Marie Cardinal Essay - Critical Essays

Cardinal, Marie


Marie Cardinal 1929-2001

Algerian novelist, essayist, translator, critic, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cardinal's career through 2001.

Cardinal is widely considered one of the foremost contemporary Francophone authors of feminist writing—or écriture féminine. Though relatively few of her works have been translated into English, she is a best-selling author in France, where she is regarded as one of the nation's most popular feminist media figures. Her intensely personal narratives—often inspired by autobiographical elements from her own life—typically feature complex examinations of the intergenerational relationships between mothers and daughters. Additionally, her fiction is deeply concerned with the struggle of women against restrictive social mores, championing the feminist ideal that women must claim language as their own in order to subvert the traditionally patriarchal perspective of history. Best known for her emphasis on gender and feminist issues, Cardinal has also developed a reputation as a leading Maghrebian author—Maghreb refers to the geographical region comprised of Morroco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia. Though she was born in Algeria, Cardinal has lived abroad for most of her life, and her Algerian narratives are frequently tinged with themes of sadness and exile, tempered by a sense of guilt over her French-colonist roots.

Biographical Information

Born March 9, 1929, to a wealthy French family in Algeria, Cardinal was raised in the nation's elite Pied-Noir—or French-Algerian—community. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth, and Cardinal was reared by her emotionally distant and controlling mother. Cardinal's relationship with her mother would later become a frequent recurring motif in her writing. In 1947 she enrolled at the Université d'Alger, graduating in 1953 with a license and a diplôme d'études supérieures in philosophy. She married Jean-Pierre Ronfard in 1953, with whom she had three children. After graduating, Cardinal taught French language and literature in Greece, Portugal, and Austria for seven years while her husband held university positions. Unable to prepare for the agrégation—a competitive degree required of all French university professors—Cardinal worked as a freelancer writer in Paris after relocating there with her family in the 1960s. While living in Paris, Cardinal began psychoanalysis, which she continued for several years in order to improve her mental health. The events in Les Mots pour le dire (1975; The Words to Say It) closely parallel her treatment during this period and the conditions that led to her mental instability. Before her death in 2001, Cardinal divided her time between living in Paris and Montreal, Quebec. She participated in numerous conferences and debates on women's issues and taught an annual seminar in the Continuing Education Division of the Université de Montréal. Her first novel, Écoutez la mer (1962) received the Prix International du Premier Roman, and Les Mots pour le dire was awarded the Prix Littré.

Major Works

Cardinal's novels are highly autobiographical, drawing on details from the author's own life to examine the more universal themes of postcolonialism, dual cultural backgrounds, the reassigning of gender roles, and rebirth through introspection. Her first published work, Écoutez la mer, is a romance between a German writer, Karl, living in Paris and a Pied-Noir expatriate, Maria, who narrates the novel. Finding herself increasingly haunted by memories of her childhood in Algeria, Maria confesses her past to Karl, who, in turn, shares his experiences in the German army fighting on the Russian front during World War II. An allegory of the feudal conditions of colonialism, La Mule de corbillard (1963) follows Madeline Couturier, a seventy-year-old woman who has lived on a small Mediterranean tenant farm for most of her life. When Garcia, the landlord, repossesses the farm to improve his wartime harvest quotas, Madeline begins taking daily walks around Garcia's vineyards, waiting for an opportunity to express her hatred. Her third novel, La Souricière (1965), is structured as a five-act tragedy, tracing the decline of Camile, a young provincal woman who marries a university professor and finds herself transplanted into Parisian domesticity. After a series of pregnancies, Camile becomes obsessed with physical decay and images of death, and the novel concludes with her suicide. These early novels establish several of Cardinal's chief recurring motifs, though some scholars have noted that their bleak worldview may have made them inaccessible to mainstream audiences.

