There are several interesting themes worth discussing in Marguerite Duras' 1984 novel L'Amant (The Lover).
The story is widely considered to be based on the real-life experiences of its author, who lived in Saigon as a girl. The narrative, set in French Indochina in the 1930s, covers a relatively short period of time in the life of an unnamed teenage girl who enters into an affair with a wealthy Chinese man whom she meets on a ferry ride back to her boarding school in Saigon. Their relationship is widely frowned upon due to their age gap (she's 15, he's 27) and the fact that she's from the French colonial community and he is native. Their relationship ends when she's 17, and her family moves back to France. The Lover is told from the perspective of the girl (now a woman) many years later, as she looks back on her youth and her affair.
Let's go over a few of the novel's themes.
Social Status / Social Climbing
Part of the reason the girl initially consents to an affair with the Chinese man is that he is wealthy and she is not. Her family has lost financial stability after the death of her father, and the girl knows the situation is worsening. The Chinese man, on the other hand, is elegant and rich, the heir to a massive fortune. She guesses that if she agrees to be his lover, he will help her family out financially. She's correct: he does.
But their relationship raises many eyebrows and arouses outright criticism in the French colonial community her family belongs to. While the Chinese man is rich, he is also native (and inappropriately old for the girl, too) and the French colonials mostly socialize amongst each other.
Though he's superior to the girl in terms of wealth, in some respects, she's superior to him in terms of social status. Her family is trying to keep up appearances by not letting on 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. This is connected to the next theme:
The French colonial crowd is a snobbish one. The colonials think of themselves as superior to the locals, which is part of the reason they don't accept the girl's relationship with her lover: even though he's rich, they think he's beneath her. Think of other novels like E.M. Forster's A Passage to India (1924)—like The Lover, it shone a spotlight on the social tensions between colonials and the colonized.
Both the girl and her Chinese lover feel responsibility or obligation to their families, especially their parents. The girl starts up the affair in order to help her mother, who's depressed and poverty-stricken. The Chinese man, for his part, struggles with conflict with his father, who finds the affair inappropriate and demands that his son cut it off—otherwise, the father says, he'll lose his inheritance.
Sex vs. Love
The girl experiences a sexual awakening with the Chinese lover. She's in touch with the physical pleasure, so to speak, but not the emotions: she started the affair for a practical reason, and she doesn't take her lover seriously as a romantic partner. He confesses to love her, but he's much older than her (and more experienced).
Many years later, when both have long gone their separate ways, married, had children, etc., the Chinese man reaches out to the girl (now a woman) to tell her her still loves her. She is confused and contemplative, looking back, and wonders if she misread the situation in Saigon and if...
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- Critical Essays