Persian Letters

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Persian Letters Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 59-page guide for “Persian Letters” by Montesquieu includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Juxtaposition of Eastern and Western Culture and Individual Reasoning as Opposed to Traditional Collective Thinking.

Persian Letters (Lettres Persanes in French) is a literary work often termed one of the first epistolary novels. It was written by Charles de Secondat, a social thinker and political philosopher more commonly known by his aristocratic title Montesquieu. The narrative follows Usbek and Rica, two noblemen from Persia, who travel to France and recount their experiences there. The novel was first published anonymously in 1721 in Amsterdam for fear of public repercussions. Today it remains one of the Enlightenment’s most significant novels. It not only helped establish the epistolary novel as a new literary form but also contributed to the transition from the Middle Ages into the modern era of free thought and intellectual pursuit.

Montesquieu remains one of the most influential philosophers of that era, which is known for its academic, theoretical, and humanistic interest in individualism, reason, and skepticism as the healthy alternative to unquestioned belief. His other major works include Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (1734) and The Spirit of the Laws (1748).

The first edition of Persian Letters consists of 150 letters (edition A), but that same year a second edition came out containing three additional letters but omitting 13 from the first printing. Finally, Montesquieu’s son prepared a posthumous edition in 1758, which reinstated all previous letters and added another eight, for a total of 161 letters. The Oxford University Press edition used in this guide, published in the US in 2008, numbers the letters according to edition A with the 11 Supplementary Letters added as an appendix. For the purposes of continuity, the numbering of letters in the Analysis refers to the entire 161 letters. The final version of Persian Letters also contains a Preface, in which an “anonymous landlord” asserts that he is offering to the readers his translations of his Persian lodgers’ letters, and a Postscript by Montesquieu (added in 1758) entitled “Some Reflections on the Persian Letters,” where he explicitly defines the book as a novel.

Plot Summary 

The narrative begins in 1711, with Usbek and Rica having just left their home country. Usbek, the older and more thoughtful of the pair, has left his palace and his five wives (Fatmé, Zachi, Zelis, Zephis, and Roxane) in the hands of his eunuch slaves. Their journey through the Ottoman Empire and Italy takes over a year.

During their journey, Usbek writes numerous letters to his friends Rustan and Mirza detailing his observations and pondering questions of faith, virtue, and statesmanship. He also writes to his wives and to his head eunuch, trying from afar to control things in the seraglio (where his harem lives).

Once they reach Paris, the two men express their thoughts on various topics concerning French and European culture, customs, religions, and politics. Usbek’s letters, like his character, are more philosophical in nature, and he discusses such topics as religious thought and practice, the types of governmental rules in Europe and Asia, and French fiscal policies. Rica, being of a lighter disposition, expresses himself in anecdotes, humorous storytelling, and brief but poignant insights on French fashion, society men and women, and the new culture of newsmongering, witty banter, and book-writing. They have numerous correspondents, the most frequent of which are their new friend Ibben from Smyrna and his Venetian nephew Rhedi.

These letters from Paris cover a period of nearly eight years, during which many historically significant things happen, such as the death of King Louis XIV in 1715 and the positioning of a regent while the next king is still underage. During this time, France is a teeming mix of old and new, rich and poor, aristocracy and commoners, all of which informs the Persians’ letters.

During the final three years of the letters (1717-1720), Usbek starts losing control over his seraglio, and the situation escalates until it ends in absolute chaos of betrayal, mayhem, and murder. The novel ends with the suicide of Usbek’s favorite wife, Roxane, who betrays not just him as her husband and master but the Islamic religion by refusing to obey its laws on women.

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Letters 1-23