The novel Our Lady of the Flowers was written by Jean Genet (1910–86) in 1942 at Fresnes prison but not published until 1944. Genet in this novel addresses three major themes: homosexuality, thievery, and murder, with a focus on the transgressive function of stealing and sexuality’s spiritual vocation. Just as he believes that God can be approached through spirituality and sexuality alike, Genet conceives of theft—a symbolic violation of social order—as a privileged source of poetic inspiration. He once told a judge in a hearing case, as reported in the Paris newspaper Aujourd’hui in 1940: “If I hadn’t been a thief I would have stayed ignorant and all the beauties of literature would have remained foreign to me, since I stole my first book to learn my ABCs. . . . In a way, I developed a taste for spiritual nourishment.”
The universe that Our Lady of the Flowers depicts is peopled by male prostitutes, pimps, pederasts, and murderers. The narrator centers on three main characters: Louis Culafroy, Darling Daintyfoot, and Our Lady of the Flowers. He describes their love affairs, thefts, and imprisonment in a style that blurs the frontiers between the real and the fantasmatic, the rational and the irrational, the profane and the sacred. Culafroy was born in the country and at the age of 20 he comes to live in Paris. There, he changes his name into Divine and becomes, like Genet, a thief and male prostitute. He entertains love relationships with Daintyfoot and Our Lady, whom he had to fend for. Daintyfoot was a male pimp and had been Divine’s lover for six years. He is described as a virile, unfeeling, and ruthless criminal who is unafraid of prison and death. Our Lady, the youngest of the group, becomes Divine’s and Daintyfoot’s lover, and, akin to the latter, he is a coldblooded, remorseless murderer. He, for instance, strangles a man of 67 years, confesses his crime to the police, and boldly faces the guillotine. Like the flower gods worshipped in antiquity, Our Lady of the Flowers, aged 16, was doomed to die young.
Despite differences of personality, the three characters share, like their creator, a precarious existence, fully tied to the ever-lasting present of the here and now. They are heedless of the past and future and are totally indifferent to the bourgeois ethics of progress and development. Most important, they are free of all moral or ethical code, which turns them into mere surfaces devoid of all substance as the glassy imagery associated with them illustrates (the narrator frequently refers to glass, windows, mirrors, glaciers, ice when depicting the various characters). Stripped of morality, Divine, Daintyfoot, and Our Lady thus live entirely in the realm of the instinctual to which they show indefectible allegiance.
Through reverence of these characters—especially Daintyfoot and Our Lady—the narrator, implicitly Genet, gives vent to his “cult of the criminal,” murderer, and thief combined. From the novel’s outset, he shows deep sympathy for his fallen heroes, Weidmann and Maurice Pilorge, two murderers guillotined young. To pay homage to their memory he has hung on the walls of his cell the newspaper photos of these and other criminals. The narrator even takes his reverence further by wanting to step into the shoes of his dead hero, Pilorge, who had killed his lover, Escudero, for a small sum of money. Like his ideal type, he wanted to kill in order to test his limits and defy fear and death: “I want to sing it plainly. Without pretending, for example, that I want to be redeemed through it, though I do yearn for redemption I would like to kill.”
Although at first appearances they may be considered generic types, these three characters are anything but one-dimensional or monolithic. They are extremely complex and ambiguous, and their instability and rootlessness make them ungraspable. Daintyfoot, for instance, is described as both “violent” and “tender”; similarly, Divine is “fragile” and “delicate” and yet capable of callous, pitiless conduct. This ambiguity, which unsettles categorization and single definition, both reveals Genet’s love of paradox and indicates the novel’s overall impressionistic outlook.
The different space-time sequences (the country, prison, Paris) that the narrative encompasses constantly fuse and confuse. They superimpose and fade into one another, obscuring their distinctive outlines. Divine’s funeral scene, for example, described at the novel’s beginning, testifies to Genet’s impressionism. In this scene, the world of the living and that of the dead juxtapose and communicate with each other, the connection being suggested by Divine’s room overlooking the Montmartre cemetery. The room’s window is, in short, a threshold bringing together two antagonistic worlds. Similarly, the funeral procession exhibits disparate colors and contrastive shades, the combination of which brings side by side the sadness of death and joy of life: “In rain, this black cortege bespangled with multi-colored faces and blended with the scent of flowers and rouge followed the herse.”
Juxtaposition of opposites is a distinctive feature of Our Lady of the Flowers. The world in which Genet’s characters evolve is the realm of both delicate material (satin, silk) and of sharp, lethal objects like knives and guns. Tenderness and violence go hand in hand, as do beauty and vulgarity, the necessary and the superfluous. Divine’s room, for instance, concentrates nice objects and ugly ones: “The room descended till it blended with a luxurious apartment, adorned with gold, the walls hung with garnet—red velvet, the furniture heavy but toned down with red faille curtains. . . . The floor was covered with thick blue and violet carpets.” The disparate objects saturating Divine’s room reveal the latter’s (and humankind’s) dependence on possessions.
Through dramatization of overabundant, superfluous items, Genet denounces bourgeois society’s materialism, castigating people’s enslavement to money and property. In this he may be said to have honestly followed his critique of materialism to its ultimate conclusion, for he lived all his life without owning any property. He spent most of the money he earned supporting friends and lovers.
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