The Lover Summary

The Lover is a 1984 novel by Marguerite Duras about an affair between an adolescent French girl and a young Chinese man in Saigon in the 1920s.

  • The narrator, a fifteen-year-old French girl from a family of limited means, begins an affair with a Chinese man in his twenties from a wealthy background.
  • Their affair, which becomes increasingly visible, is scorned by the lovers’ families and by society generally. The affair ends when the narrator departs for France, leaving both lovers heartbroken.
  • The narrator, now old, recounts these youthful events many decades later.

Summary

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Last Updated on December 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

 

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Published in 1984, L'Amant (The Lover) is a novel loosely rooted in the real-life story of its author Marguerite Duras. The protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl living in French Indochina, remains unnamed. Despite her obscured identity, many scholars argue that the unspecified young woman is a literary representation of Duras herself. At just over one hundred pages, The Lover is a short memoir unbound by conventional chronology, in which the narrator reflects on her formative years spent in Saigon. The story unfolds from her perspective, many years on, as she evaluates the events of her life. Her retelling bears a stylistic detachment: displaced by time, space, and memory, the narrative is minimalistic and unburdened by powerful emotions, which have dulled over time. 

The story begins in the 1930s as the young girl boards a ferry, traveling across the Mekong Delta on a return trip to Saigon, where she attends boarding school. Once again, she is leaving her family—which, despite their relatively high social status, has been rocked by financial struggle, loss, and mental illness—to pursue education and a better life. Her father’s death and her mother’s depression have rattled her confidence and thrown her world askew; she is young, impressionable, and haunted by the difficulty of her experiences. Despite her worn, hand-me-down attire, the protagonist is attractive, with a sense of maturity beyond her tender age. 

As she gazes out over the water, a young, elegant Chinese man approaches her; his youthful visage belies the fact that he is twelve years her senior. Offering her a cigarette, he sparks a conversation with the young narrator. By all indications, he is wealthy; as the ferry docks, he is met by his chauffeur, whom he instructs to collect the narrator’s luggage and place it in the trunk of his limousine. To explain away his wealth, the young man reveals that he is the heir to a great fortune.

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The girl, thinking of her family's hardship, realizes that she stands to benefit from this wealthy young man’s interests and chooses to utilize his attraction to her for personal benefit. Over time, their relationship progresses, and they become lovers. Despite their intense connection, both the narrator and her lover know that their relationship is doomed; if anyone were to discover their affair, it would spell disaster for them both. For one, she is underage. More importantly, they exist in vastly different worlds; he, as a wealthy Chinese man, and she, as a struggling European woman. The gap between their socioeconomic and racial statuses is insurmountably wide; even a whisper about their affair would spark a devastating scandal. 

Still, the narrator chooses to stay with her clandestine lover. In return, the wealthy Chinese man helps support her family. As money, gifts, and dinner invitations arrive in droves, her family guesses at the nature of the relationship. The narrator refuses to reveal the truth, which bothers her mother, who still accepts the unexpected financial support out of desperation. Eventually, their strange, imbalanced relationship comes to light; as expected, the public reaction—particularly among the racist and exclusionary colonial French community—is less than positive. Enraged that his son would demean himself by courting a non-Chinese woman, the lover’s father demands that his son either end the affair or face being cut off from the fortune he is due to inherit. 

Although the pair face intense judgment from their peers and family, the relationship continues for another year and a half, ending only when the narrator’s family returns to France. Leaving behind her lover and the land of her youth at the age of seventeen, the narrator struggles to understand herself and her life. In her confusion, she turns to writing as an outlet, which leads her to a career as a writer. Later on, she marries and has children. After the death of her younger brother, with whom she lived in Saigon, the girl—now a woman grown—recalls the strange events of her youth and remembers her Chinese lover. Shortly after, she receives a phone call from her long-lost lover, telling her that, despite their distance and respective marriages, he still loves her. The book ends as the narrator contemplates her past and evaluates her current feelings toward her former lover. 

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