Essays and Criticism
The Theme of Alienation
In the memoir Shame, Annie Ernaux examines what she remembers of her childhood, the social customs of her village, and her overall feelings of shame. Over and over again in her recollections, whether she writes of her family’s social status and the customs of her immediate and extended family or of the village in which she lives, she demonstrates her sense of not fitting in. Her description of the scene of her father threatening her mother with a scythe expresses another form of alienation because, she concluded, that this event would forever mark her family as being different from every other family in her small town. As a matter of fact, almost everything that Ernaux describes in her memoir is done so with an overtone of alienation.
In writing her book, Ernaux exposes more than just the details about her father’s anger and her mother’s role as victim, and she relates more than just a historic record of her village life. The book also brings to light details about the author’s personality, things which are bared not just in what she writes but also in what she does not write. Underneath the details is a story about a young girl who lives in isolation in almost every facet of her life. Although Ernaux attempts to blame her father’s actions for her loneliness, it is dubious that all her feelings of alienation have their foundation in the one focal event that has caused her the most shame.
Ernaux begins her memoir with a description of the scene between her father and mother. Her father is filled with rage. Her mother does not seem to realize that her nagging is pushing him to the edge. He suddenly erupts. A struggle ensues, and Ernaux’s father drags her mother to the basement and threat- ens to cut her throat with a scythe. At least, this is how the youthful Ernaux remembers it. The scene is a moment, a terrible moment from which Ernaux has trouble releasing herself. She becomes stuck there, she believes, unable to develop any further, at least on a psychological level. There is no one to release her from the painful secret that she feels compelled to keep. Her parents will not discuss it; so for them, it is as if it never occurred. If she mentions it to anyone in her extended family, she fears she will disgrace her parents and therefore herself. She would never dream of mentioning it to anyone at school. Later in life she does tell certain men whom she dates that her father tried to kill her mother. This statement is offered to them as a gift, as a way of showing them that she is willing to open her heart to them. Her present, however, is often misunderstood and rejected.
Basing her memoir on this incident when her father threatened her mother, Ernaux implies that the alienation that subsequently defined her life was the result of her father’s act. The fact that she felt forced to maintain this secret could explain a certain distraction that she experienced that summer. For example, her performance at school took a turn for the worse after the incident. While she once prided herself for her quick intelligence, she later all but failed a national exam. This is easy enough to link to the traumatic event, but can she rightfully connect all her other lonely feelings to this too?
Blaming everything on this incident seems to be pushing the matter a bit too far. The event was traumatic, for sure. It was so disturbing that when Ernaux studies photographs of herself taken during the summer of 1952, she barely recognizes the young girl who is pictured there. The emotional energy that it must have taken to try to understand her mother and father’s relationship, as well as to suppress the horrific scene between them, could explain the sense of alienation that she believes exists between her adult self and the twelve-yearold girl she once was. That young girl was burdened with an event that scared her. When Ernaux searches through old newspapers, she half expects the story of her parents to be written in bold headlines. Because it was such an important part of her life, she cannot imagine how the newspapers could have ignored it. As an adult, of course, Ernaux realizes that other families experience similar, or even worse, tragedies. That is the difference between Ernaux, the adult, and Ernaux, the twelve-year-old child. That is also why it is hard for the adult Ernaux to fully recognize the child in the photograph. It is too difficult to relive those childhood memories, not only because they were complicated but also because the adult Ernaux understands so much more about life. Her father’s threat could explain Ernaux’s alienation from her parents and maybe even from her extended family. However, it does not completely explain other gaps she experienced between herself and her classmates and her...
(The entire section is 1943 words.)