L’expression des émotionsCours

Humans are partly made of such stuff as emotions and feelings are made on. What people feel and experience makes them who they are and can even change the course of their lives, as illustrated and demonstrated by so many plays, novels and poems. Feelings and emotions can contribute to (re)shaping one's identity and world view. In other words, people feel therefore they are, which is also why the way they love, hate or suffer entirely depends on their personalities. Each and everyone keeps trying to find a workable balance between reason and emotions. Artists and writers seek to do so through their art. Love, joy, grief, anger and hatred, to name but the most common, are the fuel of art, whether they are transformed into stories, poems and dramas or simply expressed and conveyed. Because feelings and emotions involve self-expression, they have given birth to many different literary and pictorial genres and artistic movements, among which lyrical poetry and drama, diaries and abstract expressionism. 


Feeling as a mode of self-expression

There is a wide range of emotions and feelings one can experience; joy, sadness, anger, melancholy, for example. They determine one's perceptions of the world around one as well as how one relates to other people. These emotions can be expressed or repressed in many different ways, especially in literature and the arts. Lyricism is often used to convey emotions. In private writings, feelings are expressed freely. In literature it is possible to express strong and powerful feelings.



Lyricism is a form of self-expression through which writers explore characters' inner worlds or the innermost parts of their own interiority. Thanks to poetic language, emotions and feelings morph into metaphors, hyperboles and personifications. Lyricisms enables introspection and odes to nature.



Many 19th and 20th century poets and novelists, such as Emily Brontë or James Joyce, used introspection as a mode of (self-)expression.

Poetry provided Brontë – and the Romantic poets before her – with the best suited language to describe both her secret inner world and the natural environment she cherished. Most of her poems deal with death, seasonal changes and the imagination. "The Old Stoic," which almost certainly refers to herself, reads like an autobiographical poem. 

"Riches I hold in light esteem,
   And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream,
   That vanished with the morn:

And if I pray, the only prayer
   That moves my lips for me
Is, "Leave the heart that now I bear,
   And give me liberty!"

Yes, as my swift days near their goal:
   'Tis all that I implore;
In life and death a chainless soul,
   With courage to endure."

Emily Brontë

"The Old Stoic"


Through this rather humble self-portrait, she expresses her rejection of love and wealth to define herself as essentially free, "a chainless soul." She advocates self-isolation in a world of one's own as a refuge from these earthly passions, which can only enslave people and make them unhappy. Reading her poems, one understands that Emily Brontë must have inhabited two worlds at the same time. There is the earthly reality she was born into and the world she built inside herself thanks to her imagination and where she retreats as often as possible.

In another poem entitled "To Imagination," Emily Brontë laments that "so hopeless is the world without:/The world within I doubly prize." In this poem, she writes that thanks to poetry and the imagination, the poet can transform reality into a perfect world of her own, where she can be herself fully, at one with nature. This poem may have inspired the following by Emily Dickinson. 

"I Dwell in Possibility – 
A Fairer House than Prose – 
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of Eye –
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky – 

Of Visitors – the fairest – 
For Occupation – This – 
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –"

Emily Dickinson

The Complete Poems by Emily Dickinson

© Faber&Faber, 1975

In Dickinson's poem, poetry itself represents an alternative world where she can revisit reality and reinvent herself as she pleases. Indeed, she likens poetry to a house with as many openings as she needs, a house that can be limitlessly extended to host emotions, aspirations and poems. Because poetry transgresses the grammatical rules of prose, it grants one absolute freedom to imagine and write everything that takes the poet's fancy. Verse liberates both imagination and creativity.

English French
Innermost Le plus intime
To morph into Se transformer en/se muer en
To cherish Chérir
To scorn Mépriser
To enslave Asservir
To retreat into Se retirer (du monde)
To lament Déplorer
Within En soi/à l'intérieur de soi
Without Extérieur à soi/à l'extérieur (acception vieillie)
To shield Protéger comme un bouclier
A paean Une ode
To dwell Résider

Odes to Nature

Nature is another essential source of inspiration for poets, who see it as reflecting their changing emotional states.

Nature stimulates both their senses and imaginations. When depicting nature, poets often project their own emotions and feelings on it, thereby turning landscapes, seasonal changes and atmospheric variations into the mirrors of their soul and heart. Autumn is typically associated with grief, melancholy or nostalgia, as in Keats's poem "To Autumn."

