Historical Context

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Modern French Literature In the 1950s, while Annie Ernaux was still a teenager, the theater of the absurd was created, through which playwrights attempted to emulate their sentiment of the meaninglessness of life. This same concept was present in literature and was espoused through a philosophy called existentialism, of which writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were two strong proponents. There was also the birth of the so-called New Novel in which writers attempted to distance themselves from the traditional storytelling techniques and focus their writing on merely describing events as seen by their invented characters. Time sequences were not always chronological and settings were often surreal. Some of the better-known writers of the New Novel included Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor. Younger writers such as novelist Nathalie Sarraute searched for new ways to express themselves and did not bother to use identifiable characters or plots in their stories, while author Marguerite Duras emphasized the importance of creating a mood.

By the 1970s the feminist movement began to affect French literature. Simone De Beauvoir had written The Second Sex (1953), which initiated books on feminist thinking. It was during this time that literary critics began analyzing the writings of women of this decade as well as female authors of the past. By the 1990s Helene Cixous and Marguerite Duras were considered the two main feminist writers in French literature. Language was often a main focus of feminist writers, many of whom tried to break away from what they referred to as a masculine vocabulary and attempted to create a language of their own. Ernaux has been cited as a writer who examines language and social conventions, as she uses her work to explore the differences between lower- and middle-class populations and the lives of women.

Normandy Ernaux was born in Lillebonne, France, which is located in northern France in a territory referred to as Normandy. Celtic tribes inhabited this area in ancient times, and it was later conquered by the Romans. Most of the people of Normandy were Christianized during the third and fourth centuries, with Catholicism remaining the primary church in modern times. Although Roman Catholicism is the major religion, there are Protestant enclaves closely associated with the cities of Rouen, Caen, and the village of Luneray. The dominance of the Catholic Church, however, is seen in the grand cathedrals, the art, the traditions, and many of the festivals.

The long and accessible Normandy coastline brought much of Normandy’s wealth, as well as much of its warfare, beginning with the Vikings and continuing with the Allied Forces in 1944, in their attempts to take back France from the German stronghold. Allied Forces landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The region experienced heavy bombing during the war, causing the destruction of many lives and many historical buildings.

The capital of Normandy is Rouen, with Cherbourg and Le Havre being the major port cities. In past times, most of the population was concenS trated in large villages amidst farmlands, but in contemporary times mass migration to the cities occurred. Much of Normandy’s geography is flat grasslands and farmland, explaining its economic dependency on agriculture.

Normandy’s provincial language reflects Nordic, Anglo-Saxon, and Frankish influences. However, as the younger generations received higher educations, a more standardized form of French was spoken, and the Norman dialect is quickly declining.

In terms of modern politics, Normandy, like the rest of France immediately following World War II, was ruled by General Charles de Gaulle, who formed a provisional government after the Germans were ousted in 1944. He became the president a year later. In October...

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1945 there was a vote to create a new constitution, which eventually created the Fourth Republic. This marked the first time that French women had the right to vote. In ensuing years, the United States offered aid to France to rebuild its cities and industries, but this did not end France’s financial or political difficulties. The Communist Party remained strong in France after the war, controlling most of the labor unions. Costly strikes often interrupted production. During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, France also witnessed revolutions in many of its colonies, first in Indochina. There was also a war in Algeria that lasted into the early 1960s, a war that was heavily supported by many French, especially after the Algerians turned to terrorism tactics when they became disenfranchised with the declaration of peace. President de Gaulle remained in power until 1969, when he resigned after the people of France turned down his bid to reform the constitution.

Literary Style

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Point of ViewShame is written in the first-person point of view, which is a natural form for the memoir. The narrator is an adult, looking back to her childhood and attempting to understand through a re-creation of the summer of 1952 who she was and what she was feeling. Although Ernaux uses a first-person narrator, she insists that she is retelling the events with the cold objectivity of a reporter. She accomplishes this by offering no analysis of her feelings or the events that stirred them. Rather, she describes things, makes lists of things, and breaks down things into their most elementary parts. It is as if she is writing what she sees, not what she feels.

Journal WritingShame is written as if Ernaux were keeping a journal. It is a form of writing that Ernaux often uses, whether she is writing fiction or nonfiction. In this way, she pulls her reader into her story as if offering a secret glance of her most private thoughts. The book also reads as if the author were writing only for herself; as if she were on a journey through her memories, trying to make sense of them. She is not writing to tell a story; although in the end a story is told, however unconventional it may be. It is bits and pieces strung together on a fine cord that Ernaux cleverly ties together in the process of examining the contents of her mind.

