Colette Essay - Critical Essays

Colette Short Fiction Analysis

Colette drew only a hazy line, or area, of demarcation between her fiction and her reflections. Many of her short fictional pieces are indistinguishable from lyrical autobiography, which is the case with her Claudine novels. It is not really possible, or advisable, to differentiate, or try to differentiate, with precision her “short fiction” from her novellas, her reminiscences, her lyrical descriptions, and her accounts of persons and places. She has a primitivist tendency—many would call it a gift—for experiencing gardens, flowers, pets, and even objects as extensions of both herself and the vital aura of her physical existence. She took no pains to distance herself from her narratives and expositions, and she has been compared to Marcel Proust in her projection of her own person and persona into her fiction. Often in her work, Colette assumes the position of her reader’s confidant, speaking in such a way that the reader becomes party to her activities, fictional or otherwise. Her milieu is regularly the ambience of private places and native haunts. She does not translate philosophy, economics, politics, or religion into fictional prose. Her concern is the profound complexity of simple human relationships—parents and children, lonely individuals, lovers, entertainers, and friends.


An early set of sketches forms the story of “Clouk” (identified as “Clouk/Chéri” by Colette in her 1941 set of papers) and describes the lovesickness and loneliness of a wealthy young man whose adenoidal condition results in a nasal sound that becomes his nickname. His love for Lulu, a seamstress’s assistant who becomes a popular entertainer, persists after she has left him and as he gradually loses his small circle of friends, to whom he and his reactions become increasingly tedious. His self-deception and growing introversion produce for him a chrysalis of security within which he encloses himself. From this cocoon, no less than Chéri, the very handsome young hero of two novels will fly off in beauty. Colette speaks of this metamorphosis in the imagery of the pale small slough of a skin from which a resplendent and diabolic snake emerges. There is in this imagery a vestige of Colette’s own ophidian and entomological nature. Molting, she passed from dependence upon her husband Willy to the clever and self-sufficient sophisticate who wrote the Chéri novels and The Ripening Seed. The beauty that she found in life, however, was in some way the beauty that she, as a delicate butterfly, had embryonized. Maurice Goudeket describes one of her last gestures as a winglike fluttering of her hands, and her last word, “Look,” embraced the room in which she lay dying, with all of its contents, including a box of butterflies. To read Colette is to see her constantly in all that she describes, especially in her description of Clouk.

Colette gives to the spoken word an organic life that removes the genetic boundary between human and animal, as well as that between narrator and character. Her early short fiction includes a number of dialogues, many with one voice suppressed, others with narration that combines stream-of-consciousness progression with direct discourse, and still others recording the conversation of animals. Human characters in these dialogues have such mundane identities as masseuse, godchild, hairstylist, or saleslady.

The Letters

A “letter” to her friend Valentine is signed “Colette Willy” and takes up the matter of Colette’s appearances in mime drama with “Missy.” The “letter” recapitulates Valentine’s disapproval of Colette’s nudity on stage. The incidents are part of the author’s actual history, but the letter is a work of fiction. Where other writers produce autobiographical fiction, Colette may be said to produce fictive autobiography. There are at least ten other short works addressed to, or focused upon, “my friend Valentine,” and they pulsate with gossip. One work begins with quotations from an unsigned letter to Valentine and gets caught up in the events of a harvesting of grapes. Another describes Valentine’s undressing, applying makeup, and dressing in front of Colette; the rites of fashion are infused with an air of homosexuality that is implicit with both calm intimacy and incipient dissatisfaction, a kind of jealousy on Colette’s part. One very short story opens with Valentine’s comments upon her recent haircut and goes on to encompass a dialogic disquisition on hairstyles and hair; it is concise, devoid of any suggestion of plot, and, in its patent mundanity, a work of fiction resonant with the dimensions of vanity. Colette’s specialty is an appreciation of the profundity of mundane femininity.

“The Tendrils of the Vine”

Colette’s fable about the tendrils of the vine was first published in Le Mercure musical on May 15, 1905. It would much later be included with, and provide the title of, her 1908 collection of short stories, The Tendrils of the Vine. The tale begins with a third-person narration about a nightingale that sings to stay awake in order not to be caught and bound by the tendrils of a vine. Colette then speaks in the first person as an observer of the nightingale. She concludes with an identification of herself as the nightingale, whose song is her self-confession. Just like the nightingale, Colette loses happiness and pleasant sleep, along with the fear of the tendrils of the vine, which in Colette’s case stands for Willy’s dominance. The story reflects the inception of Colette’s move away from dependence upon Willy.

“The Tender Shoot”

In this allegory of a vine, a plant is personified. In two later works, The Ripening Seed and the short story “Le Tendron” (“The Tender Shoot”), humans may be said to be “plantified.” The “tender shoot” is a sensually uninhibited country girl of fifteen...

(The entire section is 2438 words.)