french-novels-for-high-school-students

10 Exciting Novels with Teaching Points for High School French Students

Finding the right novel for your French students is not a walk in the park.

They’d probably rather spend time surfing the web or browsing apps than read literature.

Modern technology obliging, students today tend to spend more time watching videos, playing online games and checking their social media feeds than reading books, however interesting those books may be.

Not to worry.

We have assembled for you the ultimate selection of page-turners that will forever change their perception of French literature while deepening their connection with the language of Molière.
 


 

10 Captivating French Novels for Your High School Students

Perfectly adequate for high school students, these novels will enrich their vocabulary while substantiating their general knowledge of the French literature and culture.

Oh! And in case your students favor use modern technology over the old paperback, you can easily find these titles in digital version.

Learn a foreign language with videos

1. “Candide” by Voltaire

What It Is About

A simple, naive, young man is indoctrinated into the optimism doctrine of German philosopher Leibniz by his teacher Pangloss, and then embarks on a life-changing adventure around the world.

Throughout his travels from Westphalia to Lisbon, Constantinople and the mythical El Dorado, he experiences catastrophes, violence and pain. Incredibly changed from his tumultuous journey, he eventually awakens to the harsh realities of the world and learns that “all is not best in all possible worlds.”

Why It Is Worth Reading

“Candide” is simply a must-read. This iconic, fantasy and drama-filled fairy tale has been taught to French students for decades.

Highly philosophical yet using words so simple that (French!) children could understand its language, it questions the true purpose of life and what it means to be happy—common questions and concerns for your young students.

If you are teaching past tenses, this is the novel for you. “Candide” features numerous descriptions that your students will enjoy—perfect to teach this specific usage of l’imparfait (imperfect) while reading entertaining content!

Your high school students will also particularly love the novel’s strong storytelling component and the exoticism that stems from the travels. Beautifully described, the hero takes us to various incredible settings that will leave them thinking and, more importantly, dreaming!

We particularly recommend “Candide” for its interesting perspective on the pursuit of happiness—”we have to cultivate our garden” (“il faut cultiver notre jardin”), meaning that happiness is within reach as long as you work for it. Your high school students may have different opinions on this deep question, which is a fantastic reason why it is likely to generate some lively debates.

Teaching Points

  • L’imparfait et le passé simple (imperfect and preterite). Voltaire resorts to both tenses in his novel. Use it as an opportunity to review conjugations and highlight the value and proper use of both tenses in general and in literature. Remind them that le passé simple est le temps de la narration et l’imparfait est le temps de la description (preterite is the tense used for narration and imperfect is the tense used for descriptions).
  • Satire as a tool of persuasion. “Candide” uses satire as a means of conveying powerful ideas. From the simple-minded hero who blindly clings to his beliefs in optimism even when all goes wrong to his overly-pedantic mentor, Pangloss, Voltaire has done a fantastic job criticizing the opposing philosophy of Leibniz.
  • The philosophy of the Enlightenment. “Candide” is arguably the most accessible novel to introduce your students to the movement that gave rise to the French Revolution and to the ideas of 18th century French philosophers. In this novel, Voltaire shares the evolution of how a man learns to think for himself and starts to free himself from commonly accepted religious beliefs and prejudices. It is an encouragement to build your own destiny and think for yourself, key ideas and philosophies of the Enlightenment.

2. “Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

What It Is About

In 1781 pre-Revolutionary France, an amoral libertine, Marquise de Merteuil, conspires with Vicomte de Valmont to get revenge on her former lover, now rival, for his putting an end to their relationship.

The novel provides a glimpse into the numerous love intrigues of the less-than-reputable youths and how they wreak havoc on the lives of innocent, chaste young men and women.

Why It Is Worth Reading

If you are looking for content to teach reported speech or actions, look no further. “Les Liaisons dangereuses” is all about that!

Reading this novel will enable students to sharpen their knowledge of indirect speech and the elements that they need to compose such sentences.

Your students may have watched the numerous movies that were based on this exceptional love story, including “Cruel Intentions.” Regardless, the story offers an interesting perspective on 18th century France with all its contradictions and moral codes. At its heart, it is a depiction of what happens when love turns into vengeance, and passion into power plays.

