There is little doubt that Chéri and The Last of Chéri form Colette’s literary masterpiece. The concise neoclassical novels are considered by many critics to be the most important tragic amatory novels in modern French literature.
When viewed together, Chéri and The Last of Chéri provide an interpretation of what Colette considered to be the fundamental nature of women, as well as her analysis of the impact of World War I on French society and culture. By focusing on the life of Chéri, a character whose lack of personal initiative prevents his own aspirations from complicating the story, the author is able to emphasize both major themes and introduce a variety of subtexts.
While Chéri is viewed with authorial sympathy, it is Léa and Edmée who emerge as the novels’ heroes because both of them represent the qualities of stability, courage, and adaptability that Colette believed were personified by the vast majority of women. Females in the novels who do not embody these traits are relegated to minor, undeveloped characters who serve as foils to Léa , Edmée, and Charlotte. In the Chéri novels, they are represented by women such as Marie-Laure, who refuses to accept the inevitability of aging; and by grotesques such as the Pal, who uses drugs to mask reality and to enable her to live in the past. Because they are little more than caricatures, their abnormality underscores the strength and nobility of the majority of women.
In the final pages of Chéri, Léa’s mirror forces her to face the end of her world. In The Last of Chéri, a parallel situation confronts Chéri—the war has destroyed the only world in which Léa’s training prepared him to live. Léa merges into a comfortable, independent middle age, but Chéri, without Léa’s tutelage, is so completely unable to adjust to the postwar world that he is little more than an empty shell. In the second novel, Chéri may be an enigma to all those...
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