Master of Arts (MA)


French Studies

Document Type



One of the most interesting thematic elements of the male-authored epistolary texts of the 18th century is what Katharine Ann Jensen refers to as the “Epistolary Woman”: “Seduced, betrayed, and suffering, this woman writes letter after letter of anguished and masochistic lament to the man who has left her behind” (Jensen 1). Jensen notes a pattern of this portrayal in texts such as Lettres portugaises and also in the letter-writing manuals written by men of the period. Epistolary Woman stems from masculine efforts to limit and define women’s writing as highly emotional, and in turn, Epistolary Woman is “a male creation” designed to marginalize women (Jensen 2). This creation compensated for the shift in gender power roles that was occurring in salon culture, where women had cultivated power and influence. The Epistolary Woman trope appears in its most vividly obsessive portrait as Gulleragues’s Portuguese Nun, Mariane. Mariane’s abandonment in the text’s series of unanswered letters creates a portrait of amorous despair and suffering. These themes of betrayal found in the letters of Epistolary Woman also have marked the works of two modern Francophone authors: Mariama Bâ and Ying Chen. In Bâ’s Une si longue lettre and Chen’s Les lettres chinoises, the authors develop female characters that are initially defined by the absence of the man they love from their lives. As francophone women, Bâ and Chen possess a clear knowledge of French literary history and in turn, the manner in which to create works that promote change within the parameters that the male Epistolary Woman text has come to represent. I will therefore examine Une si longue lettre and Les lettres chinoises as modern representations of the classic epistolary narratives of suffering, amorous women and also as re-evaluations that eventually serve to advocate a more realistic and (at times) more feminist portrayal of a new Epistolary Woman.



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Committee Chair

Katharine Jensen