Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3826
Educated primarily in the French tradition, Julien Green brought to his novels a distinctly French concern for the presentation and development of character. Whether his novels are set in France, the United States, or elsewhere, his characters are observed and portrayed with the psychological precision that has characterized French fiction...
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- Critical Essays
Educated primarily in the French tradition, Julien Green brought to his novels a distinctly French concern for the presentation and development of character. Whether his novels are set in France, the United States, or elsewhere, his characters are observed and portrayed with the psychological precision that has characterized French fiction from Madame de La Fayette down through Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert to Marcel Proust. With critical and seemingly pitiless exactitude, Green takes the reader inside his characters to show their thought and motivations, achieving considerable identification even when the characters tend toward violence or madness. On the surface, few of Green’s characters would appear to invite identification on the part of the reader; they tend to be misfits of one sort or another, haunted by strange fears and insecurities. It is Green’s singular talent, however, to present them and their thoughts in such a way that they seem almost instantly plausible and authentic, and to hold the reader’s interest in what will happen to them. Life, as particularized in Green’s characters, emerges as both threat and promise, most often as a trap set for the unwary.
Typically, Green’sprotagonists, often female with one surviving and insensitive parent, find themselves trapped in an existence that they can neither tolerate nor understand; not infrequently, they contribute to their own misfortune through a stubborn refusal to express themselves. Even so, the reader senses that to speak their minds would render them vulnerable to even greater assaults from a hostile environment. Locked within themselves, they suffer all the tortures of an earthly hell from which they yearn to escape. In his autobiography, Green observes that a feeling of imprisonment was a recurring childhood nightmare; in his novels, the theme is enlarged to archetypal proportions, assuming the authority of fable. Green’s characters, for all their particularities, emerge as highly convincing exemplars of the human condition.
Escape, for all of its apparent promise, offers no relief to the suffering of Green’s characters. Adrienne Mesurat, among the most convincing of Green’s early heroines, gradually retreats into madness once she has achieved through an act of violence the freedom for which she has longed; Paul Guéret, the ill-favored viewpoint character of The Dark Journey, strikes and disfigures the young woman whose attentions he has sought, thereafter becoming a fugitive. Manuel, the title character of The Dreamer, retreats from the undesirable world into a fictional universe of his own making, only to die soon thereafter. Elisabeth, the protagonist of Midnight, seeks to escape with her lover, only to be killed with him in a fall. Clearly, the oppressive atmosphere that stifles Green’s characters is internal as well as external; like Adrienne Mesurat, they remain imprisoned even when they are free to come and go as they please. Even in the later novels, such as The Other One, death is frequently the only means of escape available.
The power of Green’s novels derives in no small measure from the author’s skill in providing motivation for the behavior of his characters. In the case of Adrienne Mesurat, for example, Green quickly and convincingly shows normal desire stifled by silence until it becomes first an obsession, then true madness. Philippe Cléry, the main viewpoint character of The Strange River, passes the age of thirty before being obliged to examine his life; thereafter, he becomes most convincingly self-conscious, questioning his every move in an authentically ineffectual way. Sympathetic or not (and most are not), Green’s characters are inescapably human and believable, commanding the reader’s identification; although they seem to exist in a world of their own, they are unmistakably drawn from life, the products of Green’s keen powers of observation.
It is possible, that, had Green not been reared in a time less tolerant than the twentieth century, his novels might never have come into being. Arguably, Green’s expression has responded somewhat to the temper of the times, dealing more and more openly with homosexual attraction in such novels as The Transgressor; indeed, by the time Green wrote and published his autobiography in the 1960’s, his revelations seemed less scandalous than timely and enlightening. The restraint that helped to shape his earlier works was in a sense no longer necessary. It seems likely, moreover, that the writing of the autobiographical volumes lessened the sense of creative urgency that marks the best of Green’s earlier writing. In fact, Green’s later novels (Le Mauvais Lieu in particular), while still holding the reader’s attention, cover little new ground and move perilously close to self-parody.
The Closed Garden
Green’s second novel, The Closed Garden, written and published within a year after the success of Avarice House, ranks among his best and is perhaps the most memorable. Refreshingly normal at the start of the novel, eighteen-year-old Adrienne quickly erodes into madness and amnesia as a result of the stifling circumstances of her life. Recently out of school (the time is 1908), she lives in a provincial French town with her retired father and her thirty-five-year-old spinster sister, Germaine. A chronic invalid whose illness their autocratic father refuses even to recognize, Germaine rules over Adrienne with the authority of a mother but with none of the attendant love. As in Green’s Avarice House, kinship is no guarantee of understanding or even friendship; indeed, the family emerges as perhaps the most inimical and threatening of human institutions. Using heavy irony, Green shows Adrienne’s daily interaction with her hostile relatives; the reader, privy to Adrienne’s innermost thoughts, looks on with horror as she is repeatedly unable to express them.
