Places: Sappho

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Sapho, 1884 (English translation, 1886)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Naturalism

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. SapphoCapital of France in which the novel opens in the midst of a costume ball at the home of the wealthy engineer Déchelette on the rue de Rome. Alphonse Daudet’s detailed description of the event and its illustrious personages, as seen through the eyes of the twenty-one-year-old student Gaussin, who has recently come to Paris from the south of France, reveals that the elegant lifestyle of the wealthy and famous socialites is but a facade. The gay masks behind which they hide foreshadow the revelations of hypocrisy and duplicity to follow.

While the grand hall appears like a fairy tale to Gaussin, he is uncomfortable and about to leave the ball when the courtesan Fanny Legrand, in the guise of an Egyptian woman, entices him with conversation, accompanying him to his student lodging in the rue Jacob. There, Gaussin chivalrously offers to carry Fanny up the four steep landings of the narrow stairway, but, in one of the funnier visual moments of the book, he is soon panting like a piano carrier despite his youth and enthusiasm for the task. Afterward, Fanny reappears frequently at his door for uninvited trysts; they walk about Paris, visiting cafés and bumping into once-famous artists who are now tarnished by time and dissipation, but whom Fanny always seems to know.

Eventually, Fanny entices Gaussin to come to her house on the rue de l’Arcade. It, too, appears opulent and luxurious on the surface, but the noisy arrival of a dejected suitor, whom Fanny berates in a low and vulgar fashion, quickly destroys the image of comfort and ease. Gaussin returns to his spartan student quarters, where he repeatedly turns away Fanny’s visits and prepares for his exams. When Gaussin becomes ill, Fanny seizes the opportunity to entrench herself in his life. They set up housekeeping on the rue d’Amsterdam, amid all the uproar of a nearly railway terminus. Eventually, however, Gaussin learns of Fanny’s checkered past. He loses his respect for her and returns to his family’s country estate.

Castelet estate

Castelet estate (kast-eh-lay). Once-renowned vineyard in southern France to which Gaussin returns. The estate brought prosperity to Gaussin’s family in the past, but it has been brought close to run by his uncle’s weakness of character and a series of agricultural disasters. Gaussin’s mother, an invalid, and his aunt, the selfless Divonne, as well as his two saintly sisters Martha and Mary, serve as dramatic moral contrasts to the corrupted Fanny, whom Gaussin often thinks derisively of as Sappho, as she was called by her former lovers: the artists, writers, and poets. Gaussin writes to her that all is over, but she sidesteps his dismissal, manipulating him into living with her again, this time in the country.


Chatville (SHAT-veel). Village outside Paris where Gaussin and Fanny settle in order to economize and be near prior neighbors whose company they enjoyed on the rue d’Amsterdam. They live in an old hunting lodge at the entrance to a wood, near the old forest road that is called the Pave des Gardes. This is a more idyllic setting than those in which Gaussin lives earlier in the story. He and Fanny enjoy the silent green space, the surrounding gardens, and a clump of trees sloping to the bottom of a hill.

BibliographyDobie, G. V. Alphonse Daudet. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1949. Biographical study with critical commentary interspersed in the story of Daudet’s career. Discusses the novelist’s attempt to create a believable story of an ordinary man in love with a Parisian courtesan. Claims Sappho is Daudet’s greatest contribution to the naturalist movement.Gosse, Edmund. French Profiles. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. Overview of Daudet’s career. Remarks on the particular strengths of Sappho, the novelist’s contribution to a French tradition that highlights the “obsession of the feminine.”Matthews, Brander. The Historical Novel, and Other Essays. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1901. Sensitive commentary on the novel’s theme, and a useful discussion of its place in Daudet’s canon. Emphasizes the moral qualities of the work.Roche, Alphonse. Alphonse Daudet. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Intended for general readers, offers an introduction to the writer’s major works. Discusses Daudet’s handling of the relationship between his principal characters in Sappho; comments on the publication history of the novel; remarks on the stir created by its appearance in nineteenth century France.Sachs, Murray. The Career of Alphonse Daudet. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965. Discusses Daudet’s place as a major figure in French literature. Analyzes the novelist’s handling of the love relationship in Sappho, calling it exceptionally well done and psychologically realistic.
Categories: Places