Cheri begins and remains a pampered, inarticulate, spoiled, childish young man, self-absorbed, unstable, beautiful, wealthy, indolent, and lacking both intellectual depth and moral purpose. Lea is at once a degraded and exalted mother for him, a full-blooded woman with whom he can fuse the tender and sensual drives of his sexuality. Colette portrays Cheri as unloved and neglected by Madame Peloux, who has had him reared by indifferent servants and grim boarding schools. It is no wonder that he insults her, demands substantial amounts of money from his estate, and refuses to work.
Cheri never makes an adult, masculine adjustment to life, never finds a satisfactory career or other outlet for his energies. His tie to Lea is essentially incestuous: She loves him and is more charming, perceptive, stylish, attractive, and stable than is his true mother. Lea weaves around him a magic world of matriarchal understanding and indulgence, in the process encouraging him to remain the selfish, impatient Narcissus to her motherly, patient Demeter. He is her unruly, willful infant; she is his nurturing guide and unconditionally accepting lover. Their affair, while sexually grounded, primarily addresses complementary psychological needs.
Lea is one of Colette’s strongest, most memorable female characters in a fictive world in which strong women invariably dominate weak men. She is ultrafeminine, yet sensible; worldly, yet vulnerable to sexual magnetism; humorous; solid; sadly renunciatory, yet ultimately adaptable to inevitable losses. She knows that Cheri’s departure also means the departure of her alluring eroticism, but she accepts that fate with stoic wisdom, efficiency, and honorable grandeur. Colette invites the reader to consider Lea as archetypal Woman.