Marguerite Duras Essay - Duras, Marguerite (Short Story Criticism)

Duras, Marguerite (Short Story Criticism)


Marguerite Duras 1914–-1996

(Born Marguerite Donnadieu) French short fiction writer, novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, and essayist.

Considered one of France's most original and controversial contemporary writers, Duras explores the nature and difficulties of love and the existential conflicts of the individual alone and in relationships in her work. While her output of short fiction was small, it is this genre in which Duras made the greatest popular and critical impact, particularly with her two novellas, Moderato cantabile and L'amant (The Lover).

Biographical Information

Duras was born near Saigon, Vietnam, in 1914. After her father's death in 1918, her mother unwittingly bought a parcel of worthless land in Cambodia from the corrupt colonial government. Though this purchase led to the family's financial ruin, Duras's mother managed to send her to the prestigious Lycée de Saigon, where Duras studied Vietnamese and French. At the age of seventeen Duras left Cambodia for France, eventually studying law and political science at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She worked as a secretary for the Ministry of Colonial Affairs until 1941. Duras married her first husband, Robert Antelme, an active member of the French Communist Party, in 1939. The couple divorced in 1946, after Antelme returned from the German concentration camp where he had been held for a year during World War II. She later married Dionys Mascolo, with whom she had a son, Jean. Duras, who also joined the Communist Party and was active in the Resistance Movement during Germany's occupation of France, began writing fiction shortly after the start of the war. She published her first novel, Les impudents, in 1943 and published more than seventy novels, plays, stories, novellas, screenplays, and adaptations during her lifetime. In 1984, while recovering from alcoholism in a treatment center, Duras wrote The Lover, for which she won the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary award. In poor health as a result of her life-long addiction to alcohol, Duras died in Paris in 1996.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Duras's first work of short fiction, Des journées entières dans les arbres (Whole Days in the Trees and Other Stories), was published in 1954. Consisting of four stories, Des journées entières dans les arbres touches on several themes that Duras explored more fully in her later work—particularly the developing sexuality of young women—but in form and structure is more similar to her earlier works, which tend to be realistic and conventionally structured. Her novella Moderato cantabile represents the early stages of Duras's evolution into a proponent of the stylized narrative forms associated with the French nouveau roman, or anti-novel. Published in 1958, Moderato cantabile is considered among Duras's most accomplished works. The two-level structure of the story is introduced in the opening scene: while a boy's music lesson is taking place in a woman's apartment, there is a murder in the café downstairs. The story revolves around the boy's mother's growing obsession with the crime, and, as in many of Duras's works, the presence of crime sets the background for an exploration of human passion and the connection between love and death. Duras achieved international success with her novella The Lover, published in 1984. Considered more accessible than much of her fiction up to that point, The Lover draws on Duras's childhood in Indochina, focusing on her discovery of sexual passion through a love affair she experienced when she was fifteen years old as well as her turbulent relationship with her mother and two brothers. While The Lover is recognizably autobiographical, Duras concentrates on the recollection of events and their emotional significance rather than on the events themselves, thus creating a complex structure that conveys the illusion of simplicity.

Critical Reception

Critical commentary on Duras's short fiction tends to focus on The Lover and Moderato cantabile; the latter is generally considered the more remarkable work from a scholarly viewpoint. Critics have consistently commented on Duras's major themes of alienation and misunderstanding in the novella, finding her focus on her characters' compulsive fascination with the murder a dramatic and effective representation of the existential distance in human relationships. Concentrating as it does on young female sexuality, The Lover has received more critical coverage than most of Duras's other works. At the time of its publication, some commentators argued that it was the most effective synthesis of Duras's themes and minimalist style. Nonetheless, the novella's explicit and matter-of-fact depiction of its fifteen-year-old protagonist's affair with an older man generated much controversy.

