Analysis of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover

The novelistic memoir The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1914–96) is a modernist story of sexual coming of age in French colonial Vietnam. It is also a portrait of the young author. It is the most accessible and by far the most popular of Duras’s works, not the least because its interracial eroticism and exotic locale lent itself to film (director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s movie version appeared in 1992). Yet it retains traces of the postmodern fiction and screenplays that have been the basis of Duras’s critical reputation. (Her screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour might be usefully contrasted with The Lover, since it is an avant-garde evocation of much the same kind of sexual relationship.)

In adherence to the modernist paradigm, Duras’s young girl finds herself in conflict with the petty pretensions and narrow ambitions of her lower-middleclass family. Typical of such portraits, she is precociously mature and self-assertively willful in her hunger for experience, yet she is also hypersensitive, moody, and prone to brooding on self-destruction as a means of releasing herself from the tensions of desires that cannot be satisfied. Unlike Duras’s enigmatic postmodern fictions, in which disembodied voices are overheard referring in fragmentary speeches to possibly sinister actions in an obscure past, The Lover provides the semblance of psychological interiority, which serves to provide partial motivation for the transgressive activities that reflect, and further affect, the girl’s alienation from family and community. Like many modernist narratives, it describes a flirtation with abjection and madness in the course of tracking a self-awareness so intense that it produces a yearning for the oblivion of death. But because events are evoked in a sporadic manner—ostensibly as they return to memory—the relationships they might illuminate remain deliberately murky. That said, the narrator does not allow the reader to forget that memoirs are subject to more reconstructive shaping than other forms of fiction. For this reason, many of the implications of the book emerge out of the dialectic of disjunction and continuity as the mature narrator remembers the girl who lived the experiences.

Photograph by Lipnitzki / Roger Viollet / Getty

The narrator refers to the younger self she is evoking in her memoir as “the child who crossed the river.” This is literal inasmuch as the girl’s liaison with her Chinese lover necessitates crossing a geographical boundary marking racial and cultural difference. But by speaking of the girl and the river, Duras bestows a mythical, if not allegorical, status on each. The girl becomes an archetype in the archetypal act of crossing or transgressing a boundary that is itself an age-old symbol of time.

At the level of the plot, the crossing constitutes the initiation of sexual life, which, because it requires a crossing of the color line, also constitutes an embrace of the expansive world of otherness that forever cuts the girl off from the circumscribed world of conventional behavior and frames of reference. But the act of crossing the river must also be read as the very act that led the mature woman to be able to write the memoir. That is, the act of crossing the river expresses in symbolic terms the idea of a crucial existential act of selfdefinition, whose full import could not be known at the time. The girl returns across the river when she abandons her lover; but in a sense the narrator is the one who crosses the same river twice by going back to retrieve the feelings, thoughts, and actions of her younger self. Only the retrospective gaze of the mature author can fully appreciate the transgressive traversal of demarcations as a metaphor for the necessary artistic, and prideful, defamiliarization of an all-too-familiar shame of family impoverishment.

Duras leans toward the manner of her postmodern fictions when she suggests that the attempt to trace the erotic impulse necessarily produces gaps and uncertainties in the narrative because the ambiguities of the impulse are ultimately inexpressible. Yet she also seems to suggest that the erotic desires of her 15-year-old girl originated less as a response to isolation than as an expression of deep antagonism toward her hapless mother that also involves shame, resentment, and desire for revenge. The girl’s ambivalence and sometime antagonism toward her mother is linked to the latter’s personality, which tacitly demands that the girl grow up. Her mother is said to be childish and even mad, possessing no awareness of what her manifest displays of “despair” produce in her children. Her mother’s inability to cope with the demands of supporting her family is documented in the grotesque description of 600 chicks that her inept brooding had rendered deformed and incapable of receiving nourishment—a description that has metaphoric applicability to the emotionally maladjusted girl and her brothers.