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
   Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies."

John Keats

"To Autumn"


Keats's poem offers an ambiguous portrayal of the season, between warmth and chill, life and death. Autumn is depicted through its effect on nature as the lively continuation of summer leading to winter, the "season of mist and mellow fruitlessness." The poet's insistence on ripeness or "maturity" may suggest that the ode is a symbolic, but no less wistful, depiction of adulthood, when one achieves one's goals, before old age and death. Maturity and experience come with a few invaluable perks, among which success, self-fulfilment and quietness of the soul, metaphorically referred to as "fill[ing] all fruit with ripeness to the core" and "set[ting] budding more,/And still more, later flowers for the bees,/Until they think warm days will never cease." Although adulthood, like autumn, is a season of plenty, it may make one yearn for one's youth: "Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?/Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—/While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day." Melancholy has to be dismissed ("think not of them") for individuals to enjoy adult life fully ("thou hast thy music too"). The busy bees mentioned in the first stanza might stand for humans striving to be successful and happy, each in their own way. Through a vibrantly hopeful depiction of nature in autumn, the poet celebrates both nature and maturity, filling the reader with peaceful contentment. Reading this poem, one doesn't feel despondent, but confident while aging. 

Nature was also one of Emily Brontë's favourite sources of inspiration. She enjoyed walking on the moors for hours on her own, resting on a crag or admiring the wind-swept heath stretching endlessly in front of her. The wild and hostile Yorkshire landscapes of her childhood were her refuge from a reality, which she often found as stifling as her cramped home. She shares the elating and liberating emotions stirred by the landscape in a stanza from an untitled poem dedicated to the heath. Brontë's well-known poem, "The Bluebell", shows how comforting nature was to her. 

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The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air:
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit's care.

There is a spell in purple heath
Too wildly, sadly dear;
The violet has a fragrant breath,
But fragrance will not cheer,

The trees are bare, the sun is cold,
And seldom, seldom seen;
The heavens have lost their zone of gold,
And earth her robe of green.

And ice upon the glancing stream
Has cast its sombre shade;
And distant hills and valleys seem
In frozen mist arrayed.

The Bluebell cannot charm me now,
The heath has lost its bloom;
The violets in the glen below,
They yield no sweet perfume.

But, though I mourn the sweet Bluebell,
'Tis better far away;
I know how fast my tears would swell
To see it smile to-day.

For, oh! when chill the sunbeams fall
Adown that dreary sky,
And gild yon dank and darkened wall
With transient brilliancy;

How do I weep, how do I pine
For the time of flowers to come,
And turn me from that fading shine,
To mourn the fields of home!

Emily Brontë

"The Bluebell"


This poem, which is as tinged with nostalgia as Keats's, is an ode to the bracing revival of spring symbolized by the bluebell, a very common flower in Britain, which heralds the end of winter. The poem can be divided into two main parts, one praising the flower and one cursing winter, when the it is no longer blooming. Moreover, not only does the bluebell symbolize spring, it also seems to be associated with the poet's home, which she misses: "How do I weep, how do I pine/For the time of flowers to come,/And turn me from that fading shine,/To mourn the fields of home!" The passage of time, represented by season changes, is painful to the poet, as it results in loss and death. 

English French
Chill La fraîcheur
A perk Un avantage
Wistful Mélancolique
Ripeness La maturité (pour les fruits et légumes)
A bud Un bouton/bourgeon
To bud Bourgeonner
To yearn for Se languir de
To strive to S'évertuer à
Despondent Triste/découragé
Moors La lande
Heath La lande
Crag Un rocher
Bracing Revigorant
To curse Maudire
To bloom Fleurir
Bluebell Un campanule

Private writings

Private writings are a form that conveys feelings the best. This is why epistolary fiction is often used by writers. In diaries and travel journals writers also express their feelings.


Epistolary fiction

Letters are a form of subjective writing, in so far as it establishes a remote conversation between two individuals who trust each other. Far from serving to send news, letters can also serve to express emotions, to declare love or confess something.

