Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 903

Paul Claudel, whose dramas have been compared to the works of Aeschylus and William Shakespeare, is regarded as one of the major writers of the first half of the twentieth century. A traditionalist in his religious beliefs after a life-altering conversion to Catholicism in 1886, he was nevertheless very much a product of and spokesperson for his time in his efforts to find themes and an idiom expressive of love and faith in contemporary terms.

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The economy of action in Break of Noon, which many critics regard as Claudel’s most realistic play (a second version debuted in 1948 and was published in 1949), makes clear that the work’s drama resides in the internal moral and spiritual struggles of the characters. These struggles are broadly drawn. Mesa, who is generally equated with Claudel’s alter ego in this somewhat autobiographical work, falls in love with a married woman, arranges for her husband’s absence from the scene, and has a child by her, fully aware at all times that he is flirting with his own eternal damnation.

In the characters of De Ciz and Almaric, Claudel provides plausible foils to Mesa’s highly refined spiritual sensibilities. The adventurous De Ciz is incapable of perceiving any action as right or wrong, good or evil. Almaric, on the other hand, is an atheist and recognizes wrongdoing only to the extent of reveling in it. Mesa, the former seminarian who confesses to a belief in God as the only significant other, is the most culpable of the play’s characters because he believes in sin and then knowingly commits it.

Only Ysé seems capable of recognizing the limits of her own moral authority and tries to exercise that power effectively for the better. In the first act, Ysé forces Mesa to swear that he will not love her; in the second, she begs De Ciz to take her with him, and in the third, she leaves Mesa for his own good. With these actions, she is trying to do the right thing, although she knows that there is no solution to the problem posed by the desire between her and Mesa. Ysé is not sure that there is a God, but she believes in the real presence and power of the spirit more than Mesa does.

Mesa’s fatal flaw is his inability to share either guilt or salvation with others, a result precisely of his belief in, and failed relationship with, God. By thinking that he is the only person with a spiritual relationship with God, he cuts himself off from the spiritual growth he could have realized through Ysé. The lesson Mesa should have learned is that others, for better or for worse, exist.

Ysé, as she tells him, is that embodiment of otherness that is finally only self. Early in the play she reminds him of how two are made from one in the myth of Adam and Eve, and she tells Mesa bluntly that she is his soul. Mesa can only grow from this relationship, however, if he is prepared to make a full commitment, soul and body, to Ysé’s soul and body. “And that’s what you don’t like, Mesa,” Ysé tells him at the end, “to pay dearly for something.” Ironically, he pays dearly nevertheless by failing to recognize the seed of salvation that even forbidden fruit must contain for it to be fully savored.

To achieve the combination of narrative economy and ambitious spiritual theme, Claudel uses symbolist techniques. A primary symbol is the passage of the day from mid-morning to midnight, which is already suggested in the title. The original French title, Partage de midi, is even more telling, however, for partage is a geological term denoting the separation of rainwater as it runs off a hill, in other words, a watershed. On the one side of the play’s watershed, which occurs at the end of the first act, is light and life and youthful hopefulness; on the other side, the play descends into darkness, night, despair, and death. Only Mesa’s raised hand is visible as the play ends, and the audience is left in the dark as to the significance of that gesture.

Another symbolic device is developed with the gold rocking chair, which in act 1 symbolizes the vainglory of Mesa’s squandered spirituality, his selfish self-possession. In act 2, the omega-shaped entrance into an empty tomb portends the doom, both physical and moral, that looms over the lovers as well as signifies the contrary emblem of the redemption each is capable of achieving, Christ-like, through sacrifice of self. In act 3, it becomes what omega denotes, the last letter, the final note, or, as Ysé puts it, the pincers closing around them. No doubt, omega connotes as well the higher vision of the Gospels: divine judgment and, for the receptive heart, forgiveness. Because the audience cannot be certain what Mesa is reaching for—the stars, as Ysé has asked of him; the noon light that is gone; the desirable flesh that is still present; the otherness of God that eludes him, or that he eludes—the omega symbol remains ambiguous, as a good symbol must.

In the moral universe described in Break of Noon, there are a number of certainties: the necessity of choice, death, and the need to work out personal spiritual redemption through interrelationship with others. That redemption, however, remains only the promised grace.

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Critical Context