Born immediately after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870) and the massacres that ended the Paris Commune (1871), Alfred Jarry belonged to a generation that was deeply affected by France’s humiliating defeat and by the political turmoils of the newly created Third Republic. He was of Breton ancestry on his mother’s side and developed a strong interest in the legends of Brittany, daring to speak its Celtic language at a time when the government in Paris forbade the use of anything but French. His father, after a rather successful start in business, went bankrupt and eventually became a frequently absent and alcoholic traveling salesman. Jarry’s mother, who has been compared to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary because of her eccentric manners, left her husband while Alfred and his sister were still quite young and went to live with her father, a well-to-do magistrate who had settled in Saint-Brieuc. She was an ambitious person who was determined to preserve family traditions; she closely supervised her children’s formal education, which was to her, as to most bourgeois, a status symbol.
In 1888, Jarry’s mother decided to move from Saint-Brieuc to Rennes, the former capital of Brittany, so that her son could attend the lycée to prepare himself for the competitive entrance examinations for the École Normale Supérieure and the Polytechnique. Early in school, Jarry was perceived as an unusually gifted and intelligent child, although unruly, mischievous, and sarcastic, with a strong sense of sardonic humor. Because he was short and stocky, his classmates called him Quasimodo, a nickname that, curiously enough, seemed to foreshadow the gross image of Jarry’s own infamous character Pa Ubu, with whom he came to identify himself until his death.
At Saint-Brieuc, Jarry’s outstanding scholastic achievements had earned for him prizes in Greek, Latin, English, French, German, physics, geography, and mathematics. In Rennes, his intellectual curiosity extended far beyond the prescribed curriculum. He not only studied the great writers of Europe, from William Shakespeare to Pierre Corneille, Voltaire, Hugo, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but he also managed to follow with keen interest the new artistic, philosophical, and scientific developments taking place in his own time. When only eighteen, he was acquainted with Friedrich Nietzsche’s work, which had not yet been translated into French. His first poems, sketches, and satires already betrayed his obsession with violence, death, and buffoonery, coupled with strong leanings toward misanthropy and pessimism, at times bordering on nihilism. It was during this period that Jarry, in collaboration with some of his school friends, wrote the first versions of Ubu roi and Ubu Enchained.
After earning his two baccalaureates, and prompted by his mother, Jarry went to Paris to attend the celebrated Lycée Henry IV. Among his professors was the philosopher Henri Bergson, whose major work, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889), had a significant impact on the Symbolist school of literature. In 1893, Jarry’s mother died. Unable to win admittance to the École Normale Supérieure, he switched his major from the sciences to the humanities. In 1894, however, he failed his examinations for the Licence-ès-lettres at the Sorbonne; thereafter he devoted himself exclusively to writing. In the meantime, he had discovered the artistic world of Paris, in particular the new school of Symbolism, which had a considerable influence on his conception of art and on his fundamental outlook on life. The Symbolists believed in the primacy of the imagination and of the self as the sole and unique reality, outside of which nothing could be shown to exist. With them, as noted above, Jarry shared a contempt for the masses as well as for realism and, especially, for Émile Zola’s doctrine of naturalism. Jarry also shared the Symbolists’ preference for an autonomous, allusive language,...
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