L'art de la fiction chez Aphra Behn (1640-1689) : une esthétique de la curiosité

par Edith Girval

Thèse de doctorat en Études anglophones

Sous la direction de Line Cottegnies.

Le président du jury était Gisèle Venet.

Le jury était composé de Line Cottegnies, Gisèle Venet, Christine Sukic, Jean Viviès.


  • Résumé

    La critique récente sur Aphra Behn (1640-1689) a montré d’une part que ses courts romans entretiennent des liens privilégiés avec le champ de la philosophie naturelle montante et d’autre part, que le monstrueux ou l’exotique sont des motifs privilégiés de ses œuvres. Ce travail vise à mettre en lien ces deux différentes approches, en établissant la centralité de la notion de curiosité dans la fiction d’Aphra Behn. La curiosité est une notion ambivalente au XVIIe siècle qui, bien qu’elle continue à porter des connotations négatives d’origine chrétienne et médiévale, s’est vue revalorisée par la philosophie naturelle. A la même époque, la notion de curiosité suscite également un regain d’intérêt de la part des théoriciens du roman ; Behn se positionne dans le débat esthétique et épistémologique de son temps en revendiquant une mimesis originale du vrai absolu, qui refuse d’intéresser son lecteur par une curiosité pour les choses familières, et choisit de représenter l’extra-ordinaire. Behn tente de discriminer entre une « bonne » et une « mauvaise » curiosité, pour se poser en curieuse et en collectionneuse avisée, mais continue d’entretenir des liens avec une culture plus populaire de la curiosité, celle des spectacles de foires. Le « cabinet de curiosité littéraire » que construit Aphra Behn privilégie des figures de monstres atypiques, qui permettent d’inventer une forme romanesque curieuse et transgressive.

  • Titre traduit

    Aphra Behn's Fiction : An aesthetic of Curiosity


  • Résumé

    Recent research on Aphra Behn has shown the link between the scientific prose of the period and Behn’s narrative fiction, while other scholars have underscored the importance of bodily and moral deformity in her works. Drawing on these apparently heterogeneous studies, this project aims at providing a global aesthetic framework for Behn’s fiction. The epistemological context of the late seventeenth century offers a stimulating insight in Behn’s fiction, especially through the notion of “curiosity”. This notion is at the centre of both the scientific and literary concerns of the period; the growing interest in natural philosophy progressively rehabilitates curiosity – which had been an object of scorn in the Augustinian tradition – first by valuing curiosity as the ideal attitude of the “scientist”, and by having curiosities as its major object of study – the rare, new, and unusual objects of the Wunderkammern replacing the “universal” objects of study of the Medieval and Renaissance science. At exactly the same time, in the literary field, the notion of curiosity undergoes a redefinition, in a somewhat similar fashion to that which occurs in the scientific field, shifting from the “generalities” of idealized romance to a new conception of curiosity in the emerging genre of the novel. Behn advocates for a radical mimesis of truth and extraordinary curiosities. At the time when Aphra Behn writes her fictional texts, curiosity is therefore a polysemic notion, whose unity can nonetheless be found in a set of specificities: curiosity is concerned, both in science and in literature, with the emotions/reactions of the “curious” scientist or reader; it is what leads us to experiment, and it comes from a desire for knowledge. But curiosity is also a transgressive desire: the distinction between two types of curiosity, a “good” and a “bad” curiosity, is central in Behn’s discourse. The parallel between Behn’s fascination with curiosities and the scientific episteme of her time is obvious in the numerous descriptions of exotica in Oroonoko, as the narrator explicitly compares the objects she shows to those which form part of the Royal Society repository, but the rest of Behn’s fiction is also concerned with this preoccupation with curiosity: in several of her other works, moral irregularities are conjoined with ‘natural’/physical irregularities which belong to the realm of curiosities. The various transgressions depicted in Behn’s fiction can therefore be seen as “curiosities”; Behn’s work can be read as a sort of Wunderkammern, as she herself seems to suggest when she wishes her novels were “esteem’d as Medals in the Cabinets of Men of Wit” – novelists collect and experiment on human nature just as natural philosophers do with nature (and art) in the cabinets of curiosities. But in her fiction Behn actually goes beyond the conventional notion of the cabinet of curiosities, by insisting on moral and physical monstrosity. In underlining the importance of the realm of curiosity in Behn’s fiction, this study aims at showing the specificity of her aesthetics and the originality of her conception of the novel; as she states in the preface to Oroonoko, writers, like painters, are supposed to “erase” defects: by deliberately choosing not to idealize nature, men, or society, and by choosing to systematically depict deformity and exceptions instead (rather than exemplary individuals), Aphra Behn invents her own conception of the novel, a sensationalist aesthetic of the “strange and novel”.

Consulter en bibliothèque

La version de soutenance existe

Où se trouve cette thèse ?

  • Bibliothèque : Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. Direction des Bibliothèques Universitaires. Bibliothèque numérique.
Voir dans le Sudoc, catalogue collectif des bibliothèques de l'enseignement supérieur et de la recherche.