Our Lady of the Flowers

by Jean Genet

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Themes and Meanings

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Genet’s fiction is both an assault on the sensibilities of ordinary society and a desperate attempt at communication. Literally written in prison on prison-supplied brown scraps of paper, his voice comes from a dark netherworld that most people will never see. He succeeds, as though through a miracle, in transforming the world of prisons and the marginal underworld of pimps, killers, and prostitutes, into a fabric of dream and fantasy. The lowest form of degradation becomes a religious exercise, and the worst forms of violence are exalted in poetic raptures.

Names are a central facet of this dream transformation: Lou Culafroy becomes Divine, Paul Garcia is Darling, and Adrien Baillou is Our Lady of the Flowers. The inversion of masculine and feminine pronouns similarly helps to cast the spell. In Genet’s dream fantasy of Divine, it is often unclear whether Divine’s experience is real, or if she is inventing her own dream. In the prison world of the narrator and the harsh outside world of the characters, these fundamental imaginative acts create their own system of values.

Crime is a value in Our Lady of the Flowers but only under certain circumstances. Accomplished with a sublime indifference, murder can become the ultimate glory. As the narrator says in describing Clement Village’s murder of the prostitute Sonia: “Men endowed with a wild imagination should have, in addition, the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with a sovereign ease.” In Genet’s universe, such men overcome the tawdry and ugly world in which they live. Tried and condemned for murder, they are unlike the others in prison and rise above them in a form of heroism that transcends ordinary life and judgment.

To understand this attitude on the part of the narrator toward the heroic indifference of the killer, one must also understand the abjection of the lowest criminal. In Genet’s world, anything is allowed. Betrayal is saintly, as is the fact of being dominated and abused sexually. All the men who are real men in Genet’s work are strong and beautiful in order to fulfill the narrator’s desire to be dominated by them. The narrator gives his emotional identification to Divine, because Divine is in the position of the weakest, always offering herself to be used and abused. Through this constant abjection, Divine attains sainthood, in a strange but oddly coherent transformation of Christian typology. From the bleakest reality of deprivation and violence, Genet creates a universe of values which is poetic and internally coherent in its mirror inversion of the world that most people know and recognize.

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