Lovers and Tyrants

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

First novels are supposed to be set apart, judged somehow by different standards from those used for established writers. Lovers and Tyrants, a first novel, may in fact need the protection of that special status. But Francine du Plessix Gray is hardly an untried writer; a freelance journalist of note, she writes often for The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Her book, Divine Disobedience (1970), surveys the contemporary radical Catholic movement, creating memorable portraits of such figures as the Berrigans, Ivan Illich, and the priests at Emmaus House in East Harlem.

In her novel, Gray creates a character, Stephanie, with a background similar to her own, and proceeds to exploit the possibilities of that intrinsically limited genre, autobiographical fiction. Lovers and Tyrants has its roots in other traditions as well, and it is in the brilliance with which these several strains are fused that the novel succeeds. The Bildüngsroman heritage is the most obvious of those strains: Lovers and Tyrants stands in that noble line of novels which delineate the moral and physical education of their protagonists—Emma, Great Expectations, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sons and Lovers, and Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest novels. Gray has the greatest affinity with the early Joyce; her opening sections, emphasizing the sensory detail to which the young Stephanie responds, are wonderfully rich with imagery. The narrator, who reminds one here of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, begins:My childhood lies behind me muted, opaque and drab, the color of gruel and of woolen gaiters, its noises muted and monotonous as a sleeper’s pulse. My childhood memories are smothered in sterile, unjoyful smells, in odors of eucalyptus and of mustard plasters, of ether and of belladonna, of camphor and of musty textbooks.

The novel also recalls picaresque works which record “the progress” of a joyous rogue making his way through life, adventuring in various locales and classes of society. In this tradition the narrator often makes fun of the protagonist, or, in the case of a first-person novel, the protagonist uses a self-deprecating tone of self-conscious irony. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar are such antiheroes. Stephanie too is able to laugh at herself and her earlier selves, and she can perfectly capture by word or phrase a particularly satiric figure: “Coasters, lace mats, and crewel doilies were distributed throughout her rooms so as not to stain the polished genuine mahogany surface of her life.”

Perhaps most interesting of the traditions within which Gray works is the epistemological, which explores novelistically the philosophical implications of creative writing; the protagonist is usually a novelist in the process of writing a novel. Stephanie is a would-be writer, and the work is full of her jottings, journal entries, conversations about writing, pieces from friends’ writing, and actual literary quotations (Kierkegaard, Kafka, Scott Fitzgerald). The structure of such works is usually experimental as the narrator will play with mirror-images, stories-within-stories, shifting points of view, and the like. Important examples of this genre are Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, Moravia’s The Lie, Gide’s The Counterfeiters.

The structure of Lovers and Tyrants shows just how much Gray has refused to be limited by the strictly autobiographical tradition. Although a cursory glance will tell the reader that the novel is structured chronologically in eight sections (each titled and dated), within each section the narrator goes forward and backward in time at will, briefly introducing themes that are to reappear fully in later sections, prematurely alluding to events of her later life, and throughout making commentary about the process of writing. Then, in the last section, entitled “Stephanie” and dated in the future, “197-” the narrator shifts point of view to third person and writes a kind of script or scenario, complete with description of character and setting, before the scene begins. The whole section, some seventy-five pages in length, is written in the narrative present tense. The difficulty with the technique as used by Gray is that after the...

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Lovers and Tyrants Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The eight chapters or sections of Lovers and Tyrants focus on the important “lovers” (in the larger sense of “one who loves”) and “tyrants” in Stephanie’s life, beginning when she is four years old. The argument that women are as victimized by love as they are by overtly hostile means of oppression develops incrementally. Each chapter sticks mainly to the events in the years following the date given after the title, but Gray also refers forward and backward throughout, developing a rich interweaving of old themes and new. The technique, said Gray, was like that of stringing beads: Once the initial pattern had been set up, the subsequent sections could be added chronologically, introducing variations on the original concepts with great economy.

The first sections focus on Stephanie’s childhood and schooling, with “The Governess” introducing Mishka, the Russian woman who in 1935 is Stephanie’s first ruler. Five years later, in “The Cycle of the Year,” Stephanie and her mother, having escaped the Germans, are impoverished emigrés in New York. “First Wings” (1944) traces Stephanie’s initial shyness and domination by others as a scholarship student in an exclusive girls’ school, but then records her increasing confidence and accomplishments.

The next sections focus on Stephanie as a young adult. She at first rebels against her mother by living a bohemian life, ignoring the social status that has been the driving force of emigré life in both Paris and New York. Then, in “At Twenty-Three” (1954), Stephanie has a turbulent affair with Louis Bonaparte, a cynical French libertine who is descended from his namesake. Louis is literate...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Lovers and Tyrants Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Lovers and Tyrants ends with Stephanie “exorcised . . . of one hell of a bunch of oppressors,” deciding she is ready to write her first novel. Gray has admitted that Stephanie is a woman with a life somewhat like Gray’s own, and that the novel would begin with overtly autobiographical reminiscences and move toward the highly fictional. The goal would be to show the character’s developing independence and feminism, as she shucks off the influence of lovers and finds her own way in life. Women, so goes Gray’s thesis, are especially limited and confined by the love of others.

Judged against this goal, the novel is only a partial success: It is certainly brilliantly written in the early, autobiographical sections and gripping in its intelligence, but ultimately it fails to convert the historical Stephanie-Gray character into a credible fictional personage. The last two sections, on Stephanie’s marriage and her search for knowledge in the American desert, have been almost universally identified by critics as the weakest and least convincing parts of the novel. Even the writing, which earlier was sharp, precise, and biting, becomes abstract and sometimes self-indulgent. The loss of the first-person narration in these sections is both symptom and cause of a decline. In the view of most reviewers, the novel succeeds, often brilliantly, as fictionalized autobiography but fails as fiction. Gray has shown women writers how to translate their own...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

Lovers and Tyrants Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Fote, Timothy. “Cabin Fever?” Time 108 (November 1, 1976): 87-88. Foote draws physical and biographical parallels that tie Gray to her heroine and praises the only slightly disguised “memoirs” of the first half of the novel, but blames the failures of the second half in part on a switch to a third-person narration that lacks the “alchemy” needed to transform “raw experience” into a believable story.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times: Lovers and Tyrants.” The New York Times, October 8, 1976, C25. Lehmann-Haupt finds Gray’s novel, for all of its perspicacious wit and fierce intelligence,...

(The entire section is 330 words.)