(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Eva Figes first came to American attention through a feminist tome entitled Patriarchal Attitudes (1970), but she has also produced, in addition to other nonfiction such as Tragedy and Social Evolution (1976), an impressive array of fiction, most recently the novel Waking (1982). In Light, she takes on a novelistic assignment that is supposed to be fatal: the treatment of artistic endeavor other than writing. One of the cherished truisms of modern narrative is that works of fiction come to grief when a musician, painter, or sculptor is the subject. The exceptions to this rule, however, should give pause to those who proclaim it. Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus (1947; Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend, 1948) is a classic refutation of the principle; Light bids fair, in its more modest way, to be another.

The obstacles would appear quite steep at the outset. To enter the consciousness of Claude Monet, one of the least analytical, least self-conscious, and least verbal of major modern artists, would clearly require extraordinary powers of invention, not to say distortion. Surely the intense examination of the psyche that informs Waking would be inappropriate here, and it is not used. Instead, in a spirit very much in keeping with that of Monet’s work, the novella seeks the outer world with all the pagan gusto of its principal character. The title, in one sense, does announce the subject of the book, and its dappled prose renders that shifting light which it traces in all of its divagations and quirks. Many of the passages devoted to landscapes and shifting shadows recall the chapter from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) entitled “Time Passes”; the house and grounds of Giverny almost become characters in this text.

“Almost” is the operative word here. Figes realizes that the setting alone cannot be the protagonist, and she begins to sketch out very rapidly the interactions within the Monet ménage. She emphasizes the activities of ancillary figures in the household (such as Monet’s common-law wife, Alice, and her daughters, Marthe and Germaine), partly for tactical, partly for strategic reasons. The tactical reason stems from Monet’s role as the commonsensical, placid sensualist who believes that things “are, and ought to be, simple,” and the consequent need to look elsewhere for human complexity. The strategic reason involves a subversion of the reader’s expectations. Instead of providing a guided tour of the Great Man, Figes focuses upon those in the shadows who thanklessly make his sunlit existence as pleasant as possible. There is, at least potentially, a political feature to this shifting of focus. (Particularly curious for this theorist of patriarchy, by the way, is the gerrymandered nature of this patriarch’s clan. Monet is not married to the woman of the house, nor has he fathered either of the daughters remaining at home. Nevertheless, as the narrative establishes, his word is still law.) Also, the way the narrative gradually opens out into the household in general, at first emerging as if part of the natural landscape, is one of the chief pleasures of the text.

The culmination of this social treatment occurs in chapter 7, where Octave Mirbeau, a journalist and friend of Monet, visits for lunch. Here one sees the Monet clan truly en famille; every modulation in collective mood and every mutual adjustment of demeanor and interaction is noted with precision. Mirbeau himself is admirably rendered as well: a forward-looking, anticlerical fop with a journalist’s eye for rhetorical theatrics. Some readers will be reminded of Monsieur Homais in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Characteristically, Mirbeau twits the Monets for retaining servants yet is unhesitating in being served by them himself. Like so many public men, Mirbeau seems passionate about almost every topic but finally only as a matter of rhetoric; his proclaimed concern has about it a certain weightlessness, an air of self-promotion.

One of those present at the lunch—served, significantly, on the veranda, that intermediate point between inside and outdoors—is Alice’s granddaughter, Lily, the member of the household who, at nursery-school age, has most in common with Monet. The story provides many clues to their affinity. Both are in love with the outdoors, and with light itself. Among the most vivid passages in the narrative is the sequence in chapter 5 concerning Lily’s attempts, ultimately successful, to blow a large, complete bubble from her clay pipe. When finally the bubble evolves, “round, iridescent, and perfect,” it holds only for a moment—“enough for Lily,” however: “Memory holds the shining bubble, bright with the newborn glory of the world.”

What becomes apparent, to elaborate the crucial link between Lily and Monet, is that the project of Monet’s Impressionism, as Figes presents it, is precisely to render a moment, as is always said—but in so doing to defeat the onward rush of time; somehow to hold the bubble, bright with the world’s newborn glory. The early chapters involving Monet and his helper Auguste in the lily pond—which to the painter is like “sitting in the middle of an aquamarine bubble”—make this clear. It is not one moment in time, after all, that is Monet’s quarry: It is the repetition of that moment over many occurrences. The layerings of the paintings, then, accrete as a similar quality of light strikes the same setting over a period of time. The resulting “impression” is in...

