Lovers and Tyrants

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1822

First novels are supposed to be set apart, judged somehow by different standards from those used for established writers. Lovers and Tyrants, a first novel, may in fact need the protection of that special status. But Francine du Plessix Gray is hardly an untried writer; a freelance journalist of note, she writes often for The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Her book, Divine Disobedience (1970), surveys the contemporary radical Catholic movement, creating memorable portraits of such figures as the Berrigans, Ivan Illich, and the priests at Emmaus House in East Harlem.

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In her novel, Gray creates a character, Stephanie, with a background similar to her own, and proceeds to exploit the possibilities of that intrinsically limited genre, autobiographical fiction. Lovers and Tyrants has its roots in other traditions as well, and it is in the brilliance with which these several strains are fused that the novel succeeds. The Bildüngsroman heritage is the most obvious of those strains: Lovers and Tyrants stands in that noble line of novels which delineate the moral and physical education of their protagonists—Emma, Great Expectations, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Sons and Lovers, and Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest novels. Gray has the greatest affinity with the early Joyce; her opening sections, emphasizing the sensory detail to which the young Stephanie responds, are wonderfully rich with imagery. The narrator, who reminds one here of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, begins:My childhood lies behind me muted, opaque and drab, the color of gruel and of woolen gaiters, its noises muted and monotonous as a sleeper’s pulse. My childhood memories are smothered in sterile, unjoyful smells, in odors of eucalyptus and of mustard plasters, of ether and of belladonna, of camphor and of musty textbooks.

The novel also recalls picaresque works which record “the progress” of a joyous rogue making his way through life, adventuring in various locales and classes of society. In this tradition the narrator often makes fun of the protagonist, or, in the case of a first-person novel, the protagonist uses a self-deprecating tone of self-conscious irony. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar are such antiheroes. Stephanie too is able to laugh at herself and her earlier selves, and she can perfectly capture by word or phrase a particularly satiric figure: “Coasters, lace mats, and crewel doilies were distributed throughout her rooms so as not to stain the polished genuine mahogany surface of her life.”

Perhaps most interesting of the traditions within which Gray works is the epistemological, which explores novelistically the philosophical implications of creative writing; the protagonist is usually a novelist in the process of writing a novel. Stephanie is a would-be writer, and the work is full of her jottings, journal entries, conversations about writing, pieces from friends’ writing, and actual literary quotations (Kierkegaard, Kafka, Scott Fitzgerald). The structure of such works is usually experimental as the narrator will play with mirror-images, stories-within-stories, shifting points of view, and the like. Important examples of this genre are Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, Moravia’s The Lie, Gide’s The Counterfeiters.

The structure of Lovers and Tyrants shows just how much Gray has refused to be limited by the strictly autobiographical tradition. Although a cursory glance will tell the reader that the novel is structured chronologically in eight sections (each titled and dated), within each section the narrator goes forward and backward in time at will, briefly introducing themes that are to reappear fully in later sections, prematurely alluding to events of her later life, and throughout making commentary about the process of writing. Then, in the last section, entitled “Stephanie” and dated in the future, “197-” the narrator shifts point of view to third person and writes a kind of script or scenario, complete with description of character and setting, before the scene begins. The whole section, some seventy-five pages in length, is written in the narrative present tense. The difficulty with the technique as used by Gray is that after the initial shock of the shift in mode, person, and tense, the reader barely notices any difference; the point of view is still Stephanie’s; the voice heard is unmistakably the same. The point of the game seems to get lost as well, and the writing degenerates from its earlier concern with precisely remembered detail.

Stephanie ponders the act of writing and finally says, “Make an effort to remember to remember to remember the kingdom of your history. And if you can’t recall it, invent it.” Earlier she decides that journalistic writing cannot be her direction any longer, that she is tired of “reality,” that she wants to invent. She meditates on the idea that a woman’s life is a continuous line of oppressions; her various loves are also tyrants; freedom can be gained only by a recognition of each oppressor: “The magic word is the jailor’s name.” We are to understand that Lovers and Tyrants is the result of Stephanie’s decision to take the leap and write that budding novel: “In the next months I shall caress only images, bathe them, feed them, give them life.”

