Part 1 Ernaux opens her memoir Shame with the sentence ‘‘My father tried to kill my mother one Sunday in June, in the early afternoon.’’ She then proceeds to recall the incidents around that particular day. She had just recently come home from church; her parents had an argument; her father threatened her mother with a scythe.
She next explains how she has often related the opening sentence from the book to several men in her life but later realized that was a mistake. This was her way of showing she was ‘‘crazy about them,’’ but her declaration only made them shy away from her.
After writing the memoir, Ernaux states that she realized her father’s threat was probably not so unique. These things happen, maybe in all families. However, before she fully explored the incident in words, she tells her readers, ‘‘that Sunday was like a veil that came between me and everything I did.’’
Ernaux has two photographs of herself that were taken around that same time period, one before the incident and one shortly after it. She looks at them as objectively as she can and describes what she sees. She states that if she had never seen the photographs before, she would ‘‘never believe that the little girl is me.’’ The first photograph was taken after she received her First Holy Communion, a time of innocent childhood. The second was taken with her father on their trip to Lourdes, a time, she states, that marked an era ‘‘when I shall never cease to feel ashamed.’’ To further stir her memories, she describes some mementoes she has saved, each imbued with fragments of her experiences as a young girl.
She visits the archives in Rouen, a small city outside Paris, to study old newspapers of 1952, and although the events are familiar, she knows them only as an adult who has read history, not as a child of that day, except for a cartoon she recognizes. She has subconsciously been searching for details of her own story, she confesses, for that is the only event of the day that is real to her.
Part 2 In the beginning of part two, Ernaux describes the area around her hometown, a place from which in 1952 she had never ventured. She lived in northern France, which is referred to as Normandy, in a small town ‘‘squeezed in between Le Havre and Rouen.’’ Most of the year is spent in her hometown, but on occasion, her mother takes her to one of the larger cities to buy things they need. She discusses how the inhabitants of her hometown refer to the larger cities, how they dress when they go there, and how differently they feel about themselves when they are surrounded by people who are better educated and more sophisticated.
Ernaux contrasts city life with the general feeling of comfort of being in her small town, where everyone knows her. Then she more carefully describes her town, the city center, and the various neighborhoods—how they differ from one another and how they change as she walks further away from the heart of the city. The movement from the heart of the city to the outskirts implies a ‘‘social hierarchy’’ from rich to poor. Next she focuses on her specific house, which includes the groceryhaberdashery- cafe that her parents own. The family’s living quarters are contained somewhere within the business quarters, offering little privacy.
From here, Ernaux becomes more detailed in her description of her parents’ work, stating when the store is open, who the customers are, what her parents do...
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all day. She also includes stories about some members of her extended family, where they live, where they work, and how she and her cousins pass the time of day. Once again, she focuses on the social hierarchy of her town, only this time she refers to it in terms of language. At the heart of the city, proper French is spoken, but by the time one travels into her neighborhood, people speak a different dialect. She then lists familiar gestures that her family knew well, such as how to clean oneself without wasting water and how to ‘‘express silent contempt: shrugging one’s shoulders, turning round and vigorously slapping one’s a—.’’ Conversation amongst adults mostly concerns memories, Ernaux writes. ‘‘People are forever remembering,’’ she says. The major topic is World War II, with dialogues describing what life was like before the war, during the war, or after the war. The war is the epic event around which everything else is measured.
Children are considered to be naturally ‘‘malicious,’’ Ernaux relates. Corporal punishment is not only the norm, but according to Ernaux, parents talked about the spankings with a sense of pride in how hard they hit their children. If parents were not disciplining their children, they sat around and gossiped. In order to gather information on one another, the adults resorted to spying.
Ernaux concludes this section with more commentary about the socialization process in her community. She tells about how people are judged by their ability to be social, which involves more than just the talent for communicating. One must also know all the local customs, such as never asking another villager about his or her personal life; reciprocating gifts; and being aware of when it is proper to greet one another on the street and when it is not. She also lists a set of rules that she had to follow when she welcomed customers in the cafe.
Part 3 In part three, Ernaux describes her life at school. She attended a private boarding school, although she did not sleep there as many of the children did. She was the only child in her extended family and the only child in her neighborhood who did not attend public school. The private school was run by the Roman Catholic Church, and a long list of rules that governed behavior was strictly enforced. Ernaux lists some of the more mundane rules: children were never allowed to touch the handrail on the stairways; they must always line up for five minutes, in complete silence, before reentering the building after lunch; they were not allowed to make eye contact with their teachers; and no one was allowed to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom. Being a religious school, prayer and other rituals such as confession, were intertwined in the all school lessons. As a matter of fact, Ernaux states, ‘‘The observance of religious practices . . . appears to take precedence over the acquisition of knowledge.’’
In 1952 Ernaux was in fifth grade. She had not yet begun puberty but was fascinated with the older girls who had. She lamented the fact that they had blouses that ‘‘billow out,’’ and she did not. She felt inferior to these girls, resenting the fact that they were progressing toward adulthood, in her opinion, quicker than she was. She studied fashion magazines and tried to look older, but between her mother’s strict disciplines and the rules of her school, her choices were limited.
Part 4 Ernaux ends her memoir by discussing how her father’s attempt to murder her mother changed her life. When she felt as if she did not fit in society, or within any special youth group of her own, she blamed it on that event. ‘‘I feel that all the events of that summer served only to confirm our state of disgrace,’’ she says of her family. She then lists some of the sadder moments of that summer: her grandmother died; her uncle beat his wife in public; Ernaux contracted a bad cold and cough that lasted most of the summer; and in another fit of anger, her father pulled her glasses from her head and threw them to the ground, shattering them. She also discusses a trip that she and her father took to Lourdes.
While on the Lourdes trip, Ernaux realized her family’s lack of social status outside of her village. Her father was constantly suspicious about everything; Ernaux’s clothes did not match up to those of the only other young girl on the trip; and Ernaux recognized her father’s lack of knowledge of more sophisticated social customs. Her father’s complaints about the city food (the more refined presentation was distasteful to him) made Ernaux feel as if she and her family lived in a separate world, one that was below the sophistication of city life. She also believed, at that time, that she was destined to live out her life in that lesser capacity, in which she would never enjoy the luxuries of indoor plumbing, fresh sheets on the bed, more than one pair of good shoes, and the other extravagances she experienced on the Lourdes trip.
Ernaux ends her book with the comment, ‘‘There is no point in going on. My shame was followed by more shame, only to be followed by more shame.’’