With La Clé sur la porte (1972), Cardinal's writing began attracting widespread critical and popular attention. The narrative opens with a forty-year-old mother struggling to find a middle ground between serving as friend and parent to her three teenaged children. She decides to allow her children experiment with personal freedom and responsibility, in contrast to her own strict and stifling upbringing. The children's friends come and go freely in their small Paris apartment, camping on the floor, sharing in a communal form of living which wreaks havoc in the mother's private life. Despite the calamity, the unorthodox living arrangements enable her to reexamine her own values and free herself of restraining social obligations. Cardinal continued her examination of mother-child relationships in Les Mots pour le dire, her most celebrated work. Composed after Cardinal's own experiences in psychoanalysis, the plot revolves around a woman suffering through an emotional breakdown, inspired by her relationship with her mother and the repression and self-incrimination that has occurred during her childhood. The narrator—whose primary outward symptom of her condition is severe menstrual bleeding—undergoes a lengthy period of Freudian psychoanalysis which leads to the realization that she has been unable to cope with the rigid codes of conduct and the patriarchal systems governing her since her youth. With the aid of therapy and by putting her emotions into writing, the narrator begins to unravel the chaos in her past and is able to “rewrite” her life. Une Vie pour deux (1978) centers on Simone, her husband, Jean-François, and the dead body of a young woman that the two find on a beach near their summer home. The couple attempt to construct the history of the deceased woman's life, and Simone begins recording her reflections in a notebook. Through the act of writing, Simone and Jean-François are able to acquire a renewed understanding of each other's motivations.

With Le Passé empiété (1983), Cardinal revisits her recurrent theme of language, composing a narrative around a “brodeuse,” a woman who embroiders fabric. Having achieved fame for her “embroideries,” which are sold all over the world, the fifty-year-old protagonist buys her grown children a motorcycle. Unfortunately, the children have an accident and are severely injured. Though her offspring recover fully, the mother remains anguished and guilt-ridden, retreating to her brother's beach house. There, she becomes entranced by visions of characters from Greek mythology, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. These characters provide a backdrop for the mother's narrative “tapestry” depicting a tragedy of families divided by death and vengeance. The mother, in employing her creativity, uses her “embroidery” to move from her subjected state in a patriarchal world to the status of an empowered female with her own identity. In Les Grands Désordres (1987; Devotion and Disorder) Elsa Labbé, a widow who lost her husband in the Algerian war, is faced with a crisis when she discovers that her daughter has become addicted to heroin. In trying to help her daughter, Elsa begins reexamining her own life and hires a ghostwriter to assist her in organizing her thoughts and personal recollections. Through the act of writing and collaborating with the ghostwriter, Elsa realizes the power of stories to both transform and subjugate. Cardinal additionally explores the power of words in Comme si de rien n'était (1990), drawing on a series of telephone conversations between two cousins to demonstrate how language is used and received differently by individuals. Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula (1993) traces the lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, Charles and Lula, and examines how they are both able to find individual and sexual freedom within the confines of their partnership.

Though most audiences recognize Cardinal for her fiction, she has also published several nonfiction works and translations. Cet été-là (1967) recounts Cardinal's experiences in the summer of 1966 during which she participated in the filming of two motion pictures—Jean-Luc Godard's Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know about Her) and Robert Bresson's adaptation of George Bernanos's Mouchette. In Autrement dit (1977), Cardinal collects a series of conversations between herself and Annie LeClerc, in which she discusses her personal history, her creative techniques, and her political beliefs. Au Pays de mes racines (1980), Cardinal's journal of her first return visit to Algeria, attempts to reconcile the advantages and disadvantages of coming from a mixed cultural heritage. Cardinal records her impressions of the present-day impact of the country's colonial history, the progress of Algeria's women's movement, and the turbulent relationship between the Islamic Algerian natives and the wealthy Catholic Pied-Noirs. Cardinal has additionally composed a number of notable translations of such works as Euripides' Medea and Trojan Women and Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt.

