Colette Long Fiction Analysis

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Maurice Goudeket, in his memoir Près de Colette (1956; Close to Colette, 1957), provides a touching and revealing picture of Colette’s last hours. The most remarkable incident is the choice of her last spoken words. Looking toward an album of insects and birds, a case of butterflies, and an open window outside which swallows were flying, Colette waved expansively and said, “Look! Maurice, look!” Several scholars have noted that the French word regarde signifies more than its usual English equivalent, having the connotation of close observation and even study. Colette was never interested in abstractions, a fact that has earned her some severe critical reprimands, yet she has no equal as an observer of the tangible world.

Colette frequently complained of the difficulty of writing, saying she disliked it, which might cause one to wonder why she did so much of it. Aside from the melancholy economic fact that, especially in her earlier years, even successful books earned their authors trifling sums by today’s standards, it seems clear that Colette wrote in order to make sense of her long and eventful life. She did not attempt to theorize about it, though some of her offhand remarks bear the mark of high-quality epigrams, such as her insightful observation, “A happy childhood is a bad preparation for human contacts.” Instead, she rewrote her life in differing versions, countless times, mingling truth and imagination.

Colette’s refusal to theorize about life was accompanied by a reluctance to judge other people and their modes of life. This detachment provided her with a sort of aesthetic distance from her subjects that helped to counter the elements of personal involvement that infuse her fiction. A work of partial autobiography, originally published as Ces plaisirs (1932) but better known as Le Pur et l’impur (1941; The Pure and the Impure, 1967), which includes extensive examinations of sexual practices, both “normal” and irregular, is considered by several scholars to be one of her most important works, yet in this brief volume there is no moral judgment, only understanding and sympathy. Colette is content simply to “look,” to try to comprehend without condemnation.

A vital feature of Colette’s writing is her use of point of view. Almost all of her stories are told in the first person, a phenomenon that has encouraged autobiographical interpretations but that also gives her texts an impressive immediacy and warmth. Thus, when the heroine of the brief tale Chambre d’hôtel (1940; Chance Acquaintances, 1952) declares, near the end of the story, that she must leave her home and says, “I went to collect the few personal belongings which, at that time, I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude,” one can sympathize with her, whether the voice is solely that of a character or is partly that of the author as well. The most notable example of Colette’s abandonment of the first person is the novel that many critics believe to be her masterpiece, Chéri, which, along with its sequel, The Last of Chéri, is possibly the closest thing to a truly “modern” novel in her entirecanon. The modernity of Chéri can be ascribed in part to the relatively detached tone of the narrative. All the emotion in this tragic story is felt only in relation to the characters; the author does not intrude at all.

Another aspect of Chéri that marks it as unusual among Colette’s fictions is the fact that the central male character is the dominant figure and is painstakingly studied; though several female characters play important roles in the novel,...

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Chéri is the basis of the story and is clearly the chief character. In most of Colette’s works, the women are the outstanding figures; the male characters are often merely sketched in. Colette focuses on the problems and interests of women, particularly in their relationships with men but also in their position as human beings trying to come to terms with loneliness and failure. Again and again in her fiction, she dramatizes the failure of sexual relationships, usually placing the blame on the man but recognizing that the woman also bears responsibility in such matters. Although not a philosopher, Colette came to a number of reasonably profound and often unhappy conclusions about the battle of the sexes. One is that there is no guarantee of happiness in any liaison and that, indeed, happiness is not necessary for a meaningful life. She also concluded that a woman suffers fully only once, when her initial romance fades.

Colette has been justly praised for her sense of place. Her settings, even the interiors, are presented in great detail and precision, most often with the impress of a mood or an element of characterization. As Sir Walter Scott is credited with seeing places in human terms, so Colette tends to perceive people in concrete manifestations, frequently presenting characters in the light of their surroundings, their clothes, even their pets. Léa de Lonval, the aging courtesan in Chéri, is seen most often in her pink boudoir—the silks are pink, as are some of the furniture and the curtains; even the light coming in through the windows is usually pink. In the earlier novels, Colette re-creates the memories of her childhood days in the beautiful Burgundian countryside. No item is too small for her notice, from a blade of grass to a tiny insect; she invests everything with a sense of the wonder and magnificence of nature. If people in her books are often undependable and even treacherous, nature is not. So strong was Colette’s affinity with natural things that she created in The Cat an animal character that overshadows both of the human characters. The novel is a love story, but the true passion exists between Alain and his cat, Saha, not between him and his wife, Camille. The tension of the disintegrating marriage becomes so great, and Camille’s recognition of Saha’s moral superiority so strong, that the jealous wife attempts to kill the animal, an act that brings the relationship of husband and wife to an end and reconfirms the bond between a man and his “pet.”

