(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In the pink boudoir of Léa, a still lovely courtesan, Chéri, her handsome young lover, demands that she let him play with her valuable pearls. She discourages his mood, fearing that the removal of her pearls might cause him to notice that her neck is showing the wrinkles of age. Chéri curses his luncheon engagement with his mother. Léa gently and teasingly helps him in his erratic dressing. Although he becomes lazily aroused at her touch, she manages to send him away to his luncheon.

Alone, Léa dresses with efficient care, choosing a white-brimmed hat for her visit to Madame Peloux. She eats a good lunch before joining Chéri at his mother’s house. There she finds Madame Peloux loud-voiced, gossipy, and inquisitive. Also there are Marie-Laure, an elegant woman of forty years, and her quiet daughter Edmée, whose looks nearly equal her mother’s. They leave as soon as Léa arrives, and the degree to which mother and son then relax disgusts Léa. Despite Chéri’s careless manners, he still looks to her like a young god.

She remembers him as a very beautiful and lonely child who soon developed his mother’s miserliness and her keen business sense. In his late adolescence, Chéri had been taken away by Léa to Normandy to feed him well and also to remove him from his dissipated life in Paris. Her offer to do so had been accepted with a kiss that had inflamed them both.

In Normandy, they had become lovers. Chéri was devoted to Léa for her passion and solicitude, and she to him for his youth, ardor, and faunlike freedom. At that point, Léa would still have been willing to abandon him because of the inconvenience he caused her; he was, in succession, taciturn and demonstrative, tender and spiteful. After they returned to Paris, however, Chéri still wanted Léa, and he became her established lover. He had remained with her for six years.

When Chéri returns to Léa after the luncheon party, he tells her that he is to marry Edmée. Since Léa has always known a marriage would be eventually arranged for Chéri, she does not outwardly react to this news. Chéri declares that his wife will influence him little and that she already adores him. Wounded by Léa’s apparent lack of emotion, he declares that he would like her to hide herself in Normandy and grieve. He desperately wants to be her last lover.

In the few weeks before Chéri’s marriage, he and Léa are very happy, though at times she is appalled at his heartlessness toward his future bride and realizes that by pampering him she has maintained in him the immaturity of a child. When Chéri chatters about his honeymoon, Léa reminds him that she will not be there. Chéri turns white and gives her great happiness by announcing ambiguously that for him she will always be...

(The entire section is 1141 words.)

The Novels

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Even though Cheri and The Last of Cheri were published six years apart, they form one continuous love story. The two books relate the love affair between Lea, an aging courtesan, and extremely handsome but also extremely dependent Cheri; the two lovers’ ages differ by twenty-four years. Together, the novels form a structurally perfect duet.

The liaison began in 1906, as Colette recounts in a flashback: Lea was forty-three to Cheri’s nineteen when they found themselves alone, exchanged kisses out of boredom and curiosity, found their desires aroused, and became lovers. In the first novel’s opening scene, set six years later, Lea is the gracefully protective mistress, Cheri the moody, petulant, narcissistic taker of her tenderness. Cheri will soon be married to Edmee, a beautiful, wealthy young woman; the young couple will then leave Paris for a six-month honeymoon journey.

Paying a social call on Madame Peloux during Cheri’s absence, Lea is repulsed by the presence of an overdressed, wrinkled, ridiculous seventy-year-old woman with her seventeen-year-old Italian lover—a startling omen of what she and Cheri might become. Lea determines to heed the cautionary experience and to exit with dignity from Cheri’s life before her beauty vanishes entirely. She leaves Paris for the winter.

Cheri returns from his honeymoon, tense and irritable; the marriage is going poorly. Lea is not yet back in Paris. He leaves Edmee, moves into a hotel with his friend Desmond, frequents an opium den, and awaits Lea’s reappearance. When she comes back in late spring, he bursts into her bedroom and admits his love for her. Against her reasoned judgment, Lea yields to his beauty and need on that first evening.

With morning, however, the Dionysian ecstasy is replaced by Apollonian clarity. Cheri, pretending to sleep, stares at his middle-aged mother-mistress: “Not yet powdered, a meagre twist of hair at the back of her head, double...

(The entire section is 809 words.)