Critical Context

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Like Francois Montaigne and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marcel Proust and Andre Gide, Colette is a superb expositor of herself in her writing. The most important influence on her was that of her mother, Sido, whose Demeter she followed by playing Persephone. Her Sido-self became a personal version of the Garden of Eden, pure and soundly instinctual. The character of Gigi is a reincarnation of this undefiled, uninitiated stage. Significantly, the tale ends before the lovers are married—for marriage, Colette came to discover, usually is a time of trouble and disillusionment.

Colette’s first marriage proved to be particularly painful. It was in 1893, to a man fifteen years her senior named Henry Gauthier-Villars, whom everyone called Willy. She had fallen in love with Willy when she was seventeen; her mother never approved of him. The attraction was largely sexual, in a somewhat masochistic way: Colette was fascinated by the fantasy of becoming the willing plaything of a dissolute older man. Later, she came to distrust erotic desire as a demoniac drive that was usually fulfilled in sorrow and subjugation. Willy, while witty and erudite, soon shamed her with his cruelty, coarseness, and chronic adulteries, yet she remained with him for thirteen tormented years, during which she founded her literary career. She began by setting down thinly fictionalized accounts of her schoolgirl memories. Willy decided that they were salable. Her first novel, Claudine a l’ecole (1900; Claudine at School, 1956), became popular, so Willy ordered a series of Claudine sequels, ensuring that she would write them by locking his young wife into a room for four hours daily. Colette did not really mind: She had become addicted to writing. Nevertheless, these experiences motivated her conviction that the relationship between men and women was frequently that of jailer and prisoner.

Claudine at School is written in diary form and veers from titillating scenes of sexual provocation to relative innocence. The novel follows the autumn-to-summer cycle of one year in a girls’ school. Most of Claudine’s friends and acquaintances engage in either heterosexual or lesbian intrigues. They are, like all adolescents, troubled by the awakening demands of their senses. Claudine, however, refrains from expressing her sensuality in any affair. Fifteen years old, she is curious but virginal, precocious yet pure, tomboyish and high spirited—the first model for Gigi’s integrity and essential sweetness, her desire for independence yet her yearning for love.

It is to Claudine and other heroines of her earlier fiction, then, that Colette returns in Gigi. It is also to the fashionable, perverse fin de siecle society to which Willy introduced her, and the polarizing dilemma of independence opposed to submission which Colette’s Sido-self battled against her Willy-self—the symbols that establish the basic structure of her private and fictive worlds. Colette wrote Gigi in 1942, in her seventieth year, a few months after her third husband, Maurice Goudeket, whom she dearly loved, had been arrested by the Germans and sent to a concentration camp. Colette was herself in great pain from arthritis.

Considering these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that Colette indulged herself in a hard-to-credit romance when she composed Gigi as an escape from her harrowing reality, as a puff-pastry exercise in slyly satiric humor and benignly optimistic wishfulness. What is surprising and delightful is that she carries off her confection so masterfully.

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