm humanity: ‘lʼâpreté de ses anciennes opinions sortait de son cœur’ (337). Whereas on his first appearance in the story his caritas was the result of religious instruction and expressed itself in portentous sermonizing (312), by the end he has evolved sufficiently to condone Mlle de Saint-Yves's actions: ‘Le vieux Gordon lʼaurait condamnée dans le temps quʼil nʼétait que janséniste; mais étant devenu sage, il lʼestimait et il pleurait’ (343). Moreover he has (p.181) learnt that greatest of Voltairian lessons: that moral aphorisms are no answer to the problems of living (or dying): ‘Gordon se garda bien de lui [the suicidal Huron] étaler ces lieux communs fastidieux’ (345). Like the Ingénu and Mlle de Saint-Yves, Gordon has learnt to accommodate himself to life: to face it on its own terms without the preconceptions of religious instruction, superstition, or the rules of polite society. He has opened his heart to experience and grown accordingly: ‘par lʼesprit et par le cœur.’


While Gordon shows that men do have a heart, it is evidently Mlle de Saint-Yves who is at the centre of the story's debate of the issue of ‘sensibilité’. The reader's response to this debate hinges on whether he or she thinks Mlle de Saint-Yves excessive in her reaction to what she has done.

Voltaire has a lot of fun with ‘sensibilité’ in LʼIngénu. This major current in eighteenth-century life and letters is omnipresent, with the vocabulary of sensibility—‘sentiment’, ‘sentir’, ‘sensibilité’, ‘bon’, ‘bonté’, ‘cœur’, ‘attendri’, etc.—appearing several times on almost every page. From the beginning it is foregrounded and parodied. Thus the Prior is ‘très bon’ (285), especially because he can hold his drink. Mlle de Kerkabon's character is ‘bon et sensible’: she is a devout pleasure-seeker (286). The hearts of brother and sister alike warm to the memory of the Prior's absent brother, not least because ‘notre frère, qui avait beaucoup dʼesprit, aurait fait assurément une grande fortune’ (286). Not for the first time, the recognition scene comes in for some Voltairian parody,19 as the two siblings fight over the portraits handed to them by the Ingénu (292). And so it continues. Mlle de Kerkabon ‘était si bonne personne; … elle lui [the Ingénu] demanda, avec beaucoup de bonté …’, while what this good lady of 45 really feels is that she would rather like to be ‘married’ (289). The plight of the Huguenots is moving, but the Ingénu is plainly naive if he thinks he can persuade the King because ‘il est impossible quʼon ne se rende pas à cette vérité quand on la sent’ (309).

This evidence could be multiplied, and almost any page taken at random will provide examples of the vocabulary of sensibility being (p.182) used to colour the story with the strong hue of the sentimental novel. One needs to be aware of this before considering the vexed issue of Mlle de Saint-Yves's death, for it is clear that the send-up of the sentimental novel continues throughout the story, albeit in less self-evident fashion towards the end. Thus it may seem plausible for Mlle de Saint-Yves to faint on hearing the news from Père Tout-à-tous that the Ingénu is in the Bastille. But when the lovers are finally reunited, there is comical excess (334): ‘Les deux amants se voient, et tous deux sʼévanouissent. La belle Saint-Yves resta longtemps sans mouvement et sans vie.’ She regains consciousness momentarily to exclaim: ‘Ah! je ne suis pas digne dʼêtre sa femme’ whereupon ‘elle retomba encore en faiblesse. Quand elle eut repris ses sens’, etc. Hereafter most of the characters are variously lachrymose or suicidal; there is much talk of courage and virtue; adversaries are reconciled (336); and even Saint-Pouange turns up in time to repent, as any self-respecting villain in a conte moral should.

The possibility that the death of Mlle de Saint-Yves ought not to be taken fully at its tragic face value was first proposed by Roger Laufer, but it has not commanded quite the support it deserves.20 Laufer's essential point is this:

La mort de la ‘respectable infidèle’ est infiniment triste, mais elle nʼest, comme tous les malheurs qui pleuvent sur les protagonistes du roman, que la consequence dʼun malentendu […] Voltaire ne refuse pas de nous apitoyer sur son sort, à condition que nous haussions les épaules, car elle seule lʼa voulu, en prenant sa vertu au tragique.21