At the start of the novel, Adrienne is looking with healthy scorn at a group of family portraits to which she inwardly refers as “the cemetery,” concluding with some satisfaction that her own features place her on the “strong” side of the family. Dressed as a servant, she is doing the family housework, exhibiting physical strength by moving heavy furniture with ease. It is precisely such apparent strength that will soon prove to be her undoing, as it turns inward upon herself, accomplishing in several weeks a deterioration that otherwise might take years. Deprived of normal human companionship, Adrienne becomes infatuated with a neighboring physician, Dr. Maurecourt, whom she has seen but once; such adolescent passion, harmless enough at face value, functions rather in Green’s universe as an instrument of destruction. Adrienne, unable to confide to her father or sister the relatively innocent causes of her slightly irregular behavior, retreats further and further into her fantasy with each new demand for an explanation.
Steadfastly refusing to name the object of her secret passion, she soon finds herself literally locked up in the house, forbidden to leave but still dreaming of escape. Ironically, it is the nearly bedridden Germaine, rather than the healthy Adrienne, who in fact does manage to escape the father’s tyranny, sneaking out of the house with Adrienne’s help in order to seek refuge in a convent near Paris. Germaine’s departure triggers a rare and violent dispute between Adrienne and her father, who reveals that he, like Germaine, has guessed the identity of Adrienne’s lover. Overcome with shame and grief, Adrienne runs toward her father and pushes him downstairs; she is never quite sure whether she intended to kill him. In any case, he dies, and although Adrienne is never formally charged with his murder, she is eventually convicted of the crime by the tribunal of malicious gossip. Indeed, the entire village soon takes on the sinister aspect of Adrienne’s now-absent family, hemming her within a circle of watchful and accusing eyes.
A brief attempt at leaving the village finds Adrienne drifting aimlessly from one provincial town to another, beset by nightmares as she sleeps fitfully in seedy hotels, imagining that she is being watched. Returning home to live among her tormentors, she falls physically ill; Dr. Maurecourt is summoned, and at the end of a lengthy and difficult conversation, she blurts out her unrequited love for him. Maurecourt, a frail widower of forty-five, is understandably nonplussed; with genuine compassion, he explains to Adrienne that he is mortally ill, having hardly more than a year left to live, while she, Adrienne, has her whole life ahead of her. For all practical purposes, however, Adrienne’s life is as good as over; she again leaves the house, intending to escape but succeeding only in wandering aimlessly about the town until she is found suffering from amnesia.
Like other novels and plays of the period—John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra (1934) and Jean Cocteau’s La Machine infernale (1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936) come readily to mind—The Closed Garden is the carefully recorded history of what can happen to a human life and mind when everything possible goes wrong. Subjected to torture such as might be inflicted upon a steel rod in laboratory tests, Adrienne’s mind eventually snaps. Until very near the end, however, Adrienne remains painfully lucid, aware of all that is happening to her yet powerless to stop it. Unlike such characters as O’Hara’s Julian English and Cocteau’s Oedipus, Adrienne seems singularly undeserving of her cruel fate; neither arrogant nor thoughtless, she seems to have been chosen almost at random by unseen forces bent upon destroying her for no good reason.
The Dark Journey
The Dark Journey, Green’s third novel, breaks new ground in presenting several viewpoint characters and a number of interlocking subplots. Each of the main characters, reminiscent of Balzac’s provincial “monomaniacs,” is governed and identified by a ruling passion, much as Adrienne Mesurat is governed by her passion for the helpless Dr. Maurecourt. The main viewpoint character, whose life provides a link among the others, is Paul Guéret, an ill-favored and unhappily married man in his thirties who is obsessed by his passion for the young and attractive Angèle. A typical Green heroine, Angèle has been thrust by circumstances into a thankless and sordid existence from which she longs to escape, presumably in the loving company of a young man her own age. A launderer by day, she moonlights by sleeping with various gentlemen who frequent the restaurant owned and operated by the insatiably curious Madame Londe. In a sense, Angèle is less prostitute than spy, engaged by Madame Londe to supply her with useful information concerning the gentlemen’s private lives. Guéret, to his consternation, is excluded from Angèle’s regular clientele because he is simply not interesting enough, either as a person or because of his station in life, to warrant Madame Londe’s interest. Angèle, meanwhile, is flattered and at least amused by Guéret’s awkward attentions, even if she cannot bring herself to return his love in kind.
