Last Updated on January 17, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 949
The narrator of Bonjour Tristesse, Cécile, is an unconventional young woman with particular ideas about what she desires from her life. First published in 1954, the novel was controversial for many reasons, but primarily for the narrator’s comfortability with her sexuality and distaste for conventional social mores. In chapter two, Cécile reveals her perverse motivations: “I visualized a life of degradation and moral turpitude as my ideal.” This sentiment was jarring to contemporary readers, who struggled to accept the beautiful young girl’s nonchalant perspective toward promiscuity and pleasure.
Much to their chagrin, Cécile does not change overly much throughout the novel. Although Bonjour Tristesse is akin to a bildungsroman, Cécile’s maturation does not alter her pleasure-oriented mindset. However, she does undergo significant change during her internal conflict over Anne’s—her prospective stepmother—presence in her life. At the outset, Cécile struggles to interpret her emotions, overcome with strong feelings that she can neither parse nor understand. She dislikes these inexplicably strong feelings and feels “disgusted that I had got myself into a state which I could no longer control.” Much of the novel follows Cécile’s struggle to understand herself and her feelings toward Anne, which change often and violently. She explains the confusion and uncertainty that followed her through their vacation, describing the self-doubt that plagued her:
I kept telling myself that my feelings about Anne were mean and stupid, and that my desire to separate her from my father was vicious. Then I would argue that after all I had every right to feel as I did. For the first time in my life I was divided against myself. Up in my room I reasoned with myself for hours on end in an attempt to discover whether the fear and hostility which Anne inspired in me were justified, or if I was merely a silly, spoilt, selfish girl in a mood of sham independence.
Not only does Cécile struggle to understand her thoughts and feelings, but she also finds it difficult to understand the minds of others. Although she has spent many evenings at parties and many afternoons with men double her age, Cécile is not half as adult as she imagines herself. Instead, she is emotionally immature and has not yet shed the defining selfishness of late adolescence. As such, Cécile does not accurately see those around her. Although she understands her father’s vanities, Elsa’s insecurities, and Cyril’s desires, Cécile’s discerning gaze does not extend to Anne, whom she cannot seem to understand.
Anne is an enigma because she is unfamiliar and unlike any others with whom Cécile has thus far become acquainted. As such, Cécile sees the older woman as an alien, a calculating “beautiful serpent,” upon whom she prescribes many motivations and desires. She works herself into an emotional fervor, viewing Anne as a ruthless enemy who intends to destroy the hedonistic life that she so enjoys. Early on, Cécile admits that she “had never thought of Anne as a woman but as an entity.” As such, she feels comfortable plotting against her, as she imagines her to be emotionless and above human sentiment. However, at the end of the novel, she understands the brutal scope of her blindness, explaining:
Then I realized that I had attacked a living, sensitive creature, not just an entity. She too must once have been a rather secretive little girl, then an adolescent, and after that a woman. Now she was forty and all alone.
Cécile’s internal monologue directly following the success of her plan indicates the catalytic impact of her actions. Raymond's betrayal—which Cécile contrived—destroys Anne, leaving Cécile horrified by the...
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impact of her callous actions. For the first time in her life, Cécile faces her selfishness and lack of external awareness; she has thought herself clever and mature, but the anguish stamped into Anne’s tear-streaked face proves devastatingly otherwise. The crystalline image of Anne’s face, twisted in sorrow, haunts Cécile, especially because she can neither reconcile nor apologize for her actions. Shortly after she watches Anne drive erratically away, she learns of her death, which is deemed an accident but was ambiguous enough to have potentially been a suicide.
Guilt eats away at both father and daughter, and they mourn Anne’s passing—for which they were arguably responsible—for some time. In this period of sorrow, Cécile undergoes a metamorphosis. She faces her selfishness and immaturity, intending to be better going forward. Her maturation comes at the cost of an innocent woman’s life; ultimately, Cécile changes only slightly; both she and her father soon return to the familiar pattern of their hedonistic lives. They seem to forget Anne entirely until Cécile admits:
Only when I am in bed, at dawn, listening to the cars passing below in the streets of Paris, my memory betrays me: that summer returns to me with all its emotions. Anne, Anne, I repeat over and over again softly in the darkness. Then something rises in me that I welcome by name with closed eyes: Hello, sadness!
The memory of Anne and the familiar feeling of sorrow return to Cécile in quiet moments, unshakeable companions that slowly fuel her coming of age. Rather than shrugging the tumultuous summer off carelessly, Cécile eschews her characteristic frivolity and instead embraces regret, guilt, and sorrow. The bildungsroman remains incomplete, but the foundation has been laid; by the end of Bonjour Tristesse, Cécile is changed, slowly but surely moving toward the better version of herself she will become.