Jean Genet Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111206314-Genet.jpg Jean Genet in 1963. (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Genet was one of the major innovators in French theater in the period following World War II. His work helped transform concepts of Western drama and marked one of the golden ages of theater.

Early Life

Jean Genet was born in Paris, France, on December 19, 1910. He was left in the care of the national foundling service and eventually was sent to foster parents. When he was twenty-one, he was given his birth certificate. He discovered that he was born in a maternity hospital in Paris and that his mother used the name Gabrielle Genet. His father remained unknown. His foster parents were peasant landowners in the Morvan region of France. Under Catholic tutelage he, at first, did well in school and was well liked. Then, for undetermined reasons, Genet began to steal. By his early teens, Genet found himself in a reformatory in Mettray. His time there only served to turn him into a hardened person. Genet escaped from the reformatory when he was twenty and joined the French Foreign Legion. He did so, though, only to collect the enlistment bonus and deserted after a few days.

At that time Genet’s adult criminal activities began. He was, at different times, a thief, counterfeiter, bootlegger, male prostitute, and dope smuggler. His life led him to experience jails in Spain, France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and Germany. By 1948, he was sent to jail in France for the tenth time. The law was such that if one acquired ten arrests, one was condemned to prison for life. Having already begun writing, Genet had caught the attention of a circle of literati, among whom were Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre. These writers petitioned the President of France for a pardon for Genet, and it was granted. With his release, Genet left behind his life of crime and turned wholly to his writing.

Life’s Work

According to Genet, he began writing by chance when he heard the poem of a cell-mate which he thought poor. Challenged to do better, he wrote one of his own. Though it was not liked, it inspired him to continue writing. While in a prison south of Paris, he managed to publish “Le Condamné à mort” (1942; “The Man Condemned to Death,” 1965). It was a poem written to the memory of a friend, Maurice Pilorge, who had been executed earlier. Genet received encouragement, and he turned to writing novels.

Genet’s first novel, Notre-Dame des Fleurs (1944, 1951; Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949), was written in 1942. He had begun it on brown paper bags only to find that the bags were confiscated. The warden claimed that they were improper material for writing. Undaunted, Genet ordered notebooks and rewrote the fifty pages that he had written. The novel is the chronicle of the fantasies a man in jail has to bring himself to orgasm. Though not autobiographical, it is told in the first person and has references to Genet’s life.

Genet’s next two novels, Miracle de la rose (1946, 1951; Miracle of the Rose, 1966) and Pompes funèbres (1947, 1953; Funeral Rites, 1968), are also written in the first person. They are both semiautobiographical in that, though Genet is the narrator, he is describing memories and fantasies. The latter novel has, in fact, a setting outside jail. In this novel is first seen Genet’s political touch, a theme that would become more refined in his plays.

In Querelle de Brest (1947, 1953; Querelle of Brest, 1966), Genet is no longer in the work. The main character is Querelle, a sailor, and the action is set in Brest, a port city in northwest France. It is an exploration of sexuality and power through Querelle. Genet’s final novel was Journal du voleur (1949; The Thief’s Journal, 1954). This is the most autobiographical of Genet’s work and documents his early adult life. It remains, though, a narrative based on memory, which Genet concedes is not necessarily factual. Genet claimed that with this work he had said all he needed to say, and thus it would be his last. He fortunately came out, though, with five plays. It was in these plays that his writing became its strongest.

Genet’s writing to this point had been a contrast between the beauty of his style and the baseness of his message. His prose is almost poetic as it describes the elevation of evil. Genet was a thief and believed himself to be outside society. He saw two professions outside society—that of the criminal and that of the saint. The saint is the paragon of good; the criminal, of evil. As the saint was elevated from corrupt society, Genet set to elevating the criminal. The main problem was society, and Genet...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)

Jean Genet Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Abandoned by his mother, Genet was handed over to foster parents when he was only one year old. At fourteen he apprenticed himself to a typographer near Paris. He ran away first from the typographer and then from other homes and institutions in which he was placed, beginning a life of wandering and stealing. In order to get out of an agricultural penitentiary in 1929, he joined the French army. After serving one full tour of duty, he re-enlisted, only to desert in 1936. This was followed by years of stealing and being sentenced to prison terms.