The theme of Stephanie’s dreamed-of novel is, of course, the principal theme of Gray’s novel, a particularly feminist theme as disclosed by her title. If one is to find and accept an identity, one must be able to name or place the constituent parts of one’s lack of identity. Women have for too long identified themselves in terms of someone else—husband, children, father. Breaking free of this, becoming a person with an individual identity, demands a recognition of those strictures impinging on one’s freedom. The process of “naming the jailor,” the monster, the tyrant, is a psychologically valid one. It has been used brilliantly by Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, where Anna Wulf is enabled to overcome her writer’s block and become a “free woman” only after a long process of breakdown and then breakthrough, the liberating act being the naming of the monsters of her past.

Stephanie is tyrannized throughout her life by those she loves; each section explores one of these important relationships which demands that she struggle against “the familiar tyrants.” As she says in the last section, when she is working out both the theme of her new novel and her own newfound identity, “Every woman’s life is a series of exorcisms from the spells of different oppressors; nurses, lovers, husbands, gurus, parents, children, myths of the good life, the most tyrannical despots can be the ones who love us the most.”

There is a contradiction inherent in the very concept of tyrannical lovers, and that contradiction is only one of several to be found in Stephanie’s character. Perhaps the most disturbing is her feminism, which is contradicted by her continuing desire to be male—not androgynous, but male. Repeatedly, from her childhood forward, she voices the wish that she had been born male. Most likely, the desire has its roots in her father’s disappointment at her birth; she is told at age five that her father refused to look at her for three days after she was born because she was not a boy. The wish is even enunciated in the last section as she discusses the freedom men have to be drop-outs, the glorification of heroes such as James Dean or Jack Kerouac: “I want to be like them . . . free, free for awhile.” Opposing this “penis envy” are the very sensitive feminist sentiments that Stephanie articulates. She is involved in the women’s movement, has a brief lesbian affair, thinks about women’s oppression, comments tellingly about her 1950’s-style marriage (taking five hours to make a paté en croute, dutifully tending an organic garden). But it is with men that Stephanie identifies, and the novel’s love scenes suggest her latent masochism, the men taking her violently. More, she submits to her various lovers’ desires and more or less slavishly obeys their commands—from making zucchini soup to paying for a restaurant meal to helping her young homosexual lover relieve his sexual desire. Freudians will have a field day with Stephanie; radical feminists may not know quite what to do with her. Contradictory though her feelings may be, they are no doubt accurate for many strong women brought up before “women’s liberation,” when denial of “sisterhood” was the only route open for an ambitious woman.

Both Freudians and feminists will look to Stephanie’s fascinating relationship with her mother for at least partial explanation. Until she was ten years old, Stephanie hardly knew her mother, an ambitious Parisian socialite who totally gave over Stephanie’s care to Mishka, the governess. Stephanie’s early memories of her mother are confined to an occasional visit to her morning boudoir, her mother wordless and indifferent, lying in the bathtub, “white breasts floating lightly on the water.” Her father Stephanie adored, though he had little time for her either. After the war began, Stephanie was taken by her mother when she fled Paris, eventually settling in New York. Only in adolescence did Stephanie begin to know her mother, and the first home they had was a New York apartment decorated in stark white. For two years her mother had kept from Stephanie the news of the death of her beloved father, and the white apartment came to symbolize her mother’s systematic expunging of any memory of Europe—the “amnesia of this whiteness.” Her mother builds a new life, full of illusions of her aristocratic Russian past, but Stephanie longs for a true history, the past of her father. Only after she is married does Stephanie travel to France, to her father’s ancestral home in SaintSeran, Brittany, to gain a family and a past (the section is entitled “Tribe”). The evocative detail of this section, as Stephanie finally exorcises the tyranny of her father’s love by making the pilgrimage to the family vault in the village cemetery, is one of the high points of the book.

Lovers and Tyrants received a great deal of critical notice when it was published; most critics agree that the last parts of the book are inferior. But male critics seem to be especially vociferous about the book’s last two sections, while some female critics praise the penultimate section on Stephanie’s relationship with Paul (“Marriage and Madness”). The writing in the work is generally exceptional. The fact that the last section degenerates into a kind of journalistic triteness may be the result of its setting in the future, while the rest has the quality of lived reality. Whether Stephanie actually “invents” instead of “recalls” in the novel she finally undertakes is speculation: most of it is truth, whether memory or invention.

