Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

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Deathwatch was written in the mid-1940’s, probably during one of Jean Genet’s own stays in prison. Convicted repeatedly for thievery, he was pardoned in 1947 from a life sentence only after appeals flooded in from the greatest literary figures and intellectuals of the period. He had intimate knowledge of the petty lives of criminals in a criminal universe with a separate ethical system. In this criminal world, members were judged according to the consistency and genuineness of their behavior. At the same time, plays such as Deathwatch suggest the illusory nature of reality. These criminals may have created a different standard of measurement for themselves, but they have not succeeded in finding freedom, and they suffer from intense longing for an authentic inner self.

Genet is remarkable for his ability to revive and to advance the cliche of honor among thieves. For Genet, among criminals there is a code every bit as demanding and genuine as that espoused by the law-abiding. A great artist, he does not sentimentalize his subjects or suggest that criminals reveal a deeper truth about society. On the contrary, his criminals seem motivated by universal impulses: the desire to find a savior, to adhere to a principle of sacrifice, and to believe in a concept of individuality even while succumbing to the most degrading, conformist behavior.

There is also the quest to believe that the hero’s own actions speak for larger principles. Green Eyes, for example, regards his cell as a microcosm of a greater order:Here in the cell I’m the one who bears the whole brunt. The brunt of what—I don’t know. I’m illiterate. But I know I need a strong back. The way Snowball bears the same weight. But for the whole prison. Maybe there’s someone else, a Number One Big Shot, who bears it for the whole world!

It is no wonder that Jean-Paul Sartre titled his biography Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr (1963), for no modern writer has had a stronger sense of man’s desire to feel that he is not alone, that in his actions are the stuff of a great belief, an allegiance to transcendent values whose powers can be felt even in a prison cell.

Deathwatch bears a striking resemblance to Genet’s early work, particularly toNotre-Dame des fleurs (1944; Our Lady of the Flowers, 1949). This novel is set in a prison in which Genet is a prisoner. He decorates the walls with pictures of notorious criminals and meditates on the meaning of imprisonment and freedom. In Miracle de la rose (1946; Miracle of the Rose, 1966), Genet creates a character, Harcamone, who resembles Green Eyes. Harcamone’s special status as a murderer elevates him above Genet’s own petty criminality. While much of Genet’s work appears to be autobiographical, the precise relationship between his work and his life has never been established.