The implications of ‘malentendu’ and the shrug of the shoulders are highly questionable and, as will be seen, it is quite possible to draw other conclusions from the anti-sentimental reading which Laufer proposes. For him Mlle de Saint-Yves has simply failed to understand the way of the world, which Voltaire and any ‘honnête homme’ will recognize with an urbane smile. Laufer's argument, however, relies heavily on the unsustainable assertion that Vadbled's letter (which proposes essentially that ‘mistakes will happen’ and which the Ingénu tears up in proper indignation) is a reflection of Voltaire's point of view.22

(p.183) Nevertheless the idea that Mlle de Saint-Yves is both genuine and wrong is a fruitful one, even if rather difficult to present without apparent callousness. Clearly her ‘Virtual rape’23 is a dramatic and unacceptable example of ‘lʼinfâme’: in this case, the abuse of ecclesiastical and political position for personal gratification. Furthermore, in this story which celebrates liberty, it evidently seems even more reprehensible that a woman should lose freedom over her own body. Undoubtedly Voltaire does lay it on sentimentally thick in the concluding chapters of this conte, and it would be a heartless reader indeed who felt no compassion at all for Mlle de Saint-Yves in her plight.

But other essential questions remain. How real is her dishonour? Is it sufficient to warrant her death? To what extent is she responsible for her own death? Do we blame her for letting her mind get the better of her body? Or do we blame an ideology that can so inculcate notions of noble human virtue (Corneille, Rousseau, the sentimental novel, the conte moral) that a young woman who has just saved two lives can believe that she is dishonoured?

In one sense La Nouvelle Héloïse has killed her (just as later, for different reasons, Walter Scott's novels ‘kill’ Emma Bovary). Fictions like Rousseau's create a moral pressure, apparently based on fact, which warps the capacity of individuals morally to assess their own actions with accuracy. LʼIngénu in effect subverts the sentimental novel to protect us from the consequences which prove so fatal to Mlle de Saint-Yves. It has already been seen that the vocabulary of sentiment is frequently a cover for perfectly normal (but ideologically proscribed) sexual desire. As Laufer notes, Mlle de Saint-Yves's own ‘sensibilité’ has a sensual subtext. As in other contes, notably Candide, Voltaire resorts to the pun, or ‘double entendre’, not only to entertain us but also to remind us of the reality of human motivation. The possible anatomical and sexual connotations of the words ‘la plus belle attitude du monde’ (291), ‘étendué’ (298, 303), ‘une vertu mâle et intrépide’(302), ‘lʼénormité du procédé’ (303), ‘déchirée’ (333) and ‘déchirements’ (345), ‘jouirait’ (333), ‘enivrée’ and ‘pénétrée’ (333), all offer the possibility of an alternative, physiological rather than sentimental, reading of the story. Which should we choose? Is ‘sensibilité’ actually another word for sexual desire? An indication of Voltaire's own answer to this question may be (p.184) afforded by his summary of the six volumes of Richardson's fashionable sentimental novel Pamela: ‘Ce nʼest quʼune petite fille qui ne veut pas coucher avec son maitre a moins quʼil ne lʼépouse.’24 So much for finer feelings.

LʼIngénu is not as cynical as this, but the narrator goes beyond the pun in his efforts to indicate that Mlle de Saint-Yves is perhaps on the wrong track. While she lies ‘à demi renversée sur un sopha’ and (product of a sheltered upbringing that she is) ‘croyant à peine ce quʼelle voyait’, the narrator comments: ‘Le Saint-Pouange … nʼétait pas sans agréments, et aurait pu ne pas effaroucher un cœur moins prévenu. Mais Saint-Yves adorait son amant et croyait que cʼétait un crime horrible de le trahir pour le servir’ (328). ‘Prévenu’, ‘croyait que cʼétait un crime’: is this the ‘voice’ of Saint-Pouange and other ‘libertins’, or is it Voltaire's own? Subsequently the narrator is quite categoric: ‘A ce mot de “vertu”, des sanglots échappérent à la belle Saint-Yves. Elle ne savait pas combien elle était vertueuse dans le crime quʼelle se reprochait’ (335). From the external evidence of Cosi-Sancta25 and the article ‘Acindynus’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique it would seem that this is indeed Voltaire's point of view. It is also the Ingénu's: ‘Qui? vous, coupable! lui dit son amant; non, vous ne lʼêtes pas; le crime ne peut être que dans le cœur, le vôtre est à la vertu et à moi’ (343).26 One may or may not share this view; what matters is the way in which Voltaire shows a human being convinced of her own moral worthlessness against all empirical evidence to the contrary. Mlle de Saint-Yves dies because she believes in ‘notions’, not facts; and that is a tragedy.

