Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
The novels The Sea Wall and The Lover are closely related thematically. Both are autobiographical works that draw on Duras's childhood near Saigon in what was then French Indo-China. In both stories, Duras treats social and personal concerns. Her parents had come to the former French colonies as teachers, seeking the promise of adventure and wealth. They found neither, and after the death of her father her mother was left to raise two sons and a daughter with little money. What funds she had were spent to build a wall to protect her property against the annual floods that made the land unfarmable. Crabs destroyed the wall, the flood waters ravaged the fields anew, and Duras's mother gradually fell into madness, haunted by creditors in the corrupt colonial administration. Although the family lived in dire poverty, they were still French colonists, and, as such, considered themselves above the native population. Duras relates that they barely had food for the table, yet they had servants. In The Sea Wall they lived on the wild game that the son Joseph shot. In The Lover the mother and the two brothers greedily accept the dinners offered by the daughter's Chinese lover but disdain his presence and never speak to him. The mother beats the young girl when she suspects her relationship with one of "the inferior" race.
In The Sea Wall, one bitterly ironical chapter depicts the white-clad Caucasian occupants who live in impeccable cleanliness. Everything was white, "the color of immunity and innocence," which, she adds, "really gets things very dirty." The sanctuary of the very rich is separated from the poorer sections of the city to avoid all contamination. The next stratum contains whites who are less wealthy, but who also scorn the natives, although they can not be totally separated from them. The Lover characterizes the white women who do nothing but work to preserve their beauty for their lovers and vacation in Italy.
In contrast. The Sea Wall relates the sufferings of the poor Vietnamese peasants. Almost as many children die as are born, but the mothers scarcely notice. Children are born like the tides, like the crops. Mothers leave them to the care of older children when they are a year old, taking them only to feed them with rice that they first chew themselves. When the children die, no one weeps. The father simply digs a hole on his way home from work and puts the little corpse into it. Many die from cholera during the mango season. They would have to die, Duras notes, there were so many of them. Her mother had taken some orphaned children into the home, but they too died because they were too weak to sustain any nourishment. That life is so expendable emphasizes the extreme poverty of the peasants and makes the indigent whites seem rich in comparison. Yet throughout one senses Duras's intense compassion for these helpless people. When one of the little ones taken in by the mother dies, the family is disconsolate.
Both novels dwell on the need for escape from this desperate state. In The Sea Wall material objects become increasingly important: the new phonograph brought by M. Jo is a prized possession. Joseph spends all of his time with the phonograph and his car. He finally finds his escape with a rich and bored white woman who takes him as her lover and pays for his upkeep. Suzanne waits by the side of the road for someone to pass — someone who will want her and take her away, much as the young girl in The Square went to the Saturday night dances in search of a husband. The heroine of The Lover offers herself to the Chinese gentleman from Cholen mainly as an escape from her impossible family situation. Later, however, she has mixed feelings about her relationship with him.
In both works there is a strong sense of solitude. The erotic descriptions of the young girl's love affair with her lover from Cholen only heighten her inability to find true love. He too says that he is alone, frightfully alone, in his love for her. In much the same way, Suzanne in The Sea Wall allows herself to be possessed by Agosti passively, without any apparent pleasure. Although he has a reputation for affairs with many women, Agosti treats her gently. Still, there is no feeling of love between the two. For Suzanne, it is a temporary escape, and she refuses to remain with him after her mother's death.
One of the main social themes of both works is the question of colonialism. When the first novel was written, France still maintained her colonies. Symbolically, after the death of his mother, Joseph in The Sea Wall gives his guns to the peasants and tells them to fight for their freedom. The Lover, written some thirty years later, comes after the colonial period, yet Duras feels the same aversion to the system that imprisoned her mother and brothers, and indeed herself, and which fostered poverty among the natives. Although one might find positive elements in the French colonization of Indo-China, Duras does not allude to them in either work.
Aside from the personal element of solitude and family suffering provoked by poverty, exploitation, and mental illness in both works. The Lover treats an additional theme. One critic has observed: "Perhaps the real subject of L'Amant, unlike the earlier Un Barrage, is writing — that is, the origins of Duras's desire to write and with that, her means of access to that writing." Suzanne, in the earlier novel, although an admittedly autobiographical character, shows little interest in intellectual life, and seems to have little instruction other than from her mother, a school teacher. The narrator in The Lover, on the other hand, speaks often about her school. She notes her mother's insistence that she study math and science, whereas she is interested in literature. The very structure of the novel, with its suggestions and psychological rather than chronological order, suggests a search for time past and the birth of a writer's vocation from the past remembered.
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