What is couched in a letter is often very personal, which implies intimacy. Epistolary fiction developed as a genre in France during the second half of the 18th century, paving the way to Romantic lyricism. One can think of Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses or Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse. This literary trend was also followed by a few English writers such as Richardson and Frances Burney. Characterization was made more complex and accurate thanks to letter writing. Indeed, letters provide access to the protagonists' hearts and minds, thus often adding emotional depth to their personalities and intensity to the plot. Reading characters' letters, one also reads through them. That's why feelings and emotions are paramount in epistolary novels. 

In Evelina by Frances Burney, the letters written by the eponymous heroine read like diary entries, hence a lot of subjectivity. She reveals her aesthetic sensibility in many of her letters describing theatrical or opera performances to a friend. Letters also allow minute introspection and in-depth analyses of characters' emotions and reactions, as in this one by Evelina to her guardian, attempting but failing to come to grips with her overwhelming emotions: 

"I attempt not to describe my sensations at that moment; I scarce breathed; I doubted if I existed,-the blood forsook my cheeks, and my feet refused to sustain me: Lord Orville, hastily rising, supported me to a chair, upon which I sunk, almost lifeless.

For a few minutes, we neither of us spoke; and then, seeing me recover, Lord Orville, though in terms hardly articulate, intreated my pardon for his abruptness. The moment my strength returned, I attempted to rise, but he would not permit me.

I cannot write the scene that followed, though every word is engraven on my heart; but his protestations, his expressions, were too flattering for repetition: nor would he, in spite of my repeated efforts to leave him, suffer me to escape:-in short, my dear Sir, I was not proof against his solicitations-and he drew from me the most sacred secret of my heart!"

Frances Burney

Evelina, Letter LXXVI


In this letter, Evelina seems to lay her heart bare to her guardian, since what she describes after Lord Orville declared his love to her is most intimate and betrays her own feelings for Orville. However, she isn't exactly straightforward, because she keeps repeating that she is stuck for words to express her feelings and explains that there are scenes she cannot – will not – relate. She sounds both willing and unwilling to admit to her love for Lord Orville, resorting to periphrases to avoid naming what she feels. Either her feelings are too strong and new for her to be able to describe and share them just yet, or she is refusing to admit to them. What is really striking is that she shows herself overly guilty to have allowed Orville to guess how she feels about him, as if it was a betrayal of both herself and her guardian. Furthermore, this letter inaugurates a turning point in the novel. It indicates that Evelina has grown to become her own woman. As such, she feels emancipated and consequently entitled to choose what she wants to tell and what she would rather keep to herself, because it is too personal. She clearly puts some distance between herself and her guardian and wishes to deal with her feelings on her own. 

English French
Trend Une tendance
Paramount De la plus haute importance
To come to grips with Gérer
To lay one's heart bare Mettre son cœur à nu
Guardian Un tuteur
Straightforward  Direct
To be stuck for words Ne pas trouver ses mots

 Diaries and travel journals

Diaries and journals are among the most intimate forms of personal and writing. They can be compared to a catalogue of the writer's daily emotions, sensations and impressions, where one can give one's emotions free rein to unburden and take stock of experiences.

Diaries are like friends that can be told everything, without filters, as in Anne Frank's diary. The writer doesn't risk being judged or misunderstood, as they don't need to justify themselves, unless someone reads what they have written. Much of the plot of Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart relies on the heroine diarist's sister-in-law reading her diary and finding out about her feelings for a young gentleman. This unexpected breech of trust and encroachment on someone else's privacy is depicted like a break-in:

"One's sentiments – call them that – one's fidelities are so instinctive that one hardly knows they exist: only when they are betrayed or, worse still, when one betrays them does one realize their power." 

Elizabeth Bowen


An interesting parallel is drawn between experience and self-development or even identity. 

"It is not our exalted feelings, it is our sentiments that build the necessary home. The need to attach themselves makes wandering people strike roots in a day: wherever we unconsciously feel, we live."

Elizabeth Bowen

The Death of the Heart


The feelings experienced throughout one's life contribute to shaping individuals' thoughts and world viewsFeelings are described as more meaningful than transient emotions, because one takes stock of one's feelings. Writing about one's feelings, detailing and dissecting them, is essential to the process of self-understanding and -determination. That's why a diary in which they are exposed, is such an important part of one's inner life and can even be compared to an extension of one's heart and soul. 

English French
To give free rein to Donner libre cours à
To unburden S'épancher
To take stock of Faire le bilan de
An encroachment on Une incursion dans la vie privée ou l'intimité

Feelings and emotions in excess

Feelings and emotions can be described in all their excess. It is the case when women outburst in literature or when a character shows his or her despair.