(p.185) Language and Interpretation

Language and interpretation play a key role in LʼIngénu, not least in the dénouement. Here Mlle de Saint-Yves is persistently distraught at what she perceives to be the disparity between her actions and the terminology of virtue. The recurrent use of the ‘double entendre’ has demonstrated to the reader how slippery language can be, and yet Mlle de Saint-Yves has absolute faith in its meanings. Prior to her sobs at the word ‘vertu’, the word ‘femme’ is sufficient temporarily to rouse her from her swoon (334). Later it is the word ‘épouse’: ‘A ce mot dʼ “épouse”, elle soupira, le regarda avec une tendresse inexprimable, et soudain jeta un cri dʼhorreur’ (343). Much is made of these labels of conjugality, and the advice of the altogether slippery Jesuit Tout-à-tous might suggest, by counter-example, that one ought not to abuse them: ‘Premièrement, ma fille, ne dites jamais ce mot, “mon amant”; il a quelque chose de mondain qui pourrait offenser Dieu. Dites: “mon mari”; car, bien quʼil ne le soit pas encore, vous le regardez comme tel, et rien nʼest plus honnête’ (330). But what are the accurate words in any context? Why should not ‘épouser’ mean to make love rather than to undergo a religious ceremony since it is the former activity, both physically and emotionally, which presumably matters. In the context of the narrative, this view of the question is classed as ‘savage’, yet, as the Ingénu points out, this term too is more relevant to the surface of things than to the reality beneath: ‘Mes compatriotes dʼAmérique ne mʼauraient jamais traité avec la barbarie que jʼéprouve; ils nʼen ont pas dʼidée. On les appelle “sauvages”; ce sont des gens de bien grossiers, et les hommes de ce pays-ci sont des coquins raffinés’ (313).27

Indeed the narrator himself finds language a problem, as he endeavours to tell an ‘histoire véritable’ without succumbing to the lies embedded in the language at his disposal. Thus he abdicates responsibility for grand moral terms through the dialogic device of quotation: ‘Qui peut perdre à vingt ans son amant, sa vie, et ce quʼon appelle lʼ “honneur”, sans regrets et sans déchirements?’ (345). ‘Amant’ and ‘vie’ speak for themselves; but honour? In the very next sentence he repeats the device, for he himself lacks the means to (p.186) convey grief: ‘Elle sentait toute lʼhorreur de son état, et le faisait sentir par ces mots et par ces regards mourants qui parlent avec tant dʼempire.’ Once more, as at the end of Micromégas, Histoire dʼun bon bramin, and Le Blanc et le noir, there is the suggestion that silence or parrot-like quotation are more authentic than moral abstraction: ‘Nulle langue nʼa des expressions qui répondent à ce comble des douleurs; les langues sont trop imparfaites’ (342).

The importance of language in the thematic texture of LʼIngénu is signalled right at the beginning of the story when Lower Breton society enquires how the Huron comes to speak French and what various Huron terms are for tobacco, eating, and making love. Like so many other aspects of life in the story, language is presented both as a source of myth, pretension, and provincial prejudice (‘on convint que, sans lʼaventurc de la tour de Babel, toute la terre aurait parlé français’: 289),28 and as susceptible of enlightened development and application: ‘dès que jʼai pu mʼexprimer intelligiblement, je suis venu voir votre pays’ (288). Most important of all, one of the consequences of ‘la multiplieité des langues’ (289) is that different nations see things differently. Thus the Huron language has no word for ‘inconstance’ (290). As Abacaba is said to prefer the Ingénu ‘à tous ses amants’ (290), monogamy would seem not to be the Hurons' strong suit; and doubtless Huron mores are such that the very issue of sexual fidelity or infidelity does not arise. Linguistic usage is determined by the practice of living.

But it is no accident that ‘inconstance’ should be the word singled out to illustrate the lack of ‘fit’ between languages, since the whole denouement will turn on the question of constancy. Mlle de Saint-Yves's sensitivity to conjugal tags shows clearly that linguistic usage may just as easily determine the practice of living as vice versa. Worse still than the Bastille is the prison-house of language. Mlle de Saint-Yves is conditioned to interpret words in a particular way because of her upbringing, her supposed ‘éducation’. Real experience should ideally free her from these preconceptions as it has complemented her convent education in other respects, but in the end she is unable to break out of the bondage of other people's interpretations of the world which she herself inhabits.

