Jean Genet Genet, Jean (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jean Genet 1910-1986

French playwright, novelist, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Genet's works from 1983 through 1998. See also Jean Genet Drama Criticism, Jean Genet Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 5, 10.

Genet was a member of the controversial and innovative generation of French writers that included Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Cocteau. The author of several highly acclaimed novels, Genet remains best known for plays in which he utilized the stage as a communal arena for enacting personal fantasies involving sex and death. Genet, whom Cocteau dubbed France's “Black Prince of letters,” is linked to such literary figures as the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudelaire for his use of rich, baroque imagery, his deliberate inversion of traditional Western moral values, and his belief that spiritual salvation may be attained through the pursuit of evil.

Biographical Information

Born in Paris December 19, 1910, Genet was abandoned at birth by his mother, a prostitute, to a state orphanage run by the French Assistance Publique. At an early age Genet was sent to a boys' reformatory for stealing. There he embraced the role of convict and devoted himself to crime, subsequently spending much of his youth and young adult life in European prisons for such offenses as theft, smuggling, and male prostitution. While in prison, Genet began to write novels and produced what critics often regard as his finest work in that genre, most prominently Notre-dame-des-fleurs (1943; Our Lady of the Flowers). In 1948 he was deemed unreformable and threatened with life imprisonment by the French judicial system. Sartre and Cocteau, who discovered Genet's novels earlier in the 1940s, interceded, however, and with the aid of other prominent literary figures obtained a pardon for Genet from French president Vincent Auriol. Genet never again returned to prison. Indeed, he began to enjoy a degree of celebrity that led to the reissuing of his complete works thus far by the prestigious French publisher Gallimard. It was also at this time that Genet's first plays, Les bonnes (1947; The Maids) and Haute surveillance (1949; Deathwatch), were produced, earning Genet acclaim as a playwright. For approximately the next decade, Genet produced a series of dramatic works that were as daring and controversial as his novels had been. After that, however, Genet produced no further major works, devoting himself instead to various political causes, the most enduring being his association with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. He moved to Jordan in 1970 and lived with the Palestinians for the next fourteen years. According to critic Mary Ann Frese Witt, Genet had a “desire to abandon stasis for action, poetics for politics.” Genet died in 1986.

Major Works

Genet's novels, which are filled with exotic imagery and metaphors, French street argot, and scatological language, all take the form of non-chronological, semi-autobiographical narratives that alternate between the first and third person. By rejecting the morality of what he perceived to be a repressive, hypocritical society that punishes its least-powerful social castes for crimes universal to all classes of humanity, Genet sought to create in his works what Sartre termed “a black ethic, with precepts and rules, pitiless constraints, a Jansenism of evil.” In Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet inverted traditional Western values to replace ideals of goodness with those of evil, courage with cowardice, and love with betrayal. In Genet's universe, to transgress against the bourgeois social order through theft, rape, or murder is to bring moral censure upon oneself; through a socially imposed sentence of death or imprisonment, the criminal is martyred by society and may thus attain the rank of sainthood. This proposition is explored in Genet's second novel, Miracle de la Rose (1946; Miracle of the Rose). Written in La Sante and La Tourelle prisons in 1943, the book describes in lyrical terms Genet's conversion from a submissively feminine “chicken” at the boys reformatory of the Colonie de Mettray to a dominant, masculine homosexual at the prison at Fontrevault, where he was later imprisoned for theft. In contrast with these early works, Genet's later novels do not use prison settings or themes. Querelle de Brest (1947; Querelle of Brest) is a light nouveau roman (“new novel”) belonging to a trend of the 1940s and 1950s in which French fiction writers pursued a highly formalistic style of writing. Journal du voleur (1949; The Thief's Journal) describes Genet's experiences in the criminal underworld of Spain, Belgium, and other European countries during the 1930s. In his last novel, Pompes funèbres (1947; Funeral Rites), Genet addresses the moral question of how he may mourn for his dead lover, a French Resistance fighter killed in 1944 by a Nazi collaborator, without violating his opposition to traditional ethics.

