(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.)

The Lover Summary

(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.)

The Lover Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A man tells the narrator that she is more beautiful now that she is old and her face is ruined than she had been as a young woman. While thinking about this unusual comment, the narrator begins to remember her unhappy family and her scandalous first love affair. Abruptly she changes in age. No longer an old woman, she is once again fifteen and a half, riding a ferry across the Mekong River in what was then French Indochina.

As a girl, she attends both the state boarding school in Saigon and a French high school because her mother is ambitious for her future. All of the family’s hopes and chances for success depend on her; she has two brothers, but, unfortunately, both are unreliable. The older brother is a drug addict who steals from his own family and has such a negative effect on his two siblings that his parents eventually send him back to France. The younger brother has a different problem: He is simply too sensitive and weak to achieve worldly success.

Telling her story, the narrator shifts fluidly between the present and the past, referring to old photographs and memories as though she is thumbing through a family album. In one photo of her, taken when she was still a fifteen-year-old virgin, she has the face of a sexually experienced woman. In another memory, she recalls a favorite outfit that also makes her appear prematurely worldly; she is wearing it on the day she meets the young Chinese man who becomes her first lover.

When she was very young, she knew that she wanted to be a writer, but her mother discouraged her. A math degree would be much more practical for a girl who was going to have to support her family. She earns an income, however, in a way that her mother had not foreseen. She becomes essentially a prostitute, accepting money from her lover in return for sleeping with him.

Although her lover is older and wealthier, and has had many sexual experiences, her power over him is far greater than his over her. She feels intense sexual desire for him, but no love. He, on the other hand, genuinely loves her, and he is acutely aware that his feelings are not matched by hers. She revels in her ability to give less to him than she...

(The entire section is 895 words.)