You should keep in mind that this work is pretty risqué, even for France—and even by today’s standards! You may want to pick and choose more appropriate chapters and excerpts to work with, or you may want to request permission from parents depending on the ages of your students.

Teaching Points

  • Reported speech. Focus on the structure of indirect speech and the effect that it has on readers. As an exercise, pick an excerpt and ask your students to turn reported speech into direct speech. It is a lot of fun, more than might be expected!
  • Epistolary novel: the art of writing letters. This novel was atypically written under the epistolary format. Use this as an opportunity to teach your students about letter formatting and its evolution from the 18th century to today’s emails. This could also be an opportunity to touch upon the various forms of letters, including business communications, complaints and inquiry messages.
  • France and le libertinage. This novel could provide a chance to discuss the controversial libertines, who evolved in circles of nobility during the 17th and 18th centuries. You can explain their widespread influence on history, from the literary spheres (think Marquis de Sade) to the French Revolution, partially triggered by the people’s growing frustration and dissent towards the aristocrats.

3. “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert

What It Is About

Married to a mediocre man in the French countryside, Emma Bovary, a bored housewife, begins an affair with a man younger than her.

Why It Is Worth Reading

“Madame Bovary” is the perfect introduction to figures de style (stylistic devices) largely because Flaubert uses them abundantly and because this novel’s figures de style are some of the most famous in French literature. Beyond their poetic aspect, there is a strong grammatical component associated with figures of speech.

Teachers tend to agree that “Madame Bovary” is ideal, authentic material for the French classroom—and it is the novel that best epitomizes the literary realism movement.

And indeed, Flaubert’s roman (novel), long described as a “perfect” work of fiction, inspired numerous novelists in his wake, from Nabokov to Proust and even Henry James. For your students to have studied French and not to have read “Madame Bovary” (or at least know about it!) would be considered sacrilegious by most.

Beyond its literary importance, the novel was a turning point in history.

Highly controversial when published, it was censored and heavily criticized by Flaubert’s contemporaries for infringing upon “good morals.” Think of it as the 19th century equivalent of “Fifty Shades of Grey” with much, much better writing.

Just keep in mind that this is a particularly long and complex work, so you will probably want to work with only a few chapters, or with an abridged version. If your students are exceptionally advanced, then and only then might you consider reading the entire novel with your class.

Teaching Points

  • Stylistic devices in French. Teach them the differences between metaphors and comparisons, ask them to identify figures of speech in the novel and, even better, ask them to write a short essay featuring figures de style. That is the best way to put this new knowledge to creative use!
  • Realism in literature. A realist novel written in reaction against Romanticism, Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” highlights the devastating consequences of Romanticism on the wife of a provincial doctor. Concerned more about the individual than society, literary realism is a study of human psychology, moods and characters. With origins in mid 19th century France, realism was one of the most influential movements in art. Aside from Stendhal, its most foremost novelists included Balzac, Flaubert and Victor Hugo.
  • What is the bourgeoisie? A highly connoted term in France, the idea of the bourgeoisie arguably still influences how the French perceive others. While English-speaking students may be familiar with Marx’s definition of a bourgeois person, or they may just recognize how it is used in English, the word dates back to the 18th century in French and once referred to the inhabitant of a walled city. Today, the word has evolved and taken on a life of its own, with the French often calling a wealthy individual living a carefree, liberal lifestyle a bobo, for bourgeois bohême.

4. “Le Tour du monde en 80 jours” by Jules Verne

What It Is About

Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout attempt a circumnavigation of the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club in London.

Why It Is Worth Reading

Another great introduction to past tenses, this novel will enable you to review passé simple, imparfait et passé composé (preterite, imperfect and present participle). After reading this exciting novel, rest assured that your students will master these tenses like pros!

Arguably Jules Verne’s most famous novel, “Around the World in 80 Days” is an excellent introduction to the work of this French science fiction visionary and novelist. Celebrated and read worldwide, it is a true masterpiece that will strike your students for its modernity and delight them with exoticism.

To attest to its status of an icon in literature, the novel inspired numerous adaptations, including a play by Orson Welles, an eponymous TV series and various Hollywood blockbusters.

