Study Guide

Jean Genet

Jean Genet Essay - Genet, Jean (Vol. 10)

Genet, Jean (Vol. 10)


Genet, Jean 1910–

Genet is a French novelist, dramatist, and poet. An abandoned child, he spent his youth in prisons and reform schools. Instead of reforming him, he claims, these institutions led him to defy society and to dedicate his life to the pursuit of evil. In his quest for identity, Genet aligned himself with criminals and homosexuals, choosing them as his heroes and their world as his. He posits that evil is superior to good because it is nothingness expressed in its purest form. Susan Sontag wrote of him that "only a handful of twentieth-century writers, such as Kafka and Proust, have as important, as authoritative, as irrevocable a voice and style." (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Jerry L. Curtis

Genet's originality stems from the fact that he has cogently chosen to refuse society's values and has set about to reverse, if only for himself, the moral code of our time. His "Jansenism of Evil," as Sartre calls it [in his illuminating study Saint Genet], is, in reality, a search for identity in an atmosphere of uncertainty. For Genet, as for Shakespeare, the world is a stage, and you and I, the players.

In his massive biography of Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre states that the key to understanding this admired criminal's self-imposed bastardy can be found in an incident taken from his adolescence: discovered with his hand in a purse, the youthful Genet was market for life by the accusation: "You are a thief." At least he became convinced, according to Sartre, that he should become "Another than Self." Since this child of ten did not view himself as an absolute criminal yet was extremely intimidated by the unflinching judgment of others, he chose for himself a mode of being which posits its justification in the look of others…. [Genet] seems to view literature as a fabric of lies which veil the truth. By means of the mystification called literature, he is able to swindle and rob the public. Genet abandons himself to literature because the fictional world he creates becomes the evasive object of an often credulous body of admirers. He thereby confirms, both to himself and to us, that the world is a stage. The most salient confirmation of his views on the subject, as one might expect, is to be found in his theatre. For his plays, as Leonard Pronko has rightly observed, are rituals where "Genet's characters perform their sacraments." The images we find there are indeed alarming; for they are meant to unmask the duplicitous nature of man's behavior, to reflect our grimaces and masks back to us. (pp. 33-4)

[Genet endeavors to show] the public that the spectator is as deeply involved with role-playing as the actors on the stage. Carried to its logical conclusion, this means that one cannot differentiate between the world outside the theatre and the world within. Genet's theatre must then be seen as an image, or, more exactly, as the reflection of the world. His characters are puppets whose...

(The entire section is 919 words.)

Harry E. Stewart

From the very beginning, Genet has been preoccupied with flower imagery and flower symbolism. The two titles, Notre Dame des Fleurs and Miracle de la Rose, plus the abundance of flower references in all of Genet's works give ample evidence of his interest in, and knowledge of flower symbolism…. [There is] a relationship (in Genet's mind) between flowers, crime, and solitude. (pp. 87-8)

An accumulation of the references to lilacs in Haute Surveillance reveals a tally of sixteen "lilacs" in the 1949 version, and twelve in the 1965 version. This represents only a count of the nouns and does not include pronouns even when they clearly refer to lilacs. The high frequency of references is immediately significant since it suggests that the lilac symbolism is definitely not fortuitous. However, the frequency of references is less important then the dramatic use of the lilacs as esoteric symbol which explains and supports the meaning and action of the play.

In the 1949 version Genet first establishes a relationship between lilacs and the tomb, that is between lilacs and the general concept "death." This is a traditional relationship found in the majority of folk legends involving lilacs…. Genet then develops a sometimes ambiguous symbol pattern in which there exists a confusion between the flower-death-criminal-sex symbol and the lilac-death-murder-fate-betrayal-criminal-sex symbol. Genet, aware that his symbols do not correlate as exactly as he wishes, clarified the symbol pattern in the 1965 edition by changing the word "lilacs" to "flowers" …, thus establishing a dichotomous symbol pattern in which both lilacs and flowers correlate to criminals and sex, but only the lilac equates to murder.

The above distinction between murder and death is necessary because death is not the major theme in this play that it is, for example in les Bonnes or le Balcon. Murder is important because it provides the linking element between the criminal and the saint, and because it is the common denominator in determining the level of attainment in the religious-criminal hierarchy…. The central theme of the play is Lefranc's desire to advance in the religious-criminal hierarchy from mere petty thief-supplicant … to murderersaint. One function of the lilacs, which are involved in both Yeux-Verts' murder of the girl and Lefranc's murder of...

(The entire section is 990 words.)


In [Les Nègres] the characters are masks, they exist as appearance only, and the black skin of the negroes is as much a mask as the grotesque white masks of the actors who mirror us, the white audience, and our society; the dramatic action is presented as performance, and the ritual qualities of this performance are emphasized by incantations, chanting and dancing as well as by echoes of rituals which are central to our christian civilisation: the litanie des blèmes, the music of the dies irae chanted at the time of the ritual murder, etc. (p. 51)

The printed edition of Genet's play is prefaced by the following note:…

One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what's his colour?

This most accurately sums up the whole tone of the play, for Genet has taken the "colour" or "race" problem, and has used it as an image for an even wider theme. As he presents it, all identity is a matter of mirror reflections, you define yourself in relation to other people, you know who you are through the reflection of yourself that you see in other people's attitudes to you. This means that personal identity becomes very much a social question, intimately concerned with the power structure of society and with relations of dominance and submission.

The blacks see themselves as defined by their colour; as Neige says,… "My colour! Why, you're my very self!"… They have no separate, individual identity for the whites but are first and foremost black … and so they accept the definition and even reinforce it to emphasise their identity: at the beginning of the play, Félicité, the black queen, mother of the black race, ceremonially blackens the face of Village (the negro who will commit the ritual murder of the white woman). (p. 52)

[The] one thing that [the blacks] can do, is to ensure that the image in which they as individuals have been drowned, is one which will terrify their white creators…. Hence the ritual murder of the white woman, the systematic reversal of all white values, the glorification of hatred and ugliness.

We are confronted, then, with two groups: the dominant, grotesque whites on their raised platform, spectators like us, and the subservient blacks, performing for their masters, acting out the horrible role allotted to them by the whites, committing murder…. Genet shows us that the dominance of the whites is only apparent: they are spectators, not performers, and so are in fact on the receiving end. When the white Queen finally confronts Félicité in the jungle, she realizes that they are Blacks (that is to say, not the niggers of white invention, but something else, not a mere opposition to white, but something positive…. As Félicité puts it:

… we were Darkness in person. Not the darkness which is absence of light, but the kindly and terrible Mother who contains light and deeds….

So the whites depend for their identity on the blacks, just as much as vice versa, and in this way Genet carries his theme beyond the social implications of the...

(The entire section is 1343 words.)

Albert Bermel

Genet's plays, like Pirandello's, have become a treasure house for the rococo critical imagination. As the visitor basks in the heady atmosphere—the mirrors, the screens, masks, grandiose costumes and cothurni, the role-playing, verbal efflorescence, and paradoxes—he burbles about the undecipherable nature of levels, dimensions, contexts, multiple images, loci, ritualism, and infinities of reflections….

Genet takes for granted [in The Balcony the] confusion between sexual and social obsessions. In the brothel's studios the devotees abandon themselves to sexual consecration; the house of pleasure is a house of worship. In it each man finds a contrary, double satisfaction: he...

(The entire section is 2562 words.)