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When Colette wrote her captivating fairy tale Gigi, she was nearly seventy years old. It was 1944, and Europe had been conquered and destroyed by Hitler’s Nazis. Colette’s own husband, Maurice Goudeket, a Jew, had been arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1941. By the time that Colette published Gigi, both the author and the reader were in great need of a lovely story that took them to another place and time. The world of Gigi takes one back to the belle époque of Paris, when the world was optimistic and fun—a “once upon a time” for people surrounded by devastation.

Colette’s attention to the small pleasures of daily French life—a warm cup of tea, a hearty plate of cassoulet—are intended to feed the reader’s spirit at a time when food was hard to come by. Little candies and the gentle tug of a bead-embroidered bellpull are tiny memories that ring and echo in the memories of the Frenchmen during their most trying times. The fact that Colette chose sugar as the commodity controlled by the Lachaille family is indicative of her wish to spin her fairy tale with sweetness and light.

So many of the luxuries adored by the French are focused on in Gigi as symbols of the beauty and elegance that once surrounded them. Gaston brings Madame Alvarez bottles of champagne and pâté de foie gras. When Gigi is fitted for her feminine clothing, the seven and a half yards of rustling fabric, the wide flounced skirt of blue and white silk, recall the crisp, outdoor Impressionist paintings that captured only a moment before the subject moved on. Time moves on, warns Colette, and although the past seems even more desirable when the present cannot be endured, there must always be hope for a brighter future. Aunt Alicia, still living in the past, is described as having “fastidious taste.” Elegance never goes out of style, good taste is timeless, and barbarians cannot remove beauty from the world. Aunt Alicia’s apartment sparkles and shimmers: her tea set, the silver walls, her jewels, the knife blade one uses to cut lobster. It is a haven that is both luxurious and safe—the bed is covered in chinchilla, the rosary with seed pearls, the floor with Persian rugs.

Tantamount is the beauty of womanhood. Lest the gray world of 1944 plague men with grim, dull uniforms and plainly dressed women, Colette writes of a time when a woman was admired for “the turn of a wrist like a swan’s neck, the tiny ear, the profile revealing a delicious kinship between the heart-shaped mouth and the wide-cut eyelids with their long lashes.” Although the war that was being fought gave Colette and her countrymen some of their saddest moments, Gigi is, after all, a celebration of the triumph of woman. The fact that a young schoolgirl is about to begin a wonderful future is Colette’s offering of hope to her reader. The future, for Gigi, will be a better one than anyone had dreamed for her.

Colette’s novella, like the stories she had been writing for the French newspapers during the war, is about the world of women. Gigi is reared by women, is surrounded by female schoolmates, and has virtually no contact with men other than with “Tonton” Gaston. It is a feminine world that Colette has created choosing her symbols of nourishment and objets d’art about the home, portraying the inner sanctums where women have control. Once, when Gaston is visiting, Gigi’s mother, Andrée, appears in dressing gown and curlers. Madame Alvarez comments: “It’s plain...

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that there’s no man here for you to bother about, my child! A man in the house soon cures a woman of traipsing about in dressing-gown and slippers.”

Man is a foreign intruder that one must work tirelessly to please and go to great extremes to suffer for. Aunt Alicia’s discipline and beauty regimes are imparted to Gigi as essential to enhancing her face and figure. Although she is well past her prime, Aunt Alicia still retains these little tricks as if she were expecting a new lover at any moment. Liane d’Exelman, Gaston’s girlfriend, attempts suicide when he discovers her with another lover. According to fashion, consuming an astonishingly painful overdose of laudanum is expected of the courtesan, and, in fact, she attempts suicide with predictability: “She has only one idea in her heart, that woman, but she sticks to it,” remarks Andrée. Andrée is the only one of the four women who steps outside this female world to work at the opera. She has very little regard for men and, unlike her mother and aunt, does not view men as providers and rescuers. Her opinions, however, are not imparted to Gigi because, as a self-absorbed “artiste,” she relinquishes her daughter’s education to the older courtesans, whose lessons are decidedly of a sexual nature.


Critical Context