The Thief's Journal Summary

The Thief’s Journal is an account—part memoir, part novel—of Jean Genet’s youth as a criminal and vagabond traveling across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. 

  • Genet’s penchant for petty crimes and thievery keeps him in constant trouble with the law, and he is jailed numerous times in his youth.
  • Genet recalls his love affairs with various men, including the confident but childish Stilitano and the sensitive and modest Lucien.
  • Genet reflects on his artistic mission: to render the ugliness and criminality of his world beautiful and sacred through art.

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

Jean Genet’s novel, The Thief’s Journal, is a work of autofiction, paralleling the author’s own life in many ways while retaining its fictional autonomy. Told in the first person, from the perspective of the author himself, The Thief’s Journal recounts Genet’s life as a vagabond and petty criminal, tracing his travels throughout Europe from country to country and from prison to prison. Along the way, the narrator—a thinly fictionalized version of Genet—recounts his many love affairs and obsessions with men and conveys to readers his complex aesthetic and moral philosophy. Throughout, Genet’s style is lyrical and coy, daring readers to be scandalized by his beautiful and even erotic treatment of criminality and vulgarity.

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The novel is relatively sparse in its depiction of action and events but detailed in its depiction of the narrator’s internal life. It is a novel driven by ideas and thus organized in only a loosely chronological fashion, with many flashbacks set off in italics. The plot mainly revolves around the narrator’s love affairs and is divided into four main sections.

In the first section, the narrator begins with a description of a convict’s pink-and-white dress code and ruminates poetically on the life of crime. He introduces the reader to some of the ideas that occupy him, particularly the relationship between criminality and beauty—and between criminality and eroticism.

The second section takes place between the years 1932 and 1940. The narrator recounts his love for several criminals, notably Stilitano, Salvador, Java, and Armand. He tells, too, of his illegal travels across European borders and his time in prison. Throughout, he continues to develop his moral and aesthetic philosophy. The narrator is preoccupied by his concern for capturing his experiences in and through writing. Often his poetic memory latches onto specific objects. He recalls the jar of Vaseline discovered on his person during a prison police search, a jar which means nothing to the police but which, in the narrator’s mind, stands for the small redemption he finds in his love affairs. He laughs as he remembers the drawings of old book bindings that the police find in his possession but do not understand; the narrator made these drawings as an excuse to go to a nearby museum and steal old books. He describes with relish Stilitano’s white, foamy spittle, which has an uncanny beauty and power over people.

Though Genet uses lyrical language throughout this second section—and though he often describes prison as a place where he can find fellowship and identity—he also depicts many of his humiliations. When he dresses in drag during the time of the Carnival, he is laughed at and someone accidentally steps on his skirt. He has to clean out the police officers’ toilets in prison, embarrassing himself in front of his then-lover Michaelis. He is forced by Stilitano to deliver a package by crossing illegally from Holland into Antwerp, returning disheveled and spent. During that time, his obsession with Stilitano only grows. The chapter concludes as the narrator becomes jealous of Stilitano’s close rapport with a young man named Robert. The narrator is jealous to the point that he wishes to murder Stilitano.

In this second section the narrator also weaves in details of his childhood for readers to piece together. Born in Paris on December 19, 1910, on the Rue d’Assas, the narrator is abandoned at birth by his mother, Gabrielle Genet. He becomes a ward of the Assistance Publique, and is then brought up in Le Morvan by a peasant family. As a result of a series of misdemeanors, he is sent to Mettray Reformatory, a penal colony. He runs away at the age of eighteen and voluntarily enlists with the Foreign Legion, but he deserts after only a few days. It is then that he embarks on his life of vagabondage and petty crime.

In the third section, the narrator writes in detail about his love for Lucien, with whom he has perhaps the most intimate relationship described in the book. In section four, the narrator returns to describing his relationship, even his obsession, with the memory of Stilitano and Armand. These two men begin to take on godlike qualities in the narrator’s mind. The narrator also continues to dwell on his jealousy of Stilitano’s love for Robert, and he recounts a humorous yet violent scene in which Stilitano barges into a room wherein Robert, decked in roses, is lying on a bed and preparing to prostitute himself to an older gentleman. In one of the last scenes in the novel, the narrator recounts how Stilitano becomes stuck in a Palace of Mirrors at an amusement park and has to be saved by Robert. Finally, Genet’s process of writing the novel itself, and what it means to capture experience through art, becomes a main focus of the narrative. Genet ultimately argues for his own radical version of morality, which he calls saintliness. Genet ends by telling the reader that he has planned a second volume of the Journal, titled Morals Change.

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