Critical Reception

Though Cardinal's works have received a degree of popular acclaim in Europe, her writing has not been widely reviewed by literary critics. While scholars have written extensively on French feminist writing, some have asserted that Cardinal's simple and direct prose may have prompted the critical mainstream—and those who focus on écriture féminine—to largely ignore her work. Lucille Cairns has commented that the lack of French feminist scholarship on Cardinal's oeuvre seems ironic because “her recurring preoccupations are of critical importance to feminism as a political reality rather than as stylized discourse: preoccupations with the perceived antinomy between motherhood and women's quest for individuality, with heterosexual relationships and the power balance therein.” However, several commentators have praised Cardinal's direct language, arguing that her unconventional and vivid descriptions of feminine bodily functions confront a once-taboo subject in the male-dominated literary world. Others have noted that the author's graphic and unusual imagery may have contributed to audiences overlooking her works. During the advent of the women's liberation movement, Cardinal's novels were applauded by both activists and academics for their examination of the feminine condition, their rejection of traditional patriarchal values, and Cardinal's refusal to debase men or characterize them as villains. Such acclaim has remained consistent throughout Cardinal's career, with critics praising her works for continually striving to redefine feminine literary roles. Certain scholars have emphasized the significance of Cardinal's French-Algerian heritage in her prose, though some have argued that Cardinal's ruminations on the characteristics of her “homeland” are marked by a sense of innocence and naïveté regarding the modern-day political forces at work in the country.

Principal Works

Écoutez la mer (novel) 1962

La Mule de corbillard (novel) 1963

Guide junior de Paris [with Christiane Cardinal] (nonfiction) 1964

La Souricière (novel) 1965

*Cet été-là (journal) 1967

Mao [with Lucien Bodard] (nonfiction) 1970

La Clé sur la porte (novel) 1972

La Cause de Femmes [with Gisèle Halimi; The Right to Choose] (essays and criticism) 1973

Les Mots pour le dire [The Words to Say It] (novel) 1975

Autrement dit [with Annie LeClerc; In Other Words]...

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Elaine Martin (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: Martin, Elaine. “Mothers, Madness, and the Middle Class in The Bell Jar and Les Mots pour le dire.French-American Review 5, no. 1 (spring 1981): 24-47.

[In the following essay, Martin explores the mental instabilities of the protagonists in Les Mots pour le dire and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, noting the similarities between the two women's mental states and the extreme pressures that influenced their illness.]

Human madness and the representation of that madness in literature have existed in Western civilization for centuries, beginning as early as Classical Greece. Not only does madness have a long literary history, but it...

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Patricia Elliot (essay date fall 1987)

SOURCE: Elliot, Patricia. “In the Eye of Abjection: Marie Cardinal's The Words to Say It.Mosaic 20, no. 4 (fall 1987): 71-81.

[In the following essay, Elliot expounds on the autobiographical elements in The Words to Say It, focusing on Cardinal's tumultuous relationship with her mother and the impact of that relationship on Cardinal's mental state.]

While contemplating words, the tools of our trade so often taken for granted, I am reminded of an obscure poem which ends with the phrase, “words: charms unknown to animals.” Perhaps the delight I took in the idea that words could charm followed from the contrary knowledge that words can wound. In...

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Carolyn A. Durham (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Durham, Carolyn A. “The Subversive Stitch: Female Craft, Culture, and Ecriture.” Women's Studies 17, nos. 3-4 (1990): 341-59.

[In the following essay, Durham evaluates Cardinal's comparison between the art of embroidery and traditional feminine roles in male-dominated society, commenting that the protagonist's efforts in Le Passé empiété “ultimately justif[y] a theory of female realism in art.”]

By making an embroiderer her central narrative voice and embroidery both the structural and the thematic focus of her most recent novel (Le Passé empiété [The Back Stitch]), Marie Cardinal complements...

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Phil Powrie (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Powrie, Phil. “Reading for Pleasure: Marie Cardinal's Les Mots pour le dire and the Text as (Re)Play of Œdipal Configurations.” In Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, pp. 163-76. Manchester, United Kingdom: Manchester University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Powrie argues that several critics have suggested erroneous correlations between the main character in Les Mots pour le dire and Cardinal herself. Powrie concludes that the novel is a purely fictional work, which can be utilized by readers to examine parent-child relationships.]

The question this essay will try to...

