Study Guide

Jean Giraudoux

Jean Giraudoux Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Giraudoux’s plays dominated the French theater of the 1930’s; his work for the stage sustained the aesthetic revolution begun after World War I and anticipated the avant-garde developments of the 1940’s. A prolific essayist, Giraudoux wrote novels and short stories that continued the tradition of highly stylized, imagistic fiction established by Symbolist writers.

Early Life

Hippolyte-Jean Giraudoux and his elder brother, Alexandre, enjoyed the idyllic childhood experience of growing up in the tranquil province of Limousin in central France. Their father, Léger, was a government surveyor and inspector, and the family moved often. Several towns from Giraudoux’s boyhood appear as fictionalized locales in his writings. His mother, Anne (née Lacoste), was highly cultivated and guided her sons through high school in Châteauroux. Giraudoux received a scholarship to study at the Lakanal Preparatory School in Paris; he was admitted to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1903.

Giraudoux distinguished himself as a well-rounded high school student; his principal interests were classical literature, German, Spanish, acting, and sports. At the École Normale Supérieure, he began to concentrate on German Romanticism, which inspired him deeply. In 1906, with a press card from Le Figaro, he traveled through Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland in the company of Paul Morand, the son of a curator at the Louvre. Before returning to France, Giraudoux taught French to the Prince of Saxe-Meiningen. In 1907, he went to Harvard University as an exchange student. At this time, he apparently decided to pursue a diplomatic career. After receiving le diplôme supérieur in German philology, he began his writing career by contributing stories to Le Matin, a Parisian newspaper that he edited. A collection of essays entitled Provinciales was published in 1909. An assortment of stories, L’École des indifférents (the school for the uncommitted), appeared in 1910 while Giraudoux was preparing to take examinations for the French Foreign Ministry. By 1913, he had risen to the rank of vice consul, and he served on diplomatic missions to northern Russia and the Orient.

Giraudoux became the protégé of Philippe Berthelot, an influential administrator at the Quai d’Orsay. During World War I, Giraudoux was wounded during the Battle of the Marne. He recuperated in Paris and returned to active service as a lieutenant in the Dardanelles campaign. He was wounded again, and an intestinal ailment weakened him considerably. In 1916, he was sent to Lisbon to train Portuguese soldiers, and the following year he joined a mission of French military instructors at Harvard. In the years after the war, he continued to write essays and stories (some based on his war experiences), married Suzanne Boland, and became head of Le Service des Oeuvres Françaises à l’Étranger, a government agency that promoted French culture. Several successful novels contributed to his reputation as an influential figure in French literary circles.

Life’s Work

Giraudoux’s prestige was enhanced when Siegfried et le Limousin (My Friend from Limousin, 1923) won the Prix Balzac (the award was split) of 1922. This intriguing novel explores multilevel relationships between France and Germany. The two protagonists—one a German Francophile, the other a French Germanophile—represent characters caught between two abstractions. Prussian nationalism and its accompanying industrialization are weighed against the Romantic ideals of an older Germany as Giraudoux articulated the reciprocal qualities of two cultures. The rarefied diction and libertarian gaiety became trademarks of Giraudoux’s theatrical style.

The novel Bella (1925; English translation, 1927) is a political roman à clef in which the characters re-create the feud between Philippe Berthelot and Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré, who disgraced his rival in 1924 and demoted Giraudoux to embassy secretary in Berlin. Giraudoux’s defense of Berthelot represents his political philosophy regarding the ideal statesman. These political views crystallized in 1935 when he reacted to Adolf Hitler’s rearmament program by writing one of his most famous plays, Le Guerre de Troie n’aura pas lieu (Tiger at the Gates, 1955).

Giraudoux, who often wrote under a pseudonym, reintroduced some of the characters from Bella in a series of intercalated novels and stories. In these works, he examined the contrast between purists, often ambiguous, beguiling women, and pragmatists. The purists invest their daydreams with a false charm that prevents them from realizing their dreams. This theme is developed in his tragedies; the tragic character is torn between self-fulfillment and the world of practical affairs. The only resolution is the middle way between egoism and madness. Giraudoux endowed these distinctions, labeled by critics as a divorce between humanity and destiny, with symbolic resonances suitable to numerous interpretations, as in Eglantine (1927), a novel that analyzed the fundamental incompatibility of Eastern and Western thought.

