Theses Doctoral

Deadly Speech: Denunciation and the Radicalization of Discourse during the French Revolution

Sopchik, Rebecca

My dissertation examines the question of how the incorporation of literary forms and techniques into written denunciations radicalizes the discursive practices of accusation during the French Revolution. I explore how the exploitation of literary elements such as genre and rhetorical strategies by revolutionary writers increases the scope and virulence of their attacks and contributes to the radicalization in the text of three key figures: the author-narrator, the imagined reader, and the object of denunciation. In the first part, I study the use of these strategies and their impacts on tone and the communication of meaning in two forms of the popular press: the ephemeral newspapers of 1789 (journals with under twenty issues) and the Private Lives (scandalous biographies of important public figures). In part two I show how writers with first-hand knowledge of recent violence and the deadliness of denunciation become confronted with the problem of how to condemn the worst aspects of the Revolution without partaking in incendiary speech themselves. Although still denouncing to a certain extent, these writers also try to resolve this dilemma through plays with perspective and parody. I examine this phenomenon in case studies of three authors who lived through the Revolution and whose writings were impacted to varying degrees by the events of 1789 to 1795: Nicolas Edme Restif de La Bretonne, Louis Sebation Mercier, and the Marquis de Sade.
My study is situated at the crossroads of previous historical and literary scholarship on denunciation. Historians examining the practice of denunciation have investigated contemporary debates over calumny and the limits of free speech, the de individualization of the object of attack, and the impact of the period's obsession with transparency on the conceptualization of the denounced individual. These studies concentrate for the most part on political discourses and debates, laws, and the mechanics of the press and print culture. Scholarship analyzing rhetorical and literary aspects of revolutionary texts has slowly begun to emerge, and these literary analyses by historians on clandestine literature have identified important trends and have performed key case studies. My study supplements this existing work by focusing on such neglected areas as the relationship between the author and his imagined reader, while presenting a wider examination of the circulation of discourses between these texts to begin to grasp how these writers responded to, attacked, and adopted the denunciatory culture of their time.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Stalnaker, Joanna R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
December 11, 2014