Lists In the midst of her narrative, Ernaux often breaks away and offers her readers lists of things. At one point, she lists the contents of a box she has saved from childhood, a box in which she finds souvenirs. In another section, she describes the provincial customs of her village through a long list of what so-called proper members do. She also offers a list of definitions that describe when a child matures into adulthood. Through the use of lists, Ernaux simplifies her narrative. She does not have to make up stories that explain the phrases contained in the lists. She merely introduces them with a few words such as ‘‘it is good form to,’’ and then she makes a list of characteristics that apply. Readers draw their own conclusions and fill in the gaps.

Memories Invoked through Photographs Throughout Ernaux’s memoir, she refers to two photographs she has in her possession, taken within a few months of each other during the summer of 1952. One photograph was taken before her father assaulted her mother; the other was taken shortly after. By looking at the photographs, Ernaux acS complishes many different things. First, she provides the reader an image of her adult self looking at herself as a child, which reminds the reader that Ernaux is examining memories from an adult point of view, reflecting on a time that happened long ago. It also emphasizes her personal mandate to remain as objective as possible. When she looks at the pictures, she relates that she hardly knows the little girl in them. She remembers the incident of the picture-taking but not what the young girl was feeling.

Another thing that the photographs achieve is a launching point for Ernaux. One of the pictures was taken after her First Holy Communion, an important religious ceremony in the Catholic Church in which young children participate. The ceremony is signifi- cant, so the picture jars memories, opening up pathways to other connected events. The same is true of the second photo, which was taken when she and her father traveled to Lourdes, another important event in her life.

The photographs are also symbolic of the kind of writing that Ernaux attempts. She presents the entire memoir as if she were taking pictures. She describes her town, her parents, her school, her extended family, her parents’ store, and her trips with her mother and father. Shame is like a scrapbook of collected photos that Ernaux presents through words.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Abramson, Julia, Review of Se perdre, in World Literature Today, Vol. 76, No. 1, January 1, 2002, p. 171.

Adams, Phoebe-Lou, Review of Shame, in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 282, No. 4, October 1998, p. 118.

Buckeye, Robert, Review of Shame, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 175–76.

Messud, Claire, ‘‘A Family Apart,’’ in the New York Times, September 13, 1998, p. 16.

Meyer, E. Nicole, Review of La vie exterieure: 1993–1999, in World Literature Today, Vol. 76, No. 1, January 1, 2002, p. 179.

Seaman, Donna, Review of Shame, in Booklist, Vol. 94, No. 21, July 1998, p. 1850.

Zaleski, Jeff, Review of Shame, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 24, June 15, 1998, p. 50.

Further Reading Gavronsky, Serge, Toward a New Poetics: Contemporary Writing in France, University of California Press, 1994. Avant-garde French poetry and prose have been changing quite liberally in the late twentieth century. Gavronsky’s collection of twelve interviews with some of France’s most important writers explores these developments. The interviews include writers discussing their own creative processes as well as an overview of current literary theory.

Hollier, Denis, and R. Howard Bloch, eds., A New History of French Literature, Harvard University Press, 1994. A recent collection of essays by both American and European literary scholars, this book discusses various movements, genres, and circumstances of French literature from the ninth century through the twentieth century.

McIlvanney, Siobhan, Annie Ernaux: The Return to Origins, Liverpool University Press, 2001. This book is literary criticism of Ernaux’s extensive body of work.

Solomon, Andrew, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Scribner’s, 2001. Solomon, an award-winning novelist, began suffering from depression as a senior in college. His condition worsened after his mother’s death, a time when he considered suicide. In an attempt to understand his condition and its treatment, he researched various worldwide practices. He also examined depression as it affected other literary figures such as Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, John Keats, John Milton, and Samuel Beckett. His book has been credited with providing an illuminating view on this topic.

Thomas, Lyn, Annie Ernaux: An Introduction to the Writer and Her Audience, Berg Publishing, Ltd., 1999. Thomas’s depth of understanding of Ernaux’s work is very visible in this study. It includes a survey of Ernaux’s books as well as a prediction of how future critics will view her life’s work.


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