Guéret, driven nearly to distraction by Angèle’s flirtatiousness and inaccessibility, becomes increasingly obsessed with his need to possess the girl, and before long his obsession leads to violence. First, after a long and painful struggle to scale the wall of Angèle’s building, he breaks into her room, only to find that she is not there. The next day, unable to tolerate her taunting behavior, he beats her and goes into hiding, leaving her for dead on a riverbank. Angèle survives, although disfigured for life. Guéret, meanwhile, is in fact guilty of murder, having bludgeoned to death an old man who stumbled upon his hiding place. After several months as a fugitive, he is given asylum by the bored and sadistic Eva Grosgeorge, mother of a boy he once tutored. Eventually, Madame Grosgeorge tires of Guéret and denounces him to the police against the protestations of Angèle, still convalescent, who does her best to rescue him. Unsuccessful, Angèle lapses into a dreamlike state and, like Adrienne Mesurat before her, wanders about town in what she thinks is an attempt to escape; delirious, she dies of exposure soon after being brought back to her room. Madame Grosgeorge, meanwhile, having shot herself melodramatically at the moment of Guéret’s arrest, is expected to survive.
The Dark Journey differs from Green’s earlier novels in both the depth and the scope of its character development. Although both Guéret and Angèle show clear lines of descent from Green’s earlier protagonists, such characters as Madame Londe and the Grosgeorge couple bear witness to a broadening of Green’s psychological and social observation; Eva Grosgeorge, in particular, is a most convincinggrotesque, the bored and self-indulgent younger wife of a rather bovine industrialist. Guéret, the misfit, serves unwittingly as the link between these various social types, whose paths would otherwise be unlikely to cross. As elsewhere in Green’s work, interpersonal love is shown to be an unattainable illusion. Guéret’s passion for Angèle, among the more normal obsessions portrayed in the book, is doomed by its own intensity. Angèle, meanwhile, is too lost in her own romantic fantasies to see beyond Guéret’s ugliness to her own genuine feelings toward him until it is too late for them both.
The Strange River
Less sensational in subject matter and in treatment than The Closed Garden or The Dark Journey, Green’s fifth novel, The Strange River, remains one of his least known; nevertheless, it ranks among his best. Nearly devoid of external action or incident, The Strange River presents social and psychological analysis of rare accuracy and power, approaching Flaubert’s ambition to write a book about “nothing.” To a far greater degree than in The Dark Journey, Green reveals his seldom-used gifts as a social satirist, here portraying in painful detail the empty existence of the idle rich. The Strange River is, moreover, the only one of Green’s novels to be set in Paris, where he himself resided.
As in The Dark Journey, Green derives considerable effect in The Strange River from the presentation of multiple viewpoints, primarily those of Philippe Cléry and his sister-in-law, Eliane, but not excluding that of Philippe’s wife, Henriette. Philippe, rich through inheritance, suffers in his own ineffectual way the double torture of being superfluous and knowing it. As titular head of a mining company about which he knows nothing and cares even less, he need only appear (and remain silent) at monthly meetings in order to do all that society expects of him. The rest of the time, he is free to remain in his elegant apartment (he owns the building) or go for long walks dressed as the gentleman he is. At thirty-one, he is aware that his marriage has long since become as meaningless and hollow as his professional title; Henriette goes out on the town without him nearly every evening and has taken a lower-class lover to occupy the rest of her time. Their only child, ten-year-old Robert, spends most of the year out of sight and mind in boarding school; his rare presence during school vacations, when he has nowhere else to go, proves irritating to his parents and aunt, as they have no idea what to say to him. Philippe, meanwhile, unless he is out walking, usually finds himself in the company of Henriette’s elder sister, Eliane, who secretly loves Philippe even as she comes to despise him for what he is.
Against such a background of silence and mistrust, Green sketches in the private thoughts and feelings of his characters, expressing the pain of existence in all of its contingency. The plot of The Strange River, such as it is, turns upon an incident that Philippe thinks he may have witnessed in the course of one of his long walks: A middle-aged, shabbily dressed couple appeared to be struggling on the banks of the Seine, and the woman may or may not have called out to Philippe for help. In any case, Philippe went on his way, not consulting the police until hours later. As the novel proceeds, the incident often returns to haunt Philippe with its implications.
Anticipating by some twenty-five years the central incident of Albert Camus’s La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957), Philippe’s experience disrupts the balance of a previously unexamined life; Philippe, however, is already too weak to do much of anything with what he has learned about himself. For months after the incident, he scans the papers for reports of bodies fished from the Seine; at length he finds one, and it is quite likely that he was in fact witness to a murder. In the meantime, another of his nocturnal walks has provided him with further evidence of his own cowardice; accosted by a stranger, he hands over his billfold at the merest threat of violence. Attending a monthly board meeting, he impulsively takes the floor and resigns his post, to the astonishment of his sister-in-law and wife, who fear that he has lost his mind; his life, however, goes on pretty much as before, closely observed by the lovesick spinster Eliane. Like Adrienne Mesurat, Eliane is both powerless and lucid in her unrequited love, increasingly attached to Philippe even as she begins to deduce his guilty secret concerning the couple on the riverbank.
