The Lover succeeds as an intensely visual book. The sweep of the water, the expression on the face of the crazed woman who chases the eight-year-old narrator, and the indelible image of the narrator on the ferry all satisfy a reader’s need to visualize. Duras’ prose offers a series of brief pictures, with breaks in the narrative sheltering the reader from seeing a painful scene too long and too clearly.
One recurring theme of The Lover is detachment. The narrator, for example, explains her response to aging by saying, “I watched this process with the same sort of interest I might have taken in the reading of a book.” The same implied visual distance controls a further evidence of detachment as the narrator remembers her ferry ride across the Mekong River: “I think it was during this journey that the image became detached, removed from all the rest.” The narrator’s perspective becomes a lens for the reader as the separation of image from subject continues: “Suddenly I see myself as another, as another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes, in circulation for cities, journeys, desire.” In such passages, Duras suggests that desire and passion force the narrator to become an observable object, intensity of perception requiring separation.
A reader could also identify memory and desire as central to the novel. The narrator remembers scenes and people, juxtaposing scenes from her childhood with scenes with her lover, memories themselves almost invariably connected with desire. One relationship in particular exemplifies the connection between memory and desire: the narrator’s friendship with Helene Lagonelle. The narrator never heard from Helene after leaving the boarding school; therefore, the young woman is memory, no part of the living present. An innocent and unaware young woman, unselfconscious to the point that she walked naked through the dormitory, Helene was clearly an object of the narrator’s passion. The narrator explains herself to be “worn out with desire for Helene Lagonelle,” describing the young woman’s great physical beauty and her own intense attraction—the memory of desire.
Perhaps the most compelling theme in The Lover is its nearly overpowering connection between desire and death. A part of the mother’s past illustrates the connection. Duras recounts an affair that the mother had with a young man who killed himself when the family moved away—evidence of destructive desire. Further connection is evident in the narrator’s wish to take Helene Lagonelle to the Chinese lover: “via Helene Lagonelle’s body, through it . . . the ultimate pleasure would pass from him to me. A pleasure unto death.” Images also reinforce the connection. The river is described at the beginning of the novel as carrying dead animals and dead people out to sea, all swept away in an overpowering current. The current becomes the vehicle of desire with her lover: “And then the pain is possessed in its turn, changed, slowly drawn away, borne toward pleasure, clasped to it. The sea, formless, simply beyond compare.” Duras fuses desire and death in circumstance, imagination, and image.