Colette is an enchantress when writing about the relations between the sexes. She has been criticized for being a writer whose main concern is the world of the superficial. Many of her characters are drawn from the world of the theater, the demimonde, and the arts, and many of her characters exist within the world of the cabaret and the brothel. Recent feminist theory has done much to portray Colette as a writer who wrote exquisitely about both sexes and who was especially adept at writing about the sensual natures of both men and women. In addition, she was one of the writers of her age who could see through the veil of patriarchal authority. While her characters have not always been able to free themselves of gender stereotypes, Colette’s characters never indulge in self-pity or despair.
In Chéri, the interactions between the hopelessly young and beautiful Chéri and his much older lover, Léa, are defined along traditional gender lines. At the same time, these traditional gender divisions are subverted. Chéri, in his decision to marry Edmée, finds himself in the position of being bound to his young wife while still in love with Léa. For her part, Léa never betrays the dignity of her age. The marriage between Chéri and Edmée grieves Léa to the point that she leaves Paris for a year’s travel in Europe, but she never reveals her sorrow to Chéri. In the end Chéri returns to declare his love for Léa; Léa maintains her superiority as the more experienced and comforting choice for Chéri.
Spoiled, petulant, and relying only on his beauty and social position, Chéri, not Léa, possesses the most superficial features of the two—traits, moreover, that are stereotyped as “female.” Léa, on the other hand, as a woman of great dignity, experience, reserve, and strength, in a sense reinvents female identity by showing that she is not dominated by the need to have the fidelity and the attention of a man. While Léa’s situation is not tragic—Colette was careful to respect the gaming and humorous side to interpersonal relationships—neither is it possible to condemn Léa on the grounds of superficiality. She makes her bid, withstands the indignity of rejection, and lives with her sorrow by maintaining a stance of remove, if not acceptance. In the end, she triumphs in character over a young man who can do nothing other than what...
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