Yet the story shows how, as Flaubert later put it: ‘Il nʼy a pas de (p.187) vrai. Il nʼy a que des manières de voir.’29 Paris and the provinces are apparently worlds apart in LʼIngénu, and for René Pomeau this makes the story a forerunner of the nineteenth-century Realist novel.30 But the differences between Lower Brittany and the metropolis may be differences of style rather than substance. Spying, religious bigotry, and arbitrary incarceration in prison and convent are equally present in both places. Père Tout-à-tous, the Jesuit confessor, seems, as his name suggests,31 to be a casuist who provides convenient interpretations and moral commentaries to suit every eventuality, proving himself thus, at least etymologically, another Pangloss or Pansophe. He will even quote St Augustine, the Jansenists' favoured authority, if he has to: for him this is a guarantee of his sincerity (331)! But how different is he from the Prior? The latter, too, is eclectic in his sources, which range from St Augustine to Rabelais, and this eclecticism makes him universally popular: ‘aussi tout le monde disait du bien de lui’ (286). His vows have not prevented him from being ‘aimé … autrefois de ses voisines’ (285), just as Mlle de Saint-Yves's Parisian chaperone may well have ‘befriended’ Tout-à-tous: ‘Aban-donnez-vous à lui’, she advises her protégée in yet another ‘double entendre’, ‘cʼest ainsi que jʼen use; je mʼen suis toujours bien trouvée’ (329).

Furthermore, how different is Mlle de Saint-Yves herself in Paris from the young lady who willingly used her charms on the Ingénu to dissuade him from riverine baptism? On that occasion a shake of the hand (accompanied by a furtive lowered gaze to see, as it were, ‘de quoi il sʼagissait’: 297) was sufficient to secure her ends (298). Saint-Pouange asks more than a shake of the hand, but the principle at stake might be thought (if only by a literal-minded ‘ingénu’) to be pretty much the same. Indeed the two incidents are united in the recurrent use of the word ‘crédit’ (298, 303, 335, 337). Whether one (p.188) is in Paris or up to one's neck in the River Rance, life is a process of bargaining, of give-and-take.

The moral contrast between Paris and Lower Brittany is much less clear-cut, therefore, than may at first appear. It all depends on one's point of view. The capital may be a whorehouse,32 but it is also a centre of culture and learning. Lower Brittany may be quaint and genial, but considerable power is dangerously vested in dimwits like the ‘bailli’ and his son. This ambiguity is typical of the story as a whole, which demands to be read with great care if the reader is not to end up like the Ingénu reading Rabelais (in translation …) and Shakespeare:

‘Je vous avoue, dit lʼIngénu, que jʼai cru en deviner quelque chose, et que je nʼai pas entendu le reste.’ Lʼabbé de Saint-Yves, à ce discours, fit réflexion que cʼétait ainsi que lui-même avait toujours lu, et que la plupart des hommes ne lisaient guère autrement. (293)

Textual Politics

This incident is the first of several in the story which raise the issue of what one might call textual politics. LʼIngénu presents a society in which despotism governs by means of the lettre de cachet, a text signed by the ultimate secular authority (the King) and then countersigned by a powermonger to outlaw an individual's beliefs and behaviour without further reference to that central authority. The Bible is the ecclesiastical equivalent of the lettre de cachet, being a text which is invested with ultimate authority and then used, arbitrarily, to dictate belief and behaviour. The Ingénu reads the New Testament literally (i.e. honestly and freely) and is amazed to discover the disparity between its narrative and the lessons preached in its name: ‘Je mʼaperçois tous les jours qoʼun fait ici une infinité de choses qui ne sont point dans votre livre, et quʼon nʼy fait rien de tout ce quʼil dit’ (301). Texts are instruments of powerplay in which the ‘truth’ of the text counts for nothing against the power relations within which the text is sent and received. The Ingénu goes to Versailles ‘combl[é] de certificats’ (307); but the ministry official only pretends to read them before giving the standard ministry response to such applications for a military commission. The Prior, (p.189) too, leaves home armed with ‘lettres de recommendation pour le père de La Chaise’ (322), but he does not even manage to find a reader for them. Like the Ingénu before him, indeed, he has great difficulty in being seen, let alone read or listened to, by anyone. The powerful ecclesiastical figures on whom he ventures to call are all closeted with ladies on ‘theological business’ (322); feminine charms are the best ‘lettres de recommendation’ of all. Which, indeed, is just what Mlle de Saint-Yves already dimly realizes before she sets out for Versailles (323): physical allure is more powerful even than a lettre de cachet. As her Parisian chaperone informs her: ‘Votre présence, dʼailleurs, ou je me trompe fort, fera plus dʼeffet que les paroles de votre frère’ (327).

