France Peter

in Mapping Lives

Published by British Academy

Published in print September 2004 | ISBN: 9780197263181
Published online February 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191734595 | DOI:

Series: British Academy Centenary Monographs


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  • Literary Theory and Cultural Studies


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Jean Sartre's fictional hero Roquentin believes that one cannot seriously take the task of writing one's life. For him, biography is an impossibility, a work of ‘pure imagination’ subjected to the biases of the writer and devoid of resemblance to the subject. In the early days, biographies served as testimony to the greatness a person. They served as models from which people could emulate the exemplary individual. Then, the essential thing was to tell a story based on external facts and on psychological plausibility. However, in the age of Rousseau's Confessions, it was argued that biographies were accounts of inner truths, and that self-revelation was only achieved by the person himself: ‘No man can write a man's life but himself’. Even in the days when new methods of understanding the life of a man were increasingly becoming available, biographies were often seen as suspect enterprises. They were often seen as approaches that obscure the proper comprehension of the literary process and as illusions of profound knowledge of the inner truth, when in fact biographers continue to approach biographies with misgivings. In spite of all the criticisms against biographies, they have remained of great interest. They reach out to a broad public as a literature in its own right and have played a vital role in the history of European culture. Biographies have served as an inspiration, as a celebration of the great personages of the nation, as an insight to the gender roles of the society, and so on.

Keywords: Jean Sartre; biography; greatness; testimony; Rousseau; Confessions; inner truths; self-revelation; writing one's life

Chapter.  2013 words. 

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies

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