Unladylike outbursts

To be angry has long been considered inappropriate, to express one's anger in public or private circles totally improper. Indeed to be passionate or quick-tempered were considered sure signs of bad upbringing or dispositions, especially for young women. Experiencing and expressing strong emotions made them less eligible matches, because they were regarded as wayward and indomitable creatures.

Many 18th and 19th century novelists and playwrights chose angry or temperamental young women acting on impulse as (anti-)heroines. Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and Margaret Hale in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South are two of these. Margaret Hale is a very sharp and insightful female character who finds it hard to repress her emotions and conceal her feelings, which often puts her at a disadvantage. It causes her to unwittingly betray her feelings for Mr Thornton, who truly loves him and to quarrel with his authoritarian mother Mrs Thornton. Towards the end of the novel, the latter sees fit to pay her a visit to advise her on her conduct. Margaret feels affronted and lashes out at the elderly woman, defending herself and her independence, refusing to obey a woman who is not entitled to upbraid her. Needless to say, her expostulations lead to an argument that leaves them both fuming and offended. 

"Miss Hale, I have a duty to perform. I promised your poor mother that, as far as my poor judgement went, I would not allow you to act in any way wrongly." […]
Mrs Thornton went on:
"At first, when I heard from one of my servants, that you had been seen walking about with a gentleman, so far from home as the Outwood station, at such a time of the evening, I could hardly believe it. […] It was indiscreet, to say the least; many a young woman has lost her character before now –"
Margaret's eyes flashed fire. This was a new idea – this was too insulting. […] To interfere with her conduct – to speak of her character! She – Mrs Thornton, a mere stranger – it was too impertinent! […] Mrs Thornton saw the battle-spirit in Margaret's eyes, and it called up her combativeness also. […]
"For my mother's sake," said Margaret in tearful voice, "I will bear much; but I cannot bear everything. She never meant me to be exposed to insult, I am sure."
"Insult, Miss Hale!"
"Yes madam, it is insult."

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South


Margaret's emotions are expressed through free indirect speech, perhaps to make the reader complicit of her anger and bitterness, after she was piqued by Mrs Thornton. As a result, the reader cannot but sympathise and side with the heroine. Displaying overwhelming feelings and emotions might be interpreted as writers' wish to present readers with heroines that are truer to life and not just wooden role models for inexperienced young women. Allowing female characters to have strong emotions contributes to debunking the stereotype of the angel-like woman who is soft and meek. Through their emotions, these heroines offer alternative, more authentic, visions of femininity. Being openly angry or violent doesn't make a woman any less womanly, but much stronger and more powerful. 

English French
Outbursts Emportements  
Quick-tempered Irascible
Upbringing L'éducation des parents
Indomitable Indomptable
Wayward Capricieux
Affronted Vexé
To lash out at Invectiver
Meek Gentil et docile

Tragic despair

Hopelessness is a feeling commonly experienced in novels and plays about dreams, ambitions or revenge, like Shakespeare's The Tempest.

The Bard's last play tells the story of Prospero, former Duke of Milan, who was wrecked on a desert island and left to die there by his brother Antonio to enable the latter to steal his dukedom. Prospero and his daughter Miranda survive and have no other choice, but to start afresh on the wild and hostile territory. Prospero meets Ariel, an enchantress, and her son Caliban, an uncouth creature that Prospero soon manages to enslave. Prospero, who resents his brother's betrayal, swears to avenge himself. He asks Ariel to conjure up a storm that will cause Antonio, his son Ferdinand and his closest ally Alonso to end up on the same island, at his mercy. However, Prospero soon realises that revenge won't sooth him, as he doesn't feel any more at peace after hurting his brother by having him believe his son and heir drowned during the storm. The protagonist's sudden realisation of the pettiness of human passions such as pride and resentment is expressed in the following soliloquy.

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind."

