Here are the best classic books from French literature that are a must-read for literature enthusiasts! For many centuries, France has had a high reputation in European intellectual culture, and its literature is no exception. French authors have produced works known around the world, pioneered and reinvented genres, and explored everything from marriage to revolution. From Albert Camus to Victor Hugo and Jules Verne, there are a lot of talented writers that France has gifted to the world.
Whatever type of book you’re searching for, the world of classic French literature has something for you. These classic French books listed below will 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! Whether you’re looking for a list of the best French books of all time, or you just want to explore French literature, here is my pick of classic French books you should read.
The 30 Best Classic French Books Of All Time
Being French, I’ve loved to read ever since I was a young child. And I have so many great memories of curling up with a book and getting swept away by the stories. That’s why it was very difficult for me to narrow down my list to just thirty books. There are so many French classics to choose from! But I think I’ve come up with a great assortment of novels, poetry, and philosophy books from the 18th, 19th, and 20th century, that you should add to your “to be read” lists. Get ready to take notes…here are my favorite French classics that you definitely need to read!
1. Fables, Jean de la Fontaine (1668)
La Fontaine’s Fables are considered among the masterpieces of French literature. The Fables were written over a period of more than twenty-five years. The first six books of fables were published in 1668, five more books appeared in 1673-1679, and the twelfth and final book was published in 1694. Almost all fables are written to provide a moral lesson to the reader. Usually written for children, they teach about life through the use of animals who symbolically represent human traits and flaws.
2. Le Malade Imaginaire, Molière (1673)
The Imaginary Invalid was Molière’s final play, first performed in February 1673 in Paris. The story is about the hypochondriac Argan who wants his daughter to marry a doctor so he can save on his medical bills. But she’s in love with someone else. Soon the whole household joins in her madcap scheme to save true love and give Argan’s doctors a dose of their own medicine. A satire of the medical profession and a comedy-ballet, or a comedy combined with song and dance, the play contains a good deal of farce and was written to amuse King Louis XIV.
3. Candide, Voltaire (1759)
The story begins with a young man, Candide, who is living a sheltered life in an Edenic paradise and being indoctrinated with Leibnizian optimism by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. The work describes the abrupt cessation of this lifestyle, followed by Candide’s slow and painful disillusionment as he witnesses and experiences great hardships in the world. In this book Candide, Voltaire ridicules religion, theologians, governments, armies, philosophies, and philosophers. Immediately after its secretive publication, the book was widely banned to the public because it contained religious blasphemy, political sedition, and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of naïveté.
4. Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos (1782)
Dangerous Liaisons is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two narcissistic rivals (and ex-lovers) who use seduction as a weapon to socially control and exploit others, all the while enjoying their cruel games and boasting about their talent for manipulation. It has been seen as depicting the corruption and depravity of the French nobility shortly before the French Revolution.
5. Le Rouge et le Noir, Stendhal (1830)
The Red and the Black chronicles the attempts of a provincial young man to rise socially beyond his modest upbringing through a combination of talent, hard work, deception, and hypocrisy. He ultimately allows his passions to betray him.
6. Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac (1835)
Pere Goriot is a pessimistic case study of bourgeois society’s ills after the French Revolution. The story tells the intertwined stories of Eugène de Rastignac, an ambitious but penniless young man, and old Goriot, a father who sacrifices everything for his children.
7. Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (1844)
The Count of Monte Cristo tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a nineteen-year-old Frenchman, falsely accused of treason, arrested, and imprisoned without trial in the Château d’If, a grim island fortress off Marseille. A fellow prisoner, Abbé Faria, correctly deduces that his jealous rival Fernand Mondego, envious crewmate Danglars, and double-dealing Magistrate De Villefort turned him in. Faria inspires his escape and guides him to a fortune in treasure.
8. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1857)
Madame Bovary tells the bleak story of a marriage that ends in tragedy. Charles Bovary, a good-hearted but dull and unambitious doctor with a meager practice, marries Emma, a beautiful farm girl raised in a convent.
9. Les Fleurs du mal, Charles Baudelaire (1857)
A confession of hopes, dreams, failures, and sins, The Flowers of Evil attempts to extract beauty from the malignant. Unlike traditional poetry that relied on the serene beauty of the natural world to convey emotions, Baudelaire felt that modern poetry must evoke the artificial and paradoxical aspects of life. One of my favorite French classic books you definitely should read!
10. Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (1862)
Les Misérables centres on the character Jean Valjean, an ex-convict in 19th-century France. The story spans many years as it tells of Valjean’s release from prison and reformation as an industrialist while being constantly pursued by the morally strict inspector Javert.
11. Voyage Au Centre de la Terre, Jules Verne (1864)
In Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, a geology professor, Otto Lidenbrock, and his nephew Axel discover and decode an ancient document that purports to show that a dormant volcano holds a secret entrance to a series of caverns leading to a subterranean world at the earth’s center.
12. Germinal, Emile Zola (1877)
Germinal is the thirteenth novel in Émile Zola’s twenty-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart. Often considered Zola’s masterpiece and one of the most significant novels in the French tradition, the novel is an uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coalminers’ strike in northern France in the 1860s.
13. Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant (1885)
Bel-Ami chronicles journalist Georges Duroy’s corrupt rise to power from a poor former cavalry NCO in France’s African colonies, to one of the most successful men in Paris, most of which he achieves by manipulating a series of powerful, intelligent, and wealthy women.
14. Poésies Complètes, Arthur Rimbaud (1895)
Poésies Complètes is the title attributed to the poems of Arthur Rimbaud written between 1869 and 1873. “Le bateau ivre” is probably his best-known poem.
15. Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand (1897)
Though Cyrano de Bergerac is a fictional play, Rostand based the titular character on a real man, Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac. In the play, Cyrano is a tragic, though larger-than-life figure whose similarly large nose keeps him from openly wooing the woman he loves.
16. Alcools, Guillaume Apollinaire (1913)
Alcools is a collection of poems by the French author Guillaume Apollinaire. The first poem in the collection, Zone (an epic poem of Paris), has been called “the great poem of early Modernism” by the scholar Martin Sorrell.
17. Le Blé en Herbe, Colette (1923)
Green Wheat recounts the story of Phil and Vinca, two childhood friends who spend all their holidays together by the sea. Though aged only 16, Phil meets a “woman in white” who is much older than him and he becomes her lover.
18. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust (1927)
In Search of Lost Time, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past, novel in seven parts by Marcel Proust, published in French as À la Recherche du Temps Perdu from 1913 to 1927. The novel is the story of Proust’s own life, told as an allegorical search for truth. One of my favorite French classic books you need to read!
19. Voyage au bout de la nuit, Céline (1932)
Journey to the End of the Night is the first novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. This semi-autobiographical work follows the adventures of Ferdinand Bardamu in the First World War, colonial Africa, the United States, and the poor suburbs of Paris where he works as a doctor. I do love this French classic book!
20. La Nausée, Jean-Paul Sartre (1938)
Nausea takes place in “Bouville” (a homophone of “Boue-Ville”, literally, “Mud town”) a town similar to Le Havre, and it concerns a dejected historian, who becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself, on his intellectual and spiritual freedom, evoking in the protagonist a sense of nausea.
21. L’Etranger, Albert Camus (1942)
The title character of The Stranger is Meursault, a Frenchman who lives in Algiers (a pied-noir). The novel is famous for its first lines: “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.” The reader follows Meursault through the novel’s first-person narration to Marengo, where he sits vigil at the place of his mother’s death. Despite the expressions of grief around him during his mother’s funeral, Meursault does not show any outward signs of distress. This removed nature continues throughout all of Meursault’s relationships, both platonic and romantic.
22. Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
The Little Prince follows a young prince who visits various planets in space, including Earth, and addresses themes of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss. Despite its style as a children’s book, The Little Prince makes observations about life, adults, and human nature.
23. L’Ecume des Jours, Boris Vian (1947)
Froth on the Daydream is a novel that employs surrealism and contains multiple plot lines, including the love stories of two couples, talking mice, and a man who ages years in a week. One of the main plotlines concerns a newlywed man whose wife develops a rare and bizarre illness that can only be treated by surrounding her with flowers.
24. Mémoires d’Hadrien, Marguerite Yourcenar (1951)
Memoirs of Hadrian is a novel about the life and death of Roman Emperor Hadrian. The book takes the form of a letter to Hadrian’s adoptive grandson and eventual successor “Mark” (Marcus Aurelius). The emperor meditates on military triumphs, love of poetry and music, philosophy, and his passion for his lover Antinous, all in a manner similar to Gustave Flaubert’s “melancholy of the antique world.”
25. Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan (1954)
Bonjour Tristesse is the story of Cécile, who lives with her rich father Raymond on the French Riviera. Their relationship is upended when Anne, a mature and cultured friend of Raymond’s late wife, arrives at the villa. Raymond quickly falls for her, and Cécile worries that their way of life will be disrupted. As Raymond tries to turn away from his past playboy lifestyle, Cécile schemes with Raymond’s mistress Elsa to destroy his and Anne’s relationship, with tragic consequences.
26. La Gloire de mon père, Marcel Pagnol (1957)
My Father’s Glory is a 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. 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.
27. Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée, Simone de Beauvoir (1958)
Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a superb autobiography by one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century: Simone de Beauvoir. This book offers an intimate picture of growing up in a bourgeois French family, rebelling as an adolescent against the conventional expectations of her class, and striking out on her own with an intellectual and existential ambition exceedingly rare in a young woman in the 1920s. Simone de Beauvoir describes her early life, from her birth in Paris in 1908 to her student days at the Sorbonne, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre.
28. La Promesse de l’Aube, Romain Gary (1960)
Promise at Dawn begins as the story of a mother’s sacrifice. Alone and poor, she fights fiercely to give her son the very best. Gary chronicles his childhood with her in Russia, Poland, and on the French Riviera. And he recounts his adventurous life as a young man fighting for France in the Second World War.
29. Belle du Seigneur, Albert Cohen (1968)
Belle du Seigneur is a 1968 novel by the Swiss writer Albert Cohen. Set in Geneva in the 1930s, the narrative revolves around a Mediterranean Jew employed by the League of Nations and his romance with a married Swiss aristocrat.
30. L’amant, Marguerite Duras (1984)
The Lover tells the story of a young French girl living in Colonial French Indochina during the early 1930s. As her family’s fortunes decline, she begins a sexual relationship with a much older Chinese man who, in turn, financially supports the family.
Et voilà! I hope this guide to the best classic French books will help you explore a little bit more French literature. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comment section below.
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Leonce is the founder and editor of Leonce Chenal, a lifestyle platform launched in 2018. Originally from France, Leonce offers a fresh perspective that comes from her experience at top tech companies in Paris and London. Having spent several years in Paris and now residing in Amsterdam, she combines her professional expertise with a personal passion for French and Parisian styles. Leonce is committed to guiding her readers through the intricacies of Parisian chic, empowering them to embrace the elegance and sophistication of French style.