Principal Works

Des journées entières dans les arbres [Whole Days in the Trees and Other Stories] 1954

Moderato cantabile 1958

L'amant [The Lover] 1984

Les impudents (novel) 1943

Un barrage contre le Pacifique [The Sea Wall] (novel) 1950

Le marin de Gibraltar [The Sailor from Gibraltar] (novel) 1952

Le square [The Square] (novel) 1955

Dis heures et demie du soir en été [Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night] (novel) 1960

Hiroshima, mon amour (screenplay) 1960

La ravissement de Lol V. Stein [The Ravishment of Lol V. Stein] (novel) 1964

L'amante anglaise (novel) 1967

L'amante anglaise (drama) 1968

Detruire, dit-elle [Destroy, She Said] (novel) 1969

Les parleuses [Woman to Woman] (interviews) 1974

L'homme assis dans le couloir [The Seated Man in the Passage] (novel) 1980

Outside (essays) 1981

La maladie de la mort [The Malady of Death] (novel) 1982

La douleur [The War: A Memoir] (memoir) 1985

Le vie materielle [Practicalities: Marguerite Duras Speaks to Jerome Beaujour] (recorded conversations) 1986

Les yeux bleux, cheveux noirs [Blue Eyes, Black Hair] (novel) 1986

Emily L. (novel) 1987

L'Amant de la Chine du nord [The North China Lover] (novel) 1991

Le monde exterieur (essays) 1994

That's All (essays) 1996


Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1966)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “The Boy Next Door,” in The Times Literary Supplement, July 21, 1966, p. 640.

[In the following review of Moderato Cantabile, the critic praises Duras's “controlled and hard-edged account” of her heroine's failures, but maintains that readers may feel unsatisfied with such a short book.]

The music starts on page one [of Moderato cantabile], tinkling tangentially from a sixth-floor room. It is nothing gross like a symphony, or even a concerto, but a pretty sonatina for piano, by Diabelli. The score is marked moderato cantabile, but it requires the intervention of a woman's scream before we are really projected into the novel of the same name, available at last in English, in an American translation which blunts a good number of sharp edges.

The pianist is a small boy having his Friday lesson, prepared to show he is quite competent only when his mother obviously cherishes him. Because he is a child he has a special openness to the world around him; he alone is properly aware of the power of the sunset and the throbbing of a passing motor boat. But he has to learn the piano, his mother says, because music is necessary, at which point one can begin to see that the lesson might be an initiation ceremony into the inexorable restraints of adult life. This all becomes much clearer after...

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Alfred Cismaru (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “A Short Story of Marguerite Duras,” in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, November, 1969, pp. 22-4.

[In the following essay, Cismaru analyzes Des journées entières dans les arbres, praising Duras's realistic depiction of “the world of the dispossessed.”]

The year 1954 saw the publication of Marguerite Duras' Des journées entières dans les arbres, her only collection of short stories to date. The book contains four titles: “Des Journées entières dans arbres,” “Le Boa,” “Madame Dodin” and “Les Chantiers.” “Des Journées” has attracted a considerable amount of attention, especially in its play version of...

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Alfred Cismaru (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “The Anti-Novels,” in Marguerite Duras, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971, pp. 71-82, 88-95.

[In the following essay, Cismaru discusses Duras's short stories and her novella Moderato cantabile as “anti-novels” in the tradition of the French New Novel.]

“Le Boa” contains very little dialogue. It is a first-person brief memoir of a woman who looks back to the time when she was thirteen and she attended a school for girls whose directress, a virgin septuagenarian, had admitted her out of pity for her mother who was too poor to pay the full amount of the tuition.

Mademoiselle Barbet was at worst vicious, at best eccentric. While the...

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Alfred Cismaru (essay date 1973-74)

SOURCE: “Salvation Through Drinking in Marguerite Duras' Short Stories,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1973-74, pp. 487-95.

[In the following essay, Cismaru examines the meaning of alcohol consumption in Le Marin de Gibraltar and Moderato cantabile, concluding that alcohol allows Duras's otherwise hopeless characters a brief period of rebellion and salvation.]

The following piece of dialogue from Marguerite Duras' fourth novel might well be part of the conversation of most of her personages who find in alcohol a pleasurable and solitary relief:

“The great drinkers,” she said, throwing...

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Victoria L. Weiss (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Form and Meaning in Marguerite Duras' ‘Moderato Cantabile,’” in Critique, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, Weiss discusses the cinematic techniques Duras uses to convey her meaning in Moderato cantabile.]

As a member of the school of New Novelists in France, Marguerite Duras has attained prominence through the ability to create a sense of dramatic intensity in her fiction which few others have been able to achieve. In Moderato Cantabile (1958) Duras tells the compelling story of a thirst for passion in a modern world where the routine of everyday existence dooms one to a life of tedium and boredom.


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Evelyn H. Zepp (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Language as Ritual in Marguerite Duras's ‘Moderato Cantabile,’” in Symposium, Vol. XXX, No. 3, Fall, 1976, pp. 236-59.

