Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835
Although most authors lend personal experience to characters who resemble them but are not them, Colette, by virtue of theme selection, the use of people in a particular milieu, and liberal sprinkles of the first person, addresses little that is not part of her daily existence. The usual distinction between autobiography and fiction is difficult to trace in her work because, even in third-person narration, her presence is readily apparent.
In the experimental days of their creation, short stories were called nouvelles and their subject matter was originally an anecdote based on a real event. It is this definition that controls the short stories of Colette, who appears not so much to create characters as to take real people and paste on elements of fiction. Although not strictly stereotypes in the modern pejorative sense, the people in Colette’s stories are “types,” characters who typify certain attitudes or frailties and who serve as models for stock characters in the work of other authors. The Claudine-type, the Gigi-type, the Chéri-type, and others serve to immortalize the “bohemian age” in Paris as well as the literary reputation of their creator. Though certainly not flat characters, other types in her work are perhaps more stereotypical: for example, the jealous husband, the unfaithful husband, and the adolescent in love or lust.
As with any stylist of realism, character development in Colette’s work overshadows all else, even theme. Because she was profoundly influenced by two figures in her life—her mother, Sido, and her first husband, Willy—many of her characterizations are thinly veiled portraits of either their basic personalities or an inversion thereof. Her work records the polarity between these two people, with her mother symbolizing the innocence of youth and her husband representing the awakening of worldliness and sexuality. The contradictory roles played by the two account for theme selection in the majority of Colette’s work.
The controlling figure in Colette’s formative years as a woman and as an author, and the person who would have a persistent effect on the rest of her life and work, was her first husband, whom she called Willy. Henry Gauthier-Villars, older than Colette and well respected in Paris society, hired penniless writers to produce work which he would then publish as his own. It was he who encouraged Colette, as a mere diversion, to record her life; however, when he sensed talent in the outcome, Willy persuaded her to add elements of libertine sexuality and published the work, including all the Claudine novels, under his own name.
Colette’s later animosity toward Willy is reflected in her portrayal of male characters and thematically throughout her canon. She seldom creates functioning adult males; they are traditionally older men, immature dilettantes, or vaguely sketched and shallow. On the other hand, her female characters can be divided into two groups: Colette/Claudine, representing experimental adolescence or yearning for a reversal into virginal innocence, and Colette/Sido, depicting an aging ingenue such as Valentine or a mature, maternal figure based on Colette’s mother.
Employing the standard fare of the realism/naturalism movement in fiction, Colette creates characters who are often manipulated by forces that they scarcely understand and cannot control. Although the late realists would use environmental and genetic factors to justify the erratic behavior of their characters, Colette’s overpowering force is love, most often sexual and usually misdirected or frustrated. She writes about a society wherein the people have little to do but become involved with other people. The stories present insight into human nature as revelations are delivered, often through trivial details or incidents, about what makes people fall in love, fall out of love, go on living, kill, and become jealous or heroic.
Displaying an innate suspicion of abstraction and a strict adherence to the concrete, the tone is essentially the same in all of her stories—an objective, journalistic piling up of details, factual and undramatic, which illustrates an intensely ironic point of view. Although known as a writer of “boudoir realism,” Colette is consistently antiromantic in her portrayal of human nature. She seems to view love as a frustrating encounter without depth and with a total absence of communication. Her characters play a quasi-sophisticated form of hide-and-seek and are found only through contrived and often humorous confrontation and bitterly ironic surprise endings.
There is, in her stories, only a vague awareness of locale. With the exception of the vignettes that relate her experience in the theater and occasional references to seasonal changes to depict a mood, little exposition is present. The stories are tightly structured and limited to characters who are already involved before the stories begin. Revealed through dialogues or “verbal duels,” all crucial scenes involve conversation rather than action because all deal with some type of human conundrum. Thematically consistent, the stories address the conditioning of individual lives by apparently trivial details, loss of innocence and yearning for its return, and the basic absurdity of life and humanity’s reaction to it.
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