Letters play a crucial role in this story. La Nouvelle Héloïse, of course, actually consists of letters, but LʼIngénu has no need to be an epistolary conte (like the Lettres dʼAmahed after it) in order to echo the famous second sentence of Rousseau's first preface (which Laclos later used as an epigraph to Les Liaisons dangereuses): ‘Jʼai vu les mœurs de mon temps, et jʼai publié ces lettres.’ The apparatus of political oppression depends not only on the lettre de cachet, but on an epistolary spy network linking Paris to the provinces. The ‘bailli’ informs on the Ingénu in a letter to Louvois; the Jesuit spy in Saumur informs on him in a letter to Père de La Chaise. In receiving these letters both the secular and the ecclesiastical arms of authority ‘interpret’ the Ingénu in ways which repress the truth underlying his actions (but which the narrative of LʼIngénu itself reveals). When they are obliged (by Saint-Pouange's deal with Mlle de Saint-Yves) to concede that they ‘misinterpreted’ him, the result is Frère Vadbled's letter, a masterpiece of fiction: ‘sa prison nʼétait quʼune méprise, … ces petites disgrâces arrivaient fréquemment … il ne fallait pas y faire attention’ (344). With the consummate insincerity of Jesuits like Père Tout-à-tous and the one who welcomes the Prior ‘à bras ouverts’ (322), Vadbled rewrites LʼIngénu as a story of everyday incompetence. The Ingénuʼs response is all the more authentic for being non-verbal: ‘LʼIngénu … déchira la lettre par morceaux et les jeta au nez du courrier’ (344).

What, then, of Voltaire's own version of events? Confined within language, and unable to resort to Babouc's statue or the Ingénuʼs physical violation of epistolary ‘fable’, he purports nevertheless to be providing us with an ‘histoire veritable’. Constrained by the power relations operating within the France of 1767, he has resorted to a (p.190) ‘disingénuous’ historical allegory of the present. The Ingénu, while reading the Bible, ‘ne douta point que le lieu de la scène ne fût en Basse-Bretagne’; and such is his emotional involvement in the narrative that he is all set to ‘couper … le nez et les oreilles à Caïphe et à Pilate si jamais il rencontrait ces marauds-là’ (295). By a comic reversal we sophisticated readers must interpret LʼIngénu as he interprets the New Testament, believing it to be relevant to the present (not only 1767 but also now) and ultimately prepared to stand up to such religious and political oppression (Caiaphas and Pilate) as we may encounter. In so far as the Ingénu (with his ‘air martial et doux’ (286) and his final metamorphosis into ‘un guerrier et un philosophe intrépide’ (347)) is the role model advocated by this conte, the ‘truth’ of this ‘histoire véritable’ would seem to consist in the need to cultivate militant good sense.

The ‘truths’ which the story explicitly proclaims, however, are more problematic. Like many of Voltaire's contes,33 LʼIngénu ends on an aphoristic note which appears reassuringly to shed retrospective light on the significance of what has gone before. In keeping with the double-barrelled nature of the story we are provided with two aphorisms, which are apparently mutually exclusive and yet each of which has its measure of truth: ‘[Gordon] prit pour sa devise: “malheur est bon à quelque chose”. Combien dʼhonnêtes gens dans le monde ont pu dire: “malheur nʼest bon à rien!”’ (347). In support of Gordon's motto one could point to the way in which both the Ingénu and Mlle de Saint-Yves have matured in adversity. For them to become human beings rather than juvenile leads in a sentimental adventure they needed to be moulded by misfortune. True ‘civilization’ requires both reason and sensibility to be tried in the fire of experience. Mlle de Saint-Yves grows up, yet she fails to make that crucial final step which would have allowed her independently to see that there was no dishonour in what she did. The Ingénu, on the other hand, comes to terms with life and wins ‘lʼapprobation de tous les honnêtes gens’ (347). Thus ‘malheur est bon à quelque chose’ may be true not only in the trivial sense that ‘it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good’ (Gordon would not have become the man he is had he not been thrown into the Bastille, etc.) but also in the (p.191) more profound, almost Christian sense that evil may ennoble man by testing his reason and tempering his sensibility.