[In the following essay, Zepp examines the ways in which language fails to create a sense of order for the characters in Moderato cantabile, arguing that the characters' response is to ritualize their meetings and dialogue to impose meaning on reality.]

The essential quality of the world of Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile is sound. The sea, the wind, the radio in the café, the music lesson, the sound of the factory whistle, and, of course, the scream of the dying woman are the elements which define the novel's...

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Lloyd Bishop (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Banquet Scene in ‘Moderato Cantabile’: A Stylistic Analysis,” in Romanic Review, Vol. LXIX, No. 3, May, 1978, pp. 222-35.

[In the following essay, Bishop contrasts Duras's style in the banquet scene in Moderato cantabilewith her style in the rest of the novella, contending that all of the book's themes are contained in the banquet passage.]

In an earlier study of Moderato Cantabile we analysed the banquet scene rather briefly from the point of view of neo-classical principles of composition that inform the entire novel.1 But the scene deserves to be studied in detail for the brilliant stylistic effects that are attempted...

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Bruce Bassoff (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Death and Desire in Marguerite Duras' ‘Moderato Cantabile,’” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 94, No. 4, May, 1979, pp. 720-30.

[In the following essay, Bassoff maintains that death is the only satisfactory consummation of desire for Duras's characters in Moderato cantabile.]

The dream reveals the reality that conception lags behind. That is the horror of life—the terror of art.


Marguerite Duras' fiction relies on the lyrical association of motifs rather than the progression of a story, and it defeats the separation between “real” elements and “virtual” elements...

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Marianne Hirsch (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Gender, Reading, and Desire in ‘Moderato Cantabile,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 28, No. 1, 1982, pp. 69-85.

[In the following essay, Hirsch contends that the characters' oral recounting of the murder in Moderato cantabile constitutes a literary narration through which the characters identify with others and come to understand their own desires by reenacting the passion of others.]

Maybe that's what life is all about: to get into, to let yourself be carried along by this story—this story, well, the story of others.

—Marguerite Duras1

Duras's comment...

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Jeanne K. Welcher (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Resolution in Marguerite Duras's ‘Moderato Cantabile,’” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1983, pp. 370-78.

[In the following essay, Welcher discusses Duras's use of music and mythology to express her characters' otherwise inexpressible motivations and actions in Moderato cantabile.]

As its title announces, Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras is a novel centered on contrasts.1 These range from the paradox of murdering one's beloved; through fine discriminations—“cantabile,” yes, but moderately so; to allusions and inferrable mythic parallels, especially to the myth of Dionysus.

We are struck...

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George Moskos (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Women and Fictions in Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 28-52.

[In the following essay, Moskos examines the relationship between language and gender in Moderato Cantabile.]

“Difficile d'écrire sur son propre travail. Que dire? Je parlerai d'elle, de la mère. … La nôtre. La vôtre. La mienne, aussi bien.”1

A woman's cry. A woman has been killed. In the half-shadow of a café, her inert body has become a “spectacle,” riveting the gaze of passersby. Her murderer, a man, lies on top of her, calling out calmly,...

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Dan Gunn (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Life in a Moment,” in The Times Literary Supplement, October 5, 1984, p. 1118.

[In the following review of the English translation of L'amant and Whole Days in the Trees, Gunn finds similarities between the two books despite the thirty years between their publications.]

Marguerite Duras is a writer whose next move only the foolhardy would predict. Yet, when viewed retrospectively, her work displays a curious singleness of purpose, an inevitability, almost, of direction. These two books are divided by thirty years yet linked by their preoccupations and prevailing currents of feeling.

Duras's recent fictions have been short,...

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Susan Rava (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Marguerite Duras: Women's Language in Men's Cities,” in Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Susan Merrill Squier, The University of Tennessee Press, 1984, pp. 35-44.

[In the following essay, Rava examines the attempts of Duras's female characters to create a linguistic voice and presence for themselves in the predominantly male urban milieu.]

In the works of Marguerite Duras, the city inaugurates a conflict between the female search for authentic speech and the male linguistic domination. While Duras's work covers many genres, themes, and forms, her settings have frequently been cities: Duras uses those specific...

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Gabriele Annan (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Saigon Mon Amour,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXII, No. 11, June 27, 1985, pp. 11-12.

[In the following review of The Lover, Annan examines Duras's motivations in the writing of the novella, as well as the book's phenomenal popular success.]