(The entire section is 2306 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Light is an impressionist painting in words. It depicts a single day at Claude Monet’s gardens at Giverny, seeking to render with word and metaphor the kind of impressionist portrait Monet himself might have painted. Monet spent his painting career stalking the transient perfection of a single moment in time, replete with shadows and reflection. He looked for eternal truth in momentary situations. Eva Figes paints him in poetic prose, caught in the bubble of light from a single day’s sun. Yet that moment carries the weight not only of the present but also of all that has come before and all that is still to come.

As the novel opens on a summer morning in 1900, Monet wakes before sunrise, eager to capture the light passing across the garden landscape he believes he has created. He has reached the pinnacle of his career and talent. Smoking a cigarette on the porch, surveying the dark mass of two yews his wife wants cut down, he knows he is right to keep them. If they shade the house it is a small loss; he is seldom indoors. Outside, however, they add just the mass of darkness he needs for his paintings. Everything around him confirms the rightness of his vision and his judgment.

Although his vision is self-centered, he is not an isolated genius. Monet inflicts himself upon his world, calling himself master of both his art and his household. He is a Victorian era patriarch whose word rules. In his kitchen, a young serving girl prepares his breakfast; outside the door, a gardener waits to carry his work box down the path to the lily pond. They worry about Monet’s moods. They stave off their own hunger and boredom while he works, undisturbed.

Upstairs in the still sleeping house, one other person has been disturbed by the great man’s awakening: His wife, Alice, stirs uneasily in the dark, wondering how she will pass the heavy hours until daylight. She has no occupation but her lamentations for the past. All other outward identity has been given to her husband, who needs her only for brief moments and who views her as an insoluble mystery.

The characters awaken one by one, each with his or her own particular problems and...

(The entire section is 894 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Eva Figes first explicated her theory of women’s oppression in her book Patriarchal Attitudes (1970), which expanded on the centuries-old notion that woman’s inferiority is culturally produced, and not a product of her innate nature. Since then, Figes has turned to fiction to show readers, both stylistically and narratively, how the world might look if women’s perspectives counted.

Figes follows very much in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf, whose novel To the Lighthouse (1927) is often cited by critics as a template for Light. Both examine life in a Victorian family ruled by a traditional patriarch, both contain an artist whose painting in some way mirrors the novel, and both contain, at their center, a sumptuous dining table scene. Yet, whereas Woolf’s novel is autobiographical, Figes’ deals with the universal, and whereas Woolf’s prose style is experimental, Figes has stripped away even more of the conventions of narrative, creating a book that is better described as a prose poem than as a traditional novel.

Her steadfast refusal to provide her readers with plot constitutes Figes’ strongest statement of feminism. Plots create heroes and describe a life that is different from the lived experience of most of humanity. Plots allow the lives of women, servants, and children to be muted, even silenced. By insisting upon the falseness of this narrative structure, Figes forces her readers to a new perception of both history and reality. Monet’s paintings were the product not only of his hands, but also of many lives. Those lives, silent till now, must emerge, must find a voice, if the social conditioning that creates partially realized human beings is to change.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Bannon, Barbara A. Review in Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV (August 26, 1983), p. 367.

De Feo, Ronald. Review in The Nation. CCXXXVII (January 7, 1984), p. 38.

Deveson, Richard. Review in New Statesman. CVI (September 2, 1983), p. 24.

Oates, Joyce Carol. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (October 7, 1984), p. 38.

DeFeo, Ronald. “Hail, Holy Light.” The Nation 237 (December 31, 1983): 706-708. Compares Figes’ work on paper to Monet’s style in paint, finding that her prose mirrors and enhances the artist’s work.

Howard, Maureen. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 73, no. 2 (Winter, 1984): 9-12. Although Howard enjoys reading Light, she finds that it closely resembles Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse yet fails to measure up to Woolf’s standard.

Nation. CCXXXVII, December 31, 1983, p. 706.

New Statesman. CVI, September 2, 1983, p. 24.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Monet, Summer, 1900.” The New York Times Book Review 88 (October 16, 1983): 11, 30, 32-33. Praises Light as a prose poem, placing it in the category of experimental novel, a proper successor to the tradition of experimentation begun by Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse and The Waves.

Skenazy, Paul. “Stilled Life.” The Threepenny Review 5 (Summer, 1984): 24-26. In a lengthy review, Skenazy analyzes Figes literary techniques, comments on her historical accuracy, and theorizes about her ultimate message.

Taylor, Linda. “Light.” The Times Literary Supplement, August 26, 1983, 898. Praises Figes’ ability to capture light in words and to evoke its transformative power in much the same way Monet did with paint.