The Collected Stories of Colette Critical Essays



(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 835 words.)