For Genet, the theater offered the most effective form for the incantatory expression of dream and ritual. His early plays, while true to the inverted universe detailed in his novels, reflect the influence of Sartre's drama No Exit and his dictum that “hell is other people” in their stylized portrayals of inescapable personal rivalries. Genet's first produced play, The Maids, is based on the actual murder of an upper-class mistress by her female servants. In Deathwatch, Genet blended naturalism and fantasy to relate the efforts of a petty criminal, trapped in a cell with two killers, to achieve the “saintly” designation of murderer. Because, unlike his cellmates, he has not killed without reason or motive, he is ridiculed as morally inferior. Contrasting with these works, Genet's later plays focus increasingly on the illusory nature of social roles as well as the rituals of the theater and their relationship to reality. These works, which are generally regarded as Genet's masterpieces, reveal the influence of Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty in their emphasis on violence and sadism, making use of such theatrical devices as mirrors, masks, extravagant costumes, and choreographed gestures to carry their message. The main character of Le balcon (1957; The Balcony) is Madame Irma, the opportunistic proprietress of a brothel known as the Grand Balcony, where clients act out their fantasies of authority, sex, and power. As a revolution occurs offstage, Irma's clients assume the roles of bishop, judge, general, and police chief, and are persuaded by government officials to assume their fantasy roles in public to restore order among the populace. As the old regime retains its power through these new leaders, Madame Irma's establishment comes to represent a microcosm of society in which her client's fantasies emerge as realities. Uncertain and changing identities are again central to Les nègres: Clownerie (1959; The Blacks: A Clown Show). In this drama fantasies of racial revenge are enacted by black actors, half of whom, painted in whiteface and occupying the stage's highest point, represent white society as blacks view them—pompous, hypocritical, and repressive. Genet's last play, Les paravents (1961; The Screens), which is his longest and most ambitious work for the theater, uses colonialism in North Africa as a metaphor for humanity's worst traits. Although Genet indirectly condemned France's involvement in the Algerian War, the work is not revolutionary in intent. The major contribution of The Screens to contemporary drama lies in its innovative stage technique. As the scenes progress, settings are suggested by camera projections onto a series of folding screens or are sketched on canvases by actors.

Critical Reception

Critical controversy was ever-present throughout Genet's career as a novelist and playwright. Even after he became a well-known figure on the French literary scene, he was threatened with imprisonment and condemned in the press. On the other hand, in 1975 the French Ministry of Culture awarded him a prize, which Genet refused, for a screenplay he had written. In 1983 he received the Grand Prix National des Lettres, and two years later The Balcony, which had been notoriously rejected by several producers when it was initially offered for stage production, was included among the repertory of works performed by the Comédie Francaise, a bastion of French cultural respectability. Thus Genet, a one-time social pariah, had gained recognition and respect as a perverse cultural icon in France and as a major contributor to modern theater throughout the world.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Le condamné à mort [The Man Sentenced to Death] (novel) 1942

Notre-dame-des-fleurs [Our Lady of the Flowers] (novel) 1943

Miracle de la rose [Miracle of the Rose] (novel) 1946

Les bonnes [The Maids] (play) 1947

Pompes funèbres [Funeral Rites] (novel) 1947

Querelle de Brest [Querelle of Brest] (novel) 1947

Poèmes [Treasures of the Night: Collected Poems] (poetry) 1948

Haute surveillance [Deathwatch] (play) 1949

Journal du voleur [The Thief's Journal] (autobiography) 1949

Oeuvres complètes 5 vols. (novels, plays, and poetry) 1951-1979

Le balcon [The Balcony] (play) 1957

Les nègres: Clownerie [The Blacks: A Clown Show] (play) 1959

Les paravents [The Screens] (play) 1961

Reflections on the Theater, and Other Writings (criticism and essays) 1972

The Complete Poems of Jean Genet (poetry) 1981

Treasure of the Night: The Collected Poems of Jean Genet (poetry) 1981

Un captif amoreux [Prisoner of Love] (novel) 1986

The Selected Writings of Jean Genet (collected works) 1993

Splendid's: pièce en 2 actes (play) 1993

Keith Q. Warner (essay date June 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Warner, Keith Q. “Les Nègres: A Look at Genet's Excursion into Black Consciousness.” College Language Association Journal 26, no. 4 (June 1983): 397-414.

[In the following essay, Warner compares the characters in Les Nègres with black writers who sought to celebrate their ethnicity.]

It is clear as one reads Les Nègres, published in English as The Blacks, that Jean Genêt has dealt extensively with the problem of black consciousness as it relates to the search for black identity as well as to the psychological expunging by blacks the world over of the imposition of usually Euro-centered values and the attendant problems posed...

(The entire section is 6739 words.)

