Chéri Essay - Critical Context


Critical Context

The most important influence on both Colette’s life and her writing was her mother, Sidonie, known as Sido. Sido had enormous energy, dignity, warmth, instinctual wisdom, and charm. What most fascinated her daughter was Sido’s serene, pagan sensibility: She accepted whatever came her and her family’s way of joy and sorrow as natural rather than supernatural, inevitable rather than miraculous. For her, as it later was for Colette, nothing in nature was evil, and all experiences merited attention, curiosity, and, if possible, love. Sido’s sensitivity to the world’s colors, odors, sights, sounds, and touches was passed on to her daughter. Both Lea’s character and Cheri’s urgent devotion to an ideal mother constitute tributes to Sido.

Unlike most French writers, Colette had few literary connections orphilosophic-aesthetic interests. She did admire Marcel Proust’s work and like him remained devoted to memories of childhood and youth. Nevertheless, she differed from Andre Gide and Andre Malraux, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, in feeling no estrangement from the universe, no sense of anxiety or dread, forlornness or despair. Like these men, she accepted the world as godless but did not thereby feel forsaken or discarded. Rather, she delighted in natural objects and regarded life as the opportunity to explore and enjoy, endure and survive. Metaphysical angst was foreign to Colette’s vocabulary.

Cheri and The Last of Cheri have evident flaws: Cheri’s marriage is given scant attention, and Edmee is a cardboard figure. Cheri’s shallow mother and her friends are grotesquely out of scale with Lea’s sophisticated tastes, and Lea ages all too rapidly, with her looks in the second novel more appropriate to a dowager in her seventies than to a beautiful woman in her late fifties. Such weaknesses pale, however, beside Colette’s achievement: These two novels constitute a diptych dramatizing unforgettably both the paradisiacal and infernal regions of love.