Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1131

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Julien Green said that his novels allow glimpses of “great dark stirrings,” which he believed to be the deepest part of the soul. Quietly, but inevitably, this novel probes the deepest aspects of Adrienne Mesurat’s being. Green believed from the beginning of his literary career that a novelist is “like a scout commissioned to go and see what is happening in the depth of the soul,” who then comes back to report what was observed. The writer never lives on the surface, but only inhabits the darkest regions. In his diary, Green observes: “The anguish and loneliness of my characters can almost always be reduced to what I think I called a manifold dread of living in this world.” Although Green’s characters rarely express ideas, his books hold a view of the world, a philosophy. The Closed Garden stands at the head of his works, both in form and in implied statement.

It has been said that the inspiration for The Closed Garden was a painting by Maurice Utrillo: The novel has the sunlit yet melancholy dullness readers find in many of Utrillo’s street scenes. Green has also been compared with Emily Brontë for the intensity of his atmosphere and with Honoré de Balzac for his realistic rendering of French provincial life. These comparisons, however, are true only in part. Green is himself first of all, with his own powers and compelling insights.

The characters in The Closed Garden try to preserve their lives as they are, but nothing can stay the same. Even passivity is a choice, an action that must have consequences; and these consequences can force one forward to the destiny waiting at the end. Monotony can lead as inevitably as more colorful events to tragedy—and perhaps more inescapably. People can tangle themselves in tragic fates without realizing until too late (if ever) what happened. Green seems to imply in his tale that the inarticulate suffer as deeply as the more intelligent and sophisticated.

Adrienne Mesurat lives surrounded by quiet, but still deadly, selfishness. Her father thinks only of his own comfort, and her sister lives only for her illness. Adrienne is crushed beneath their wills—wretched and hardly knowing why. Green suggests that her condition is a metaphor for that of most of humanity. What happens when she wakes up and tries to break loose from her invisible bonds? Life does not have the happy ending of the fairy tale. There can be only one ending. It is not contrived tragedy: It emerges from the characters themselves. “The author creates characters,” wrote Green, “and the characters create the plot.”

The style of The Closed Garden is typical of Green’s elusive, subtle manner. His prose is quiet and unobtrusive. André Gide commented about Green’s books that the pencil seems never to leave the paper; the line is unbroken to the end. Green said that his intention in The Closed Garden and his other early works was to tell the story without ever allowing the reader to be “diverted by the style in which it was written, a sort of invisible style, good and strong, if possible, but not in any way noticeable.” The complete effacement of the author is, for Green, one of the major requirements of literary perfection. He believed that it should be impossible for a reader to know what kind of person wrote the book. He wanted the characters to speak and to act for themselves and never be interfered with by the author’s personality.

Green’s premise is that, although Adrienne appears commonplace at first glance, she is as mysterious as any human being and just as alone. She breathes and moves in an atmosphere of solitude that gradually becomes oppressive. Green believed that most people never succeed in breaking down the barriers that separate them from the rest of humanity. Although people make constant contact with others, the communication is imperfect, at best. “When we are about to speak,” wrote Green, “and reveal something about our inner life, who is in the mood to listen?” If one is heard, can the listener understand? This aloneness is the theme of The Closed Garden and of most of Green’s fiction.

Green was born of American parents in Paris in 1900. While in his teens during World War I, he drove an ambulance and served in the French artillery. He studied music and art before turning to literature and achieving early recognition with his first novels. His elder sister, Anne, was also a novelist, although she wrote in English, while the body of his work is in French. He was a close friend of Gide and was influenced by the master’s style. The fall of France in World War II forced Green’s return to Virginia, where he previously attended college. During this time, he wrote his autobiographical Memories of Happy Days (1942), his only book composed in English. In 1942, Green entered the United States Army and worked with the Office of War Information. After the liberation of France in 1945, he returned to Paris.

A French critic spoke of Green as a “pure” writer, explaining that he never wrote a line except under absolute artistic compulsion. He lived and worked under rigid self-discipline, which ruled out all petty distractions. In 1939, after twenty years, Green returned to the Catholic faith. This is shown strikingly in the several volumes of his Journal (1938-2006). Critics compared his later novels favorably with those of François Mauriac and André Gide.

Green makes no sentimental appeals. He creates horror in books such as The Closed Garden by cumulative value, not by yielding to sensational effects. The realism of this novel is that of a nightmare. The lean style avoids decorations and seems to photograph the tragedy dispassionately. The emotion is concentrated and intense. Green maintains a firm control over the novel, avoiding the capriciousness and predictability of some of the later novels. His debt to the early United States writers Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne is evident in The Closed Garden. The carefully constructed prose and the moral concern that rule the story are especially reminiscent of Hawthorne. At times, Green seems to suggest that sexuality is apart from the rest of life and, because apart, evil. Certainly, Adrienne, as so many other of Green’s characters, cannot cope with her own sexuality and is destroyed by it as much as by anything else. Green’s characters seem to have a longing nostalgia for a peace and happiness that they never knew. Dreams and vague memories of bittersweet desires, however, are not enough, as Green artfully demonstrates. Green received many awards and prizes during his long career, and, in 1971, he became the first United States citizen to be elected to the French Academy.