Persian Letters Summary

Montesquieu

Persian Letters

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Persian Letters Summary

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Persian Letters, translated from the French version, LettresPersanes, is a literary work written by Charles de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu, more commonly known as Montesquieu. It is a series of letters which recount the experience of two Persian noblemen, named Usbek and Rica, during their travels through France. The novel was written in the year 1721. It contains such significant themes as comparative religion, exile, humanism, national identity and nationalism, race, and reason.

The novel was released in several different editions. The first version had only 150 letters, and is now referred to as edition A. This version is used in the most recent critical edition, included in the complete works of Montesquieu. The collection was published by the Voltaire Foundation in 2004. Edition B was made by the same publisher later the same year, and mysteriously includes three new letters but is missing thirteen of the original ones. There are several more versions that were created during the author’s lifetime, but they all derive from these two core versions.

A short piece written by the author is often included in newer editons, called, “Quelquesréflexionssur les Lettrespersanes.” This is the first mention Montesquieu makes of the letters being a novel. It is often considered an epistolary novel; however, such a term did not exist at the time as a constituted genre. The only model for this future genre at the time was Guilleragues’sLettresportugaises of 1669. The Persian Letters helped to confirm a format that was just beginning to be established. The novel as an epistolary structure is flexible: There are nineteen letter correspondents in total, with at least twenty two recipients.

It is the year of 1711, and Usbek has just left his seraglio, a sequestered living space for concubines and wives in the Ottoman empire. Usbek leaves Isfahan and begins his long journey to France. He is accompanied by a young friend of his, Rica. He leaves five wives, named Zashi, Zéphis, Fatmé, Zélis, and Roxane. These are in the care of several black eunuchs, one who is the head eunuch. The two men journey long and far, and spend a long time in Paris, France. During this time, they write to friends and mullahs, educated religious men, on everything they see and experience. This includes the numerous aspects of Western culture which are new and strange to them, the rules of Christian society, and more specifically, the politics of the French and the Moors. Included in this section is a biting satire about the System of John Law.

The two men express themselves on a wide range of topics. This includes governmental institutions to salon caricatures. They are displayed as very different personalities. Usbek is more experienced, and therefore asks more questions. He is troubled by religious contrasts more than anything. Rica is more of a free, less implicated man, and seems to be far more attracted to the society of Paris he is being exposed to. Much of what Louis XIV has accomplished prior to this era is still being widely admired. The letters tell us details about the completion of the Invalides, proliferating cafes and theatres, parliament function, tribunals, religious bodies, public places, and state foundations. The thriving culture is fascinating through the eyes of two Persians. The news press and periodicals are just beginning to grow and develop. Large-scale institutions like the university, groups and demographics such as the dandies, and individuals like the opera singer and the old warrior are detailed through Usbek and Rica’s letters.

Over time, the letters reveal more and more disturbing news from back home in the seraglio. In 1717, the situation quickly escalates and unravels. Usbek tries to order his head eunuch to instill some order and discipline, but the message does not arrive in time. A revolt occurs, which ends in the deaths of all of his wives. In particular, Roxane, Usbek’s favourite, dies from a vengeful suicide. As well, most of the eunuchs have died.

The letters are divided into a chronology, so to speak. Letters 1 through 21, or 1 through 23, tell of the journey through Isfahan, across the continent, and eventually the arrival in France. This entire section lasts almost 14 months, beginning on the 19th of March 1711 and concluding on the 4th of May 1712.

The next section contains Letters 22 through 89, or 24 through 92. This is the time period during which Louis XIV is still reigning over Paris and France. This period summarises their lives for three years, from May of 1712 to September of 1715.

The next section is comprised of Letters 90 through 137, or 93 through 143. This is the period of the Regency of Philippe d’Orleans. This section covers five years from September of 1715 to November of 1720.

The final section includes Letters 138 through 150, or 146 through 161. This section details the building climax—the events leading to the collapse of the seraglio in Isfahan—which in total takes approximately three years, from 1717 to 1720.