Giraudoux’s later fiction, written when his success as a playwright was at...

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Jean Giraudoux Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Hippolyte-Jean Giraudoux was born October 29, 1882, in Bellac, France, not far from Limoges. His father, Léger, trained as an engineer, was a career civil servant based in the Limousin region; the boy grew up in a number of neighboring towns and villages, retaining a fondness for the area that he would later express frequently in his work. A gifted and diligent student, often the winner of scholarship prizes, young Jean was attracted early in life to the study of international law and diplomacy. On completion of studies at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Giraudoux crossed the Atlantic to pursue graduate study at Harvard University before embarking on his diplomatic career. Mobilized briefly during World War I, Giraudoux later assumed an active role in negotiations leading to the Treaty of Versailles and continued, in his spare time, to build his reputation as a writer. A dedicated civil servant like his father before him, Giraudoux remained active in diplomacy and government service throughout his adult life, even after his successes as a playwright had brought him fame and material success.

The outbreak of World War II found Giraudoux in charge of press relations for the French diplomatic corps, a position he had first occupied some fifteen years earlier. From the fall of France in 1940 until his death some four years later, Giraudoux spent much of his time, energy, and influence attempting to ensure an influential and prominent role for France in the eventual postwar world. His international reputation somewhat hampered by an acknowledged fondness for Germany and things German, his basic patriotism tempered by a hard-earned practical knowledge of diplomacy and politics, Giraudoux nevertheless clearly foresaw the threat posed to France (and to French national pride) by a coming world order divided between the United States and the Soviet Union. Within months after his death, a number of his plans for the reinstitution of local and regional government in France were in fact put into effect, allowing a more orderly flow of power than might otherwise have been possible. Giraudoux died in Paris on January 31, 1944, survived by his children and his widow, Suzanne.

Jean Giraudoux Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Hippolyte Jean Giraudoux (zhee-roh-doo) grew up in the Haute Vienne and remained a “provincial” throughout his cosmopolitan life. Educated primarily at the École Normale Superieure in Paris, he also studied in Munich, where he developed his lifelong interest in German culture and the often troubled relationship between Germany and France. After failing German in the agregation exams, he spent a year as an exchange student at Harvard University before returning to Paris to work as a journalist for Le Matin and the Paris-Journal. In 1910 he was attached to the press bureau of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, thus beginning a career of diplomatic activity at the Quai d’Orsay.

In World War I Giraudoux served as a sergeant and, later, sublieutenant; he was badly wounded, and was awarded the Legion of Honor. In 1916 he went to Portugal as a military instructor and later to America in the same capacity. In 1918 he resumed his diplomatic career, but when the publication of Bella offended his superiors he gratefully accepted an appointment to inspect allied war damage.

Influenced strongly by writers André Gide and Marcel Proust, Giraudoux nevertheless developed a unique literary style that handles languages in ways that are comparable to the way Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro handled paint. His impressionistic style appears with his very first book, Provinciales, which was followed by an account of his American experience, L’École des indifférents, and a report of his adventures in World War I, Campaigns and Intervals. His most important works are the novelsSimon le pathétique, which is partly autobiographical; Suzanne and the Pacific; My Friend from Limousin, which concerns an amnesiac French prisoner of war who becomes a political power in Germany; and Bella, which deals with Parisian political life. Two important nonfiction works are the piquant farewell to arms Adorable Clio and Pleines Pouvoirs, a critique of French foreign affairs and internal politics. Giraudoux achieved his greatest success as a dramatist. His plays Amphitryon 38, The Enchanted, and Tiger at the Gates, in which Louis Jouvet starred, were especially successful, as was the Broadway production of The Madwoman of Chaillot.

Giraudoux was politically active throughout his life, serving as socialist politician Edouard Daladier’s propaganda director until Daladier was ousted. Giraudoux briefly worked for the Vichy government as curator of historical monuments, but he soon resigned in protest of that government’s policies. He died in occupied Paris in 1944.