On the other hand, such a ‘rationalization’ of evil may be unsatisfactory. Mlle de Saint-Yves's death, the persecution of the Huguenots, the abuse of ecclesiastical and ministerial power, all are evidence of the unacceptable face of ‘civilization’. At the same time the glibness of Gordon's aphorism is suspect, as demonstrated by the ease with which a plausible counter-aphorism can be coined. Moreover, the two final maxims follow closely on a blatant cliché: ‘Le temps adoucit tout’; and it is this cliché which is employed to introduce, in mid-paragraph, the most perfunctory of conclusions. A moment ago, the Ingénu was plunged in grief and ready to kill Saint-Pouange; now, ‘Mons de Louvois’, the Minister for War, has realized his officer potential and turned him into an ornament of this corrupt society. The narrative rhythm of the conte reverts to the amused jauntiness which characterized its opening chapters; and when the reward of a box of chocolates is finally bestowed on Père Tout-à-tous, the poignancy of Mlle de Saint-Yves's death has been entirely dispelled. For all that the Ingénu is said to cherish her memory until his dying day, the cavalier nature of this abrupt transition from sentiment to irony suggests that he has in some way been absorbed by the system. His metamorphosis has gone so far that he has become unrecognizable: he is ‘lʼIngénu, qui nʼétait plus lʼ “ingénu”’ (337). But while time may have proved a great healer to the protagonists, the reader's sense of loss and outrage at Mlle de Saint-Yves's death has had no such opportunity to abate. What is more, she died because her actions did not fit with her preconceived notions of virtue. Why then should we seek to accept any aphorism as the gospel according to LʼIngénu? Should we not consult our own lives?

For in fact each of the final aphorisms is carefully presented as the result of personal experience. We can infer why Gordon has chosen his motto; and yet we can also envisage circumstances in which trustworthy witnesses ‘ont pu dire’ a motto which is its antithesis. As the story itself has demonstrated, both in the account of Mlle de Saint-Yves's death and in the implicit comparison of Paris and the provinces: ‘il nʼy a pas de vrai. Il nʼy a que des manières de voir.’ For such a ‘manière de voir’ to be authentic, it must be based not on any preconceived religious or moral system but on the facts of life. To put it in Voltaire's own terms: the only ‘histoire véritable’ is ‘une histoire vraisemblable’.

(p.192) That we should read texts in this way is the lesson which the Ingénu learns from his study of literature in the Bastille. Surprised to learn that Corneille's Rodogune is reputed to be the greatest French tragedy, when he personally has found it much less moving and memorable than the plays of Racine, he modestly concedes the possibility of his being in error before nevertheless honestly proclaiming his independent judgement:

Après tout, cʼest ici une affaire du goût: le mien ne doit pas encore être formé; je peux me tromper; mais vous savez que je suis assez accoutumé à dire ce que je pense, ou plutôt ce que je sens. Je soupçonne quʼil y a souvent de lʼillusion, de la mode, du caprice, dans les jugements des hommes. Jʼai parlé dʼaprès la nature: il se peut que chez moi la nature soit très imparfaite; mais il se peut aussi quʼelle soit quelquefois peu consultée par la plupart des hommes. (320)

The humorous adoption of a Rousseauist voice should not be allowed to obscure the serious point which is being made here: the worth of a work of art depends not on the articles of classical taste but on the intellectual and emotional response of the reader. Similarly, when it comes to novels, the Ingénu resorts once more to the criteria of real life:

Il lut quelques romans nouveaux; il en trouva peu qui lui peignissent la situation de son âme. Il sentait que son cœur allait toujours au-delà de ce quʼil lisait. ‘Ah! disait-il, presque tous ces auteurs-là nʼont que de lʼesprit et de lʼart.’ (326)

Again the emphasis is on genuine emotional reaction as opposed to dispassionate admiration for cleverness.

Here, perhaps, is the real lesson of LʼIngénu. Charles Rollin, the Jansenist pedagogue, had set forth in his Traité des études (1726–8) how best to ‘enseigner et étudier les belles-lettres par rapport a lʼesprit et au cœur’ (as the subtitle has it). Rollin was one of Voltaire's villains not just for being a Jansenist but for suborning ‘belles-lettres’ for the inculcation of a pious and blinkered morality. In so far as Voltaire's contes are intended to instruct as well as to entertain, then their primary purpose is to encourage in the reader a robust independence both of intellect and—here now for the first time in LʼIngénu—of feeling. But how to encourage independence of feeling?

