I Remain in Darkness

by Annie Ernaux

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Historical Context

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The Catholic Church
By the mid-1980s, despite its long history, the Catholic Church in France had experienced a significant decline. While anywhere between 80 to 90 percent of French people professed to be Catholic, a much smaller minority attended church. Atheism was also on the rise. While church attendance was dropping, many French people were embracing less traditional styles of worship. France saw a rise in the number of informal groups who meet regularly for prayer and discussion, often in private homes.

France and the Arts
When the Socialists came to power in 1981, France’s cultural scene brightened. François Mitterand, the new president, committed more of France’s budget to the Ministry of Culture. Mitterand and his minister of culture, Jack Lang, both wanted to popularize art and bring it closer to people’s daily lives. In addition to the well-known arts, such as theater, Lang supported the so-called minor arts. His ministry subsidized institutions and groups that embraced circus performance, costumes, gastronomy, tapestry weaving, and comic strips, among many other forms of art. He also helped individual artists, including writers, composers, and film directors.

The literary trend in the 1980s veered away from an analysis of contemporary French society. Books tended to take place in the past or abroad, or to dwell on private subjects, such as love or childhood. The French novel lacked insightful social criticism, which characterized so many of France’s great literature from the past.

The 1970s and 1980s brought greater social and legal equality to French women. Pro-feminine reforms included the legalization of abortion, sixteen weeks’ paid maternity leave, and steps toward the achievement of equal pay. The Professional Equality Law of 1982 made sexual discrimination in the workplace illegal. In the art world, Marguerite Yourcenar became the first woman member of the Académie dan Française in 1980. By the 1980s, increasing numbers of French women were joining the workforce.

Literary Style

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DiaryI Remain in Darkness is the diary that Ernaux kept throughout her mother’s illness. Ernaux decided to publish these notes more than ten years after her mother’s death. Although she did place them in chronological order, she otherwise chose not to edit or alter them in hopes of ‘‘echoing the bewilderment and distress that I experienced at the time.’’ Because of this authorial decision, Ernaux’s journal fails to tell a complete story. However, the author never intended it to do so; this collection of snippets resonates on an emotional level, not a narrative one. Ernaux sacrifices providing readers with background, which likely would have provided a better understanding of the relationship between herself and her mother.

Memoir While all of Ernaux’s novels have been autobiographical in nature, I Remain in Darkness is a true memoir, chronicling the exact thoughts that went through Ernaux’s mind, as they went through her mind, during the two and a half years that her mother was declining from Alzheimer’s disease. Ernaux had already visited this subject in A Woman’s Story, which portrays the relationship between a working-class, rural woman and her universityeducated daughter. Kathryn Harrison pointed out in the New York Times Book Review that ‘‘there is little inconsistency between the two works,’’ but believed that this memoir ‘‘serves as a more intimate revelation of the slow death that prompted her to bear witness to the life that was ebbing.’’ Indeed, Ernaux makes use of the flexibility of the memoir/ journal format to reveal the raw feelings that she experienced as they were happening. The fluidity of the memoir form is evident in I Remain in Darkness.

Preface Though not labeled as such, Ernaux provides...

(This entire section contains 425 words.)

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a preface toI Remain in Darkness. This brief section is significant in that it is the only portion of the volume that Ernaux wrote specifically for publication. Ernaux explains to the reader that the choppiness of the text derives from the fact that she did not edit her journal.

The preface is even more significant because it provides valuable information about the journal entries that Ernaux presents. Without this preface, the reader who has no knowledge of Ernaux and her background would fail to understand the importance of I Remain in Darkness to Ernaux personally as well as to her body of work. Ernaux writes that her novel A Woman’s Story was her initial attempt to make sense of her relationship with her mother, but she came to realize that this effort was not representative enough.

Compare and Contrast

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1980s: From the 1970s through the 1980s, the number of French women entering the workforce rises. The service sector in France employs the highest proportion of women.

Today: In recent years, more women in France are working part-time instead of full-time due to a decline in the number of full-time jobs available and a new trend in working patterns.

1980s: As the 1980s open, rural areas are continuing their trend of declining populations.

Today: At the beginning of the 1990s, France’s urban population is 74.5 percent and its rural population 24.5 percent.

1980s: Although Alzheimer’s disease was first documented in 1906, people with Alzheimer’s had few places to turn to for assistance until 1979. That year, the Alzheimer’s Association was founded. Throughout the following decade, the Association disseminates information about the disease and establishes grants to fund research projects.

Today: In 2000, the Alzheimer’s Association co-hosts World Alzheimer Congress 2000, which brings together 5,000 of the world’s leading Alzheimer researchers, healthcare professionals, and caregivers. This is the largest global Alzheimer conference.

1980s: With the formation of the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease begins to gain more public recognition. In 1983, the U.S. government approves the creation of a task force to oversee and coordinate scientific research on Alzheimer’s disease.

Today: Genetic researchers announce chromosomal findings related to Alzheimer’s disease. In 2001, the USFDA approves a fourth drug specifically to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bernstein, Richard, ‘‘When a Parent Becomes the Child,’’ in New York Times, November 22, 1999.

Harrison, Kathryn, ‘‘As She Lay Dying,’’ in New York Times Book Review, November 28, 1999.

Murphy, Eileen, Review, in Baltimore City Paper, January 10, 2001.

Review, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 41, October 11, 1999, p. 54.

Robertson, Robin, Beginner’s Guide to Jungian Psychology, Nicholas-Hays, Inc., 1992, pp. 41–43.

Sallis, James, Review, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring 2000, p. 193.

Williams, Wilda, Review, in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 19, November 15, 1999, p. 90.

Further Reading Atack, Margaret, and Phil Powrie, Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, Manchester University Press, 1990. This study includes a chapter on Ernaux.

Fallaize, Elizabeth, French Women’s Writing: Recent Fiction, Macmillan, 1993. Fallaize’s study includes a chapter on Ernaux.

Gillick, Muriel R., Tangled Minds: Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, Plume, 1999.Dr. Gillick creates a composite patient to show the problems that Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families face, as well as providing an historical perspective of the disease.

Holmes, Diana, French Women’s Writing: 1848–1994, The Athlone Press, 1996. Holmes traces the development of French women’s writing over a period of 150 years.

Stephens, Sonia, ed., A History of Women’s Writing in France, Cambridge University Press, 2000.This study introduces French women’s writing from the sixth century to the present day. Each chapter focuses on a given period and a range of writers. A reference section includes a guide to more than 150 authors and their works.

Thomas, Lyn, Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience, Berg. Pub. Ltd., 1999. Thomas presents the first book-length study of Ernaux’s work, which is intended for general readers as well as for students of French literature.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide