The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


William T. Hendel

“Decorum” refers to the norm of propriety in a literary work, and may be understood in various possible, often overlapping ways. Decorum requires, first, the author to adopt a style and tone appropriate to the work's GENRE and subject matter, and to represent the speech and actions of individual characters in a manner appropriate to their respective stations in life. Just as, for instance, a tragic work requires a serious tone and style, so must a king speak with the grandness of a king, and a peasant act with the simple rusticity of a peasant (see DIALECT). Second, decorum refers more generally to the appropriateness of the literary work for reception by the public. Historically, decorum required that nothing should appear in a literary work that would offend against the given culture's prevailing moral and social norms.

“Verisimilitude” is plausibility, or in other words, the quality of seeming true to life to the work's readers or spectators. In the broad sense, verisimilitude is a key component of REALISM in the novel. In the narrow sense, as a requirement for literary works according to the classical aesthetic doctrines most prominent in Europe from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, verisimilitude often means presenting, not necessarily a vision of ordinary real life, but an idealization of life—whether depicting true-to-life character types (rather than specific individuals), or portraying life as it should be (rather than as it is). Thus, in this narrow sense, verisimilitude may, in fact, be contrasted with realism, which often implies the representation in stark detail of the everyday lives of ordinary people, and which came to define novels after the domination of classical doctrines in Europe had passed. In contrast with realism, verisimilitude does not so much entail the positive demand that authors should actively pursue the imitation of reality in a fictional work, but rather involves the negative requirement that the work should avoid representations of characters, settings, or events that will strike the audience as either clearly unlikely or patently false.

Joined together as a pair of terms, and in reference to prose narrative, decorum and verisimilitude refer, above all, to two of the most prominent demands (la bienséance and la vraisemblance, respectively) made on literature during the period of French Classicism, identified with authors such as novelist Madame de Lafayette, poet Nicolas Boileau (1636—1711), and playwright Jean Racine (1639—99). All the same, these doctrines were significant for French prose narrative earlier in the seventeenth century and continued to have some importance, albeit fairly limited, during the eighteenth century. Although decorum and verisimilitude as a pair governed literary production more widely in early modern Europe, they were applied, in the first place, to dramatic and epic poetry, and were less consistently applied to prose narrative outside France. Prose narratives were not as likely in this period to be considered subject to these classical demands insofar as they were ignored by providers of norms and theories, since the respected ancient theorists of literature, Aristotle and Horace, had not dealt with them (see COMEDY). On the other hand, theorists and authors who sought to dignify the novel did so precisely by envisioning it as the successor to a genre with an ancient pedigree, generally the epic poem.

Origins of the Doctrines in Aristotle and Horace

The concepts of decorum and verisimilitude originate in ancient theories of literature. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384—322 BCE), in his analysis of tragedy in the Poetics (ca. 335 BCE), claims that “the poet's task is to speak of events which could occur, and are possible by the standards of probability or necessity” (chap. 9). (In the French tradition, Aristotle's term for “probability” is translated as vraisemblance, which, in turn, can be translated into English as verisimilitude. Aristotle's original Greek expression, tò eikòs, permits translation directly into English as either “the probable” or “the true-to-life,” and corresponds to the Latin verisimul.) Distinguishing the dramatic or epic poet from the historian, Aristotle asserts that the latter “speaks of events which have occurred,” whereas the former's task is to represent “the sort of events which could occur” (ibid.). Likewise, says Aristotle, the historian is concerned with the particular, and the poet with the universal. The Poetics, furthermore, treats decorum by asserting that there is diction appropriate to each form of poetry (whether tragedy, comedy, or epic).

In the Ars poetica (ca. 18 BCE), the Roman poet Horace (65—8 BCE) admonishes poets to adhere to decorum, above all avoiding incongruities of tone or diction. In fact, Horace relates decorum to verisimilitude when he forbids dramatic poets from having actors perform horrific or fantastic actions for the audience: “You will remove many incidents from our eyes so that someone who was present might report those incidents; Medea should not slaughter her children in the presence of the people...nor Procne be turned into a bird, Cadmus into a snake. Whatever you show me like this, I detest and refuse to believe” (ll. 182—8). To depict these actions mimetically (by having the actors perform them), rather than diegetically (by having the actors report them), would be improper, as well as strain the bounds of believability (see STORY).

