Last Updated September 5, 2023.
After her father's death, the narrator’s family has lost all semblance of financial stability; her mother has fallen into a severe depression, and her brother has gambled away much of their wealth. The fear of poverty is a constant fact of their life. As such, when a wealthy Chinese man approaches her, she agrees to begin a relationship with him. However, her youth and financial desperation hamper her ability to truly consent: she is fifteen and impoverished; he is twelve years her senior and the heir to an untold fortune. When she agrees to his proposition, she imagines that he will aid her family financially and offer her some measure of access to his wealth. Her gamble pays off, but it begs several questions about the motivations that informed her consent. At the age of fifteen, she learned to offer her body as a transactional asset to aid her family; social status and an increased ability to climb the social ladder motivated her choice, not mutual attraction or desire.
Their relationship is hindered by their socioeconomic, gendered, and racial disparities, raising many eyebrows and arousing outright criticism in the French colonial community to which the narrator’s family belongs. Although her lover is comfortably upper-class, he is also native, which the French colonials view poorly. Though he is superior to the girl in terms of wealth, in some respects, she outstrips him socially. Her family attempts to keep up appearances by not revealing their struggles to the rest of the community. But in securing financial help for them, the girl also forgoes their reputation among the colonials. The family is all but ousted when the public learns of the relationship between the lovers.
The colonial context of their interracial relationship complicates the already-nuanced question of consent and power. Despite her lover's wealth, he remains Chinese; as such, the narrator’s racist family and peers see her actions as degrading and unacceptable. Socially, he is beneath her, as he is not European. The Lover highlights power hierarchies at every level: age, gender, class, and race; by situating the story in French Indochina—a powerful site of colonial meaning—Duras placed a spotlight on the social tensions between the settler colonists lived amidst those whom they colonized.
Both the narrator and her lover feel some semblance of responsibility or obligation toward their family. On the part of the narrator, she feels that the weight of her family’s survival hangs on her shoulders. Her father’s death, her mother’s depression, and her eldest brother’s gambling problems have left her with little support and no means of improving their dire, poverty-stricken circumstances. As such, she risks social condemnation in hopes of providing for her struggling family.
Her lover, on the other hand, bears the burden of expectation. He is the son of a wealthy foreign investor, and his father holds a bevy of expectations for his son, his familial and financial successor. The young Chinese man is wealthy, but his social position is entirely contingent on the fickle whims of his traditional father, who finds his son’s affair with a white woman inappropriate. Indeed, their relationship is burdened not only by social expectations but also by familial ones, too.
Physical versus Emotional Intimacy
When the narrator and her lover become intimate, she experiences a sexual awakening. Although they do not often speak, she feels they communicate physically, speaking their love through touch and sensation. However, she still feels disconnected emotionally; she began the affair to serve a practical purpose. As such, she does not take him seriously as a romantic partner, seeing him only as...
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an outlet for physical desires and financial necessities. He confesses his love to her, but she does not take him seriously, imagining that his words stem from lust or a desire to keep her with him.
Many years and several countries later, both have long since gone their separate ways. Each has married, had children, and built a life for themself. One day, the lover reaches out to confess his love, which he explains has not diminished since she left Saigon many years ago. Looking back, she feels confused and contemplative and wonders if she misread the situation and if she indeed loved him then. As she wonders, Duras questions the nature of the oft-delineated line between sexual gratification and romantic love. It is muddy, she argues, exploring where one form of intimacy ends and the other begins. She questions whether physical love can exist where emotional love does not, wondering whether one can live without some semblance of the other.