Bruhn on Ripoll (2018)

Ripoll, Élodie. Penser la couleur en littérature: explorations romanesques des Lumières au réalisme. Classiques Garnier, 2018, pp. 492, ISBN 978-2-406-08302-3

Élodie Ripoll’s Penser la couleur en littérature: explorations romanesques des Lumières au réalisme offers an impressively thorough exploration of an undertreated subject: the use of color in literature. Ripoll uses a broad historical and interdisciplinary framework to demonstrate the rich complexity of her subject and to avoid conflating color in literature with color in visual art. The book argues that the scientific interest in color during the eighteenth century gave way to a countermovement in the nineteenth, as the rational understanding of color yielded to a perspective anchored in “les arts, propices à l’ambiguïté, au rêve, à l’irrationnel et à la subjectivité” (20). She shows this change through a corpus of fifty French novels published between 1720 and 1839, including works by Rousseau, Sade, Marivaux, Balzac, Hugo, Gautier, and other major figures. Where possible, she analyzes multiple works by each author as well as different variations of single works to see how their use of color changes over time. Rather than privileging texts where color features prominently, Ripoll purposefully includes works that are representative of their era but do not foreground color, since “ne pas utiliser de couleur n’est-ce pas déjà prendre position sur la couleur?” (19). Her choice of an all-French corpus is necessary, she argues, as different languages evoke color in different ways and thus require distinct analytical frameworks (41). 

The aims of Ripoll’s work are twofold: to resolve a critical contradiction in writing about color in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to correct implicit assumptions about color within literary studies. In the first case, she notes that literary critics tend to describe eighteenth-century novels as “pauvre en couleur” and marked by “l’univocité des symboles,” whereas they see color “au cœur de [l]a poétique” of nineteenth-century texts (10). Historians looking at color more generally, though, tend to see a different contrast between the two centuries. Manlio Brusatin and other historians working on color characterize the eighteenth century as a “longue parenthèse colorée” between the more somber seventeenth and nineteenth centuries (10). As such, Ripoll suggests, the relatively impoverished color content of eighteenth-century literature cannot be attributed to a general disinterest in color during the period. 

In addition to this historical goal, Ripoll is interested in filling a lacuna in literary studies. She notes that while color has been an object of study in its own right for several decades (citing works by Brusatin and Michel Pasterneau, among others), it still remains marginal in literary criticism (13). In the introduction to her 2017 special issue of French Studies devoted to “Thinking Colour-Writing,” Susan Harrow has a similar aim of correcting “[t]he persisting under-exploration of textual colour” (307). The issue’s contributors focus on literature from the late nineteenth century into the twenty-first, picking up where Ripoll’s work leaves off. Both Ripoll and Harrow reject the idea that color is a singular phenomenon instinctively understood by authors and readers. Instead, they underline the complexity of its study: analyzing color requires engaging with numerous disciplines, from optics to painting to cultural anthropology. In acknowledging these disciplinary perspectives and showing how they interact with literary analysis, Ripoll, like Harrow, works to elaborate a specifically literary understanding of color: how does literature “penser la couleur?” (20). 

Penser la couleur’s first section, “Couleur et littérature: Concepts, convergences, méthodes,” sets up the methodological grounding for parts two and three, which cover the historical understanding and literary use of color respectively. Ripoll establishes a preliminary methodology for writing about color in literature since there is not one readily available (25). To attend both to broad historical shifts and to textual specificity, she combines close readings of novels with statistical analysis inspired by Franco Moretti’s concept of distant reading. The former includes examining color words in specific passages from her corpus, while the latter uses the Frantext database to track the occurrences of color words throughout her corpus. With this bimodal approach, Ripoll considers color as a transdisciplinary object rather than one exclusively associated with visual art. The book’s second section, “La couleur dans la société française et ses pratiques intellectuelles,” delves into this transdisciplinarity, examining the place of color in the material culture, artistic practice, and scientific understanding of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The purpose of this historical account is to establish a point of comparison with the literature Ripoll studies in the book’s third part, “La Couleur française.” 

In this section, Ripoll puts her literary methodology into practice, combining visual tools such as graphs with close textual analysis to show the transition from the use of color as a symbolic and rhetorical tool in eighteenth-century literature to its use in the service of descriptive specificity and personal expression in the nineteenth. She finds that while eighteenth-century novels repeat certain tropes—“les teints de lis et de rose, les figures de blonde et de brune, le libertinage couleur de feu, le libertinage couleur de rose” (329)—authors in the nineteenth century use a much larger and more personalized repertoire of color words. The mix of quantitative and qualitative methodologies allows her to support her thesis without oversimplifying the complexity of her corpus and her project. While convincing, this section is sufficiently ambitious in scope that it could easily be a book of its own, and the compromise between statistical analysis and close reading in this restricted space necessarily limits the former and overstretches the latter.

Overall, Ripoll’s book is notable for its lucid development of a methodology that demands literary specificity and autonomy while still accounting for literature’s interaction with and inspiration from other disciplines. In addition, her work rightly encourages scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of literary imagery, and of literature in general to question our notions of descriptive transparency. Ripoll’s clear methodology will help such scholars avoid analyzing color in literary description as if it were equivalent to color in the material world or the visual arts. Her study succeeds both as a literary historical argument and as a theoretical model for the field of literary color studies as a whole. 

Maury Bruhn
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill