French literature. It’s a whole different world.
And if you’re just making your way into this world, you may not even know where to begin.
With hundreds of years’ worth of content to catch up on, taking the plunge and immersing yourself in the vast realm of classic French books can be overwhelming.
Lucky for you, we’ve got the lowdown, so if you’re looking for unforgettable reading material that spans centuries of French literature, you’re going to be one happy bunny.
But first, let’s look at exactly what and how you can learn from classic French books.
What You Can Do with Classic French Literature
Discover the origins of many popular phrases
If you don’t live in a French-speaking country, getting to grips with native idioms can be a bit of a challenge. While many classic French books contain language on the more formal side, they may also be packed with useful daily phrases and expressions.
Classic French novels are home to some of the most popular phrases and concepts in French culture, and stumbling across these in their original form can teach you tons about their usage. It can also give you more background on the common phrases you would come across on FluentU.
Unearth information about French culture
If you’re reading this, you probably already have some ideas about French culture, but there’s likely still a lot more for you to explore. French books have taken influence from all walks of life and regions of the country, and so they can really alter your perspective on what it’s meant to be French over the years. With classic literature, you can live alongside royalty, or hang out with servicemen—the French world is your oyster!
Get to grips with formal, traditional French
If you’re hoping to get familiar with formal French, then classic novels are a great bet. Many classic books contain perfect examples of how to write in French and how to utilize more formal language.
While there are some kinds of address that are rarely used in conversational French these days, many are still employed in written documents or bureaucracy, and it pays to understand how and when they are used.
Pick up a great conversation starter!
If the French are proud of their culture, it’s with good reason. Home to some of the most innovative and inspired thinkers of all time, France has really packed a punch in the artistic world and continues to do so today. Many French people still love indulging in a classic novel. Talking about books that you’ve read is a great way to begin a conversation in French and to get to know native speakers.
10 Classic French Books That Pack a Punch for Learners Today
1. “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo”
A classic adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas, “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo” is one of the most popular French books of all time. Following the very lucky life of central character Edmond Dantès, the book plots his initial rise and subsequent fall from grace. Blessed with a good job, popularity and a beautiful fiancée, Dantès is the envy of everyone around him until three men choose to plot against him, wrongfully accusing him of treason.
Dantès later manages to escape the hands of the law and vows to take revenge on those who wronged him. However, his actions come with consequences of their own, and his plots for revenge soon start to involve the people he loves as well as those he hates. With an interesting focus on human nature, “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo” is an illuminating look into French philosophy and thinking of the time, revealing what 19th-century writers thought about the self.
Written in older, more formal French, the book is a great way to get to grips with more complex written nuances, and features great examples of the past historic tense. While this tense is rarely used in modern conversational French, it can still be found in writing and knowing it will expand your usage and understanding of the language.
2. “Madame Bovary”
Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” is a very classic example of French literature, and is still incredibly popular today. The book looks at the effects of the rise of a bourgeois culture, showing a time when people who were capable of providing a good income for themselves became focused on their social image.
Set in rural France, the novel follows the life of bored housewife Emma Bovary as she laments her position as a doctor’s wife. Rejecting her loving husband, she embarks on a number of unsuccessful affairs and drowns her sorrow in debt. Over time, she becomes increasingly dissatisfied, and what started out as a somewhat flippant tale soon becomes something much deeper and more tragic.
While it might seem old-fashioned to us today, “Madame Bovary” was incredibly ahead of its time for its presentation of the French middle class. The book is flamboyant in its dialogues and descriptions, and is a great way to pick up a list of flowery French words. Flaubert’s written conversations are also realistic, and are a fascinating insight into the way French was spoken at the time.
3. “Les Misérables”
While most people are more familiar with the hugely famous musical, the story of “Les Misérables” found initial fame in Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, which is built around French historical events of the early 19th century. A longer narrative, “Les Misérables” the book follows characters in linear progression, looking into the lives of each person in much more detail than the musical does. As characters go about their lives, meet and part, you get a much more focused understanding of French culture at the time, as well as the reasoning behind and details within the Paris Uprising of 1832.
While one of the longer French novels around, “Les Misérables” is worth reading for its educated look into some major events of France’s history, and is a good way to gain insight into the action on the ground. Although it’s not directly based in reality, the story humanizes historical events and shows what those events could have been like for real people.
If you’re on the hunt for something quick and easy, however, you should turn your attention to Albert Camus’ hugely popular short novel “L’Étranger.”
One of the most well-known French books of all time, it’s a great read for learners to consider, and still holds a significant place in French culture.
A great introduction into the tricky topic of existentialism, the book tells the story of Meursault, a pied-noir (European living in Algeria during the French rule there) who, after attending his mother’s funeral, thoughtlessly kills an Arab man. The story is split into the time before and after the murder, following the innermost thoughts of Meursault as he reasons with himself about his actions.
While it’s a common choice for learners, “L’Étranger” may be one of the most enriching things you can read in the French language, and it will expose you to many new words and thoughts.