Form and Content

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The eight chapters or sections of Lovers and Tyrants focus on the important “lovers” (in the larger sense of “one who loves”) and “tyrants” in Stephanie’s life, beginning when she is four years old. The argument that women are as victimized by love as they are by overtly hostile means of oppression develops incrementally. Each chapter sticks mainly to the events in the years following the date given after the title, but Gray also refers forward and backward throughout, developing a rich interweaving of old themes and new. The technique, said Gray, was like that of stringing beads: Once the initial pattern had been set up, the subsequent sections could be added chronologically, introducing variations on the original concepts with great economy.

The first sections focus on Stephanie’s childhood and schooling, with “The Governess” introducing Mishka, the Russian woman who in 1935 is Stephanie’s first ruler. Five years later, in “The Cycle of the Year,” Stephanie and her mother, having escaped the Germans, are impoverished emigrés in New York. “First Wings” (1944) traces Stephanie’s initial shyness and domination by others as a scholarship student in an exclusive girls’ school, but then records her increasing confidence and accomplishments.

The next sections focus on Stephanie as a young adult. She at first rebels against her mother by living a bohemian life, ignoring the social status that has been the driving force of emigré life in both Paris and New York. Then, in “At Twenty-Three” (1954), Stephanie has a turbulent affair with Louis Bonaparte, a cynical French libertine who is descended from his namesake. Louis is literate and exciting for the young Stephanie, but he is obsessed with his own status and family, and has coldbloodedly selected a child heiress to marry when she comes of age. He treats Stephanie as a mistress to be used but hidden; ironically, this attempt to live her mother’s values ends disastrously with a nervous breakdown, hospitalization in Switzerland, and a return to the United States.

In “Holiday for Cannibals” (1963), she is a mother herself, visiting her own mother and stepfather in St. Tropez with Paul, her husband, and her two young boys. The tyranny here lies in her mother’s insistence that this visit take place, a command performance of family unity and surface happiness, with Paul, who hates the Côte d’Azur, gritting his teeth, and Stephanie dutifully trying to keep the peace. In “Tribe” (1966), set in Saint-Seran, Stephanie’s father’s home in Brittany, Stephanie finally returns to bury the ghost of her dead father, killed at the beginning of World War II but apparently unnoticed by Stephanie’s mother. By visiting his grave and relatives, she finally puts her father to rest in her imagination. The discovery of a common family physiognomy and personality traits is amusingly played off against French-American cultural differences and values as Stephanie meets and deals with her enormously extended French “tribe,” who consider her intimately connected to the family even as she thinks of herself as a child of the New World, escaped from history.

“Marriage and Madness” (1969) covers Stephanie’s mature relationship with Paul, her developing career as a college teacher of literature, her protests against the Vietnam War, and her apparently frequent affairs with students and colleagues. Her descent into “madness” is rendered in a long stream of sentences which suggests a dream sequence in a film. In “Stephanie” (set in the 1970’s, although no exact date is given), the first-person narration disappears completely; in fact, the section begins with more than a page of description set up as stage directions, as if for a play. By this point, Stephanie has separated from Paul and is touring the Southwest with Elijah Stewart, a youthful hippie and hustler who fixates on Stephanie as a mother figure and has her initiate him, a homosexual, into relations with a female. She also converses at length with Gregory Hillsman, her ex-Jesuit confessor. Stephanie has had a hysterectomy and hints to Elijah about terminal illness. This odd couple ends up even more oddly, drunk at the Las Vegas gambling and entertainment palace called Circus Circus, watching an androgynous acrobat perform overhead.


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Lovers and Tyrants ends with Stephanie “exorcised . . . of one hell of a bunch of oppressors,” deciding she is ready to write her first novel. Gray has admitted that Stephanie is a woman with a life somewhat like Gray’s own, and that the novel would begin with overtly autobiographical reminiscences and move toward the highly fictional. The goal would be to show the character’s developing independence and feminism, as she shucks off the influence of lovers and finds her own way in life. Women, so goes Gray’s thesis, are especially limited and confined by the love of others.

