Analysis

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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...

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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.

Form and Content

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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, sharing his love of beauty and pleasure, but also acutely aware of the superficiality and transience of the world of the idle rich in which both of them live.

The narrator’s dilemma is acutely defined by the two older women in the novel: Elsa, an unreflective sybarite whose life is given meaning by sports cars and nightclubs; and Anne, her dark, serious, and contemplative counterpart, whose very presence seems to call into judgment the lives of the other characters.

After Anne arrives at the Riviera summer house where Cécile, Raymond, and Elsa are vacationing, the relationship between Cécile and Anne quickly becomes complex. Anne seems to bring out the worst in Cécile, who never misses an opportunity to play the disrespectful adolescent rebel in the older woman’s presence.

It becomes apparent, however, that her provocations are really a symptom both of her admiration for Anne’s aloof superiority and of her growing jealousy. There is something possessive about Cécile’s affection for her father. The frivolous affairs between Raymond and women such as Elsa do not excessively arouse this jealousy, but when Anne enters the scene and it becomes evident that Raymond is genuinely falling in love, the ugly side of Cécile’s character reveals itself. One of the complexities of the novel is that the reader never knows whether Cécile is simply jealous of Anne or whether she is angry at Raymond for having betrayed their philosophy of uncommitted pleasure-seeking by falling in love.

When Anne and Raymond decide to marry, after having abandoned Elsa and Cécile in a nightclub so that the newly formed couple could spend the night together, Anne begins to fill the role of mother. In particular, she forbids Cécile’s ever seeing her lover Cyril again and tells her to concentrate on preparing for her exams instead. Furious at what she considers an intolerable invasion of her freedom, and intent on destroying the relationship between Anne and her father, Cécile manages to have Elsa and Cyril play the role of lovers, convincing Elsa that in this way she will win back Raymond. Cécile succeeds in making her father jealous, to the point where he makes a secret rendezvous with Elsa. Anne accidentally sees the two of them together and flees from the house in her car, while Cécile finally realizes the damage she may have caused by her Machiavellian schemes.

Cécile and her father are in the process of writing a letter of apology to Anne when the telephone rings: Anne has died in an accident on a particularly treacherous road along the Mediterranean coast. Hospital workers believe that it was no more than an accident, while Cécile and Raymond are left with the feeling that they may have caused Anne’s suicide. In the final chapter the two are back in Paris, where they slowly resume the life of leisure and irresponsibility that had been interrupted by the events of the summer. Yet Cécile cannot suppress her guilt concerning Anne’s death, and there is a strong suggestion that her life will never be as it was before.

Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

According to Judith Graves Miller, the foremost expert on Sagan in the United States, Sagan’s commitment to feminist issues accurately reflects her degree of political engagement in general: She often speaks out on an issue and then distances herself from the debate rather than remain associated with it for an extended period. Her most visible participation in the feminist movement occurred in 1971, when she signed the Manifesto of the 343, a famous document signed by women, many of them well known in French society, claiming to have undergone abortions; by doing so, they placed themselves in danger of immediate arrest and imprisonment. This very effective protest drew national attention to the issue and was one of the factors leading to the legalization of abortion in France.

Although Sagan herself has shown limited, though genuine, interest in feminist issues, her work has much to offer to the field of feminist literary criticism. Bonjour Tristesse first of all gave voice to the alienation of postwar youth; had Cécile been a young man instead of a woman, however, the novel undoubtedly would not have had the impact that it did. Cécile’s sexual sophistication and worldliness, the loss of her virginity (which she celebrates), and her powerful manipulation of the adult world that surrounds her were, for contemporary readers, nothing short of shocking. The well-known Catholic novelist François Mauriac wrote an editorial in the conservative newspaper Le Figaro in which he argued that the novel should not have received the Prix des Critiques for 1954; while he admitted that it was an admirable work from a literary standpoint, he wrote that the moral bankruptcy it betrayed was symptomatic of all that had to be resisted in French culture and society. Mauriac’s reaction was typical of much of the artistic and political establishment of the time. According to Miller, such reactions as Mauriac’s are common whenever a threatening new voice, especially a feminine one, is heard. Sagan’s enduring contribution to women’s literature can be said to lie in the initial transgression of societal norms by her heroine, Cécile, who set the pattern for many of the characters in Sagan’s later works.

On the other hand, some criticize Sagan for the same reasons that certain other female writers, such as Colette, have been criticized. By concentrating on the traditional feminine sources of power, the argument goes—that is, primarily the power to arouse desire and curiosity in men—Sagan perpetuates conventional gender roles instead of redefining them. As with Colette, however, there is much more to Sagan’s characters than the stock figure of the vamp; she explores the intricacies of male-female relationships in a manner that cannot be reduced to stereotypes. In particular, her powerful female characters, in that they display a rebellious attitude toward many social conventions, cannot easily be categorized as mere slaves to the game of seduction. Now that Sagan criticism based on an informed and sophisticated feminist perspective is appearing, a certain reevaluation of her situation in contemporary women’s literature is at hand.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 226

Cismaru, Alfred. “Françoise Sagan: The Superficial Classic.” World Literature Today 67 (Spring, 1993): 291-295. A critique of Sagan’s concept of freedom, this article tries to find the reason for Sagan’s obsession with worldliness and frivolity. Cismaru speculates that the source of much of Sagan’s inspiration is her own repressive, petit-bourgeois background.

Miller, Judith Graves. Françoise Sagan. Boston: Twayne, 1988. The first full-length critical study of Sagan in English, and an excellent one. Miller examines the phenomenon of Sagan as a public figure and analyzes her works partly as attempts to blur the boundary separating fiction and autobiography. Includes a useful chronology and a selected bibliography.

Poirot-Delpech, Bertrand. Bonjour Sagan. Paris: Herscher, 1985. Although published in French, this coffeetable-sized book is a fascinating Sagan iconography, with photographs and other documents from all periods of her life. Even an English-speaking reader will appreciate those aspects of Sagan’s much-publicized private life that are copiously displayed in these pages.

Updike, John. “Books.” The New Yorker 50 (August 12, 1974): 95-98. Updike devotes the regular book review column of The New Yorker in this issue to Sagan, on the occasion of the publication in English of Scars on the Soul. It is a useful insight into the appreciation of one of America’s foremost novelists for Sagan’s work, especially as Updike’s own fiction displays some degree of affinity with hers.

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