The girl resents the mother for her persistent desire to “escape” from wherever she is, which the girl identifies as a manifestation of the desire to be released from the burden of her female child. She also resents her mother’s bourgeois pretensions and ambitions because they, too, seem to reflect obsessive fantasies of escape. This resentment is exacerbated by the shame of abjection. The girl is ashamed of her family’s déclassé condition, for which she holds her mother largely responsible. This shame is exacerbated by the mother and daughter’s shared recognition that in Indochina Europeans are not supposed to be poor: “We were ashamed, we sold our furniture but . . . we had a houseboy and we ate.”

But shame’s self-loathing produces shamelessness, which is how pride displays its abjection. However much contempt the girl has for her mother’s obsessions about escape, she also recognizes that she is motivated by much the same fantasy. The mature woman who narrates her younger self acknowledges that she too is someone who has always sought to leave. It was that impulse that had motivated the girl’s taking a wealthy Chinese lover—that and “a sort of obligation.” The ambiguity of the mother and the ambivalence of her daughter can be seen in the indirect way that the narrator tacitly links the girl’s amorous activities with prostitution and identifies the mother as a kind of pimp in denial: “The child knows what she’s doing is what the mother would have chosen for her to do, if she’d dared.” That is, the family needs the money that the lover provides.

Duras’s work is often analyzed in terms of its seeming affinity with the ideas of Jacques Lacan, whose revision of classic Freudian theory has been a major influence on the postmodern feminist analysis of feminine reflexivity. Duras seems to be aware of the psychodynamic foundations said to determine the daughter’s animosity toward the mother, particularly the special difficulties girls are said to have in negotiating their traumatic recognition that they lack a phallus, the signifier of autonomous selfhood. According to psychoanalytic theory, the daughter might well resent the mother inasmuch as she shares that lack. Furthermore, a son is said to afford the mother a more satisfying fetish substitute for the missing phallus than does a daughter. With regard to The Lover, the need to symbolically disavow her own castration—social, cultural, and psychological—might explain the mother’s greater love for her two sons, which is resentfully alleged by both the girl and the grown woman who narrates the story. What is more certain is that the acquisition of the phallus through sexual activity figures as one of the unconscious elements in the girl’s relationship with her lover.

A key scene in The Lover suggests Duras’s ambivalence toward the feminist critique of the way that the feminine desire for autonomous phallic selfhood, as a free agent capable of willing her life, becomes reconfigured as the attempt to become an object of masculine desire. Posing before a mirror wearing a man’s fedora, the girl imagines with satisfaction how she will look to others: “Suddenly I see myself as another, as another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes in circulation.” Duras repeatedly indicates that throughout the affair the girl has little sexual desire for the man, until just as she leaves him. Her pleasure and satisfaction is in being an object of desire—and not just the object of his desire, since she claims to like the fact that she is just one of his lovers, “indistinguishable” from the others. It is important to note that the mature woman who tells her story continues to define herself as an object of the desiring masculine gaze. She acknowledges that her reminiscences have been stimulated by a male’s admiring gaze, together with his comment that she now looks more attractive than she had looked back then.

This anecdote may be intended to function strategically as a means of further consolidating Duras’s erotically charged persona so that she seems the very embodiment of a feminine desire too strong to be abated by aging. But the anecdote does more than serve to discursively induce a commodifiable fantasy of the predominance of erotic desire in the organization of Duras’s life and writing. The narrator invites, indeed demands, the reader “look” at her as she crosses the river as one might access an image in a photo album. And there are passages when she seems to endorse her younger self’s insistence that to be looked at (that is, to be in the object position) is preferable to looking (that is, occupying the position of the subject—the position of being the willing free agent who chooses): “No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning.”

Duras makes it clear that the desire to be the object of the masculine erotic gaze does not entail subordination. The girl achieves subjectivity by choosing to be a cool, indifferent object of desire; and in so doing she dominates her lover from the seemingly passive position. Duras often describes the girl as fatalistic: “She doesn’t feel anything in particular, no hate, no repugnance either, so probably it’s already desire. . . . It’s as if this must be . . . what had to happen especially to her.” Detachment gives the girl the power of inexplicable enigma, the power that “perverseness” bestows. It also helps to establish the shadowy atmosphere of reverie that consolidates in the liminal space of the lover’s tryst. This space is an emotional or psychological space where the girl can act out, through sex, her alternating moods and contradictory impulses—such as her abiding, self-defining sense of sadness (“I could almost call it by my own name”) and the intimation of destined disaster that her mother has given her.

