Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553
Bonjour Tristesse is a kind of compressed Bildungsroman—that is, a novel about a young person's education or early adult learning experiences. I say "compressed" because it is only about 130 pages long and therefore fits more into the novella classification than that of a full-length novel. It is basically a series of vignettes about a young girl's summer vacation spent with her widowed father in the south of France. Sagan's book was striking and even scandalous when first published in the 1950s. This was a decade in which Europe and America were gradually settling into a comfortable time of peace after a period of forty years in which two world wars and an economic upheaval (in the 1930s, in between those wars) had taken place. As has often been noted, the seemingly sedate and conservative mental world of the 1950s was just a facade, a cover for troubling and unresolved issues which would come to a head a few years later, during the turbulent period of the 1960s. In detailing the sexual feelings and experiences of a young girl, Sagan was ahead of her time, expressing these under-the-surface themes of rebellion against moral strictures and against conformism generally.
Two earlier French writers need to be mentioned as probable influences upon Sagan. In the late 1800s, Emile Zola had been a path-breaker in his novels in which sexual conflicts and the darker side of human nature were openly discussed in ways that were unprecedented in European literature. After World War I, fiction in both Europe and America dealt even more directly with sexual matters, though not in the graphic manner (with some notable exceptions such as Henry Miller) that was to become standard from the 1960s on. Sagan's breakthrough was to show sexuality from the point of view of a teenager, as she was a teenager herself when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse. This alone, however, would not have given the book its character and literary value. Here, I believe, the influence of a more recent author, Albert Camus, comes into play. In The Stranger, written in the early 1940s, Camus depicts an alienated character for whom the old moral values and restrictions are no longer valid. Though unlike The Stranger, Sagan's novel does not depict a murder, her protagonist, Cecile, is similarly alienated from the conventional world her father, in spite of his own hedonism and free-wheeling behavior, expects her to accept and to be a part of. She does not commit any explicit crime herself, but Cecile's plan to thwart her father's upcoming marriage results indirectly in the death, probably by suicide, of the father's fiancee.
Cecile regrets her own actions, but Sagan seems to be making a statement that this is the way life is and that the world as a whole operates on the principles of amorality and hedonism. In The Stranger, Meursault, as he awaits his execution, comes to an understanding that in spite of the absurdity of the world, his payment for his crime is deserved. Cecile, though not experiencing any sort of "moral" epiphany at the close of Bonjour Tristesse, nevertheless understands the deeper meaning behind the events she has witnessed and caused: this is the way life is—dominated by sadness—and one has to accept that fact. It's a sobering conclusion for a seventeen-year-old to draw.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
The title Bonjour Tristesse (hello sadness) is a quote from a poem by Paul Éluard that opens the novel and sets the tone for the bittersweet narrative to come. The narrator, Cécile, seems older than her years, unable to concentrate on activities, such as schoolwork, that are alien to the sophisticated high society to which she already belongs. At the beginning of her story, she identifies strongly with her father, Raymond,...
(The entire section contains 1894 words.)
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