While in prison, Genet started to write poetry and to work on a novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1944), an autobiographical fiction about criminal life and homosexual passion that was secretly printed and circulated by admirers of his work. In 1944, having spent most of his life in and out of prisons, he was freed as a result of support from the admirers of his writing. After World War II ended, he published numerous poems, novels, and plays, and the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre began to champion his writing.

Despite Genet’s literary success, his work remained highly controversial. In 1948 French authorities banned his radio script “The Criminal Child.” In 1951 all of his books were legally prohibited from sale in the United States, and when Our Lady of the Flowers was finally published in the U.S., in 1963, his American publishers worried about censorship.


(The entire section is 424 words.)

Jean Genet Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Jean Genet has often been compared to his late-medieval predecessor, the thief and poet François Villon. That Genet was a thief is undeniable; the interest and the mystery lie in how he became transmuted into a poet.

Little is known with certainty about Genet’s early life because for both literary and personal reasons, he took pains to transmute the events of his life into his “legend.” Born on December 19, 1910, in a public maternity ward in the rue d’Assas in Paris, the child of a prostitute, Gabrielle Genet, and an unknown father, Genet was adopted by the Assistance Publique (the national foundling society) and sent off to foster parents in the hill country of Le Morvan, between Dijon and Nevers. There, he took to petty thievery and, by the age of ten, was branded irrevocably as a thief. By his early teens, he was confined to a reformatory for juvenile criminals at Mettray, a few miles north of Tours, where he was subjected to homosexual seductions and assaults. Details about the next ten years of his life are scarce; one way or another, he became a male prostitute, a pickpocket, a shoplifter, and a remarkably unskilled burglar. He traveled from place to place, eventually making his way to Spain and then to North Africa, where he developed a sense of kinship with the Arab victims of colonization that would later emerge in The Screens. Yet he also, during this period, had become an assiduous autodidact who, when once arrested for stealing a volume of the poetry of Paul Verlaine, was more concerned with the quality of the verse than with the commercial value of the book.

In Genet’s life, these two strains, criminality and poetry, seem to have run together in comfortable harness for twelve years or more. When he was sixteen, according to one source, he worked as guide and companion to a blind poet, René de Buxeuil, from whom he learned at least the rudiments of French prosody (and perhaps the principles of Maurrassian Fascism). Some years later, in 1936 or 1937, Genet deserted the Bataillons d’Afrique (the notorious Bat’ d’Af’—the punitive division of the French Army in North Africa) after striking an officer and stealing his suitcases, illegally crossing frontiers in Central Europe, and running a racket in questionable currency. During the same period, however, he also taught French literature to the daughter of a leading gynecologist in Brno, Moravia, and wrote her long letters in which explications of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre” (“The Drunken Boat”) alternate with laments for the fall of Léon Blum’s Front Populaire in June, 1937.

It is unknown which arrest and what cause led...

(The entire section is 1087 words.)

Jean Genet Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The career of Jean Genet has often been compared to that of his late-medieval predecessor, the thief and poet François Villon. That Genet was a thief is undeniable; the interest lies in how he was transformed into a poet.

The solid facts concerning Genet’s early life are few, because, for reasons that are both literary and personal, he took great pains to transmute them into his “legend.” Born on December 19, 1910, in a public maternity ward on the Rue d’Assas in Paris, the child of a prostitute and an unknown father, Genet was adopted by the Assistance Publique (the national foundling society) and, as soon as he could crawl, was sent off to foster parents in the hill country of Le Morvan, between Dijon and...

(The entire section is 1154 words.)

Jean Genet Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Jean Genet (zhuh-neh), celebrated by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as a model of existentialist commitment, produced in his novels and plays an ethical stance of adhering to and flaunting the immorality of which French society and law found him guilty. For him, criminality was not a pursuit of gain or power but a matter of choice, a way of life. He imbued this way of life with his own aesthetic and religious principles. His years in the reformatory and his ten prison sentences attest a life lived largely in illegitimacy. As he lived, so had he been born—illegitimately in a maternity hospital, where his mother, a Parisian prostitute named Gabrielle Genet, abandoned him. He was reared as a public charge by country people; accused by...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Jean Genet Biography

(Drama for Students)

Genet was born on December 19, 1910, in Paris, France. He was the illegitimate son of Gabrielle Genet, a prostitute, and an unknown father....

(The entire section is 505 words.)