Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387
Marguerite Duras' The Lover is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells the story of a fifteen-year-old French girl (the narrator) and a love affair she has with an older Chinese man. In the book, Duras names only a few characters, but the names she does choose to use, and the other...
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- Critical Essays
Marguerite Duras' The Lover is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells the story of a fifteen-year-old French girl (the narrator) and a love affair she has with an older Chinese man. In the book, Duras names only a few characters, but the names she does choose to use, and the other details she shares, draw many similarities with her own life, leading the reader to believe Duras herself is the narrator.
The narrator is a French girl living in Saigon with her poverty-stricken family. She attends school and has tenuous relationships with the girls there. The story is told from her perspective as an adult, many decades after the main events take place. During her time in Saigon, the narrator is admired by a wealthy Chinese man who immediately takes a liking to her, offering her a ride to school. Shortly after that, they become lovers. The relationship is doomed, and the narrator returns to France after finishing school.
The lover is twelve years older than the narrator and promised to another woman. While they have difficulty admitting their feelings for one another, the man ultimately reveals that he was in love with the narrator at the time of their affair. The lover spends money on the narrator and her family, but they treat him poorly because he is Chinese and they are white. Once the narrator leaves the country, the lover marries the woman to whom he's always been betrothed.
The mother, a school teacher, is doing her best to feed and clothe her children after the death of her husband. She takes advantage of the lover's generosity and rarely discourages her daughter's relationship.
The older brother has a gambling and opium addiction and steals from everyone he knows. The mother loves her eldest child but occasionally kicks him out to protect her younger son and daughter. He passes away at age 65.
The younger brother, two years older than the narrator, is beloved by his sister and less so by his brother. As an adult, he works as an accountant, but he passes at a young age, 27, due to bronchial pneumonia. This death is a turning point for the narrator, and she tries to kill herself in the aftermath. The narrator blames her mother and older brother for the younger brother's death, and their relationship grows tenuous.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549
The narrator, an older French woman. Now a successful writer in France, the narrator reminisces about her childhood and adolescence in Indochina, focusing on an image that appears to be central to her identity, an image of herself dressed in gold lamé high heels, a silk dress with a very low neckline, and a man’s fedora. As she crosses a branch of the Mekong River, she is watched by a Chinese millionaire in his black chauffeur-driven limousine. Although she is only fifteen and he is twelve years older, she becomes his mistress, accepting money and elegant dinners at expensive restaurants for herself and her impoverished family. They accept his generosity but humiliate him, refusing to acknowledge him because he is Chinese. Even the narrator denies the depth of her feelings when she is confronted by her mother. Although marriage is of no interest to her, he awakens her sensibility and desire, her love of lovemaking. After finishing high school, she leaves Saigon for France to continue her education, thus ending the one-and-a-half-year relationship with her Chinese lover.
The narrator’s lover
The narrator’s lover, a wealthy Chinese heir. Attracted to the young girl he sees standing by the rail on the ferry, he offers her a ride to her boarding school. They become lovers, frequenting his apartment in Cholon, where he awakens her sexual desire. Their relationship cannot last because he is Chinese and she is white. His rich father is adamantly opposed to any future union, and the son, weak and timid, will not oppose him and risk being disinherited. After the narrator’s departure for France, he marries a young, well-to-do Chinese woman, the marriage arranged ten years earlier by their families. As he reveals years later, he never loses his love for the narrator.
The narrator’s mother
The narrator’s mother, a schoolteacher. Verging on despair and madness, she, after the death of her husband, rears her three children on her salary as a headmistress of a girls’ school in Sadec. In an effort to combat their constant poverty, she invests her savings in land that, to their dismay, is flooded annually by salt water let in by the crumbling dikes.
The narrator’s older brother
The narrator’s older brother, a gambler. Cruel and insensitive, he steals from his mother, his sister, and even the housekeeper to support his opium and gambling habits. He is sent away from the family home on several occasions to protect the other children. Finally, at the age of fifty, when there is nothing left for him to take, he holds his first job, as a messenger for a marine insurance company. He keeps the job until his death fifteen years later. When he dies, he is buried, at his mother’s previous request, with her in the same grave.
The narrator’s younger brother
The narrator’s younger brother, an accountant’s clerk in Saigon. Intimidated and tormented by his older brother, he is loved by his sister, two years younger than he. At the age of twenty-seven, he dies of bronchial pneumonia during the Japanese occupation of World War II. His sister is devastated to discover that someone she thought should be immortal could die. His death spurs the narrator to attempt suicide.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
The Lover is at least partly autobiographical, representing Marguerite Duras’ personal recollection of and confession about her childhood and her first love affair. The dates and places given in the novel correspond very closely to those facts known about her life, as does the makeup of the girl’s family. Among the few characters whose names are mentioned in the book are the mother and the “younger” brother (in fact two years older than the girl), who have the same names as Duras’ own mother and younger brother. The anonymous first-person narrator is now a writer very much like Duras, has had some of the same experiences in later life (involvement in political activities, struggle with alcoholism), and has written similarly about her early life and her family. Yet because so many of the characters are left nameless and because the names given are so seldom used, there is a suggestion that the novel should not be read simply as a thinly veiled autobiography.
The distance between Duras and her protagonist is reinforced stylistically by the narrator’s frequent references to herself in the third person; the young girl often seems to be merely an observer of her own actions, directed by more powerful forces than her own conscious decisions. The ambivalent relationships presented in the novel similarly resist simple and direct analysis. The young girl’s erotic passion for the Chinese man is genuine but is accompanied by—and perhaps intensified by—the attraction of the forbidden, the violation of the cultural taboo against miscegenation. She is also aware that the young man’s wealth constitutes part of his attractiveness, and her ready acceptance of expensive clothing and a diamond ring places her in the role of prostitute at the same time that she is lover, alien, and, as an underage virgin, victim.
Duras sees all passionate relationships as ambivalent in this way, and the young girl’s intense love for and hatred of her mother are shown to be nearly equal forces. Her mother in turn alternately accepts her daughter’s behavior sympathetically and rejects her as a prostitute. The mother and daughter find another area of conflict apart from the Chinese man in the girl’s two brothers, the mother preferring the elder to her other children, while the daughter sees him as the younger brother’s victimizer. (The daughter goes so far as to blame him, along with their mother, for the younger brother’s death during the Japanese occupation of Indochina.)
Several less central characters also play important roles in the novel, especially Helene Lagonelle, a schoolmate for whom the young girl has erotic longings, and a small community of French collaborators during the war. Barely mentioned, but significant for that reason in this novel of family and gender relations, are the narrator’s father, husband, and son.