William Shakespeare

The Tempest


Prospero describes life as a farcical delusion and his disillusionment induces him to give up magic forever, and later free both Ariel and Caliban. He explains that resentment, anger and pride are a waste of what little time humans are given on this earth. Whatever power or riches one possesses is held too precious, when it is worth nothing, because human life is so short. Humans cling onto useless and meaningless ambitions, passing up what truly matters but always realising it too late. Like him, they become oblivious of their mortal fate and obsessed with possessing power and wealth, but no sooner has one passed away than one's achievements and possessions are no longer one's own and one is forgotten. What we treasure and cling onto is meaningless and illusory. Humans are blinded by ambition, greed, jealousy and envy, which prevents them from living their lives to the full. Prospero's clear-sighted conclusion echoes Shakespeare's lucid statement that "all the world's a stage and we are merely players," borrowed from Epictetus, by having Prospero eventually admit to men's tragic tendency to give too much importance to what is not important: "These our actors,/ As I foretold you, were all spirits and/ Are melted into air". Prospero muses over the transience of human life, after realising he wasted what little time he had on conspiring to avenge himself. Indeed, however wealthy or mighty, men and women are all destined to die in the twinkle of an eye. Prospero moving speech sounds like warning against nursing desires and ambitions that are likely to cause one's downfall.

The Tempest is considered as Shakespeare's farewell play. Prospero has often been considered by critics as representing the Bard telling his audience he was retiring from the stage. 

English French
To be wrecked Être naufragé
Dukedom Un duché
Uncouth Rustre
To resent somebody something En vouloir à qqn de qqch
To conjure up Convoquer/faire apparaître par magie
Pettiness Mesquinerie
Resentment La rancœur
To cling onto S'attacher à
To pass up Manquer (une occasion)
Oblivious of Oublieux de
To muse over Méditer sur
Transience Éphémérité
In the twinkling of an eye En un clin d'œil

Feeling and being

One could twist Nietzsche's famous quote about food to claim the following; tell me what you feel and how you feel it, and I'll tell you who you are. Experiencing certain feelings and emotions, such as love, hatred or despair, can be a challenge to who we are – or aspire to be – and to what we believe in. They can shake our certainties, change the course of our lives, destroy us, sometimes. This is what will be studied with declarations of love, existential monologues, renouncing feelings and the self and being and feeling inspired. 


Declarations of love

Love is a powerful feeling that may lead one to forgot or even deny who one is, or cause one to reassert one's identity strongly. In Romeo and Juliet, their is a conflict between love and identity. In Jane Eyre, love and equality are at the core of the story.


Love and identity in Romeo and Juliet

In their declaration of love, Romeo and Juliet express their happiness at being in love but the unfortunate situation in which they are because they love an enemy. 

Act II, scene 2 from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, aka the balcony scene, is a turning point in the play. Romeo, "bescreened in night," trespasses the Capulets' property to woo Juliet and incidentally lays his heart bare to her. Juliet, who stands fantasizing out loud on her balcony, overhears her suitor's declaration of love. A dialogue about the one impediment to their love ensues – the feud between their two families –, an ideal pretext for Shakespeare to tackle and explore the conflicts between love and identity.

O Romeo, Romeo! – wherefore are thou Romeo? 
Deny thy father and refuse thy name. 
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, 
And I'll no longer be a Capulet. 

ROMEO (aside). 
Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this? 

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy. 
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. 
What's in a name? That which we call a rose 
By any other name would smell as sweet. 
[…] Romeo, doff thy name; 
And for thy name, which is no part of thee, 
Take all myself. 

I take thee at thy word. 
Call me but love, and I'll be newly baptized. 
Henceforth I never will be Romeo. 

What man art thou that, thus bescreened in night, 
So stumblest on my counsel? 

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am. 
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself, 
Because it is an enemy to thee."

