(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In her short and powerful novel, which won the Prix Goncourt in France in 1984, Duras recounts the largely autobiographical story of her family’s struggles in Southeast Asia. The major characters of the book are the narrator, whose obsessive remembrances of her days as a high school student in Saigon center the novel; the Chinese lover, whose father prevents him from marrying the narrator; the narrator’s mother, whose favoritism for her older son and alternating encouragement and abuse of the narrator undermine the family; the older brother, who terrorizes his younger brother and sister while never finishing the school courses his mother arranges for him; and the younger brother, whose death spurs the narrator to attempt suicide.

Central themes of the book include memory and separation. Memory provides the frame for the novel, which is the recollection of a middle-aged Frenchwoman. One image that combines these themes is the photograph. The narrator describes how the mother has the family go to the photographer, always having pictures of the family group but not taking pictures of “Vinh Long . . . of the garden, the river, the straight tamarind-lined avenues of the French conquest, not of the house, nor of our institutional white-washed bedrooms with the big black-and-gilt iron beds, lit up like classrooms by the red streetlights, the green metal lampshades.”

The narrator separates herself from her mother by describing what the mother...

(The entire section is 572 words.)


(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The main plot of The Lover is the story of a fifteen-and-a-half-year-old French schoolgirl’s love affair with the son of a rich Chinese businessman in Saigon during the 1930’s. The novel is narrated by the girl herself, now an old woman and a successful writer. At the time of their first meeting, the girl’s father has been dead for about ten years. Her two brothers, seventeen and eighteen years old, live with their impoverished mother, who is the headmistress of the girls’ school in Sadec. In the novel’s first fully developed scene, in which the slightest details are described minutely, the girl is returning to Saigon—where she attends the French high school and stays at a state boarding school—after spending a school vacation with her family in Sadec. She is standing near the native bus she has been riding as it is being ferried across a branch of the Mekong River, as is the chauffeur-driven limousine of the young Chinese man, who is twelve years older than the girl and has just returned from spending two years studying in Paris. The young girl, “dressed like a child prostitute” in a red silk dress with a very low neck, gold lame high heels, and a man’s fedora, excites the young man’s interest, and he immediately offers to take her to wherever she wants to go in Saigon.

He shows up every day to pick her up at the high school and drive her back to the boarding school. One Thursday, he drives her instead to his flat in Cholon, the Chinese capital of French Indochina, where they make love for the first time. As time passes, the lovers...

(The entire section is 643 words.)