Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The Transience of Love
Bonjour Tristesse offers a rebuttal to traditional depictions of literary love. Françoise Quoirez, little more than eighteen years oldwhen the novel was published, rejects the assumption of love's purity and dignity and embraces its transience and brevity. Love, Quoirez explains, is not always abiding. It can be fickle and mutable, subject to frequent change. When the story begins, Cécile’s father, Raymond, is in the midst of an affair with Elsa, a much younger woman and yet another in Raymond’s string of sexual conquests.
When Anne, an old friend of Cécile’s mother, arrives at their summer house, Raymond quickly ditches his younger companion and begins a whirlwind romance with her older competitor, to whom he quickly becomes engaged. For Raymond, a lifelong bachelor widowed at the age of twenty-five, an engagement is an oddity. That he rejects the freedom and promiscuity he so enjoys implies a desire for the heartfelt love and monogamy he has long avoided. However, his relationship with Anne soon falls apart, ruined by his daughter’s plotting and his vanity. Not even the feelings of a woman he loved enough to marry could counterbalance his desire for life’s simple, hedonistic pleasures.
Cécile, too, embraces her father’s fickle perspective toward his romantic partners. Her relationship with Cyril, a young man with whom she soon forms an intense but ultimately one-sided romance, ends in tragedy. She realizes that she mistook lust and attraction for love, leaving Cyril—who had fallen deeply in love and frequently suggested marriage—alone and broken-hearted. Both father and daughter see love as an emotion relegated only to the present. Neither linger on past loves—Raymond moves on with alarming alacrity after Anne’s death—nor do they plan for futures with their current lovers. Instead, they linger in the sensual pleasure of the present in all of its heady physicality and potent immediacy.
Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954. For the time, it was considered racy and borderline scandalous, as Quoirez’s openness about sexuality—particularly the sexuality of young women—shocked readers. Moreover, many found her generally cynical attitude toward life distasteful and disliked the novel’s focus on Cécile’s comfortably amoral perspective.
The novel titillated contemporary readers because it gave voice to the disruptive undercurrents building at the fringes of mid-twentieth-century society. In truth, Quoirez was more mouthpiece than visionary, offering insight into the complex ways that French society (and Western society in general) was changing during the vibrant but contentious years of the post-war era.
Her viewpoint was controversial; it shifted the conventional mores of moral life much further than many had expected, reprising ideas of pure love, monogamy, and innate goodness before promptly turning them on their head. Indeed, Quoirez painted an unapologetic picture of a vastly different—and, to many, deeply distasteful—future of sexual liberation and ever-shifting morality.
The Omnipresence of Sorrow
As Cécile develops throughout the novel, she changes very little. She clings to the familiar patterns of her hedonistic and pleasure-motivated lifestyle, content with her life as it was before Anne’s death. However, she does realize that though her life is pleasurable, it is also guided by omnipresent and often arbitrary sorrow. Sadness and tragedy exist everywhere, and whether one feels uninhibited by moral structures or is ruled by strict, uncompromising values, sorrow is the single immutable fact of human life.
Cécile, who still struggles with the emotional turbulence of adolescence, must come to terms with the fact that even those ruled by pleasure and ease must sometimes face life’s stark realities. This realization should be shattering, but it is instead comforting, as she realizes that she might as well familiarize herself with this life-long companion and greets it with a warm, almost friendly, “hello.” Life and sadness, she gradually discovers, have a certain camaraderie, which we must all eventually accept.