It might be said that, before LʼIngénu, each of Voltaire's contes unequivocally dictates the same emotional response: namely, (p.193) detached amusement. This response is still being called forth in LʼIngénu, where indeed it is said to be a key antidote to ‘lʼinfâme’. LʼIngénuʼs portrait of the ideal Minister of War ends by extolling ‘cette gaieté dʼesprit’ because this ‘belle humeur est incompatible avec la cruauté’ (341). But in LʼIngénu Voltaire explores for the first time the possibility of affecting the reader emotionally. His first move is to undermine the ‘fables’ of sentiment by sending up the sentimental novel. His second, in the Ingénuʼs comments on Racine and Corneille, is to encourage the reader subsequently to relate the emotions of the protagonists (with which he is made to empathize) to his or her own. The final move is to leave the reader in that state of emotional ambivalence which good tragedy creates: ‘ce mélange de compassion et dʼeffroi qui enchaîne toutes les puissances de lʼâme’ (345). While this phrase is used of those observing the Ingénuʼs grief, it is also characterizes our response to Mlle de Saint-Yves: pity for her suffering, horror that she should have such an exaggerated notion of virtue.

It is no accident that the final stages of LʼIngénu should be presented as if they were scenes in a play. Partly Voltaire is calling attention to his very efforts to move us, as if anxious to avoid the charge of covert emotional manipulation which he himself levels at the sentimental novel. But he is also genuinely trying to move us, not to sentimentality but to a blend of different reactions whose very complexity, as with intellectual ambiguity, is a sign of their authenticity. LʼIngénu is designed to stir not fine sentiments but mixed feelings.

In this way LʼIngénu is a politically radical text because it seeks to wean us—both intellectually and emotionally—from slavish dependence on the power of the book. It denounces the fictions which cloak the power strategies of Church and State alike, and it warns of the murderously inhuman consequences of some versions of the bourgeois moral code. It tries to makes us sec and feel the world as it really is: a dangerous market-place of competing ‘fables’ in which the key to freedom and justice, however difficult these may be to achieve, is the raised eyebrow of the sceptic and the steady gaze of an Ingénu. This is what makes it an ‘histoire véritable’ and one perhaps to justify another of its mottos: ‘La lecture agrandit lʼâme.’


(1) Perhaps even in 1764. See Haydn Mason, ‘The Unity of Voltaire's LʼIngému’, in W. H. Barber et al. (eds.), The Age of Enlightenment (Edinburgh and London, 1967), 101, n. 15.

(2) See ‘Le fusil à deux coups de Voltaire’, Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 71 (1966); reprinted in Le Remède dans le mal, 145. For a survey of the main critical reactions see John S. Clouston, Voltaire s Binary Masterpiece. ‘LʼIngénu’ Reconsidered (Berne, Frankfurt am Main, and New York, 1986).

(3) This etymology is helpfully stressed by Priscilla P. Clark in ‘LʼIngénu: The Uses and Limitations of Naïveté’, French Studies, 27 (1973).

(4) For the use of the tag in 18th-cent. fiction see M. J. Rustin, ‘Lʼ “Histoire veritable” dans la littérature romanesque du XVIIIe siècle français’, CAIEF 18 (1966).

(5) D14279 (July 1767, to Gabriel Cramer). Haydn Mason rightly cautions against attributing too much significance to this statement of preference in ‘The Unity of Voltaire's LʼIngénu’, 96.

(6) A thesis first proposed by Francis Primer in his Recherches sur la création romanesque dans ‘LʼIngénu’ de Voltaire (Archives des Lettres Modernes (no. 30); Paris, 1960).

(7) Voltaire lards this incident with Rousseau's key terms: ‘Candide rat touché de pitié’ (180–1); ‘je ne mʼattendais pas à tant de bonté dʼâme’ (181).

(8) Romans et contes, ed. Pomeau, 321.

(9) Diet. Phil., 41 (‘Anthropophages’).

(10) See Œuvres complètes, eds. Gagnebin and Raymond, iii. 123, 171.

(11) Despite the importance which Lower Bretons appear to attach to baptism, Mlle de Saint-Yves has no Christian name. The ironic parallel with Emile and the Ingénuʼs baptism as Hercule would seem to offer the imaginative reader a choice between Sophie and Omphale.