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Mildred Mortimer (review date autumn 1991)

SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. Review of Comme si de rien n'était, by Marie Cardinal. World Literature Today 65, no. 4 (autumn 1991): 663-64.

[In the following review, Mortimer characterizes Comme si de rien n'était as a novel that explores the power of language in gender relationships.]

Born into a French family in colonial Algeria, Marie Cardinal now lives in France and Québec. Her numerous works include Les Mots pour le dire (1975), an autobiographical account of her own cure through Freudian psychoanalysis. The title of that earlier book, The Words to Say It, conveys the writer's quest for words to record events, revive past memories, and...

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Françoise Lionnet (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Lionnet, Françoise. “Métissage, Emancipation, and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Writers.” In Displacements: Women, Tradition, Literatures in French, edited by Joan DeJean and Nancy K. Miller, pp. 254-74. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Lionnet suggests parallels between the struggles of Cardinal's female protagonists to achieve autonomy within patriarchal society and the striving of Algeria to achieve self-rule after years of colonization.]

But how is it
That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else...

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Lucille Cairns (essay date July 1992)

SOURCE: Cairns, Lucille. “Passion and Paranoia: Power Structures and the Representation of Men in the Writings of Marie Cardinal.” French Studies 46, no. 3 (July 1992): 280-95.

[In the following essay, Cairns investigates Cardinal's experimentation with nontraditional gender roles in her novels and traces her treatment of men and male-female relationships throughout her works.]

The novels of Marie Cardinal, highly successful within francophone countries, are surprisingly neglected outside them. The first, published in 1962, was followed by a whole series of novels which have been published at frequent intervals from then to the present day, coinciding with the...

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Lucille Cairns (essay date October 1993)

SOURCE: Cairns, Lucille. “Roots and Alienation in Marie Cardinal's Au Pays de mes racines.Forum for Modern Language Studies 29, no. 4 (October 1993): 346-58.

[In the following essay, Cairns appraises Cardinal's conflicting nationalistic views of France and Algeria in Au Pays de mes racines, commenting that the novel “inscribes the psychological conflict created by aspirations to biculturalism (particularly when the two cultures in question are so antithetical).”]

In the writings of Marie Cardinal, a pied noir born in Algeria in 1929, national identity is a source of psychological unease and powerfully ambivalent feelings. Of a privileged...

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David J. Bond (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Bond, David J. “Marie Cardinal's Comme si de rien n'était: Language and Violence.” International Fiction Review 21, nos. 1-2 (1994): 68-75.

[In the following essay, Bond addresses Cardinal's emphasis on the power of words and language in Comme si de rien n'était and throughout her career, purporting that Cardinal links women's cultural and social liberation with their gender's need to claim their own language and history.]

Marie Cardinal's most recent novel, Comme si de rien n'était (“As if nothing had happened”; 1990) continues the exploration of violence that she began in earlier works.1 Once again, she shows...

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Marie-Paule Ha (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Ha, Marie-Paule. “Outre-Mer/Autre Mère: Cardinal and Algeria.” Romance Notes 36, no. 3 (spring 1996): 315-23.

[In the following essay, Ha explores the similarities between Cardinal's search for personal identity within mother-daughter relationships and her search for national identity between Algeria and France.]

The critical works that have been devoted to Marie Cardinal tend to focus mainly on either feminist issues such as female textuality, female identity and female discourse or on psychoanalytical discussions that center on her rapport to her mother.1 In these readings, Cardinal's relationship to Algeria is either ignored or broached in an...

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Marie-Paule Ha (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Ha, Marie-Paule. “The (M)Otherland in Marie Cardinal.” Romance Quarterly 43, no. 4 (fall 1996): 206-16.

[In the following essay, Ha argues that Cardinal's opinions concerning the colonization of Algeria and Pied-Noirs/native relations are both condescending and naïve.]

A common critical move in discussing Marie Cardinal's relation to Algeria, her motherland, is to conflate the latter with the maternal body and to see all three as equal victims of colonialism. For instance, in Françoise Lionnet's reading of Les Mots pour le dire,1 the tragic fates of the narrator and her mother, both Pieds-Noirs, have been unproblematically assimilated to...