Written in the first person, the book is a great study of various tenses and moods, including the conditional.
5. “Thérèse Raquin”
The French are no strangers to doomed love. Written by naturalist author Émile Zola, “Thérèse Raquin” tells a love story with disastrous consequences for everyone involved. Central character Thérèse is betrothed to her sickly cousin, but just after their marriage, she meets her husband’s friend Laurent and soon becomes involved in an affair. In the hopes of making their lives easier, the cheating pair become embroiled in a dark plot that has incredibly grave consequences and pretty soon, things take a turn for the worse.
Like many other French books, this novel gives a really thorough insight into the intricacies of written French, flitting between different tenses and uses of pronouns. Use of the past historic tense is also a big focus and again, it’s great to have an understanding of how this tense works in order to be able to read the language with ease.
6. “Les Fleurs du mal”
Not all great French books are novels, however, and some of the greatest language lessons can be learned from classic French poetry. Perhaps the most famous of all non-narrative French writing, Charles Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal” is a great example of French philosophical thought, and pinpoints an important time in the country’s culture. Split into six themed sections, the poems delve into modernism and symbolism, mirroring popular cultural thought in 19th-century France.
Made up almost entirely of descriptive passages, “Les Fleurs du mal” is a perfect way to get acquainted with creative French writing and pick up an unusual turn of phrase or two. While the imagery in the poems takes a little getting used to, it’s a great way to test your brain and start thinking about the French language on a whole new level.
Written by celebrated French author Guy de Maupassant, “Bel-Ami” is a classic rags-to-riches tale, plotting everything that happens in between. Based around fictional journalist Georges Duroy’s life, the novel reveals how his manipulation of powerful and wealthy mistresses ensures his place on France’s social stage. As the plot follows Duroy’s life and affairs, we see how how his calculated moves influence the course of his life, and the greater effects that they have on other people.
Taking place in a vibrant society, “Bel-Ami” takes a lot of time to describe conversation and interactions, and can be a great way to pick up new turns of phrase for speaking. While much of the language is very much of its time, the novel shows interesting insight into the world of formal French language and is also a perfect example of the kind of book that French students read in school.
The book was recently made into an English language film which, while obviously not the best way to learn the language, provides a great opportunity to discover a modern day interpretation.
Of course, the French aren’t just masters of the novel and poetry. “Tartuffe,” a play by the celebrated French writer Molière, has tons of great vocabulary points on offer for learners! An example of classic French theater, the play focuses on Tartuffe, a fraudulent figure who claims to be pious and ends up fooling a young man and his mother into believing that his word should be followed at all times.
A morality tale, “Tartuffe” is one of the most popular pieces of French writing. Presented almost entirely in dialogue format, it plunges readers into a whole new world of conversational French. Due to the theatrical nature of the piece, you can expect to come face-to-face with a number of literary forms, such as the soliloquy. Literature in French doesn’t get much better than this, and if you want to perfect your own reading and writing skills, “Tartuffe” is a great text to get your hands on.
9. “La Cousine Bette”
Penned by one of the most prolific French writers—Honoré de Balzac—“La Cousine Bette“ is an incredibly popular classic read in France. Set in the mid-1800s, the novel follows a middle-aged married woman who is unsatisfied in her life and her marriage. Like many in her position, she curses the influence her extended family have on her life, and in a moment of madness, she decides to plot their downfall. Working with another unhappy lady, Bette proceeds to lure in and destroy a number of her male relations—something which, unsurprisingly, does not lead to positive things for the family.
“La Cousine Bette” contains the same kinds of language points as many other classic French novels, and is a great study of formal, conversational French. Due to its “racy” nature, however, the novel also features much more familiar terms of address, which are used throughout.
An in-depth study of human nature, the novel showcases the complexity of the French language, and the different ways it can be manipulated in order to fool others into a false sense of security.
10. “La Gloire de mon père”
A favorite amongst readers all over the world, author Marcel Pagnol is renowned for his accurate descriptions of rural French life and heartbreaking tales of family. The first in a series of novels that follow the same characters, “La Gloire de mon père“ is a celebrated novel. Focusing on the Pagnol family during their summer holidays, the book reveals how each member is affected by their brief stay in a small rural village and hints at tensions growing as a result of differing belief systems.
Out of all of these books, “La Gloire de mon père” is easily the most accessible and quick to read. If you’re searching for a great way into the world of classic French writing, it’s a wonderful novel to pick up, and it’s filled to the brim with great vocabulary points. Spanning a number of generations, the story is stuffed with unique descriptions. Dialogue is also rife in the book, and contains many useful turns of phrase.
Whatever type of book you’re searching for, the world of classic French literature has something for you.
Classic French books can teach you about tenses, spelling, conversation and much more.
They’ll take you on a trip down the lane of French history, open up your eyes to French culture and intensify your love affair with the language!
And one more thing...
If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
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