William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet 


What both protagonists express in this dialogue is their fear of having to alter their personality or of losing their identity altogether. To love is to be bold enough to look at oneself in one's beloved's eyes, which is like a very special mirror that shows who one truly is. To love someone else therefore implies becoming vulnerable to the other's judgement and risking disappointing him or her. Both Romeo and Juliet keep referring to their names, which socially and symbolically refer to who they are. Juliet's blunt injunction that Romeo should "deny thy father and refuse thy name" seems to summon him to either renounce being who he is or grow up to become who he truly is. Romeo sounds willing to "be newly baptized" by Juliet's love ("Call me but your love"), thus also exposing himself to giving up his identity and self for Juliet. The spectator is therefore entitled to assume that, from Romeo's perspective, being in love implies losing one's identity to be as one with one's beloved. In actual fact, Juliet is inviting Romeo to transgress and free himself from these expectations by refusing to live up to their expectations. By exchanging his name for another ("oh be some other name"), Romeo will not become someone else, but who he truly is in his heart of hearts. In this respect, love can be viewed as the shortest way to self-emancipation, a unique opportunity to show one's true colours. To Juliet, love is also the way to better self-knowledge: "Doff thy name;/And for thy name, which is no part of thee,/Take all myself," she exclaims. According to her, names perform a social function and are but symbols that one dons and undons like garments: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet insists that one's name doesn't contain one's identity, but only serves to distinguish one as the member of a specific family and social background. That's why one's name only refers to one's social self, which is inherited by birth, like family values. This is what seems to be implied by the parallel she draws between "name" and "father." She urges Romeo to "deny thy father and refuse thy name," asking him to choose between her and his family to prove his love to her. Indeed, bearing one's father's name comes with a number of expectations and decisive life choices, including who you should marry in your family's best interest. What Juliet means is that people can only faithfully exist as who they are with their beloved, for the latter love them precisely because they are who they are. Far from transforming people into total strangers to themselves, love enables them to be themselves to their full potential. To be in love is to be who you are and not who society or your family expects or forces you to be. In this respect, love may free you from conventions and constraints.  

English French
To trespass Entrer par effraction
To fantasize Fantasmer
To overhear Entendre par inadvertance
Impediment Entrave
To alter Modifier
To don Enfiler

Love and equality in Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre's declaration of love to Rochester is unconventional, the heroine declare her love but also says she is Rochester's equal.

Charlotte Brontë's eponymous heroine Jane Eyre is world famous for her passionate and indomitable nature. She only abides by her own rules and principles, which makes her a rebel at heart. Her declaration of love to Rochester, under an oak tree, is as unconventional as the heroine's personality and behaviour. Not only does she claim that all people have feelings and emotions, regardless of their gender and social background, but she also makes it clear that she is her own woman.

"Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God's feet, equal — as we are!"

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë


Jane's declaration of love is uttered passionately in defence of who she is. Indeed, it sounds first and foremost like a statement of identity and a plea for equality with the man she loves. Despite her humble social background, she is no less human and sensitive. Interestingly enough, Jane doesn't define herself through her feelings, but frantically insists that she exists as an individual with a heart and soul of her own, as if to say "I am, therefore I feel, it's not the other way round." It is her humanity, not her femininity, that makes her a feeling being. Such a bold approach was very unusual in Charlotte Brontë's time, when women were regarded as vulnerable creatures needing and seeking the love of a man to be fulfilled. Jane's is a very unconventional declaration of love in which she makes it plain that she wants to be her beloved's equal, even though they don't belong to the same background. According to Jane, there is an essential difference between one's social class and one's identity.


Existential monologues

Existential monologues in Shakespeare's tragedies often serve to express aimlessness or meaninglessness, at the end of the plays, as in Hamlet or Macbeth. The soliloquising protagonists appear on stage, full of angst, anguish and anxiety, as they try to stomach the terrifying realisation that what one mostly does is all to no avail because one is bound to die.


Hamlet's "To be or not to be"

Hamlet's world famous monologue questions the very relevance of human existence. According to Hamlet, it can sometimes be doubtful whether life is worth living at all. Faced with death, betrayal and loss, he wonders if living is worth the many sufferings, frustrations and disappointments that it brings about.

Hamlet's sole purpose in life is to avenge his father by killing his adulterous widow and her murderous lover, i.e. to cause destruction instead of trying to build something for himself. Because it is death that guides him through existence and seems to make it meaningful, it is little wonder he should say "to be or not to be? That's the question." Hamlet's own uncertainties and inner turmoil, which he voices in his soliloquy, resonates with audiences' own anguish and doubts. That's why one can easily sympathise with Hamlet and try to answer his existential question.

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action."

William Shakespeare



His soliloquy can be understood as an invitation to introspection, which may lead both to greater self-knowledge and a better understanding of the world around one. Questioning the meaning of one's earthly existence or endeavouring to find is bound to impact one's world view, for better or worse. If life can be meaningful, why believe in the afterlife and obey religious injunction? Why be meek and hopeless, when one could fight for more personal values and projects? Hamlet's soliloquy, which makes people aware of the possibility of existing as individuals, can be read as transgressive. If what matters is oneself, both politics and religion, which structure society, are at issue. In other words, expressing one's doubts and feelings enables individuals to become emancipated.


