The Enlightenment The advocation of reason

The Enlightenment was the predominant background for European literature in fiction and philosophy among other fields in the 18th century. It was driven forward through many great men in different areas. Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei made important and astonishing breakthroughs in science. Adam Smith was responsible for new economical ideas. Denis Diderot would be the main editor of the Encyclopédie in which all human knowledge were assembled. Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire were spreading ideas of philosophy which also made impact in politics. Political ideas like theirs would inspire the American politician Thomas Jefferson that would lead to the Declaration of Independence in America and ideas of Enlightenment would finally culminate in the French Revolution that was get underway in 1789.

During the period 1660-1789 the phenomena  of a “reading public” emerged. It was a shift created by a development of print technology and increasing literacy.1 The novel would become dominant in measures of readers and begins to being printed on a much greater scale than ever before.2

It was a time in which the author of fiction literature begins to obtain a commercial awareness. The reading public increased as the literacy improved dramatically in many European countries. New genres emerge as the book market grew: criminal autobiographies, political propaganda, travel narratives and a large diversity of fiction included. The anonymous circumstance of the printed words involved a bigger variety of writers, embracing voices from different parts of society and religion. 3

For British writers of novels, one of the noticeable themes was national identity (the British national anthem “God Save the Queen” was composed in this period and patriotic texts were a typical expression of poets in the Augustan literature). It was eventful times including the union between England and Scotland in 1707, and the political process that finally lead to a union with Ireland in 1801. In the 18th century, the language was still spread among alternatives such as Welsh, Gaelic and Erse.4

The modern novel is born

The ideals from the French classicism were still present in the beginning of the new century, but the novel of the 17th century would bring in novelties that forever would change the novel and would be a foretaste of the realism in the next century.

The 18th century coincides with an emerge of a more realistic approach in fiction. Among the feature was the subject of common people that would often replace the traditional hero. Furthermore, the story would often take place in present time and not as before in the past with historical surroundings.

This tendency was, however, not in sole control whereas romance still was present in novels. For example, the English writer Eliza Haywood (c. 1693-1756), wrote fiction which didn't encapsulate the common life in a high degree. She was very popular during her lifetime and has during the last decades been an interesting object for studying the English literature history during this period.


Notable writers in the 18th Century

English writers like Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Henry Fielding may be the most known among novel writers in the 18th century, but there is of course more authors worth mentioning. In another culture super power at the time, France, writers like Marquis de Sade and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos achieved big controversy with scandalous novels because  of the open sexual contents. De Laclos is most known for Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons, 1782) that later had been adapted for the cinema at several occasions (and maybe most successful in 1988 in a film with the same name as the novel). Marquis de Sade has also remained in the popular culture, perhaps more for his life as a libertine than for his literary work, even though a novel such as The 120 Days of Sodom (Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage, 1904) is recognizable by many.

Candide - one the most famous work of the era

The Frenchman Voltaire (1694-1778) has become one of the significant figures to characterize the Enlightenment era. He was both a writer and a philosopher, but also to a high degree a humanist and a historical person that have come to symbolize a nonconformist approach.

Few authors had been as famous as Voltaire in their own life time and he has remained as one of the historical key names from the period. His importance, however, are nowadays more as a historical figure which ideas was a part of the Ages of Reason movement rather than a writer that is largely read and which ideas are being discussed. His main role was as a controversial social debater and someone who popularized the thoughts of other philosophers.

Regardless of all this, Candide his prime work of fiction, still lives on as a classic. Candide is a short novel, or novella, but it encapsulates many of Voltaire’s ideas given in the form of a satire. The main theme is an argument against the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz and his optimism. Voltaire lets his Candide travel around the world to find proof for that we live–with Leibniz’s words– in the best of all possible worlds”.

He cannot find any evidence of though. Instead he experiences wars and other kinds of human suffering. And even that he after many endeavors finds Eldorado (a representation of the ideal world), he soon chooses to leave it. He finally comes to the symbolic conclusion “we must take care of our garden”, which in a broad sense means that everybody must accept that he cannot change the whole world and should instead strive for making his own life bearable.


1. Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Charlotte Sussman. 2012, p. 1
2. Ibid p 2
3. Ibid p 42
4. Ibid p 9ff