Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1294
Like her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, many of Sagan’s works feature men and women of the leisure class who display a casual attitude toward love, money, and worldly pleasures, while revealing their narcissism and spiritual bankruptcy. One of her better-known novels is Aimez-vous Brahms? (1959; English translation, 1960), in which a character named Paula is unfaithful to her longtime lover when she becomes infatuated with a much younger man. In La Chamade (1965; English translation, 1966), Lucie lives a life of luxury with Charles, a wealthy bohemian type who supports her; she then falls in love with Antoine, a man whose modest circumstances and real-world concerns symbolize the reality from which she has always been sheltered.
It is significant that in her first novel and other works, the characters who live a life artificially surrounded by money, material possessions, and casual relationships (sexual and otherwise), frequently pay a price for their narcissism. Sagan’s works function, therefore, as social commentary, often with a strong satirical and even at times tragic dimension. The effect of her social commentary is, however, mitigated and complicated by the fact that there is rarely any long-term consequence for the selfish, scandalous behavior she portrays. The world of her characters is influenced by existentialism, and Sagan claimed existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre as an important influence. In this worldview, people are to be judged by their actions, not their thoughts or beliefs; furthermore, there is no God, and therefore no eternal consequence for people’s actions. Human beings exist in the world and are constantly challenged to find a reason to live besides the mere pursuit of physical gratification.
Sagan was always aware of the dangers associated with wealth and glamour, and she addressed those dangers prophetically in her first novel. The manner in which the frivolous, pleasure-seeking world of her characters leads them inevitably toward tragedy and emptiness is a remarkably clear-sighted commentary on the mechanism of popular culture. Since many of her novels became best sellers, especially Bonjour Tristesse, they are both examples of and reflections on popular culture in the twentieth century.
First published: 1954 (English translation, 1955)
Type of work: Novel
A teenage girl, Cécile, is vacationing in the south of France with her father and his lover, when an old family friend arrives unexpectedly and disrupts the harmony of the household by falling in love with Cécile’s father.
Bonjour Tristesse is Françoise Sagan’s most famous work, in part because she was only nineteen when it was published and in part because it represented an entirely new sensibility in French fiction. The title, which translates as “hello sadness,” is taken from a poem by the French surrealist writer Paul Éluard; Sagan opens the novel with this poem, and it sets a melancholy tone.
The narrator, Cécile, is an intelligent but fairly lazy seventeen-year-old, who sometimes seems to speak in the voice of a much older and more sophisticated person and at other times seems immature for her age. She has recently failed her school exams (part of the French baccalauréat, the advanced secondary school diploma that in the 1950’s still served as an important sign of social status), and she will have to take them again at the end of the summer. She clearly worships her father, Raymond, a youthful, vain, and charming playboy, who has brought his lover, Elsa, with them on their vacation. Cécile finds Elsa to be frivolous, stupid, and unworthy of Raymond. She is far more impressed by Anne, an old family friend whose unexpected arrival at the summer house soon after the start of the novel sets the plot into motion.
Anne is an accomplished, professional woman, who works in the fashion industry. When Cécile’s mother died fifteen years earlier, her father entrusted her to Anne, who was one of her mother’s closest friends. As a result, Anne had an enormous impact on Cécile’s childhood, nurturing her talent for cultural sophistication and understated elegance. Anne, who is older and darker than Elsa, presents a physical contrast, as well as an intellectual and spiritual contrast, to Elsa. Anne challenges Cécile to better herself, to study for her exams instead of spending all day at the beach, and to take everything in life more seriously than her father does. Cécile never misses an opportunity to play the disrespectful, adolescent rebel in the older woman’s presence. It becomes apparent, however, that her provocations are really a symptom, both of her admiration for Anne’s aloof superiority and of her growing jealousy.
When it becomes evident that Raymond is falling in love with Anne, the ugly side of Cécile’s character reveals itself. One of the complexities of the novel is that the reader never knows whether Cécile is simply jealous of Anne, or whether she is angry at Raymond for having betrayed their philosophy of uncommitted pleasure-seeking by falling in love. During the time that Anne and Raymond grow closer, Cécile begins a relationship with Cyril, a twenty-six-year-old law student whom she met on the beach and who falls in love with her. Although he is substantially older and seduces her rather forcefully into losing her virginity, there is the strong sense that she is superior to him in many respects: She is more intelligent, a better strategist, and less sentimental. Most important, she is able to avoid falling in love, which she views as a serious weakness, whether for herself or for others.
The narrator’s dilemma is acutely defined by the two older women in the novel: Elsa, the unthinking sybarite whose life is given meaning by sports cars and nightclubs, and Anne, her dark, serious, and contemplative counterpart, whose very presence seems to call into judgment the lives of the other characters. When Anne and Raymond decide to get married one evening, after having abandoned Elsa and Cécile in a nightclub so they could spend the night together, Anne begins to feel as if she has the right to act the role of mother to Cécile. In particular, she forbids her from ever seeing Cyril again and tells her to concentrate on preparing for her exams.
Furious at this invasion of her freedom and intent on destroying the relationship between Anne and her father, Cécile invents a diabolical plot. She manages to talk Elsa and Cyril into pretending to be lovers by convincing Elsa that in this way she will win back Raymond. Raymond is fooled, and he becomes so jealous that he decides to meet secretly with Elsa. Anne discovers the two of them together and abruptly leaves the house in her car, while Cécile realizes the damage she might have caused and begins to regret it, albeit too late. As Cécile and her father are in the process of writing a letter of apology to Anne, the telephone rings: Anne died in an automobile accident on a particularly treacherous road along the Mediterranean coast. Members of the hospital staff believe that it was just an accident, but Cécile and Raymond immediately suspect that they might have caused Anne’s suicide.
In the final chapter, Cécile and Raymond are back in Paris, where they slowly resume the life of leisure and irresponsibility that had been interrupted by the tragic events of the summer. Cécile, however, cannot suppress her guilt concerning Anne’s death, causing the “sadness” of the book’s title; there is a strong suggestion that her life will never again be exactly as it was before. Although she is likely to continue living for the selfish pursuit of pleasure, she will forever be aware of the potential consequences of her egotistical and deliberately shortsighted attitude.
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