Marguerite Duras is very much a member of the old French avant-garde. She published her first novel in 1943, wrote her first film script—Hiroshima mon amour—in 1959, and directed her first film in 1969. In 1968 she was a senior member of the writers' and students' revolutionary committee. So it is quite surprising that her latest novel was a runaway success in France last year, French...

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Sven Birkerts (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Marguerite Duras,” in An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th-Century Literature, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987, pp. 163-70.

[In the following essay, originally published in the Boston Phoenix in 1985, Birkerts discusses the minimalistic prose of The Lover.]

Minimalism is, for the practitioner, one of the more seductive literary modes. Like abstract painting, it looks easy, and as most of the action takes place in the realm of the unstated, the writer need not be bothered with the messy mechanics of plot or character development. Hemingway bewitched several generations of prose stylists with his primer-simple narratives and his aesthetic...

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Anna Otten (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Fiction,” in The Antioch Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 112-13.

[In the following review, Otten deems The Lover a “parable of French colonialism.”]

Winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1984, The Lover was acclaimed as a major literary event and has been translated into all major world languages. Labeled nonfiction, the work repeats autobiographical material already present in The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique, 1950). The narrative presents the life of Saigon in the 1930s under the rule of French colonialism, where the life of the heroine parallels that of Duras, who was born there in 1914. Duras...

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Sharon Willis (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 1-11.

[In the following introduction to her book Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body, Willis focuses on The Lover in her examination of Duras's “transgressive” texts.]

Long a respected figure on the French literary scene, Marguerite Duras eludes any effort to situate her work in a fixed area. In the over forty years she has been publishing, her work has always resisted easy classification, in part because she produces novels, plays, and films simultaneously. To date, she has produced over twenty novels, nearly as many plays, numerous essays...

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Doris T. Wight (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “A Game Played: ‘Moderato Cantabile,’” in The USF Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1988, pp. 32-4.

[In the following essay, Wight asserts that the principal characters of Moderato cantabile work out their issues through Freudian game-playing.]

Game-playing can surely provide a major sport for both participants and viewers. And game-playing can supply dangerous sport—both psychologically (in actual life) and allogorically (in literature). In Marguerite Duras' story Moderato Cantabile, for instance, a real-life problem faced by many women is depicted on the page, here, while a little boy watched by his mother takes a...

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Trista Selous (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The Blanks,” in The Other Woman: Feminism and Femininity in the Work of Marguerite Duras, Yale University Press, 1988, pp. 97-111, 127-32.

[In the following essay, Selous examines the significance of what she describes as the “blanks” in Duras's writing, suggesting that those periods of silence or emptiness represent, particularly in Moderato cantabile, the “unsayable.”]

[As] opposed to Un barrage contre le Pacifique, which recounts events and gives insights, usually through free indirect style, into the psychology of the characters, ‘in Moderato cantabile, not only does it not say what happened, but it may be that nothing...

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Leslie Hill (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Marguerite Duras: Sexual Difference and Tales of Apocalypse,” in The Modern Language Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, July, 1989, pp. 601-14.

[In the following essay, Hill explores the function of repetition in Moderato cantabile.]

Elle se promène encore. Elle voit de plus en plus précisément, clairement ce qu'elle veut voir. Ce qu'elle rebâtit, c'est la fin du monde.

(Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein)

A number of Duras's books are written indifferently as plays, film-scripts, or novels. In at least two of these texts, India Song and Détruire, dit-elle, there is an...

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Nina S. Hellerstein (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Family Reflections and the Absence of the Father in Duras's ‘L'Amant,’” in Essays in French Literature, No. 26, November, 1989, pp. 98-109.

[In the following essay, Hellerstein suggests that the father's death in The Lover “deprives all the members of the family of a source of emotional, economic, and sexual definition.”]

The theme of absence plays a major role in Marguerite Duras's works, as has been shown by the studies of Carol Murphy and others.1L'Amant is no exception to this rule, and indeed Duras indicates the importance of the theme from the very beginning of the novel: her own identity appears as an unnameable...

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Marianne Hirsch (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Feminist Family Romances,” in The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 125-61.

[In the following essay, Hirsch provides a psychoanalytic reading of the relationship between the narrator and her mother in The Lover.]

“The story of my life doesn't exist,” asserts the (again) nameless narrator of The Lover. “Does not exist. There's never any center to it. No path, no line” (p. 8). The text begins with a long self-portrait, a reflection of the narrator's aged face, first as it is described to her by a young man she encounters in a public space, then as she herself sees it evolve from the...