Jerry Aline Flieger (essay date January 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Flieger, Jerry Aline. “Dream, Humor and Power in Genet's Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs.French Forum 9, no. 1 (January 1984): 69-83.

[In the following essay, Flieger examines the sense of “criminal gaiety” in Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs.]


En un clin d'œil je vis un enfant isolé, porté par son oiseau de fer, semant la mort en riant.

—Jean Genet, Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs1

In Saint Genet, comédien et martyr, Sartre reads Genet's first novel [Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs] as a dream that contains its own awakening.2 For Sartre,...

(The entire section is 7336 words.)

Rufus Cook (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cook, Rufus. “Quest for Immobility: The Identification of Being and Non-Being in Jean Genet's The Balcony.” In Myths and Realities of Contemporary French Theater: Comparative Views, edited by Patricia M. Hopkins and Wendell M. Aycock, pp. 115-27. Lubbock, Tex.: Texas Tech Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Cook explores the connection between the form of The Balcony and the philosophical assumptions that underlie it.]

In the seventh scene of Jean Genet's The Balcony, the Court Envoy, speaking of Arthur who is now dead (“the way one dies here”), says: “He was, like us, haunted by a quest of immobility. By what we call the...

(The entire section is 5602 words.)

Mary Ann Frese Witt (essay date May 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Witt, Mary Ann Frese. “Mothers and Stories: Female Presence/Power in Genet.” French Forum 14, no. 2 (May 1989): 173-86.

[In the following essay, Witt argues that Genet's works have a subtextual female presence, which serves as a source of destruction for the male-ordered world he presents.]

A feminist writer? It is not a label that interested Genet; it is not one that comes readily to mind in identifying the great poète maudit of our century, yet feminist theorists of the stature of Kate Millett and Hélène Cixous have so argued. Written in the heady early days of the women's movement, Millett's Sexual Politics presented Genet's work as an...

(The entire section is 7084 words.)

Sidney Homan (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Homan, Sidney. “Genet, The Balcony: ‘You Must Now Go Home, Where Everything … Will Be Falser Than Here.’” In The Audience as Actor and Character: The Modern Theater of Beckett, Brecht, Genet, Ionesco, Pinter, Stoppard, and Williams, pp. 57-77. London: Bucknell University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Homan examines the notions of truth and falsity and the audience's roll in creating meaning in The Balcony.]

In The Balcony, … Genet's inquiry into what role can mean both onstage and in the world offstage confronts us from the very start. To the side of a “Bishop,” who is theatrically arrayed in a cleric's cope and the...

(The entire section is 10760 words.)

Mark Pizzato (essay date fall 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pizzato, Mark. “Genet's Violent, Subjective Split into the Theatre of Lacan's Three Orders.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5, no. 1 (fall 1990): 115-30.

[In the following essay, Pizzato provides a Lacanian psychoanalytic reading of Genet's works, focusing on Genet's creation of a self in both his life and works.]

In his brief book on Proust, Samuel Beckett states:

The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the...

(The entire section is 7247 words.)

Gene A. Plunka (essay date spring 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Plunka, Gene A. “Jules Lefranc: Jean Genet's Eternal Galley Slave and Patron Saint.” University of Dayton Review 21, no. 3 (spring 1992): 17-30.

[In the following essay, Plunka observes the connection between sainthood and criminality in Genet's works.]

Jean Genet's life has been a constant immersion in solitude. He described the Mettray reformatory as a time “… que j'étais las de ma solitude d'enfant perdu et que mon âme appelait une mère.”1 In Querelle de Brest, Genet, speaking through the diary of Lieutenant Seblon, explained his homoerotic love life in terms of solitude: “Ce regard sévère parfois presque soupçon neux, de...

(The entire section is 7762 words.)

Gene A. Plunka (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Plunka, Gene A. “Victor Turner and Jean Genet—Rites of Passage in Les Nègres.Theatre Annual 45 (1992): 65-88.

[In the following essay, Plunka describes Genet's use of ethnological rites of passage in Les Nègres.]

In Jean Genet's oeuvre, the single element that unites all of his works and provides identity for his risk-taking outcasts is the rite of passage from one mode of living to another. In particular, Genet presents metamorphosis, an apotheosis for his outcasts, who move form [sic] game playing (the world of illusion) to a renewed sense of Being. Genet's protagonists, willfully degraded, begin their self-imposed exile by imitating,...

(The entire section is 9182 words.)

