Chéri, 1920 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Frédéric Peloux (fray-day-REEK puh-LEW), called Chéri (shayr-EE), an idle and moody twenty-five-year-old man. He has inherited a fortune. He is an extremely handsome man of medium height, with blue-black hair; dark eyes framed by thick, lustrous lashes; a disdainful but pretty mouth; unblemished white skin; and a hard, darkish chest shaped like a shield. To remove him from his dissipated life in Paris, he has been taken, in late adolescence, to Normandy by a friend of his mother, Léa de Lonval, an aging but still beautiful courtesan. He and Léa become lovers. This idyllic life ends when his mother arranges a marriage for him to Edmée, a wealthy young woman of eighteen. Chéri accepts but has no enthusiasm for the marriage. After a brief period of domesticity, he longs for the old days with Léa, which, to his dismay, he discovers cannot be recaptured. He finally realizes that his only course is to return to his family.
Léonie Vallon (lay-oh-NEE vahl-LAHN), later Léa de Lonval (lay-AH deh lahn-VAL), nicknamed Nounoune (new-NEWN), a passionate, aging, and still beautiful courtesan who is in love with, and the mistress of, young Chéri. She is forty-nine years old, tall, and blonde, with ruddy cheeks, a beautiful face, a good body, thin-wristed arms, large pure-blue...
(The entire section is 649 words.)
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The Last of Chéri, 1926 (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Frédéric Peloux, now thirty years old, with faintly shadowed eyelids and a leaner physique. He is a veteran of World War I, in which he was mistakenly decorated for bravery, even though he finagled military service behind the lines. Chéri refuses to accept the reality of the postwar world; the independent, self-assured woman Edmée has become; impending middle age; or the fact that Léa has grown gracefully into a comfortable old age without him. Unable to work, to recapture the past, to adapt to the present, to relate to his wife and friends, or to accept the loss of Léa and his youth, Chéri spends his time reminiscing about the past with the Pal. Seeing no place for himself in the modern world, he commits suicide with a pistol in her apartment.
Léa de Lonval
Léa de Lonval, who has settled into a happy, chaste old age and adopted a masculine style of dress that gives her an aura of sexless dignity. She stops dyeing her gray hair, cuts it short, and allows herself to become very stout, with a fat neck, sagging cheeks, and a double chin. Her ability to live well and happily without Chéri in the modern world puzzles and saddens him.
Edmée, whose hospital administrative work and separation from Chéri during the war have brought her to the realization that she enjoys both her career and her independence. She no longer defines herself exclusively in relation...
(The entire section is 458 words.)
Chéri (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
One of Colette’s contemporaries suggested that Chéri was one of the most important love stories ever written. Despite the many unconventional aspects of the story—love between an older woman and a younger man, the sympathetic depiction of a courtesan, and the willingness with which Chéri submits to an arranged marriage—the novel indeed remains an engrossing portrait of doomed love.
Léonie Vallon, known as Léa de Lonval, a courtesan nearing the end of her career, falls in love with Fred Peloux, known as Chéri, the son of one of her rivals. Although they live together for several years and seem to love each other, their relationship is precarious, and indeed when Chéri announces that he is going to marry Edmée for money, Léa accepts the inevitable breakup. She maintains a strong exterior so as not to give her rivals the satisfaction of seeing her pain. The reader, however, sees a different side, as the narrator shows Léa’s loneliness and desperate attempts to fill the time. The reader is also made aware that Chéri is not entirely happy and comes to see—even before Chéri himself is aware of it—that Chéri misses the comfort and love of his former mistress. The climax comes after Léa returns from a mysterious vacation, and Chéri, more aware of his feelings for having missed her, shows up one night to confess his love.
A happy ending would have satisfied many readers, but Colette does not compromise for effect: After Chéri spends the night with Léa, he returns the next morning to Edmée. The bittersweet ending reveals Colette’s preoccupation with harmony rather than happiness. The story achieves its resolution from the fact that Chéri realizes his true feelings. This confrontation with the past frees him to continue his relationship with Edmée in the present. Avoiding facile wish fulfillment, Colette instead offers a profound insight into human nature.
The Last of Chéri (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
While the first volume of Chéri’s story, set in the pre-World War I Paris of 1912, conveyed the light, carefree mood of the belle époque, The Last of Chéri has the somber, sober mood of postwar France, when many illusions had been lost. Five years have passed since Cheri left Léa, but he has been unable to find a purpose in his life to replace his lost love. His thoughts turn back to this idealized past, as many in France also thought back to prewar days with nostalgia, and he decides to revive his relationship with Léa.
Chéri’s attempt to recapture the past, however, fails. When he does see Léa again, he does not even recognize her because she has changed so much. She has stopped trying to disguise her age and appears transformed into an unattractive old woman. Significantly, when Chéri sees her, he thinks of his mother. With this realization that he cannot return to the past and yet cannot live with or in the present, Chérí resolves that the only remaining choice is suicide. In this act, he symbolically returns to his happy prewar days with Léa by surrounding himself with pictures of her as he remembers her, as a beautiful young woman, at the moment of his death.
Once again, Colette maintains a light touch in a novel that has philosophical underpinnings in its representation of human attempts to recapture the past. Chéri appears as a tragic hero who has brought about his own suffering by giving up love for money and who now pays a fatal price for his blindness, but the tragic elements never dominate the narrative. Subtle comparisons (Chéri compares Léa to the war, for example, to explain his inability to come to terms with the present), well-chosen adjectives placed for effect—these are the techniques whereby Colette suggests to her readers that the story of Chéri may have a more universal message than its unusual aspects might at first suggest.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Cottrell, Robert D. Colette. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1974. This general work is particularly useful because it treats each of Colette’s major works separately. Argues that Colette is not a feminist in the contemporary meaning of the term.
Dormann, Genevieve. Colette: A Passion for Life. Translated by David Macey and Jane Brenton. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. A chronological discussion of Colette’s work designed for general readers. Focuses on the relationship of her biography to her fiction.
Eisinger, Erica, and Mari McCarty, eds. Colette: The Woman, the Writer. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1981. This thoughtful collection of scholarly essays is primarily feminist in orientation. Of particular interest is McCarty’s article “The Theater as Literary Model: Role Playing in Chéri and The Last of Chéri,” which argues that the theater dominates all Colette’s novels and analyzes the Chéri novels in this light.
Marks, Elaine. Colette. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960. An excellent introduction to Colette’s life and work. Marks emphasizes the difficulty of separating Colette’s personal biography from her fiction. She believes there are humorous aspects to Chéri, but few critics agree with her on the point.
Massie, Allan. Colette. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1986. A popular biography, rather than a scholarly work. Its strength is the sociopolitical context, particularly that of the Third Republic, in which Colette and her writing are analyzed.
Sarde, Michele. Colette: Free and Fettered. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: William Morrow, 1980. An almost adulatory biography written from a feminist viewpoint. Despite the book’s poor documentation and sweeping generalizations, it is worth reading for Sarde’s enthusiasm for her topic and her intellectually challenging method of presenting some rather unorthodox ideas.
Stewart, Joan Hinde. Colette. Boston: Twayne, 1983. One of the best books written about Colette, especially in its argumentation and its scholarly discussion of her literary works. The book’s only serious weakness is its failure to include a substantive discussion which views Colette’s work in its sociohistorical context.