Renaissance and Baroque French Prose Fiction

After scholars in Italy had rediscovered Aristotle's Poetics during the Renaissance (first published, in Latin translation, in 1498), authors and commentators began to appeal to both this text as well as Horace's—sometimes to the point of conflating the two, despite essential differences—in order to justify particular approaches to the vernacular literary forms of their day: not only epic and dramatic poetry, but also prose genres. Extended prose narrative in France, the roman (a term that refers to the novel and the romance without distinction), was viewed as subject to the norms of decorum and verisimilitude, as soon as the chivalric prose romance (roman chevaleresque) passed out of vogue towards the beginning of the seventeenth century. Anxious to dispense with the marvels and improbabilities of medieval and Renaissance romans, authors turned more and more to the sentimental novel (roman sentimental), centered on courtship and love, pursuing verisimilitude in their detailed representations of emotion, and appealing to decorum, or les bienséances, in their refinement and nobility of expression.

The reign of Louis XIII (1610—43) saw the rise of the heroic romance (roman héroïque, also called the roman épique), which combined the adventure novel with a historical background, generally ancient, and often exotic. Given the authors' avowals of historical accuracy and respect for the rules governing epic, much discussion ensued about the decorum and verisimilitude of these romans. The authors frequently claimed, on the one hand, to pursue a truthful depiction of the historical facts, while on the other to provide narratives that would follow decorum by instructing the public on good morals. History does not, however, always witness virtue rewarded and vice punished. Consequently, the focus on verisimilitude, allied with mere plausibility, and distinct from strict historical accuracy, furnished the conceptual looseness required to give the appearance of truthfulness to readers, while still permitting illustrations of the moral lessons demanded by decorum.

Among the most famous of the romans héroïques are the excessively lengthy, multivolume romances published under the name of Georges de Scudéry, but in fact mostly written by his sister Madeleine. Georges's preface to Ibrahim (1641) considers verisimilitude “the most necessary” of “all the rules that must be observed in the composition” of romans, but explicitly distinguishes verisimilitude from truth: “For when lies and truth are mixed together by a skilled hand, the mind has trouble untangling them and does not easily bring itself to undermine what pleases it” (Coulet 1, 454—6). In the tenth and final volume of Madeleine de Scudéry's Clélie (1654—61), set in ancient Rome, the characters engage in a discussion of narrative fictions (fables), in which they promote verisimilitude and decorum, both tied together with a concern for pleasing the reader. In pursuit of the audience's pleasure, the author “must stay away from impossible things and from low and common things, and seek out imaginings that are at once marvelous and natural” (55). Authors must thus find a middle ground between the implausible and the pedestrian, all while ensuring that bonnes mœurs (good morals) are preserved and that “vice is blamed and virtue rewarded” (56).

The Classical French Novel and Critical Issues Concerning the Doctrines

Although the classical period associated with the reign of Louis XIV (1643—1715) is best known for its poetry and non-narrative prose, it provided landmark instances of prose narrative at a time when the doctrines of decorum and verisimilitude had reached the height of their influence. For example, the Lettres portugaises (1669, Portuguese Letters), later attributed to the Comte de Guilleragues, staked a claim to verisimilitude by presenting a series of letters supposedly by a Portuguese nun, and the novel's spontaneous style of representing the narrator's internal life successfully convinced its first readers of its authenticity. The flourishing in this period of novels that were labeled as histoires (histories), memoirs, and accounts of voyages, as well as collections of letters, emphasized the authors' efforts to present plausible narratives that could be mistaken for recountings of true personal experience. In contrast with the Baroque roman héroïque, the classical novel moved away from ancient, exotic settings and brought the represented time period much closer to the present; it likewise shifted the emphasis from the great public exploits of “illustrious” personages in favor of “the particular actions of private persons, or of persons considered in their private capacity,” as the Abbé de Charnes commented in 1679 (Coulet 1, 210). The constraints of decorum, at the same time, kept the representations elegant and chaste, steering away from detailed depiction of the physical and the material, and reserving meticulous attention for the heart and its motivations.

Foremost among classical novels is Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves (1678, The Princess of Cleves), which inspired a lively debate among women and men of letters regarding its decorum and verisimilitude, focusing primarily on the scene in the novel in which the title character confesses to her husband her secret love for the Duc de Nemours. Despite the novel's defenders, many commentators in Lafayette's time faulted the scene for failures in both decorum and verisimilitude, since no woman, they claimed, would ever make such a confession to her spouse, nor was it appropriate to represent such behavior in fiction.