Scott Durham (essay date spring 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Durham, Scott. “Genet's Shadow Theatre: Memory and Utopian Phantasy in Un captif amoureux.L'Esprit Createur 35, no. 1 (spring 1995): 50-60.

[In the following essay, Durham explores the role of utopia and collective memory in the political rebellion described by Genet in Un captif amoureux.]

In Un Captif Amoureux, Genet describes the encounter of two conflicting figures of collective memory. Its site, a place once called Maaloul, is to be found in some olive groves near Nazareth. Every year, Israelis return there with their children to see the forest they have sown. Each tree, a memorial to those who made the desert bloom, bears the name of...

(The entire section is 4436 words.)

Christopher Lane (essay date winter 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lane, Christopher. “The Voided Role: On Genet.” Modern Language Notes 112, no. 5 (winter 1997): 876-908.

[In the following essay, Lane examines Genet's conception of his play The Maids as a failure in light of his belief that modern theater was too “reassuring” to audiences.]

Que je me vide!

—Genet, Les Bonnes 38

It wasn't easy, or any fun, being obliged
to live up to one's image.

—Genet, Splendid's 41

Genet criticism seems increasingly concerned with identifying the transgressive potential of Jean Genet's life and works. We now hear regularly that Genet critiqued...

(The entire section is 13712 words.)

Sharon Cornford (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cornford, Sharon. “Death, Murder and Narrative Form in Pompes funèbres.” In Flowers and Revolution: A Collection of Writings on Jean Genet, edited by Barbara Read and Ian Buchnell, pp. 94-105. London: Middlesex University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Cornford explores the connection between the narrator's expressions of his own grief and the construction of his narrated world in Pompes funèbres.]

The themes of death and murder recur like an obsession throughout Genet's texts, but it is in Pompes funèbres that the narrator's preoccupation with mortality is the most graphic and sustained. It is also in Pompes funèbres that...

(The entire section is 5580 words.)

Mairéad Hanrahan (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hanrahan, Mairéad. “An Erotics of Diversity: The Unsuspected Sex of Genet's Heroes.” In Flowers and Revolution: A Collection of Writings on Jean Genet, edited by Barbara Read with Ian Birchall, pp. 63-72. London: Middlesex University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hanrahan argues that Genet's sexual symbolism serves to subvert the traditional phallic cult of desire.]

Genet's second novel, Miracle de la Rose, constitutes a paean of praise to male beauty. The text recounts the narrator's relationship with a series of men whose charm on a preliminary reading seems in direct proportion to their masculinity; the more virile and phallic their...

(The entire section is 4476 words.)

Michael Lucey (essay date 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lucey, Michael. “Genet's Notre-Dame-des Fleurs: Fantasy and Sexual Identity.” Yale French Studies, no. 91 (1997): 80-102.

[In the following essay, Lucey examines Genet's approach to fantasy in his perception of sexual identity as it appears in his literary works, particulary Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs.]

Le fantasme est le soutien du désir, ce n'est pas l'objet qui est le soutien du désir.

Fantasy is the support of desire; it is not the object that is the support of desire.

—Jacques Lacan

Le problème n'est...

(The entire section is 10136 words.)

Stathis Gourgouris (essay date spring 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gourgouris, Stathis. “A Lucid Drunkenness (Genet's Poetics of Revolution).” South Atlantic Quarterly, 97, no. 2 (spring 1998): 413-56.

[In the following essay, Gourgouris examines Genet's poetics through his widely known and embraced identity as a criminal and his later association with revolutionary groups.]

It has already become customary to infuse the end of the twentieth century with a forward-looking gaze to some abyssal, unknown, but nonetheless impending end (of “history,” of “ideology”). Repressed in the allure of this abyssal gaze is the knowledge that the end is measured by a precisely delineated historical past which shadows it...

(The entire section is 18456 words.)

Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Webb, Richard C., and Suzanne A. Webb. Jean Genet and His Critics: An Annotated Bibliography, 1943-1980. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1982, 600 p.

Secondary bibliography divided into five sections: “General Studies,” “The Poems,” “The Novels and Autobiography,” “The Plays,” and “Studies of Genet's Articles, Essays, and Prefaces.”


Kennelly, Brian Gordon. “Dissolving the Divine: The Tragedy of Identity in Genet's ‘Elle’.” Symposium 49, no. 4 (winter 1996): 274-97.

Discusses the “shift in roles” between the two characters in Genet's...

(The entire section is 217 words.)