Claudine at School

The Claudine series, which comprises Colette’s first four novels, though inferior to her later masterpieces, displays several of the qualities that distinguish her work and reveals themes and topics that recur throughout her long career (Claudine, a character first conceived in 1900, has obvious affinities with Gigi, the title heroine of Colette’s 1944 novella). Claudine is certainly a persona of Colette herself, and much of the first novel, Claudine at School, is taken directly from the author’s experience, from the almost extravagant descriptions of the lush countryside to the delineation of real people as characters in the plot. (Colette, years later, learned that her portrait of the immoral headmistress, Mademoiselle Sergent, had seriously distressed the model for that character, and Colette regretted her callousness.)

The opening novel in the series introduces Claudine as a lively, intelligent, fun-loving fifteen-year-old student whose life at school is enlivened by scandal, such as the “affair” between the headmistress and one of the younger instructors (a relationship that at first disturbs Claudine, since she has suffered from a powerful infatuation with the same young lady). An occasionally unnoticed quality of Colette’s writing, her humorous irony, emerges in this first volume most agreeably. When Claudine discovers the “romance” between the headmistress and Mademoiselle Lanthenay (she secretly observes the two women in a passionate embrace), her first reaction is neither shock nor dismay; instead, she comments wryly to herself, “Well done! No one could say this Headmistress bullied her subordinates!” Apart from her escapes to the calming serenity of walks in the woods, Claudine’s life is chiefly centered on events at her school. Her home life is quite dull; her father hardly notices her presence, and (perhaps because Colette was in reality very close to her mother) her mother is not on the scene. One feels, despite the frivolous adventures and trivial concerns of the girls, that Colette is sincere when she has Claudine remark, at the end of the novel, “Farewell to the classroom; farewell, Mademoiselle and her girl friend.I am going to leave you to make my entry into the world.I shall be very much astonished if I enjoy myself there as much as I have at school.”

Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married

In Claudine in Paris, Claudine and her father have moved to Paris, where she is unhappy at being isolated from the countryside that she loves. In this state of near misery and surrounded by friends (one of whom was at school with her) who all seem to be engaged in some form of physical lovemaking (even her cat Fanchette is pregnant), including the gay man Marcel, Claudine is easy prey for Marcel’s father, the forty-year-old roué Renaud. Instead of becoming his mistress, as she has decided, Claudine marries him (a plot turn revived effectively as the climax of Gigi). As might be expected, the marriage is not completely successful; in the next volume, Claudine Married, a triangle forms: Renaud, Claudine, and Rézi, the attractive woman with whom both of them have an intense love affair. The book ends with a rather contrived reunion of Claudine and her husband. It seems certain that the character of Renaud was partly based on Willy, though the happy ending is obviously not autobiographical.

Claudine and Annie

In the fourth Claudine novel, Claudine and Annie, Renaud and Claudine are primarily observers of and commentators on the dissolution of the marriage of Annie and Alain, largely the result of Annie’s awakening to life during her husband’s prolonged absence on a trip to South America. Finally, after much sentimental advice from Claudine and a series of relationships of her own, Annie (who is the primary character in the story) decides to leave. Although this volume, like the others in the series, is marred by an occasional confusion of plot and uncertainty of theme, the Claudine series hints at the profound sensitivity, engaging irony, and perceptive vision of Colette’s mature work.