In his evaluation of seventeenth-century criticisms of La Princesse de Clèves, Gérard Genette has famously asserted that decorum and verisimilitude actually amount to two faces of a single imperative, paralleled by the ambiguity of the verb devoir (“should”), which can refer to either “obligation” or “probability” (72). Citing René Rapin's definition of vraisemblance in his 1674 Réflexions sur la poétique, Genette writes: “verisimilitude and decorum are joined together under a single criterion, namely, ’whatever conforms to public opinion.’ This ’opinion,’ real or supposed, is almost precisely what today would be called an ideology, that is, a body of maxims and presuppositions that constitutes both a vision of the world and a system of values” (73). According to Genette, this “body of maxims,” most often implicit, underpins what a given public will acknowledge as either plausible or proper, particularly with reference to the literary genre of the work under consideration (see IDEOLOGY).

More recently, scholars have elaborated on the political and sociological dimensions implied by the ideological aspect of the classical doctrines. The codes of decorum and verisimilitude can be seen as attempts to universalize, by appeal to a supposedly all-inclusive “public opinion,” what were in fact the ideas and values of the elite (Kremer). Other scholars have observed that interpretations and applications of the doctrines were heavily influenced by the Académie-Française, founded in 1637 as an instrument of state power over French language and literary convention. Thomas DiPiero has argued, moreover, that participants in the disputes over decorum and verisimilitude adopted views based on their political affiliations.

The Eighteenth-Century French Novel

To a certain extent, the classical doctrines continued to exert an influence on literary production and discussions of it well into the eighteenth century in France. Sometimes called the last great advocate of classical norms, commentator Jean-François Marmontel (1723—99), for instance, upheld the doctrines of decorum and verisimilitude as late as his Éléments de littérature (1787, Elements of literature). More widely, however, the terms in which the novel was discussed gradually shifted over the course of the century. Although, on occasion, commentators would invoke decorum, sometimes in praise of particular Baroque romans héroïques—as did Antoine-François Prévost in his periodical Pour et contre (For and against) in 1738—the appeal to decorum began to yield to a broadly framed concern for morality, articulated independently of the classical dictate (May).

In addition, the later seventeenth-century interest in novels that alleged to be real-life documents became even more firmly established—most notably, with instances of the memoir-novel, such as Prévost's Manon Lescaut (1731), Pierre de Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne (1731—41, The life of Marianne), and Claude Crébillon's Les Égarements du cœur et de l'esprit (1736—38, The Wayward Head and Heart), as well as with examples of the epistolary novel, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761, Julie, or the New Héloïse) and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782, Dangerous Liaisons). In this way, justification of the novel in terms of le vraisemblable (“the true to life”) was giving way to a concern simply for le vrai (“the true”), as even non-comic fiction became less idealized, more contemporary in its settings, increasingly centered on private life, and less focused on royalty and aristocracy (see DOMESTIC). For these reasons, in their discussion of a great many eighteenth-century French novels, scholars generally refer not to the novels' verisimilitude, but rather to their realism, allied with middle-class interests, and revealing the cultural exchanges with realist fiction elsewhere in Europe, especially England (Barguillet; DiPiero; Mylne; Showalter).

SEE ALSO: Censorship, Domestic Novel, Epistolary Novel.


1. Aristotle (1987), Poetics, trans. S. Halliwell.

2. Barguillet, F. (1981), Roman au XVIIIe siècle.

3. Coulet, H. (1969—70), Roman jusqu'à la Révolution, 2 vols.

4. DiPiero, T. (1992), Dangerous Truths and Criminal Passions.

5. Genette, G. (1969), “Vraisemblance et motivation,” in Figures II.

6. Horace (1995), Ars poetica, trans. L. Golden, in O. B. Harrison, Jr., and L. Golden, Horace for Students of Literature.

7. Kremer, N. (2008), Préliminaires à la théorie esthétique du XVIIIe siècle.

8. May, G. (1963), Dilemme du roman au XVIIIe siècle.

9. Mylne, V. (1981), Eighteenth-Century French Novel.

10. Showalter, E. (1972), Evolution of the French Novel, 1641—1782.

11. Sterling, E. F. (1967), “ The Theory of Verisimilitude in the French Novel Prior to 1830,” French Review 40: 613—19.

12. Stewart, P. (1969), Imitation and Illusion in the French Memoir-Novel, 1700—1750.