Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792
As a writer, Ernaux funnels the events of her life through the lens of art and literature. Throughout I Remain in Darkness, she makes references to various works of art and literature. For instance, she likens her mother to Courbet’s painting, The Origin of the World, which shows a woman lying down with her thighs open, showing her respect for the mother who gave birth to her. At another point Ernaux comments on a Goya painting she saw at the Museum of Fine Arts: ‘‘But that’s definitely not my mother,’’ Ernaux writes. ‘‘Neither is the main character in Lolleh Bellon’s play Tender Relations, which I went to see the other night.’’ Ernaux likens another woman in the hospital to the broken down clock in Ravel’s opera, The Child and the Enchantment. Another patient recalls to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, which Ernaux read in high school. All of these references remind the reader of Ernaux’s intellectual background, which figures so prominently in her works and in her relationship with her parents, and provides clues into Ernaux’s personality. The latter is particularly important in this slim volume that provides no background for the reader.
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The themes of aging and illness are crucial to I Remain in Darkness. Ernaux describes not only her mother’s deterioration but the loss of physical capabilities in the other patients who live in the nursing home. The inhabitants must be helped to the bathroom or wear diapers. The nurses insist that Blanche and the other women be tied to their armchairs. With their lives now exposed because they need others to care for their every physical need, they have lost the sense of privacy. More than once Ernaux notes a woman or her mother with her nightgown askew, revealing her vagina. Ernaux also notes how aging takes away her mother’s vitality and sense of purpose. She sees her mother as fading and becoming transparent. She generalizes this transformation to aging in general, noting that the same thing has happened to her cat.
Throughout her journal entries, Ernaux equates herself with her mother. She expresses herself as having a ‘‘dual personality.’’ At one time, she is both herself and her mother. Ernaux sees her mother’s body as her own; at other times, she sees her mother inside herself. Her mother’s future and old age become her own as well. Only in the rarest of instances does Blanche do something to remind her daughter of the separation between the two women. One day, Blanche shouts out the author’s name, which she has not used for over a year. ‘‘On hearing her voice, I freeze, emotionally drained,’’ Ernaux writes. ‘‘The call has come from the deepest recesses of my life, from early childhood.’’ At most times, however, this identification is so strong that Ernaux loses her sense of herself. Leaving the nursing home one afternoon, ‘‘I glance at myself in the mirror once again, just to make sure.’’
Toward the end of her mother’s life, Ernaux writes, ‘‘I feel that nothing has changed since my early childhood and that life is simply a series of scenes interspersed with songs.’’ Indeed, throughout her mother’s illness, Ernaux’s thoughts constantly return to her childhood. Her journals are filled with remembrances. She often writes of moments that relate to growing up and womanhood, such as when Blanche first discovered that she wore a bra or her childhood fascination with her mother’s underwear that was stained from her period. She also recalls significant moments that the two women shared and that somehow relate to Ernaux’s present situation. She recalls her mother at her First Communion, then only one year younger than Ernaux is now. Ernaux wonders ‘‘‘Where are the eyes of my childhood, the eyes that made me?’’’ Ernaux’s memories are the only place she can find her real mother.
Ernaux, already a prize-winning author at the time her mother becomes ill, uses writing as emotional therapy. While her mother is hospitalized, she begins to write a book about her mother’s life. At times, the disparity between the image of her mother that she sees in her memory and the mother that she sees in real life causes her confusion. As her mother’s condition worsens, Ernaux makes more references to her writing, further clarifying the relationship this action has to her emotional well-being; sometimes she is unable to write about her mother at all, but at other times writing helps her work through her grief. In her journal, she records her definitive statement about what writing means to her: ‘‘an attempt to salvage part of our lives, to understand, but first to salvage.’’