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Susan D. Cohen (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Fiction and the Photographic Image in Duras' ‘The Lover,’” in L'Esprit Createur, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring, 1990, pp. 56-68.

[In the following essay, Cohen explores Duras's “inter-genre” use of visual imagery in The Lover.]

Le seul sujet du livre [L'Amant] c'est l'écriture, L'écriture, c'est moi. Donc moi, c'est le livre.

—Marguerite Duras

Most of Marguerite Duras' work focuses on the referent's essential absence. Duras writes this absence with visual metaphors, but in ways that deconstruct the dominant, centralizing primacy of seeing as documentation. Although much...

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Janice Morgan (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Fiction and Autobiography/Language and Silence: ‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras,” in Redefining Autobiography in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction: An Essay Collection, edited by Janice Morgan and Colette T. Hall, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991, pp. 73-84.

[In the following essay, Morgan discusses the autobiographical significance of the silences in The Lover.]

To write is not to comment on what one already knows but to look for what one doesn't know yet.

—Viviane Forrestier1

In 1984, Marguerite Duras surprised the French literary world by producing L'Amant...

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Suzanne Chester (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Writing the Subject: Exoticism/Eroticism in Marguerite Duras's ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Sea Wall,’” in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julie Watson, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 436-58.

[In the following essay, Chester examines colonialism and autobiographical representation in The Lover and The Sea Wall.]

Until now, the main body of critical work on Duras has explored the relationship between her writing and the category of the feminine—defined variously in cultural, linguistic, and psychoanalytic terms.1 However, the colonial aspect of Duras's work...

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Peter Brooks (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Transgressive Bodies,” in Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 257-86.

[In the following essay, Brooks analyzes what he considers Duras's subversive techniques of dealing with the problem of the visual in The Lover.]

The body quickened through sexuality remains the object of most intense interest for our culture. It is worth dwelling on one example that will serve to draw attention, once again, to the problematics of the gaze directed at a body which is conceived as the object of a writing project, this time by a woman. The author, Marguerite Duras, is particularly sensitive to issues of looking, and has...

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Marilyn R. Schuster (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Coming of Age Stories: Defining the Woman and the Writer,” in Marguerite Duras Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 13-62, 105-45.

[In the following essay, Schuster discusses female sexuality and subjugation in “The Boa.”]

In 1954, Duras published four short stories under the title Des Journées entières dans les arbres (Whole Days in the Trees).1 Just as The Tranquil Life tells a story of female subjectivity, one of the stories in this volume, “The Boa,” presents a story of female sexuality. Although the story is told in the first person, both temporal and geographic distance between the adult narrator and her...

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James H. Reid (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Cafe Duras: Mourning Descriptive Space,” in French Forum, Vol. 19, No. 1, January, 1994, pp. 45-64.

[In the following essay, Reid discusses the ways in which the café setting represents an “ideal inner space” in Duras's fiction.]

… écrire, c'est ça aussi, sans doute, c'est effacer. Remplacer.

(Emily 32)1

The café, like so many places in Marguerite Duras's novels, is less a material than a mental space that her characters construct and deconstruct in their minds. Within this inner, and some would say feminine, space, or rather, within the descriptive space...

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Graham Dunstan Martin (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Drive for Power in Marguerite Duras' ‘L'Amant,’” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXX, No. 3, July, 1994, pp. 204-18.

[In the following essay, Martin examines power in The Lover as it is used by and against the narrator.]

The nature of power has not been discussed in relation to L'Amant.1 Power evokes desire, obedience, the forbidden, terror and fear, especially the fear of suffering and death; it is rendered still more powerful when those who provoke desire do not entirely reciprocate it; when there is conflict with the pleasure principle; when the forbidden is no longer kept secret but deliberately rendered...

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Further Reading


Cousineau, Diane. “The Image and the Word, History and Memory in the Photographic Age: Marguerite Duras's The Lover.Letters and Labyrinths: Women Writing/Cultural Codes, pp. 128-68. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

A postmodern feminist examination of Duras's use of the photographic image in The Lover.

Le Sage, Laurent. “Marguerite Duras.” The French New Novel: An Introduction and a Sampler, pp. 85-91. University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.

Briefly examines Duras's works that fall into the nouveau roman category.


(The entire section is 163 words.)