Bonjour Tristesse

by Françoise Quoirez

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Last Updated on January 17, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 632

Françoise Quoirez published her first work, the break-out success Bonjour Tristesse, in 1954 when she was only eighteen years old. Her proximity to her seventeen-year-old narrator, Cécile, provides the books with a sense of authentic feeling as if Cécile’s turbulent emotional state and adolescent growing pain stem from Quoirez’s own. The novel is a kind of compressed bildungsroman—that is, a story about a young person's education or early adult learning experiences. It is "compressed" because it is little more than 130 pages in length and is therefore more accurately suited to the novella classification rather than the full-length novel category.  

The story unfolds through a series of imagery-laden vignettes, retelling the events of a summer Cécile and her father spent vacationing in the south of France. Despite the innocuous subject matter, the book was striking and even scandalous to contemporary audiences, as Quoirez discussed sexuality—female sexuality, sexual fluidity, and promiscuity—in bold, unapologetic terms. Readers, who were living in the seemingly sedate era of post-war comfort and conservatism, were uncertain about the novel’s controversial material, and it was banned in many places. However, Quoirez’s frank discussion of quiet but ever-present themes highlighted the near-universal facade of contentment that would soon falter in the turbulent and sexually-liberated 1960s. In detailing the sexual feelings and experiences of a young girl, Quoirez was ahead of her time, expressing these under-the-surface themes of rebellion against moral strictures and conformism generally.

Quoirez’s work, though revolutionary, borrowed from a collection of mid-twentieth-century French literature that rejected old moral values and eschewed conventional restrictions. Her contemporaries and immediate predecessors' work sparked a literary culture that embraced the unconventional and the traditionally suppressed narratives, of which her discussion of female sexuality was invariably a part. Bonjour Tristesse is a bildungsroman that focuses on the metamorphosis of a selfish young girl. In retelling the story of her youth, Cécile reveals a tale of alienation and discomfort with tradition. 

Cécile’s conflict with Anne is as much about the potential for Anne to take away her father and the life they share as it is about the broader collision of old and new values. The two women—divided by a generation and united by a shared milieu of the stylized femininity of mid-century French women—act as foils. Anne is a bastion of tradition. Her beauty is timeless and classy, and she conducts herself with grace and poise; she is intelligent and embraces the mundane lifestyle Cécile views as “bourgeois” and “boring.” Cécile, however, is anything but. She embraced her father’s hedonistic teachings yet is viewed poorly for following in his footsteps; she is free, self-determined, and passionate, but because she is a young woman, her liberated ways invite only condemnation. 

By rejecting Anne’s efforts to mold her into a respectable woman, Cécile preserves her unique lifestyle. There is more to it; the battle of wills between these two women of vastly different mindsets becomes a metaphor for the nation itself. It is telling, indeed, that Cécile survives and Anne plummets to a tragic end. But, this generational battle is not Quoirez’s central focus. Instead, she seems to argue in favor of life’s arbitrary nature, explaining that the world operates entirely amorally. Events unfold as they will, and there is no deeper meaning beyond sorrow, which Cécile greets knowingly—and almost familiarly—at the novel’s end. Arbitrary sadness dominates this life, she concludes, and all one can do is accept it. It is a sobering conclusion to a tale of sexual liberation and female independence that marries the novel’s soaring themes with its bleak reality, creating a sense of unity that would prove remarkably prescient in the chaotic decade ahead. 

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