Unlike all but one of Green’s other novels (The Other Sleep), The Strange River is open-ended, leaving the main characters with much of their lives yet before them. The action is not resolved in violence, as in The Dark Journey, or in madness, as in the case of Adrienne Mesurat. Philippe, of course, is too weak to do much of anything except worry about himself.
Not until The Transgressor, written a quarter of a century later, did Green again try his hand at the sort of social satire so successfully managed in The Strange River; despite his skill in such portrayal, it is clear that Greene’s true interest lay elsewhere, deep within the conscience of the individual. The Strange River is thus in a sense a happy accident; Green, in order to probe the inmost thoughts of a Philippe Cléry, had first to invent Philippe and place him against a social background. The result is a most satisfying work, rather different from Green’s other novels but thoroughly successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do.
For a period after The Strange River, Green’s novels tended increasingly toward fantasy, taking place in a real or fancied dreamworld fashioned by individual characters. It is perhaps no accident that these novels, atypical of Green’s work taken as a whole, were written during the time of Green’s estrangement from Catholicism, when he was reading extensively in mysticism and Eastern religions. Reconciled with the Church in 1939, Green was soon thereafter to leave France and his career as a novelist for the duration of World War II. Moira, the first of Green’s true postwar novels, returns to the familiar psychological ground of his earliest work, going even further in its portrayal of the conflict between the mystical and the sensual.
Returning to the time and setting of his American university experience, Green presents in Moira the thoughts and behavior of Joseph Day, a Fundamentalist rustic who is even more of an outsider to the university life than Green himself must have been. Joseph is at odds with the school from the first day of his enrollment, horrified by the license and corruption that he sees all around him. His landlady, Mrs. Dare, smokes cigarettes and wears makeup, and his classmates discuss freely their relations with the opposite sex. His missionary zeal fueled by a truly violent temperament to match his red hair, Joseph seeks to save the souls of those around him; thus inclined, he is quite unable to see either himself or his fellows as human beings. Derisively nicknamed “the avenging angel,” he burns with a white heat, quite unaware of the eroticism at its source. Early on, he unwittingly rebuffs the sexual advances of a young, male art student, who later commits suicide as a result; meanwhile, Joseph feels mysteriously drawn to the elegant, aristocratic Praileau, who has made fun of Joseph’s red hair. Challenging Praileau to a fight, Joseph is so overcome by an excess of clearly sexual frenzy that he nearly kills the young man, who tells him that he is a potential murderer.
Unable to reconcile his Protestant faith with his increasingly violent feelings and behavior, Joseph confides in a fellow ministerial candidate, David Laird, whose vocation is both stronger and less temperamental than Joseph’s own. David, however sympathetic, is quite unprepared to deal with the problems of his tortured friend, who proceeds toward the date with destiny suggested in the book’s title. Moira, it seems, is also the name of Mrs. Dare’s adopted daughter, a licentious young woman who emerges as almost a caricature of the flapper. Even before he meets the girl, Joseph is scandalized by all that he has heard about her; even so, he is quite unprepared for her taunting, loose-mouthed treatment of him.
Another apparent gay man, Killigrew, tries and fails to get close to Joseph. Joseph does, however, vividly recall Killigrew’s description of Moira as a she-monster whenever thoughts of the girl invade his daydreams. At length, Joseph, having changed lodgings, returns to his room to find Moira planted there as part of a prank perpetrated upon the “avenging angel” by his classmates. Moira, of course, is a most willing accessory, her vanity piqued by the one man, Joseph, who has proved resistant to her rather blatant charms. By the time the planned seduction occurs, it is Moira, not Joseph, who believes herself to have fallen in love. In the morning, however, Joseph strangles Moira in a fit of remorse over what they have done. After burying her body without incident, he twice considers the possibility of escape but finally turns himself in to the police, who have sought him for questioning.
Despite a plot almost too tightly rigged to seem quite plausible, Moira ranks with the best of Green’s earlier novels, showing considerable development in the depth and scope of his literary art. As in The Dark Journey and The Strange River, Green shows himself to be a shrewd and discerning observer of society and its distinctions. Characteristically, however, he remains concerned primarily with the inner workings of the human mind and emotions, and the variety of characters portrayed in Moira affords him ample opportunity to display his talents. Freed from taboos (both internal and external) against the depiction of homosexuality in literature, Green in Moira seemed to be moving toward a new, mature frankness of expression. However, the novels that he wrote after Moira, though explicit, fail to match that work either in suggestive power or in tightness of construction. The first novel of Green’s “mature” period thus remains quite probably that period’s best.