Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 959
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 Divine’s youthful reminiscences, as well as the narrator’s present experience in prison. The most extended narrative sequence describes a tea Divine gives for Darling and her most serious rival, Mimosa. Darling deserts Divine to live with Mimosa, but one night all three meet on the street, and the two queens have a fight in which Mimosa badly beats Divine. Darling takes this as a sign of Divine’s devotion to him and moves back in with her.
After this extended development of the narrative, the title character makes his appearance: “Our Lady of the Flowers here makes his solemn entrance through the door of crime....” A sixteen-year-old vagabond youth, Our Lady, for no apparent reason, murders and robs an aging homosexual. The murder is described as a solemn, even heroic event, through which Our Lady accedes to his ultimate glory. Shortly thereafter, he meets Darling in a train station. When Our Lady loses his wallet with the stolen money, Darling retrieves it and offers to return half. Thus begins their friendship, which also includes Our Lady moving in with Darling and Divine. Darling is a restless sort, however, and soon disappears; Our Lady is similarly erratic in his behavior and is gone for long stretches of time.
During this period, the focus is on Divine: flashbacks to her youth and first homosexual experience with Alberto; her love...
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affair with a young soldier, Gabriel; and her meeting with a black pimp, Seck Gorgui. Seck Gorgui is based on the narrator’s memories of a black murderer whom he knew in prison, Clement Village, so he also tells of Village and Village’s murder of a young prostitute. Seck Gorgui moves in with Divine and is still there when Our Lady returns from one of his exploits. The three of them establish a menage together, with Divine serving as lover to each. This situation continues happily until a transvestite ball, when the young Our Lady, dressed for the first time as a woman, falls for Seck. This provokes Divine’s jealousy, and she eventually enlists Mimosa’s help to get rid of Our Lady.
Darling, meanwhile, has been caught stealing from a department store and imprisoned. The story of Darling’s capture and humiliation by the police serves as a bridge to the story of Our Lady’s downfall, because Darling hears the story in prison. Our Lady had been living with another youth and dealing cocaine. When the police arrest him, he is tortured and inexplicably confesses to the earlier murder. The trial of Our Lady allows the narrator the full range of his rage against what he views as the oppression of normal society. The judge, the lawyers, and the jury are pious, self-serving morons who act together to condemn the saintly and angelic Our Lady to death. The only moments when the veil of hypocrisy opens are when Our Lady makes his pointed and vulgar remarks in his distinctive slang.
After Our Lady is condemned and executed, the story winds down quickly. Divine is an aging shadow of herself and sinks more heavily into drugs and self-parody. She even kills a young child, out of despair for not having the courage to kill herself. Her actual death scene and thoughts during it are explored in great detail. The narrator ends with his own thoughts on his upcoming sentencing and with a letter to Divine from the imprisoned Darling.