Our Lady of the Flowers

by Jean Genet

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Critical Context

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Our Lady of the Flowers is Genet’s first novel, published in an extremely small edition in 1944 and reissued in 1948. Along with his second novel, Miracle de la rose (1946, revised 1951; Miracle of the Rose, 1966) and his autobiographical Journal du voleur (1948, 1949; The Thief’s Journal, 1954), it helped to create a nearly instant celebrity for Genet. Praised for their innovative narrative strategies as well as their startling depiction of marginal society, these early prose works assured Genet’s literary reputation. This reputation in turn aided a group of leading French intellectuals, including Jean-Paul Sartre, in arguing successfully for Genet’s release from prison, where he was serving a life sentence as a so-called incorrigible offender.

Genet’s subsequent career was primarily as a playwright whose works participate in the experimentalism of the 1950’s, along with other writers such as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Genet’s plays, Le Balcon (1956; The Balcony, 1957), Les Bonnes (1947; revised, 1954; The Maids, 1956), and Les Negres (1958; The Blacks, 1960), are avant-garde theater classics. Like his prose works, they explore issues of sexual and political domination, interpersonal power struggles, and life-and-death role-playing.

Our Lady of the Flowers is thus the earliest sign of Genet’s genius and a groundbreaking work in its own right. Extending the innovative narrative practices of writers such as Marcel Proust and Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Genet’s novel also confronts the ordinary reader with a shocking vision that inevitably calls into question his own universe of values. Its unmatched lyricism creates poetry out of sordid reality and establishes startling models for modern-day saints and heroes.

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