(12) Œuvres complètes, eds. Gagnebin and Raymond, iv. 528–9. But the Ingénuʼs comment that ‘lʼhistoire nʼest que le tableau des crimes et des malheurs’ (315) coincides with Rousseau's that ‘lʼhistoire … calomnie sans cesse le genre humain’ (iv. 527).

(13) In the four Lettres à M. de Voltaire (by Voltaire but supposedly written to him by the marquis de Ximénès) published in Feb. 1761. See Mélanges, 395–409.

(14) Romans et contes, 321.

(15) Œuvres complètes, eds. Gagnebin and Raymond, ii. 729–30.

(16) ‘The Unity of Voltaire's LʼIngénu’ 97.

(17) Cf. also his spontaneous desire to kill Saint-Pouange (347).

(18) Elsewhere in the story Voltaire seems to send it up: e.g. ‘car il faut convenir que Dieu nʼa créé les femmes que pour apprivoiser les hommes’ (324); ‘Nous autres, pauvres femmes, nous avons besoin dʼêtre conduites par un homme’ (329).

(19) Cf. Zadig, 100–1, and Candide, 160, 177.

(20) See esp. Haydn Mason's disagreement with Laufer in ‘The Unity of Voltaire's LʼIngénu’ 95.

(21) Roger Laufer, Style rococo, style des lumières (Paris, 1963), 103.

(22) Style rococo, 106.

(23) Mason, ‘The Unity of Voltaire's LʼIngénu’, 95.

(24) D15668 (29 May 1769, to Thiriot). Cf. D15605 (24 Apr. 1769, to Mme du Deffand). Cf. also his summary of Richardson's Clarissa: ‘il est cruel pour un homme aussi vif que je le suis, de lire neuf volumes entiers, dans lesquels on ne trouve rien du tout, et qui servent seulement a faire entrevoir que Mlle Clarisse aime un débauché nommé M. de Lovelace’ (D8846: 12 Apr. 1760, to Mme du Deffand). The rape of Clarissa, of course, is directly comparable with Saint-Pouange's treatment of Saint-Yves, not least in that both are ‘excused’ by advisers with reference to St Augustine.

(25) Meaning ‘quasi-saint’. Mlle de Saint-Yves's lack of a Christian name and the recurrent reference to her as simply ‘Saint-Yves’ emphasize her potential sanctity; and a story which begins with a spoof on St Dunstan and delights in the possible onomastic connotations of the historical Saint-Pouange is clearly seeking to redefine traditional notions of saintly virtue.

(26) Cf. Voltaire's sketch for a first version of LʼIngénu: ‘Se marie, ne veut pas que le m[ariage] soit un sacrement, trouve très bon que sa femme soit infidèle parce quʼil lʼa été’ (see RC, 968). Cf. also the phoenix's plea to Formosante on behalf of the erring Amazan in La Princesse de Babylone (403).

(27) A similar point is made in respect of body language and the ceremony of the bow. A quaint custom observed by courteous mountains (285) and overlooked by uncouth English raiders (286), it is performed by the Ingénu only when he means it (for Mlle de Saint-Yves: 294).

(28) Cf. Mlle de Kerkabon: ‘jʼavais toujours cru que le frarçais était la plus belle de toutes les langues aprés le bas-breton’ (288).

(29) In a letter to Leon Hennique, 2–3 Feb. 1880.

(30) Romans et contes, 321.

(31) The name is borrowed from DʼAlembert's Sur la destruction des Jésuites en France (1765) which Voltaire had helped to publish. DʼAlembert was turning to polemical account one of the rules of the Jesuit order: ‘sʼoublier soi-même pour etre tout àtous’, which derives from I Cor. 9: 22: ‘I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.’ Given my argument at this point it is tempting to think that Voltaire may also have had in mind Pascal's Pensées: ‘Chacun est un tout à soi-même, car, lui mort, le tout est mort pour soi. Et de là vient que chacun croit être tout à tous. Il ne faut pas juger de la nature selon nous, mais selon elle’ (L. 668).

(32) Saint-Preux's Parisian experience in La Nouvelle Héloïse is ironically echoed in Mlle de Kerkabon's belief that the Ingénu is probably hiding in a brothel (322).

(33) Cf. Cosi-Sancta, Le Monde comme il va, Histoire des voyages de Scarmentado, Les Deux Consolés, Candide, Jeannot et Colin, Les Oreilles du comte de Chesterfield, Histoire de Jenni.