Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
The focus on this work is on Ernaux, the narrator, as she examines her past. However, it is her father who has created the one event that stirs her memories. In a fit of anger, her father threatened to kill her mother. It was the kind of anger that Ernaux witnessed only once, but once was enough. Her father’s attempted (or threatened) murder of her mother went against the major morals of the church, of her society, of her family. No one outside the family would ever know about it (as far as Ernaux knows), and no one inside the family would ever talk about it. Because of her father’s assault, Ernaux felt isolated.
Ernaux’s father was a hardworking man who was gentle with his daughter. One of the few photographs that Ernaux has saved, and from which she tries to remember her childhood, is of herself with her father on a trip to Lourdes. Her father was an uneducated and unworldly man who embarrassed Ernaux outside of their familiar neighborhood. He did not understand city culture. He did not have the means to treat his daughter cosmopolitan wares. Back home, however, her father was sociable and commanded respect because of his small-town prosS perity, where he indulged his daughter by providing a private-school education.
Ernaux speaks less of her mother than of her father. In some ways, she sees her mother as victim. In other ways, she understands that her mother provoked some of the hardships (and her father’s murderous threat). She knew that her mother had a bad temper and was often the source of her parents’ arguments. Her mother was also the disciplinarian in the family, demanding that Ernaux finish her chores and keep up her studies. It is also her mother who takes her on annual trips to the city to purchase the extra comforts of life that cannot be found in their hometown. Although the trips are exciting, Ernaux senses her mother’s uneasiness, because in the city her mother knows no one, unlike in her own community in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, from childhood through old age.
Her mother is also religious. However, Ernaux points out that her mother practices religion for other reasons than spiritual insights. She goes to church and prays as a way to ensure material and social success, and as a way to gain personal perfection.
It can be assumed that the narrator of this book is Ernaux, as she recounts the details of the day in 1952 when her father threatened to kill her mother. The narrator recounts that event as honestly as she can, looking back some forty years to her childhood. In an attempt to understand her father’s anger and how her mother provoked it, as well as to understand her own role in the event, the narrator tries to recreate all the surrounding circumstances that led up to that moment and all the consequential feelings that came after it.
The narrator, in the process of trying to understand her childhood, offers a sociological view of her small town in provincial France, almost a decade after the destruction and trauma of World War II. It was a time of reconstruction, but through the narrator’s rendering, it is her generation that most wants to build a new future, escaping the old, rigid forms of social status and the confines of patriarchy and religious rule.
Ernaux uses old photographs, microfiche newspapers, and souvenirs from childhood to help her recollect that tumultuous year. She is often disappointed when she does not find direct connections between these objects and her memories, wondering (through a child’s eyes) why there was no account in the newspapers, for instance, about her father’s threat. This single event was so upsetting, and yet she does not find a glimpse of the emotions she remembers, not even in the photographs of herself. The goal of everyone in her small town, Ernaux explains, is to be like everyone else. The traumatic incident between her parents has made this impossible, in Ernaux’s mind. Therefore, the event brought shame to her, a shame that continues to plague her in her adult life; and in the end, she can find no way out of it, no way to explain or relieve it.