Jean Genet (zhah[n] zheh-NAY), a defensive, thirty-year-old Fontevrault “lifer” with repeated burglary convictions who sees himself as a character in a dream, a living skeleton, and a dead man irrevocably locked within the restrictions of prison life. In his inverted moral order, he covets infamous acts of brutality so that he can attain the spiritual heights of Harcamone, a rapist-murderer, and thus achieve his own death by decapitation as the epitome of beauty. The thin, lightly muscled, slow-moving narrator masks his fears by assuming an offensive, angry posture and consciously appears humorless to avoid losing control of himself through laughter. First entering Mettray for having stabbed out the eye of a child, Genet idolizes “big shots” who have descended further than he. At Fontevrault, Genet reveres both Harcamone, a God figure, and Bulkaen, the hand of God. The narrator’s violent, repressed desires find sexual outlets in his memories of thievery, his fantasies, his eruptive attacks, and his need to participate in other inmates’ orgasms.
Bulkaen (bewl-KA[N]), also known as Robert, Pierrot (pyeh-ROH), Jewel, and Rocky’s girl, a twenty-two-year-old, green-eyed, blond, tattooed Fontevrault inmate who is the immediate sexual and spiritual focus of the narrator’s longing. A proud, icy, vindictive thief who disguises the anguish of feeling abandoned with lies and manipulations, Bulkaen both inspires the narrator to passion and, according to Genet, shatters his life. Although he initiates contact, Pierrot contemptuously rejects the narrator’s first advances but eventually allows Genet to kiss him and becomes his “kid.” As the instrument of God, Bulkaen reveals the narrator’s fate. After his death, he is internalized by Genet as the priest who aids the narrator’s psychic support of Harcamone.
Harcamone (ahr-kah-MUH[N]), a rapist-murderer who escapes life imprisonment by severing the carotid artery of the least offensive prison guard and being sentenced to the guillotine. He has achieved the pinnacle of glory to the narrator and is the source of the miracles Genet witnesses. Harcamone is a small-boned and impassive, but mournful, celibate. He has transcended his slight foreign accent, his limp, and his hand wrapped in white gauze. He is the distant, haunting focus of Genet’s attention, the illumined superbeing that the narrator aspires to be but believes that he cannot be. Harcamone’s concentration is on his impending death.
Divers (dee-VEHR), also called Riton-la-Noie (ree-TOH[N]-lah-NWAH), who is eight years older than the narrator and a bisexual “big shot.” He “marries” Genet at Mettray and consummates the marriage fifteen years later at Fontevrault. Although top-heavy with well-developed shoulders, Divers appears physically proportionate because of his graceful carriage. Divers, who is syphilitic, masks a profound internal despair with audacity and shiftiness. As a Fontevrault trusty, Divers enjoys prison routine and manipulates within the system. The narrator holds Divers responsible for Harcamone’s execution because he is the informant whose information led to Harcamone’s fourth conviction.
Botchako (boht-shah-KOH ), also called the Bandit, an epileptic who is known as the prison’s worst bully. He is Bulkaen’s lover and has a boxer’s physique, deep-set eyes, and a hoarse voice. He is so filled with repressed rage that once he initiates a physical assault, he is unable to stop the attack. Botchako’s intimacy with Bulkaen arouses the narrator’s jealousy and increases the passion in his sexual relationship with Divers. The Bandit offers the narrator his friendship; he is humiliated, however, by the narrator’s rejection, for which Genet feels continual guilt. Botchako cuts the trapdoor through which he and Bulkaen attempt escape. As a result, Bulkaen is machine-gunned to...
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death immediately, and Botchako dies three days later. To the narrator, Botchako has both prevented his sexual fulfillment with Bulkaen and activated their spiritual union.
Villeroy (veel-RWAH), a blond man two years older than the narrator, a murderer (patricide) who is second-in-command of Mettray’s Family B and Genet’s “big shot.” By creating a trapdoor in the dormitory so that he can meet his lover outside the reformatory, returning hours later to the narrator’s bed, Villeroy catalyzes in Genet his initial awareness of a continuum of male intimacy and of his place in that continuum. Villeroy is transferred to another Mettray Family after he kicks to death the head of Family B.
Rocky, also called René (reh-NAY), a Fontevrault infirmary attendant, Bulkaen’s former partner in burglary and his current “big shot.” Tall and strong, Rocky does not outwardly evidence either his caring for Bulkaen or his hurt at the narrator’s rejection of his offer to share a cigarette butt, an offer of friendship. He is a pragmatist whom the narrator bribes for phenobarbital so that he can become closer to Bulkaen through the disciplinary cell. Rocky’s departure is the stimulus for Bulkaen to request that the narrator write him a love poem.
Van Roy, a bully and traitor who buys the narrator from Villeroy for three months’ cheese ration and one month later gives him to Divers. He arranges the Mettray “big shot” humiliation of Bulkaen that the narrator later accepts as a means to descend closer to Harcamone. Van Roy receives an early discharge from Mettray by betraying the escape plans of his fellow “big shots.”
The narrator of Miracle of the Rose is an autobiographical figure. Like him, Jean Genet spent his childhood and adolescence in a reformatory and was later sentenced to prison. Miracle of the Rose was written while Genet was incarcerated at La Sante and Tourelles prisons.
The characters are criminals, often with exotic names; all speak the French argot. The narrator refers to different boys and men by name, but it is impossible to get an individualized picture of any of them. They have no personal idiosyncrasies or ambitions. In a sense, they are all the same, moving between fidelity and betrayal, courage and cowardice, possibly because Genet is only concerned with their sexuality.
Harcamone becomes a sacrificial figure. He sees death as “the only way of shortening his captivity.” That escape comes with “a rather trivial act”; he cuts the throat of the one guard who had shown any kindness to him at the beginning of his life sentence, “a man insolent with mildness.” Luckily, this murder differed from his first; “all too often people overlook the sufferings of the murderer who always kills in the same way.”
The narrator’s accounts of events and his complicated loves dovetail with the memories of little boy “big shots,” “chickens,” and “jerks” in the hierarchical world of Mettray. The prison society is equally and intensely as snobbish. It is dominated by the “toughs,” hard cases who exact tribute in the form of sex and tobacco from the other criminals. “Crashers” (burglars) will not talk to pimps. Influence is based on length of term. France outside the walls practically ceases to exist: A war is going on somewhere; the prisoners are making camouflage nets for the Germans rather than mailbags.
Genet makes a religion of evil. Pimps, crashers, big shots, and chickens exist primarily as angels and archangels in this inverted heaven of prison. Out of pity for another, one prisoner will attack a third, although he knows it means additional punishment for him. It is a world where all feelings, pity, anger, and cruelty are on the surface and produce instant action. In this atmosphere, the detailed homosexual encounters become routine.
Dobrez, L.A.C. The Existential and Its Exits: Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Works of Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, and Pinter, 1986.
Grebanier, Bernard. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXII (February 19, 1967), p. 5.
Hassan, Ihab. The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature, 1971.
Knapp, Bettina. Jean Genet, 1968.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr, 1963.
Updike, John. Review in The New Yorker. XLIII (November 4, 1967), pp. 230-234.
Weightman, John. The Concept of the Avant-garde: Explorations in Modernism, 1973.