Macbeth's "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow"

Act 5, scene 5 of Shakespeare's Macbeth is a watershed moment in the play, which is nearing its end. The protagonist, who has become a cold-blooded tyrant, has just been informed of his wife's demise, which triggers a monologue about the meaning of one's own life – or its meaninglessness more like.

Lady Macbeth's unexpected death seems to make Macbeth's suddenly aware of his own mortality, at the very moment he is preparing himself to fight his most important battle.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

William Shakespeare



Although he imagines himself proof against death after interpreting the Weird Sisters' latest prophecy ("not of woman born") as a promise of immortality, Macbeth suddenly grows doubtful and aimless. The light of his life, his wife, was extinguished like "a brief candle," after he acted like "a poor player that frets and struts his hour upon a stage" to fulfil her queenly ambitions. And yet, Macbeth suggests he committed murders and seized the throne to no avail after all, because the only person this really mattered too is dead, leaving him aimless in a meaningless existence. He describes life as "a tale told by an idiot, […] signifying nothing," a metaphor which may refer to the witches' prophecy or the sumptuous and successful life Lady Macbeth had imagined for them. In other words, Macbeth might have lived and acted under serious misapprehensions and feels badly fooled. It seems as if Lady Macbeth had given him a sense of purpose, by urging him to accomplish something worth terrible misdeeds. However, the greatest illusion in life, according to Macbeth – and Shakespeare? – is to believe that there can be an aim to one's life, when there is none, as it is short-lived and "full of sound and fury." Hence his overwhelming sense of emptiness and aimlessness, which also raises the issue of individual responsibility. Indeed, whether Macbeth is entirely to blame for what he did is hard to determine, because his motivations are never clearly stated in the play. Audiences never really know whether the Sisters and Lady Macbeth acted as triggers or as motivation. This unexpectedly moving monologue makes Macbeth look and sound unbelievably more humane than he had so far proved himself to be in the play. He is no less soulful for being a murderer. After listening to his monologue, audiences can't consider him as a killing machine without feelings. His wife's death causes him to reconnect with his own humanity, which makes him a true tragic hero, one that arouses both fear and pity.

English French
A watershed moment Un moment décisif
Demise Trépas
To be proof against Être protégé contre

Renouncing feeling and the self

Unlike traditional tragic heroes like Hamlet or Macbeth, who explore and express their feelings and emotions, some characters are shown repressing them. Their tragic flaw is their inability or reluctance to stomach or get to grips with what they feel, because it may conflict with one's education, values and ethos, as in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. 

The novel focuses on the memories of Stevens, a hard-working butler in a stately home who zealously committed himself to doing his job to perfection both in honour to his father and the prestige of the profession. To be a butler is not any job, according to him. It's a calling and a mission one has to dedicate one's life to, as he and his father did. Any desire or feeling that might interfere with or distract him from his task has to be repressed. That's how he manages to sacrifice his love for the housekeeper, Sarah Kenton, to duty. Indeed Stevens solely defines himself through his commitment to his job, considering all other aspects of life to be superficial, if not irrelevant, because they do not contribute to perfecting himself as a butler. His only aim in life is to be the best possible butler in all England, to be worthy of the prestige he sees in the job. It is only late in life, as he witnesses the decline of the aristocracy, that he happens to have regrets and wishes he had explored other aspects of life. However, the staunch certainty of having performed his duty is enough to solace him, as he explains in the following excerpt.

"What is the point worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one's life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that in itself, whatever the outcome, is a cause for pride and contentment."


Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day 


Stevens's reason seems to protect him against negative excesses. Words like "too much" are presented as negative when applied to emotions and as positive when referring to hard work. Unnecessary feelings and doubts have to be kept at bay, which is the exact opposite of what Hamlet is doing. To Stevens, the regrets and emotions resulting from introspection are a waste of time, which could be better used working to improve one's skills. The use of the adverb "surely" indicates that he is confident his approach is the best possible way to self-improvement and humble self-satisfaction, which to him are worthier than love and happiness. Being so radical may also be interpreted as a strategy to steel himself against regrets and nostalgia.

