The Figure of the Eunuch in the Lettres persanes: Re-evaluation and Resistance
The eunuch appears as a major, although little commented on, figure in the Persian Letters published in 1721 and written by Montesquieu (1689–1755). The Letters are based on the observations of Usbek and Rica, two fictional Persian travelers in France. In the writings of Francois Bernier and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the eunuchs appeared as degraded, hideous and immoral beings. However, the Protestant traveler, Jean Chardin (1643–1713) took a sociological view of the eunuchs in the Persian harems, opening the way for a reversal of this point of view by Montesquieu. The Letters illuminate the alienation of which the eunuchs were victims. Regularly appearing in the novel, the eunuchs were finally able to give voice to their suffering and revolt. At the dawn of the Enlightenment, the eunuchs of the harem of Usbek in Isfahan are portrayed not only as slaves charged with exercising the power of the absent master but also and above all as dignified figures of respect. They are at once victims of masculine despotism and capable of revolting against injustice done to them, in the same way as the women, the other subalterns, enclosed in their harems.