The Thief's Journal Characters
The main characters in The Thief’s Journal are Jean Genet, Stilitano, Robert, and Lucien.
- Jean Genet is a young French man who, having been abandoned as a child, rejects society in favor of crime and the love of men.
- Stilitano is a Serbian criminal whom Genet falls in love with to the point of obsession. He is handsome and charismatic but often immature.
- Robert is a young criminal of Genet’s age and an object of Stilitano’s affections.
- Lucien is the lover with whom Genet forms the most stable relationship. Each man seeks to protect the other.
The Narrator/Jean Genet
The first-person narrator and protagonist of the novel, Jean Genet, shares a name with the author, and his life loosely corresponds with the author’s own life. Abandoned at birth, Genet lives a life of vagabondage and petty thievery from a young age. Throughout these journeys he has a series of love affairs with men.
Though he describes his life as a petty criminal, Genet presents himself first and foremost as an artist and a poet—and perhaps a philosopher. He is driven by a will to give meaning and beauty to an ugly part of his life through the power of language. The reader thus sees the world of crime and vulgarity through Genet’s lyrical, contemplative lens. In this way Genet transcribes his experiences through unreliable narration. Readers depend on him for information, but his facts are subjectively chosen and presented.
Genet is a man driven by conflicting desires: he wants to be loved by and find fellowship with beautiful men, but he also insists proudly on his outcast status (through his identity not only as a thief but as a gay man). It is when he tells of his love affairs that his tenderness and sincerity especially come through. Genet is emotionally dependent on these men and is consumed by his love of them. His contemplation of their beauty, either in person or in memory, allows him to survive an otherwise bleak and solitary life in prisons and on the run.
Stilitano is originally from Serbia, where he served in the Foreign Legion, although, like Genet, he later deserted the Legion. During his service he lost an arm. Genet meets Stilitano in Barcelona, where Stilitano has been living among beggars and criminals.
Stilitano is a big, strong, beautiful man with great charisma and confidence. Genet introduces him as a man of contradictions: he is graceful and heavy, brisk and slow, solemnly calm and violent. He symbolizes for the narrator the contradictions inherent in the life of a criminal in general—especially in his combination of gracefulness and violence.
Through his strength and charisma, Stilitano wields power over Genet. Toward the beginning of the novel Genet has a “crush” on Stilitano, but as the novel progresses Stilitano becomes Genet’s obsession. Stilitano seems to take on fatherly—and even godlike—qualities.
By the end of the novel, however, the quality that stands out most is Stilitano’s childishness. He is obsessed with comic books—“gaudy, infantile stories”—and often attempts to imitate the actions of his comic book heroes. In Stilitano’s last scene, he becomes trapped in a Palace of Mirrors at an amusement park, tearfully gives up on finding his way out, and has to be rescued by Robert.
Salvador is the “saddest-looking” of the beggars that Genet falls in love with. His face is “pale” and “shifty,” and he is always fearful of making a public demonstration of gay love. Yet Salvador is also self-sacrificing, one of the qualities Genet admires most. Without being asked, Salvador offers to go begging for the narrator. Salvador and Genet are lovers for six months, a relationship Genet describes as not “intoxicating” but “fecund”—less exciting and adventurous than steady and fulfilling.
Genet meets Michaelis in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Michaelis is graceful but masculine and “blunt.” Genet acts as Michaelis’s noble and overpowering savior. Michaelis and Genet plan on circulating counterfeit zlotys in Poland, but they are arrested in Katowice and put in prison for two months. There the policemen force them to empty the toilets, which allows Michaelis to see Genet in a more shameful light.
Formerly in the German SS unit, Java is coldly beautiful and has the air of a “nonchalant and obscene sailor.” He is a fearful and shameful man, but, according to Genet, he “ennobles” these qualities by making their expression charming. Genet is fascinated by Java’s combination of cowardice and stupidity. When they make love, Genet feels an uncanny union with Java’s body.
Genet meets Armand in France through Stilitano. Armand is a strong, vigorous man with cruel tendencies. Genet describes him as a “perfect brute” who is indifferent to the narrator’s happiness and inspires only terror. Genet allows himself to be “dominated” by Armand’s personality. Armand may be vulgar, often waxing lyrical about his own manhood, but in later reflection Genet can only bring up tender images of him.
Genet meets Robert, a playful, bantering young man, at a merry-go-round in Antwerp. When Robert spits into his hands to turn the crank, Genet sees in this “a typical workman’s gesture,” which reminds Genet of his own past. Robert is Genet’s age. When Genet asks him whether he wants to have sex, Robert laughingly refuses, saying “it wouldn’t be any fun” with someone his own age. At the start of Robert’s life of crime, Robert insists on justifying his thefts and proving that the victim deserved it. This makes him boring to Genet, who sees Robert as embodying conventional morality.
Lucien and Genet meet in France and have perhaps the most intimate love affair described in the novel. Lucien has a “taut gentleness” and is often docile. He is a man of “candor” and simplicity, modesty and self-effacement. Genet often thinks of him as a child he has to protect. Yet while they are having sex Genet discovers that Lucien feels he is protecting Genet. Both of them are weak in the other’s eyes, and both feel the impulse to be strong for the other. They seem to have a tender, emotional, and mutually satisfying relationship. Genet’s deep love of Lucien helps Genet “recognize a morality more in conformity with your [readers’ conventional] world.”
Bernardini is a cop involved with the Secret Police, whom Genet meets in Marseille. Genet describes him as a “bastard,” though Bernardini still manages to be kind and intelligent. Genet is attracted to the power embodied in Bernardini’s inspector’s badge, and he often feels overpowered and mastered by him.
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