Colette World Literature Analysis - Essay

Colette World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The majority of Colette’s works are so short as to call into question whether they should be labeled “novels” or “short stories.” Although relying heavily on description and evocation of mood, her works are not given to prolixity. Her literary output was nevertheless quite prolific, with one edition of her complete works stretching to fifteen volumes. The consistent quality of this large volume of works, their style and themes, brought Colette popularity and recognition during her lifetime and have contributed to the maintenance and spread of her reputation since her death.

Colette was not a deep or philosophical writer, and she left no profound thesis on the meaning of her writing, but she was a keen observer of life and of nature, and she possessed a gift for turning those observations into stories that illuminated human experience with charm and humor, stories that appealed to and were admired by her vast readership. The Claudine stories illustrate the devices that initially gained for her a following and continue to entertain today. Based heavily on autobiography, the subjects of the stories are unpretentious: In the first volume of the series, the young Claudine shares her memories of schooldays, using the provincial school as a forum to observe the vagaries of human behavior. Colette would often draw on such autobiographical sources for the inspiration for her stories. For all of this, her work does not suffer from a lack of originality, for not every author shares Colette’s ability to see the interest of a subject or her ability to set the scene so delicately.

Thus, in Claudine at School, the reader shares Claudine’s glimpses of budding, burgeoning, and dying love, for example—a subject that might be banal in the hands of a less talented writer but that takes on a universal quality when treated by Colette. Moreover, the fact that some of these moments occur between women seems perfectly natural when presented through Claudine’s eyes. All human beings are entitled to their happiness as well as to their weaknesses, and Claudine’s nonjudgmental attitude illustrates Colette’s talent for showing the human side of everyone. The same openness and sympathy are evident in Colette’s presentation of marginal social figures such as the courtesans of Chéri and Gigi and the homosexual character Marcel, Claudine’s friend in Claudine in Paris. It is also evident in the more complex Ces plaisirs (1932; better known as Le Pur et l’impur, 1941; The Pure and the Impure, 1967), a work of memoirs and biography that some critics find the most challenging of Colette’s works, but which presents memories of Colette’s personal acquaintances in the same nonjudgmental way.

Colette’s gift for evoking credibility and sympathy is such that her ability to render human qualities extends even to animals. One of her most popular novels, The Cat, depicts a love triangle between a husband and wife (Alain and Camille) and the husband’s cat, Saha. Colette depicts the bond between a man and his cat with such insight that the intrusion of a cat into a marriage does not appear at all farfetched, and the reader is quickly caught up in the tensions of the conflicting pull of emotions.

Because of the autobiographical nature of her work, many of Colette’s novels are told from the perspective of a first-person narrator (again, the Claudine series offers an illustration), but a number of works are written in the third person. Even so, the narrator is not an intrusive presence, and the stories somehow seem to tell themselves. This narrative strategy and Colette’s use of dialogue perhaps explain why so many of her works were successfully adapted to the stage.

Colette created a number of characters who are remembered vividly by readers. Chief among these is the figure of the gamine, the assertive but endearing girl represented by (among others) Claudine and Gigi. While Colette does not neglect male characters (the figure Chéri must certainly be mentioned here), many of her creations are women, and it...

(The entire section is 1686 words.)