Colette World Literature Analysis

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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...

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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 is no doubt Colette’s attention to the problems and intricacies of women’s lives that has earned for her a large following among women readers.

Chéri

First published: 1920 (English translation, 1929)

Type of work: Novel

The handsome Chéri falls in love with an older courtesan, whom he leaves when his mother arranges a marriage.

One of Colette’s contemporaries suggested that Chéri was one of the most important love stories ever written. Despite the many unconventional aspects of the story—love between an older woman and a younger man, the sympathetic depiction of a courtesan, and the willingness with which Chéri submits to an arranged marriage—the novel indeed remains an engrossing portrait of doomed love.

Léonie Vallon, known as Léa de Lonval, a courtesan nearing the end of her career, falls in love with Fred Peloux, known as Chéri, the son of one of her rivals. Although they live together for several years and seem to love each other, their relationship is precarious, and indeed when Chéri announces that he is going to marry Edmée for money, Léa accepts the inevitable breakup. She maintains a strong exterior so as not to give her rivals the satisfaction of seeing her pain. The reader, however, sees a different side, as the narrator shows Léa’s loneliness and desperate attempts to fill the time. The reader is also made aware that Chéri is not entirely happy and comes to see—even before Chéri himself is aware of it—that Chéri misses the comfort and love of his former mistress. The climax comes after Léa returns from a mysterious vacation, and Chéri, more aware of his feelings for having missed her, shows up one night to confess his love.

A happy ending would have satisfied many readers, but Colette does not compromise for effect: After Chéri spends the night with Léa, he returns the next morning to Edmée. The bittersweet ending reveals Colette’s preoccupation with harmony rather than happiness. The story achieves its resolution from the fact that Chéri realizes his true feelings. This confrontation with the past frees him to continue his relationship with Edmée in the present. Avoiding facile wish fulfillment, Colette instead offers a profound insight into human nature.

The Last of Chéri

First published: La Fin de Chérí, 1926 (English translation, 1932)

Type of work: Novel

Chéri attempts to revive a former love, but when it fails, he commits suicide.

While the first volume of Chéri’s story, set in the pre-World War I Paris of 1912, conveyed the light, carefree mood of the belle époque, The Last of Chéri has the somber, sober mood of postwar France, when many illusions had been lost. Five years have passed since Cheri left Léa, but he has been unable to find a purpose in his life to replace his lost love. His thoughts turn back to this idealized past, as many in France also thought back to prewar days with nostalgia, and he decides to revive his relationship with Léa.

Chéri’s attempt to recapture the past, however, fails. When he does see Léa again, he does not even recognize her because she has changed so much. She has stopped trying to disguise her age and appears transformed into an unattractive old woman. Significantly, when Chéri sees her, he thinks of his mother. With this realization that he cannot return to the past and yet cannot live with or in the present, Chérí resolves that the only remaining choice is suicide. In this act, he symbolically returns to his happy prewar days with Léa by surrounding himself with pictures of her as he remembers her, as a beautiful young woman, at the moment of his death.

Once again, Colette maintains a light touch in a novel that has philosophical underpinnings in its representation of human attempts to recapture the past. Chéri appears as a tragic hero who has brought about his own suffering by giving up love for money and who now pays a fatal price for his blindness, but the tragic elements never dominate the narrative. Subtle comparisons (Chéri compares Léa to the war, for example, to explain his inability to come to terms with the present), well-chosen adjectives placed for effect—these are the techniques whereby Colette suggests to her readers that the story of Chéri may have a more universal message than its unusual aspects might at first suggest.

Gigi

First published: 1944 (English translation, 1952)

Type of work: Novella

Gigi, reared to be a courtesan, instead marries the rich Gaston Lachaille.

Colette once again provides an indirect comment on contemporary France. With Paris occupied and in the grip of war, readers of Colette’s Gigi are transported to a less complicated and painful time. Set in 1899, the story once again orchestrates a small but intimate cast of characters in a personal drama with a twist. The plot focuses on the “gamine” character of Gigi (a nickname for Gilberte), a young woman who has been reared by her grandmother and great-aunt to follow in their profession as a courtesan. They hope to make her the mistress of Gaston Lachaille, but Gigi instead becomes his wife. This conclusion introduces an ironic twist. In the conventional love story, the resolution of the plot through marriage is usually the desired outcome, but in Gigi marriage appears as a frustration rather than a fulfillment of plans. The story serves as a lighthearted reminder that the best laid plans may go astray, especially if love is involved.

In once again portraying the charm and humor of an independent and mischievous adolescent, Colette comes full circle in her career, ending her writing with a character very similar to the one who made her reputation, Claudine. It is through her ebullience and love of life that Gigi wins Gaston’s true affection, a message of optimism and faith in the power of love.

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Colette Long Fiction Analysis