(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The world portrayed in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers is shocking and unsettling in many respects. Though he deals with characters who are pimps, transvestites, and petty murderers, he describes them in the language of heroism, poetry, and even sainthood. Written by the narrator—Genet himself—in a prison cell awaiting sentencing, the novel features characters that are for the most part the pure creation of the narrator’s whims and desires. He treats them, in turn, with cruelty, openly expressed physical desire, and brilliant lyricism.

The book opens with a brief description of several famous murderers of the period, saying of them: “It is in honor of their crimes that I am writing my book.” The key terms that the narrator develops in the novel are glory and abjection. By reaching the lowest or most abject state, Genet’s characters attain a sort of sainthood. By daring to commit the most heinous crime of murder, they attain their ultimate glory. To prepare for the story of the young assassin, Our Lady of the Flowers, the narrator first presents the saintly—because abject—life of the leading character, a drug addict and male transvestite prostitute named Divine.

The story of Divine begins and ends with her death (the transvestite characters in the book are all depicted through the use of female pronouns). Moving in and out of the present in his prison cell, the narrator weaves a series of fantasies concerning his main character, who is also a version of himself. Divine’s great love is a pimp, Darling Daintyfoot. Before the narrative reaches their first night together, however, the reader learns about Darling’s life and physical attributes as well as Divine’s youth as Louis Culafroy. Like Genet’s own complicated feelings for his mother, Lou’s relationship with his mother, Ernestine, is troubled, with Ernestine all the while fervently wishing for her son’s death.

Divine meets Darling on the street and brings him back to her attic flat overlooking Montmartre Cemetery. Darling, with his proud bearing and masculine physique, quickly casts his spell on Divine, moves in with her, and becomes her pimp. Their life together is described in lyrical detail, even down to their fights and Darling’s sexual domination of Divine. In the fractured narrative, there are passages of...

(The entire section is 959 words.)