Teaching Points

  • Past tenses. Go over fundamental past tenses (and some more difficult ones, like subjonctif présent) with your students and teach them how to differentiate them. It could also be the right time to also review and practice the accord du passé simple (preterite conjugations) and, if your goal is to really push their understanding of French grammar further, the concordance des temps (sequence of tenses).
  • Jules Verne: a visionary? Considered by many to be the father of sci-fi, Jules Verne truly had his head turned towards the future. He foresaw and wrote about some of humanity’s most incredible technological breakthroughs, inspiring investors and engineers in his wake. From travel to the moon and the center of the Earth to the concept of weightlessness, submarines and launchers sending objects into orbit, this should be an occasion to introduce to your students one of the most prolific and imaginative artists to grace our planet.
  • The Western world in the Age of Exploration. A prominent theme of this novel, the 19th century was an era marked by discoveries and conquests. This should be an occasion to discuss with your students the bright and dark sides of European exploration, from the influence of exoticism in art and literature to colonialism and the process of acculturation.

5. “La Peau de chagrin” by Honoré de Balzac

What It Is About

A young man finds a piece of shagreen that makes all of his wishes come true. Great, right? All would be well, except that the piece shrinks and consumes his energy every time it works its special brand of magic.

Why It Is Worth Reading

In this brief piece, Balzac focuses on immediacy—and this shows in the tenses and short, concise sentences that he uses. The dramatic effect that stems from this brilliant use of conjugation and grammar is well worth studying with high school students as they get more comfortable with their command of the French language.

Short, easy to read and cleverly written, it is no wonder why Balzac’s “Peau de chagrin” is still a hit with students today.

A classic that addresses a fundamental human question: If you could have anything you wanted but had to give your life in return, would it be worth it? Reading it in class could be what you are looking for if you are hoping to get your students to talk more about philosophy.

Teaching Points

  • Using grammar and present tenses to convey the finite aspect of human nature. Balzac’s clever use of concise quotes and rhetoric questions as well as the use of présent de vérité général (permanent present) helps promote the novel’s theme of mankind’s finite life. Ask your students to what degree this could not have been achieved with any other tense, such as the imperfect or preterite, and encourage them to write their own work about a philosophical subject using permanent present.
  • Vouloir, pouvoir, savoir (To will, to be able, to know). This novel explores the devastating influence of fortune and wealth, summarized in four highly coveted powers and showing to what extent possessing them can be destructive. This novel can be a great way to engage some very interesting discussions with your students about the role of ego and our quest for omniscience. It could be an opportunity to stage some debates between teams of students and explore whether or not, based on their reading, a pact with the devil is worth it or not.
  • Symbolism in literature. A key artistic tool, symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas, qualities and characters and giving them meanings that are different from their literal sense. Aside from the incredible creative freedom this offers, writers usually resort to symbolism for very deep, thought-out reasons. Here, Balzac uses numerous symbols to make his case against the frivolity of society.

For example, Foedora, a vain socialite who is the hero’s chosen woman, embodies society and eventually causes his misfortune. Symbolism also encourages the reader to go beyond appearances, another key theme of this novel. Put this new knowledge to practice and ask them to write a short essay on the topic of their choice. Anything goes, from the joys of family time to the devastating effects of consumerism, with only one requirement—that they use symbolism in their writing!

6. “Le Dernier jour d’un condamné” by Victor Hugo

What It Is About

A inmate who has been sentenced to death recounts his last thoughts, fears and feelings as he awaits his sentence. Never once named, to give the reader the sense that this inmate’s story is shared by all inmates on death row, this tale is Hugo’s contribution to the debate against the death penalty, which was not abolished in France until 1981.

Why It Is Worth Reading

This is quite possibly the best way to practice conjugations. Considering that the entire novel is written from the “I” point of view, it will be a great opportunity to review the first person—and have pride in themselves while understanding this complex, mature novel written from the perspective of another person.

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, this novel is a troubling, raw testimony about a sensitive issue that still divides numerous countries, including the United States. Reading it could provide a humane perspective to your students and could be a great opportunity to stage lively, informed class debates about the death penalty.

