Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The narrator of Bonjour Tristesse, Cécile, is seventeen years old. However, she appears far more worldly and self-aware than many others her age, a fact likely attributed to her unconventional childhood. After her mother's death, Cécile's father, Raymond, raised her alone, aided by a slew of much-younger lovers. Raymond brought her to parties and out dancing, treating his young daughter more like a dear friend than an impressionable young girl. Cécile feels as if she is more mature than others her age, which leads her to seek out men her father’s age because she feels they are more suitable romantic partners than the inexperienced boys her age. However, Cécile’s maturity extends only so far; although she has experienced many things, her emotional state remains that of a seventeen-year-old.
When Anne, the woman to whom her father becomes unexpectedly engaged, disrupts the comfortable status quo of her and her father’s indulgent, hedonistic life, Cécile flies into a rage. She hates the feeling of being controlled, dislikes the boring, bourgeois lifestyle she imagines Anne will force them to lead, and resents the implication of her childishness. Cécile’s resentment spirals out of control, revealing her tumultuous and deeply immature mental state. Yet, within these turbulent emotions lives Cécile’s other half: a clever social butterfly who, due to her father’s many parties and events, knows how to manipulate others. She hatches a devious—and ultimately deadly—plan to end Anne and Raymond’s engagement, illustrating her impressive observational skills and knowledge of human nature.
As the plan progresses, Cécile is plagued by guilt and pleasure. She is excited by her success but tormented by its effects on those around her. Cécile is a complicated character, as all seventeen-year-olds are. She is selfish and emotionally immature; this leads her to treat others poorly, but she is not an innately bad person. Instead, Cécile is simply a seventeen-year-old girl grappling with questions of identity and responsibility who does not truly understand the internal lives of others. Her father is unequipped to teach Cécile these lessons, so it falls to Anne, who unintentionally martyrs herself to teach Cécile the importance of understanding other people’s perspectives and desires.
Raymond is Cécile’s father. He is a handsome, forty-year-old man who was widowed at twenty-five and found that the newfound freedom suited him well. During the fifteen years since his wife’s passing, Raymond took many lovers, raising Cécile with a rotating collection of mistresses. Despite being her father, Raymond views Cécile as his little friend; he takes her to parties and social events, discusses sex and sexuality with her, and exposes her to his fluid, somewhat hedonistic perspective of love.
Raymond is a vain man and views success through the lens of sexual conquest. Because he is getting older, he often worries that he is losing his looks and appeal, an insecurity that Cécile manipulates to her advantage, plying his fear and jealousy to destroy his relationship with Anne. Like Cécile, he is not a bad person; however, he struggles with selfishness and womanizing habits, leading him to treat others reprehensibly without even noticing. His focus, like Cécile’s, is most often on himself and the physical pleasures ahead. Anne’s death results from his betrayal, but Raymond mourns her only briefly. Instead, he quickly returns to his promiscuous ways, hiding his sorrow beneath a comforting veil of idle pleasure.
At the beginning of Bonjour Tristesse , Elsa is Raymond’s girlfriend or, more precisely, his current fling, as he appears more than happy to throw her away for the next woman who catches his eye. Elsa is much younger than...
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Raymond and is only a few years older than Cécile. With her red hair and pale skin, Elsa struggles in the harsh Mediterranean sun, which leaves her sunburnt and irritable. Cécile sees her as simple but friendly and resents her father’s mistreatment of the flighty younger woman. Tragically, Elsa seems to truly love Raymond yet is little more than a pawn for other characters’ interests. Cécile convinces her to pretend to be romantically involved with Cyril in a ploy to break up Anne and Raymond. The plan works, but Raymond is only interested in validating his desirability and proving that he could win Elsa back if he so desired. Ultimately, Elsa is a victim of Cécile and Raymond’s selfish machinations.
Anne was a friend of Cécile’s mother; although she and Cécile’s father run in different social circles, they have stayed in touch over the years. However, her spontaneous visit to the beach house they are staying at is unexpected and seems completely out of character for the graceful but aloof woman. Anne is uninterested in the frivolous lifestyles both Cécile and Raymond lead. While at the beach house, she tries to be a positive influence on Cécile, suggesting that she focus on her studies and prohibiting her from spending time with Cyril, whom she views as a distraction. She reveals the motivation behind her visit when she approaches Raymond on an evening out; Anne’s refinement and timeless beauty convince him, and the pair are soon engaged.
However, Anne’s character appears through the contortions of Cécile’s jilted perspective. The younger woman resents Anne for her poise and intelligence and dislikes the older woman’s assumption that she occupies a maternal role in her life. Cécile’s jaded view of Anne distorts her character slightly, obscuring her insecurity, loneliness, and deep-seated desire for companionship. Cécile views Anne as an “entity” rather than a woman and treats her as such, realizing too late that Anne has feelings and emotions. Indeed, it is Cécile’s selfish actions that directly lead to the older woman's death.
Cyril is a young man in his twenties whom Cecile meets on vacation. He's a law student spending the summer with his mother. He is kind and agreeable; he does whatever Cecile wants, often to his detriment. Cyril asks Cecile to marry him and is last seen at the end trying to connect with her as she realizes she doesn't love him. Like Elsa, Cyril falls victim to Raymond and Cécile’s flighty perspective toward love and connection, which leaves him wounded and alone.