Analysis of Jean Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose

The French novel The Miracle of the Rose was written by Jean Genet (1910–86) in 1943 while the author was imprisoned in La Santé penitentiary in Paris for theft. Published in 1946, this autobiographical work is based on the author’s experiences in the prisons of Mettray reformatory and Fontervault. The story pivots on a mobile, fl uid narrative mode that enables the narrator to move constantly from one prison locale to the next. He shuttles back and forth, merging past (Mettray) and present (Fontervault). In the process he nostalgically contrasts the motherly, paradisiacal Mettray, which, as he states in the novel, offered him a home and a family, to the desponding Fontervault that filled him with “distress and desolation.”

The narrator relates at great length his sexual relationships with fellow inmates, dwelling on his emotional attachments with Bulkaen, Harcamone, and Divers, whose beauty and strength have enthralled him. Of the utmost significance is the way the narrator fully identifies with his lovers. He views Divers, for example, as his extension and considers Bulkaen a sublimated, virile version of himself. Throughout, he also gives a detailed account of Fontervault, focusing on the prison’s discipline, as well as the prisoners’ dress and their harsh living conditions. He draws attention to the penitentiary’s stern regulations: The prisoners were regimented to rise at 6 A.M., dress, wash, have breakfast, and start work at the dim, unwholesome workshops until 6 P.M.

Jean Genet in 1960. Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

The narrator tends to provide an exhaustive account of the prisoners’ life at Fontervault, giving the narrative a marked sociological intent. His effort, carried out through a narration blending surrealism and realism, has a testimonial value alongside a pedagogical import. Both are designed to shed light on the subterranean world of prisons and familiarize the reader with the predicament of those living in these austere places. The narrator sets in a dialectical relationship, the antisocial and the well-established, marginal conduct and bourgeois values, with an attempt to transcend social and linguistic barriers. He partially achieves the ideal community he was yearning for through a style that mixes high poetic diction with underworld slang.

Just as the narrator connects “noble” language and prostitutes’ argot, past and present (Mettray and Fontervault), the underworld and policed society, the first-person storyteller establishes close links between prison and religion. To enhance the religious character of Fontervault, which like most sacred institutions in France was formerly a monastery converted into a penitentiary after the French Revolution (1789), he draws parallels between the prisoners’ life and the traditions of the monks and nuns who once inhabited the abbey. He even depicts the prisoners as faithful continuers of the traditions initiated by these ascetics: “The prison like a cathedral at midnight on Christmas, we were carrying on the traditions of the monks, who went about their business at night in silence. We belonged to the Middle Ages.”

The intricate link between prison and religion, prisoners and monks is further heightened first by the narrator’s implicit identification with the Christ, then by associating Harcamone with a deity. The narrator had known Harcamone at Mettray and when he saw him again at Fontervault he was fascinated by his supernatural power and beauty. In keeping with Genet’s “cult of the criminal,” the narrator comes to regard Harcamone as a “saintly,” “celestial” being. He thus elevates him to Christ-like status, capable of self-sacrifice and miracles. Unsurprisingly, the miracle that the narrator experienced at the penitentiary centers on this “exceptional,” dazzling figure who was awaiting execution for two murders he had committed. When he was 16 years old, Harcamone murdered a girl of 10. He tried to make love to her in the field and when she refused he slaughtered her. Fifteen years later he absurdly killed a prison guard who had always treated him with the utmost sympathy and kindness.

The narrator shows deep respect and devotion for what he calls “Harcamone’s oeuvre,” persuaded that by his horrid murders Harcamone had reached “a sort of purity.” His fascination for the murderer is such that he had visions of him 40 days before his execution. The first miracle occurred when he saw the murderer, wrist-and-ankle-bound, in the room used for shaving inmates. While staring at him, he saw the chains binding his wrists suddenly turn into garlands of white roses. Like a fervent believer the narrator cut off one of the most beautiful roses that had been attached to Harcamone’s left wrist. The head of the rose fell on the narrator’s naked foot and rolled on the floor.

The image of a pure, delicate head of a rose rolling on the floor suggests Genet’s tacit condemnation of the guillotining of criminals. It portends Harcamone’s death, which fills the narrator with fear and horror, a feeling exacerbated by his close identification with the murderer. During the four nights preceding the execution, the narrator, thanks to his strong emotional involvement and communion with Harcamone, could, spiritlike, witness all that was happening in the murderer’s cell. With the night of execution nearing, he experienced his greatest revelation: “On the fortieth night, I had a revelation; Harcamone’s cell appeared within me. Wearing his shirt, he went to the window. It still seems to me that as he walked his whole being screamed.”

During this epiphanic moment the narrator saw the sleeping Harcamone awaken when four black-clad men (a lawyer, judge, executioner, and chaplain) entered his room. Harcamone rose and began growing larger and larger until he outsized his cell, “burst[ing] it, fill[ing] the universe.” The four men grew comparatively smaller, reduced to insignificant insects climbing up to his legs. The narrator’s simultaneous aggrandizement of Harcamone and belittling of the chaplain and his companions show that Genet’s sympathy lies implicitly with the criminals and outcasts, not with the representatives of social order.

Symbols of the establishment, cold cerebration, and morality, the four men seem to be invested with the twin mission of chastising criminals and tracking down the site of evil. Like worms they explore Harcamone’s inmost depths, the judge and lawyer entering through the protagonist’s ear, the chaplain and executioner penetrating through his mouth. As they come closer to the heart they found themselves facing a splendid, dazzling rose. They spread the petals of the rose and on reaching the heart they were shocked to realize that the center of the rose resembled a black hole.

The four men’s abyssal plunge into the heart of the murderer leads to a blind alley, to say the least. The outcome of their search invites two observations. From society’s standpoint, Harcamone, the symbol of sin and cruelty, deserves to be guillotined because he is irredeemably hollow at the core. For the narrator, on the other hand, Harcamone’s dark center stands mostly for an impenetrable gray zone that defies rational explanation and moral codification. Along with indicating the inability to fathom humans’ deeper motives, the metaphor of the black hole calls into question the very notion of morality as a clear-cut, measurable, and fixed mode of conduct.

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Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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