Teaching Points

  • Expressing yourself. The novel is the perfect illustration of what a French-speaking person’s thoughts might sound like. Written in the first person, working with this novel can be an opportune time to go over introspection and how it impacts the writing. It could also be a great time to practice transformations. Select a few paragraphs and ask them to rewrite them from the “we” or “you” point of view. Not as easy as it seems and the devil is in the details here: From conjugations to pronouns and adjectives, there are numerous elements impacted by the use of personal pronouns!
  • The death penalty. No longer enforced in France, the death penalty was still popular in the Hexagon when it was abolished by the French Parliament in 1981. Today, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty but many others, including China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States still enforce it, with 1,634 people executed in 2015 according to Amnesty International. To complement their reading, offering current stats and key facts could help your students have a better, richer perspective on this dividing issue.
  • Writing a journal. From Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” to Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” numerous writers like Hugo have opted for fictional diaries as the preferred form to share their stories. Use this reading as an opportunity to go over the basics of the literary journal and use this as an exercise by asking them to write their own work of fiction in a simple journal. Any topic is allowed: the focus here is on the form and conventional elements of the diary. Do not overwhelm them—the short novel should progress in five pages or four daily entries.

7. “L’Etranger” by Albert Camus

What It Is About

In the French Algeria, a detached man named Meursault receives a telegram announcing the death of his mother. Shortly after attending her funeral, he is arrested for killing an Arab man.

Why It Is Worth Reading

Incredibly well-written and rich in meaning, “L’Etranger” is one of the most famous books in French literature.

For your students, it is an easy, lively way to review passé composé (present perfect). In the first part of the novel, Meursault recaps all the actions that have recently occurred, and the thoughts that immediately followed them.

Published in 1942 during the Second World War and representative of the philosophy of the absurd and existentialism, it was translated into 40 languages and turned into a movie by legendary filmmaker Visconti in 1967.

Teaching Points

  • Le passé composé (present perfect) and its usages. One of the most useful tenses in the French language, present perfect is also one of the most seemingly easy tenses—but it is not as easy as it looks. Read this novel and ask your students to pay attention to conjugation exceptions. Focus on detailing the usages and values of this tense, and what effects they create in literature.
  • France’s colonial empire. This novel could be a great opportunity to introduce your students to colonialism, a dark side of the French history with long-lasting effects felt even today. Based in Algeria, where Camus was born and a former French department, the novel details the divide between locals and the French police on multiple occasions. A good opportunity to recount the daily impact and side effects of colonialism at the time, and how it came to an end.
  • Camus’s absurd and existentialism. Perhaps the most influential philosophical movements of the 20th century, the philosophy of absurd and existentialism have shaped the debate of ideas at a time where mankind was torn by two annihilating wars and was desperate for a deeper meaning to life. Use the novel as an introduction to these philosophies and ask your students to focus on elements that demonstrate to what extent it epitomizes these concepts.

8. “Soumission” by Michel Houellebecq

What It Is About

In 2022, a conservative Muslim party wins the presidential elections and transforms the country. The effects on France’s identity and political landscapes are profound.

Why It Is Worth Reading

Famous for his scandalous work, Michel Houellebecq is a writer to know.

In this work, he does a fine job detailing a tragic vision of the future. Have your students pay special attention to the numerous adjectifs qualificatifs (adjectives) and adverbs he uses to describe his characters’ personalities, appearances and quirks.

And if your students have no interest in the classics and only care for recent novels, look no further. Controversial for its theme of a Muslim President in France, this political satire was published in January 2015, in the wake of the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks, and brought both praise and criticism upon its writer.

Well-written, equally shocking as it is prophetic, the novel was an instant bestseller upon its release, topping charts of book sales in France, Italy and Germany with 120,000 copies sold within 5 days and 345,000 copies sold within a month.

Teaching Points

  • Adjectifs et adverbes (adjectives and adverbs). Houellebecq uses numerous types of adjectives and adverbs to help readers have a better understanding of his characters’ personalities. From adjectifs qualificatifs (qualified adjectives) to adverbes de manière (manner adverbs), de temps (time adverbs) and de fréquence (frequency adverbs), this is the ideal novel to teach them the differences between those important terms, and how they affect the reader’s perception of the actions described. To recap, ask your students to write a short character description using as many adjectives and adverbs as possible.
  • Immigrants and integration. A sensitive, topical issue facing France and the rest of Europe today, immigration and integration of new entrants from different cultures is a recurring theme in Houellebecq’s novel. Discussed in the background is France’s extremism embodied by its Front National party, the coexistence of individuals with Christian, Muslim, Jewish roots and the unlikely rise of a French-born Muslim academic from an immigrant background. Use this novel as a starting point to introduce the impact of immigration in Europe, and compare it with the approach and results observed in the U.S.
  • Satire. Who said that you had to be serious to convince an audience? Throughout history, writers and politicians have resorted to satire to convey controversial ideas and make their case. Use this novel and recent examples, including the Muslim cartoons and the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoons to debate whether or not using satire is going too far. Ask students to form debate groups and prepare their arguments before Debate Day!

