Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932
The title of the book delineates the main topic of Ernaux’s work. In the small village in which she grows up, to be different is to be shameful. Success is determined as much by fitting in as by accruing wealth. The disreputable secret that the narrator of this work must keep to herself is not so much that her father attempted to kill her mother but that by his actions he has marked the family as being different. Shame begins from this event and grows as Ernaux notices the lack of education that is prevalent in her extended family, demonstrated by their colloquial language, their small-town customs, and their disregard of sophistication. She is also shamed by her late arrival into puberty, far behind other girls her own age. Her flat chest, her scanty wardrobe, her private education, and her living on the outskirts of town all make her feel set apart from one group of people or another. When she is at school, she is shamed by her body and clothes. When she must leave school, which is in the heart of the small town, and walk home to the more rustic part of the village where she lives, she is shamed by her heritage. When she uses the knowledge that she has gained from her private schooling, she is shamed by her parents and family, whose minds are clouded by uneducated misconceptions. Everywhere she turns, she finds that she does not fit in and is therefore constantly reminded that by the traditional assessment of her village, she is shamefully regarded as a failure.
The town in which Ernaux spent her childhood was laid out in such a way that the richest structures were built within the center of town, and as one walked toward the outskirts, the houses and buildings slowly declined in value. If one were wealthy, one lived in the heart of town. Anyone who lived along the outskirts was not only poor but belonged on the lowest rung of the social ladder. Traveling from a small town to the larger cities also marked a transition. People in the larger cities dressed differently, talked differently, and ate different kinds of foods. When someone from a smaller town went into the larger cities, a change in attitude and dress was imperative in order not to make a fool of oneself.
Likewise, within the small town, anyone who did not talk the local dialect, whether they were from another country or from a city that was too far away to be known, was labeled a foreigner and was not to be trusted. People were judged either good or bad by their actions. For example, women who drank, had abortions, or lived together with a man without being married were considered bad, as were divorces, communists, and women who did not keep their houses clean.
Ernaux writes this book from a vantage point of at least three decades removed from the events she writes about. She tries to remember as objectively as she can what happened on a day in the summer of 1952. It is this day that not only robbed her of her childhood but affected the rest of her life. The event was her father’s attempted murder of her mother, or at least that is how Ernaux remembers it.
In order to envision this day and its circumstances, Ernaux tries to remember everything about that time of her life. She recalls her experiences in school: how she felt about her teachers, her classmates, and her own body and clothes; how she regarded her education; how she felt about walking to school and studying at home; and how her family reacted to the knowledge she was gaining. She describes the building in which she lived, relating where she spent most of her time, how she greeted customers who came to her parents’ store, where she went to the bathroom, and how little privacy she had. She recounts the various relationships in her family. She tells of trips that she made with her mother and with her father, and she describes souvenirs that she has retained.
In order to jog her memory, Ernaux examines two photographs taken of her during that summer, trying to recall who she was at that time. She wonders what she was thinking, what she was feeling, and how she saw the world. She also tries to see the difference in stance or attitude between the two images, one having been taken before her father’s angry outburst and one taken later. She is surprised to find that when she goes to the library and studies copies of newspapers of that specific year, there is no mention of her own personal events. The stories in the papers are of things that she slightly recalls but are of no significance to her personal drama.
Catholicism is prevalent in Ernaux’s book. She attends a Catholic school, which incorporates Catholic philosophy and religion throughout all school lessons. Catholic ceremonies are also part of her education. Of her two parents, her mother is the more religious, but Ernaux states that in her mind, her mother’s religion was practiced not for spiritual but for practical reasons. Religion was a hedge for her mother, Ernaux believes, against poverty and hunger, and toward social acceptance. An important aspect of that year was Ernaux’s trip with her father to Lourdes, a place sacred to Catholics. A miracle reportedly had happened at Lourdes, and annual visits to the place were supposed to guarantee good health.
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