English French
Flaw Un défaut
Zealous Zélé
Butler Majordome
To solace Consoler
Outcome Le résultat/la conséquence

Being and feeling inspired

Feelings and emotions have a tremendous impact on who we are or might become. It is true of fictitious characters, but also of artists like Romantic landscape painters or abstract expressionists. It is their unique sensitivity, with which they relate to the world and people around them, that inspired them to become the artists they are.


Landscapes and soulscapes

The Romantic visual artists, who emerged in the late 18th century, had a passion for the scenic landscapes one can enjoy in Switzerland or in the English Lake District. Not only did they see nature as a boundless source of inspiration, but they also considered it as a mirror reflecting their melancholy or exhilaration. Only mountains, lakes, flowers and trees could truly understand them, which is why nature became both a refuge and an open air studio. Hence the word soulscapes, coined by critics to describe landscape paintings expressing emotions.

The early 19th century saw more and more such painters leaving their cramped studios to sketch, draw and paint on the spot, which resulted in a new conception of nature and inspiration. Painters like Constable or the Preraphaelites were among these. Whereas the former used his art to counter and deny industrialisation and mechanical progress, the latter used landscapes metaphorically to represent their characters' inner world, as in Millais's The Blind Girl.

The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais (1856)
The Blind Girl by John Everett Millais (1856)

© Wikimedia Commons

As indicated by the painting's title, the destitute girl cannot see, but she can hear and listen, as evidenced by the accordion in her lap. The idyllic landscape in the background, which the viewer can see, but not the girl, may be interpreted as a representation of the girl's own inner world, translated into a Romantic soulscape the viewers in Millais's time would have been able to relate to and decipher. Although she cannot see the world with her own eyes, she is nonetheless able to experience and recreate it through her other senses and thanks to music, just like Romantic painters didn't take landscapes at face value. The two rainbows transform the scenery in the background into an ideal fairy tale setting, i.e. a landscape of the mind. It can be viewed as symbolic of what she dreams of and aspires to – food and a quiet home for her sister and herself. However, the thundery sky, the ominous crows in the grass and the river that divides the girls from their imagined promised land may convey a more pessimistic messages. This ideal world is but a dream that will almost certainly never come true. In Millais's painting, expressing emotions through a landscape aims to denounce the living conditions of poor children in Victorian times. The blind girl must have been modelled after one of those poor orphans that were rife in the streets of London.

English French
Destitute Indigent
In her lap Sur ses genoux
Thundery Orageux
Ominous De mauvais augure
Rife Très répandu/endémique

Abstract expressionism

Inspired Monet's very last water lilies paintings, which verged on abstraction, a group of American artists emerged to vindicate and continue what the French impressionist had initiated at the end of his life.

Painters like Rothko or Joan Mitchell took his pictorial experiments many steps further, inventing their own brand of abstract painting. Their goal was not to get to the essence of things by simplifying shapes, but to use their painting to express and stir up feelings and emotions. Their painting was not meant to be intellectual, but purely emotional. That's why it became known as abstract expressionism, a kind of painting at the crossroads of Whistler's aestheticism and Monet's legacy.

Although inspired by more traditional landscape painters, abstract expressionists only took interest in colours and emotions, as can be seen in the paintings by Rothko and Mitchell. Their sources of inspiration might be nature, but it will only serve as a pretext to use colours to convey emotions. 

Mitchell's paintings may strike viewers as somewhat less abstract than Rothko's, because their titles refer to something real; a landscape, the rain, an insect. However, she explains that she never intended to copy or represent nature. She aimed "to paint what it leaves me with," which can be an impression, a sensation, an emotion or a memory. Her approach in this respect is very similar to Monet's. Mitchell's paintings were attemps to express what words were powerless to describe: "That particular thing I want can't be verbalized... I'm trying for something more specific than movies of my everyday life: To define a feeling."

Rothko, on the other hand, was more interested in the wide range of emotions that could be conveyed with colours. He tried to ascribe one shade to one specific shade to one specific emotion or feeling, as Caspar David Friedrich tried to do in the late 18th century. That's why Rothko's gigantic canvases are saturated with smooth colourful layers which are not designed to represent anything else but emotions that might be his own or the ones the viewer projects on them.


© Wikimedia Commons

English French
To vindicate Défendre
To stir up Susciter
To ascribe Attribuer
Layers Couches
Smooth Lisse