Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

As is always the case in Duras’ work, personal relationships are symbolically related to larger political and philosophical issues. The inextricably mingled pleasure and pain of the love affair between the French girl and the Chinese man, a relationship clearly doomed to failure from the beginning, is complete at one level as the story of an adolescent girl’s initiation into sexual love. Nevertheless, it is also both a parable of French colonialism and a metaphor for the hopelessness of the universal human struggle against loneliness and despair. This interpenetration of the political and personal extends to the subplots: Those who collaborated politically with the enemy during the war are seen in a somewhat sympathetic light as private individuals (a point that troubled some reviewers), and conversely, the private family circle is seen in terms of the political realm. As Duras’ narrator remarks, “I see the war as I see my childhood. I see wartime and the reign of my elder brother as one.”

Yet in Duras’ works, belief in political commitment is mere superstition; personal problems and relations are of transcendent importance, a valorization which persists despite the marked absence of any examples of enduringly successful relationships in her writings. The realistic presentation of the social and historical contexts of prewar French Indochina and occupied France is always subordinate to the story of the lovers and the interplay between passion and destruction, between erotic attraction and xenophobic repulsion.