Judged against this goal, the novel is only a partial success: It is certainly brilliantly written in the early, autobiographical sections and gripping in its intelligence, but ultimately it fails to convert the historical Stephanie-Gray character into a credible fictional personage. The last two sections, on Stephanie’s marriage and her search for knowledge in the American desert, have been almost universally identified by critics as the weakest and least convincing parts of the novel. Even the writing, which earlier was sharp, precise, and biting, becomes abstract and sometimes self-indulgent. The loss of the first-person narration in these sections is both symptom and cause of a decline. In the view of most reviewers, the novel succeeds, often brilliantly, as fictionalized autobiography but fails as fiction. Gray has shown women writers how to translate their own lives into prose, but not how to transubstantiate fact into fancy.

A further problem is the book’s failure to establish the primary purpose of the book, to show lovers as tyrants. “The Governess,” a model of fine writing, nevertheless is only partly convincing in its thesis, since poor Mishka’s “love,” though demanding, is not unusual toward a four-year-old. Stephanie seems to believe that her later emotional life has been poisoned by her governess’ influence, but there are built-in reservations to the idea that people’s lives are totally shaped by a series of “lovers”: the influence of diverse others and the choices people themselves make. As the characters proliferate, and as Stephanie’s intelligence and skills become evident, it becomes harder to see her as a blameless victim of the love of others, which in this story is often benign and forgiving. Her mother, for example, certainly has a powerful personality and set values, but she seems far short of tyrannical. Paul is tolerant as a husband, and it looks like special pleading for the successful Stephanie, indulging in frequent romantic affairs, to complain of “limits” to her freedom. It is also never clear how women but not men are tyrannized by love, a proposition worthy of examination which is never seriously examined.

The final evaluation of Lovers and Tyrants will await the judgment of literary history, but certainly the early autobiographical chapters will remain a model for any female writer wishing to convert her life into fictionalized biography. The pieces on France are especially fine. Gray’s National Catholic Book Award from the Catholic Press Association and her Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York, both for her nonfiction, show her influence as a journalist and writer of prose; her fiction may well garner similar praise in the future.


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Fote, Timothy. “Cabin Fever?” Time 108 (November 1, 1976): 87-88. Foote draws physical and biographical parallels that tie Gray to her heroine and praises the only slightly disguised “memoirs” of the first half of the novel, but blames the failures of the second half in part on a switch to a third-person narration that lacks the “alchemy” needed to transform “raw experience” into a believable story.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times: Lovers and Tyrants.” The New York Times, October 8, 1976, C25. Lehmann-Haupt finds Gray’s novel, for all of its perspicacious wit and fierce intelligence, ultimately exasperating and dull. Instead of ringing “infinite changes on the subtle ambiguities of loves and tyranny,” it declines from novel to narcissistic preening. “The drone of its intelligence” is ultimately boring, says Lehmann-Haupt.

Moynahan, Julian. “Adventures of Stephanie.” The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1976, 7. Moynahan is torn between the “wonderfully flavored” and “brilliant” narrative voice of the first half of the book and the “extravagant posturing” of the second half. Gray’s unique depth of experience could make for excellent satire and irony but is betrayed by the emptiness of the second, fictional half of the book.

Rivers, Caryl. Review of Lovers and Tyrants. Ms. 5 (November, 1976): 42. Rivers discusses Stephanie’s personal situation as part of the historical oppression of women and Gray’s novel as an attempt at a new literary genre, “woman as wanderer, seeker of truth,” confronting questions of love and death, freedom and immortality. She describes the novel as being “as rich in its texture as the lace tablecloths women of my grandmother’s generation used to crochet.”

Sanborn, Sara. Review of Lovers and Tyrants. Saturday Review 4 (October 30, 1976): 43. Sanborn calls this novel a feminist fable whose theme is the “perpetual seduction” of all women by all those who offer any form of tenderness, affection, or authority. For Sanborn, however, Stephanie’s story fails to ring true, particularly her “unvarying superiority” to the other characters, who seem to exist “only to further her self-exploration.”

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