Chéri and The Last of Chéri

This maturity is evident in Chéri and The Last of Chéri. The plot of the two volumes is direct and uncomplicated. Fred Peloux, nicknamed Chéri, is spoiled by his immoral and malicious mother, Charlotte, whose indulgence is encouraged by his extreme good looks. Early in his life, his mother’s old friend and fellow courtesan, Léa, becomes fond of the boy and later takes him as a lover, though she is nearly twice his age. When Chéri grows to manhood, his mother arranges a marriage for him with a lovely and acceptable young lady named Edmée. Like nearly every other girl that Chéri meets, Edmée is infatuated with the young man for his beauty (it was Colette’s firm conviction that men can possess beauty just as women can) as well as for his talents in making love, developed with Léa’s tutelage. The first volume closes with Chéri’s resolve to abandon Léa, whom he believes to be no longer an important part of his life.

In the interval between Chéri and The Last of Chéri, five years have passed, the years of World War I; Colette captures the empty, futile mood of postwar France. Chéri is in gloomy harmony with this mood. He is idle, purposeless, and without substance. Nothing in his previous experience has prepared him for the challenge of creating some meaning for his life. In this vacuum, Chéri begins to think constantly of Léa and believes that he must attempt to revive their old romance, from a time when he felt really alive. In one of the most effective recognition scenes in literature, Chéri confronts Léa and for a time does not even recognize her: “A woman was seated at a desk, writing, her back turned to him. Chéri saw a great back, thick gray hair, cut short, like his mother’s, a fat, bulging neck.” It takes a few moments for Chéri to realize that this aging figure is his former lover. Léa has simply decided that, since she is nearing sixty, it is time for her to settle down to a comfortable old age. She has stopped dieting and dying her hair and performing the multifarious rituals required by her beauty regimen.

When Chéri finally realizes that his old life is gone and that he is unable to build a new one to replace it, he turns to the only escape possible: suicide. It is a clever touch of Colette’s that he performs this ultimate act in a sordid room surrounded by old pictures of Léa as a youthful beauty. The compact development of the plot and the sure depiction of Chéri’s decline give the climax a tragic stature; indeed, throughout the two novels, every scene clearly advances the plot and the characterization. Colette never exceeded the mastery displayed in these works. Seldom have such slender materials (the two volumes together occupy only a bit more than two hundred pages) yielded such tragic power.


When Colette published the very short novel Gigi in 1944, she had not written a substantial piece of fiction for several years; some had thought that she never would again. Gigi was therefore an especially happy surprise. In this, her last work of fiction, written when she was seventy years old, Colette produced a delightful tale with one of the few happy endings in all of her works. It is also one of her few novels to be narrated in the third person. Because the plot was based on an anecdote told to Colette many years earlier, her powers of invention were not taxed. Two wise decisions helped the novel to succeed: Colette set the story in 1899, and most of the text is in dialogue form. Gigi thus benefits both from a charming setting in an uncomplicated distant past and from a liveliness of presentation.

The tone of the narrative is ironic, but cheerfully so. Gigi, having just reached adolescence, is being reared by a grandmother and a great aunt, who are both retired courtesans, to follow in their “professional” footsteps. Fortunately, Gigi is too honest and skeptical to be much affected by this instruction; in the end, she outsmarts her teachers by marrying the bored and wealthy Gaston, whom they had only hoped to persuade to keep her as a mistress. The story abounds in jollity and good humor—it is no wonder that Gigi was very successfully adapted as a hit play and an Academy Award-winning film. There is a pleasing irony in that Colette’s last story comes, at least in tone and atmosphere, full circle to the innocent ambience of her first novel, Claudine at School. Though Gigi’s experience is told with far greater skill, she and Claudine seem sisters under the skin and even somewhat on the surface, especially in their eye for the ridiculous, their impatience with pompousness, and their sincere good intentions toward others.

The chief elements of Colette’s fiction thus appear at the beginning and the end of her long career. She studied love—young love (even between adolescents, as in The Ripening Seed), ardent love, failed love, married love, illicit love, and also family love—as no other writer has ever studied it. W. Somerset Maugham once wrote that the truly great authors (he used Fyodor Dostoevski as an example) could see “through a stone wall,” so great was their perception of life; he modestly claimed only that he could see very well what was right in front of him, hastening to add that such an accomplishment was not to be underrated. Colette “looked” at life in such minute detail and with such aesthetic integrity that one might say that now and again she penetrated the stone wall.


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