9. “Le Comte de Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas

What It Is About

A man, Edmond Dantès, wrongfully sent to prison, escapes, amasses a fortune and sets out to get revenge on those who sent him to jail—but his plans have devastating consequences.

Why It Is Worth Reading

This is the perfect novel to teach students about preterite and its unique use as the tense for a succession of events in the past and in literature. How so? Because despite its length, “Le Comte de Monte Cristo” progresses at an incredibly fast pace, so there is never a dull moment!

Plus, who doesn’t know about this story?

Le Comte de Monte Cristo” is a true classic and one of Dumas’s most famous novels for many good reasons. Inspiring and incredibly moving, it may well be one of the best, most gripping stories ever written. While on the long side, its impressive style and rich adventures make up for the amount of words that may discourage less experienced readers.

Teaching Points

  • Rapporter des actions passées (recounting past actions). This is the best novel to teach about the tenses used to recount a succession of actions in the past. Focus on the elements that enable the writer to keep the pace fast, such as the use of preterite, the accumulation of very concise groupes verbaux (verb groups) and the use of simple sentences rather than complex sentences.
  • The vocabulary of war and the Empire. This novel will dramatically enrich your students’ vocabulary, specifically technical words and titles focused on war and the First Empire. What a great introduction to one of the key part of the French history!
  • Napoleon Bonaparte. While the French general-turned-emperor isn’t a character of the novel per se, Bonaparte’s ideas and actions appear in the background, giving readers a good sense of what was happening when he was at the helm of the country. Use this novel as an opportunity to go further and introduce your class to one of the most influential characters in history. A fun way to do this is by selecting a few fun facts, converting them to questions and quizzing the class. Whoever gives the right answers, wins! Alternatively, select a documentary on Napoleon, watch together and discuss to what extent this is representative of what is described by Dumas in this novel.

10. “Les Mots” by Jean-Paul Sartre

What It Is About

The life of Jean-Paul Sartre, written by Jean-Paul Sartre himself.

Why It Is Worth Reading

This touching autobiography is a great way to review and practice dialogues, from tenses to the various verbs used to characterize speech and how to properly format dialogues elements in novels, especially the differences between how guillemets (quotation marks) and tirets (dashes) are used in French and in English.

One of Sartre’s best work, “Les Mots” won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964. The story would have ended there, except that Sartre refused the award to protect the authenticity of his book.

Teaching Points

  • Structuring a dialogue. Writing a novel requires that your students are familiar with the elements necessary to build a dialogue. Go over present tenses and interjections, as well as the vast array of verbs used to describe how a speech is delivered, all perfectly featured in this poignant work.
  • Writing an autobiography. Unlike writing a journal, which involves a daily, immediate recount of one’s actions, thoughts and doubts, writing an autobiography requires that the writer gain a certain distance from their past and share their point of view on their life. With a focus on introspection, it is a challenging endeavor that calls for honesty with themselves, their past and their audience! Use “Les Mots” as a tool to assess to what extent Sartre’s autobiography exemplifies the complexity of this literary exercise.

 

Your high school students will love these novels and exploring the French culture through the eyes of these prominent French novelists.

Beyond the personal, intimate nature of the act of reading, don’t forget to encourage your students to share their opinions of these works with their classmates.

Happy teaching!

Oh, and One More Thing…

If you liked these teaching ideas, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.

It’s got a huge collection of authentic French videos that people in the French-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.

You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.

2014 10 09 20.42.25 9 Great Channels to Learn French on YouTube

On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

2014 10 09 20.44.00 9 Great Channels to Learn French on YouTube

For example, if a student taps on the word “suit,” they’ll see this:

2014 10 09 20.44.51 9 Great Channels to Learn French on YouTube

Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun questions based on what the student already knows.

2014 10 09 20.45.27 9 Great Channels to Learn French on YouTube

It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about French!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach French with real-world videos.

Bring French immersion to your classroom!

Comments are closed.