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Claire Marrone (essay date fall 1997)

SOURCE: Marrone, Claire. “Pretense and Possibility: The Tomorrows of Charles, Lula, and Marie Cardinal.” Sites 1, no. 2 (fall 1997): 527-40.

[In the following essay, Marrone discusses the relationship between the dual protagonists in Les Jeudis de Charles et de Lula and notes their gender-based differences in thought, language, and desires.]

Marie Cardinal has enjoyed international notoriety for over two decades, particularly since the publication of her most celebrated text, Les Mots pour le dire (1975). Autobiography has always been at the center of Cardinal's production, and her search for self-knowledge has taken various forms. Her corpus, which...

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Patrice J. Proulx (essay date fall 1998)

SOURCE: Proulx, Patrice J. “Representations of Cultural and Geographical Displacement in Marie Cardinal.” Centennial Review 42, no. 3 (fall 1998): 527-38.

[In the following essay, Proulx maintains that Cardinal's feelings toward her mother—as described in several of the author's works—are inextricably tied to her sense of belonging to Algeria, her “motherland.” Proulx explores Cardinal's difficulties with her emotional separation from her mother and her physical separation from her homeland.]

We have to accept, however reluctantly, the simple fact that we live in an age of refugees, of migrants, vagrants, nomads roaming about the...

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Nancy Lane (essay date May 1999)

SOURCE: Lane, Nancy. “Duras and Cardinal: Writing the (M)Other.1French Forum 24, no. 2 (May 1999): 215-32.

[In the following essay, Lane utilizes the feminist and psychoanalytical theories of Julia Kristeva and Jessica Benjamin to analyze how both Cardinal and Marguerite Duras depict mother-daughter relationships.]

Qu'est-ce aimer, pour une femme, la même chose qu'écrire. Rire. Impossible. Flash sur l'innommable, tissages d'abstractions à déchirer. Qu'un corps s'aventure enfin hors de son abri, s'y risque en sens sous voile de mots. VERBE FLESH. De l'un à l'autre, éternellement, visions morcelées, métaphores de...

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Pat Duffy (essay date February 2001)

SOURCE: Duffy, Pat. “Realigning Cultural Perspectives: Marie Cardinal and Camara Laye.” French Cultural Studies 12, no. 1 (February 2001): 5-21.

[In the following essay, Duffy examines the impact of dual cultural heritage on the works of Cardinal and Camara Laye, asserting that many postcolonial writers struggle with issues of self-identity when they attempt to embrace aspects of either culture.]

Aujourd'hui je n'ose pas retourner chez moi, en Algérie, parce que c'est devenu l'étranger aussi. C'est l'étranger partout pour moi.1

With this enigmatic description of her position Marie Cardinal, in Au...

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Inmaculada Jauregui (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Jauregui, Inmaculada. “Towards a Phenomenology of Writing: A Reading of Marie Cardinal's Les Grands Désordres (Disorderly Conduct).” Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 32, no. 2 (fall 2001): 170-81.

[In the following essay, Jauregui evaluates Cardinal's “narrative treatment of a Parisian psychologist” in Les Grands Désordres, arguing that fiction can reveal human truths that often “elude the grasp” of psychology.]


Marie Cardinal's novel Les Grands Désordres (Disorderly Conduct) explores the power of biography and fictional writing to reveal the human world in ways that elude...

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Further Reading


Durham, Carolyn A. “Introduction.” In The Contexture of Feminism: Marie Cardinal and Multicultural Literacy, pp. 1-8. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Durham analyzes Cardinal's writing within the context of the similarities and differences between Anglophone and Francophone feminist writing.

Haigh, Samantha. “Between Irigaray and Cardinal: Reinventing Maternal Genealogies.” Modern Language Review 89, no. 1 (January 1994): 61-70.

Haigh explores how Cardinal and Luce Irigaray both address themes of self-identity through the analysis of mother-daughter and father-daughter...

(The entire section is 369 words.)