The girl’s detached passivity also serves to transform the lover into a means of achieving oblivion, a reflection of a suicidal desire that is also a form of aggression toward herself and toward her family: “Everyday we try to kill one another, to kill.” Duras makes little attempt to give the lover an objective existence, rendering him an insubstantial and vulnerable apparition, which for that very reason allows him to represent a set of interrelated preoccupations central to the girl’s inner life. He represents masculinity, adulthood, the social status of wealth and a more sophisticated cultural heritage; at the same time, he also represents racial Otherness, the lack of social status of the colonized, and a lack of autonomy, since he remains dominated by his father both financially and by the code of filial obligation that contrasts strikingly with the Western girl’s blithe transgression and conflicted relationship with her mother. These categorical designations are not stable. For example, being Asian, the lover is necessarily conceived as feminine by Europeans like her older brother, insofar as the feminine gender is a culturally defined position of shameful abjection that even she has internalized: “In my brother’s presence he becomes an unmentionable outrage, a cause of shame who ought to be kept out of sight.” Both she and her lover are hyperaware of the disparity between how he should be seen and judged in terms of the wealth-standard and how he is seen and judged in terms of the racial standard.

Ironically, the lover’s racialized self-consciousness is largely what constructs his erotic desire for the girl, while at the same time it serves to weaken him as a person and as a lover. Racial and economic differences both fuel his erotic obsession with the white girl and allow her to have more power in the relationship than she would otherwise have, given her age: “His heroism is me; his cravenness is his father’s money.” In her precociously intuitive way, the girl seems to recognize that being white makes her a fetish object that allows her lover to see himself as more alive than he actually is, while rendering him powerless in his dependency.

As with so many figures of Duras’s more experimental works, the girl commands power over the lover’s gaze precisely to the degree that she remains strangely blank. This quality of blank detachment and seeming self-sufficiency is dimly understood by the Chinese lover to reflect the desirable but ultimately unpossessable essence of whiteness itself. His desire is fetishistic inasmuch as she is an object whose unacknowledged function is to tacitly deny the possibility of his own castration. The girl has retained the phallus: She is uncastrated in a way that the lover is not once he leaves the social world of his own race and enters the white world.

A girl begins to know her self in the eyes of the lover: This is the book’s romance and the source of its mass popularity. The book has academic respectability because the self that she discovers is one whose perversity appalls her, even as she cannot resist claiming it as her own. In Duras’s postmodern fiction, the speakers are not necessarily reliable, and versions of events are meaningful only in their status as versions inasmuch as all humans construct narratives around nebulous incidents. In the manner of these metafictions, The Lover sometimes refers obliquely to acts of transgression while deliberately leaving the nature and consequences of these acts obscure. The narrator, for example, refers to a harsh, event but never makes clear what that event was. Neither does she identify her older brother’s terrible crimes, to which she darkly refers in a piecemeal way that creates a sense of mystery, but also risks frustrating the reader.

Key Theories of Marguerite Duras

Mazzola, Robert L. “Coming to Terms: Images and Masquerade in Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant.” In Marguerite Duras Lives On, edited by Janine Ricouart, 137–149.
Lanham, N.Y. and Oxford: University Press of America, 1998. Schuster, Marilyn R. Marguerite Duras Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
Selous, Trista. The Other Woman: Feminism and Femininity in the Work of Marguerite Duras. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.
Varsomopoulou, Evy. “Eros, Thanatos, I: The Sublimity of Writing the Family Romance in Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant.” In The Poetics of the Kunsterlinroman and the Aesthetics of the Sublime. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgatge, 2002.
Vickroy, Laurie. “Filling the Void: Transference, Love, Being and Writing in Duras’s L’Amant.” In Marguerite Duras Lives On, edited by Janine Ricouart, 123–136.
Lanham, N.Y. and Oxford: University Press of America, 1998.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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