Analysis of Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover

The North China Lover was published late in the French author’s life (1914–96). The short novel primarily revisits the events of Marguerite Duras’s 1984 celebrated novel The Lover (L’Amant), and tells of a pivotal love affair between an unnamed teenage girl and an older Chinese man in colonial Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). Based on the author’s own experiences as a young woman, the book is considered the most autobiographic of Duras’s work, yet, ironically, the novel is presented with more detachment and distance than any of her previous novels. Duras spent a year crafting it, using notes from film scripts and moments and episodes from other works. It is thought that she produced the book as a response to the film adaptation of The Lover as a gesture to reclaim her memoirs and material after cutting ties with the movie’s director. Readers familiar with Duras will not only see the obvious parallels to The Lover, but also glimpses of her earlier work, The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique, 1950) and other titles.

Links to her other writings color The North China Lover not only within the body of the text, but also are named directly in some of the 15 footnotes Duras included. Many of the footnotes add to moments in the text that refer to the young woman’s ambitions in writing by assuring the reader that her authorial longings pay off in actual texts, such as Emily L. (1987) and The Sea Wall. The remainder of the footnotes are suggestions and pointers for the filming of the text, which echo her need to exercise control over the cinematic adaptation of what is essentially her own life story.

Marguerite Duras in 1955. (Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

The cinematic expressiveness of the novel goes beyond the footnotes and functions as the dominant tone of the text. Duras uses a stanzalike structure in a number of sections. She also uses long passages of dialogue that are unfettered by descriptive narrative; her skill rests in her ability to create a vivid, emotive, and image-rich story without the weight of frequent expository passages. The text relies on the notion of space, as the text’s coolly distant third-person narration allows for the events of the novel to read much like the experience of watching a carefully crafted film. The trope of space is explored in geographical terms, as the novel deals with cultural and geographical barriers in a colonial context; the young woman and her family’s class and status in the colonies ally them more closely to the natives than to the French, though the family’s repatriation to France is one of the ultimate divisions between the young woman and her lover. To the child, North China is a utopian, escapist childhood China, and the Indochina of the novel is an Orientalist, imagined space with vast political implications. The protagonist’s family is a microcosm of French colonialist society; somewhat ironically the French have disdain for the colonized and envy for the Chinese, because they are not quite colonized.

Though the novel has no clear start—Duras signals an official beginning some 50 pages in—the central plot begins when the heroine encounters the North Chinese man early in the text as she is riding on a ferry across the Mekong, and he is on land in his luxurious vehicle. Their attraction is instant, and despite their dramatic age, race, and class differences, they embark on an affair. Although the young woman’s sexual sensibilities have been hungry for some time, the affair is her sexual initiation. It in turn colors her perspective and changes the course of her personal relationships outside the affair. She willingly transfers her sexual and emotional desire for the Chinese to her younger brother Paulo, and their relationship becomes an incestuous mental and physical bond among this unlikely trio. Furthermore, she eroticizes her connection to her classmate Helen Lagonelle, and enjoys an empathy with Alice, a young local prostitute. She yearns to share a sexual experience with her friend, local boy Thanh, primarily because she relates to him as she does her brother; her advances are rejected, ironically, because Thanh sees her as a sister. The young girl always returns to the bed of the Chinese, however, and shares her experiences, which both hurt and move him. Although the subject matter seems somewhat taboo, the girl is portrayed as being socialized abnormally, therefore making her relationship with the Chinese seem more appropriate. The couple begins to understand each other and uses the confines of the relationship to explore the boundaries of desire, fear, and pain.

Though the affair transcends the sexual for both participants and becomes a deep romantic attachment, the relationship is ultimately doomed. The Chinaman is engaged to a beautiful Chinese woman through an arranged marriage, and the young girl must join her family on their journey home to their native France. Duras uses the affair between the girl and the Chinese as the central landscape of The North China Lover, with its start essentially serving as the novel’s start, and its conclusion the end. The novel’s introduction, signed “Marguerite Duras,” informs the reader that the North China lover is now dead; this is partly what freed Duras to write more intimately than in The Lover. For the author and her readers this ending became a kind of beginning, allowing her to shape the narratives of her childhood experiences one last time.

Key Theories of Marguerite Duras

Analysis of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover

Adler, Laure. Marguerite Duras: A Life. Translated by AnneMarie Glasheen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Best, Victoria. Critical Subjectivities. Identity and Narrative in the Work of Colette and Marguerite Duras. Oxford and New York: Peter Lang, 2000.
Crowley, Martin. Duras: Writing and the Ethical. Oxford and New York: Claredon, 2000.
Gunther, Renate. Marguerite Duras. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Knapp, Bettina L., ed. Critical Essays on Marguerite Duras. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.
Ramsay, Raylene L. The French Autobiographies: Surrate, Duras, Robbe-Grillet. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
Schuster, Marilyn R. Marguerite Duras Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1993.
Winston, Jane Bradley. Postcolonial Duras: Cultural Memory in Postwar France. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Categories: French Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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