The Thief's Journal Themes
The main themes in The Thief’s Journal are the outcast vs. society, poetic truth, and crime and saintliness.
- The outcast vs. society: Jean Genet views himself as a representative of the life of crime, whereas his readers represent the world of conventional morality he seeks to upend.
- Poetic truth: Genet’s fictional methods bend and transform the facts of his story—but always in the service of a personal truth.
- Crime and saintliness: Genet sees in the humility and fall of criminals—and in his own love of the wretched—certain Christ-like traits.
The Outcast vs. Society
The concept of the outsider takes many forms in the novel but is chiefly embodied in Genet in his roles as narrator and protagonist. From the opening of the novel, Genet sets himself in opposition to his readers, whom he conceptualizes as representing society as a whole. He refers to readers in an accusatory second person, as “you”:
Criminals are remote from you—as in love, they turn away and turn me away from the world and its law.
Genet establishes a connection between criminality and homosexuality: both keep him exiled from the lawful, conventional world of his readers.
Added to the parallel of criminality and homosexuality is Genet’s first experience of exile from society: his mother’s abandonment of him as child. Genet claims that, having been cast out, he pursued a life of homosexuality, theft, and crime, thereby turning his back on the conventional world that would not accept him:
Abandoned by my family, I already felt it was natural to aggravate this condition by a preference for boys, and this preference by theft, and theft by crime or a complacent attitude in regard to crime. I thus resolutely rejected a world which had rejected me.
Genet makes his exiled state into a virtue. He sees it as a form of “freedom” and “uniqueness,” as a way of attaining an “indestructible solitude.” Genet not only opposes himself to society through abandonment, criminality, and homosexuality, but through his insistence on loving others who embody these principles. Genet supplies the metaphor of a girl who gives birth to a monster. Instead of abandoning her monstrous progeny, she decides to love this ugliness and thus “set herself up against the world.” In this way the mere act of loving the outcast itself is radical and opposes itself to the law, while calling for a new kind of morality beyond the conventions of society. In writing of his love for criminals, Genet attempts such a radical act, establishing a new morality in opposition to the world.
The act of narration, its capacity to capture or adorn reality, is a central concern of Genet’s novel. Genet favors poetic and personal truth over conventional realism. From the beginning of the novel, readers are made aware of Genet’s self-conscious mode of narration. The unreliable narrator, who is both Genet and a fictional counterpart of Genet, confuses the reader’s ability to make distinctions between fact and fiction. Genet has written this journal-like novel not merely to capture a collection of facts but also to give meaning to those facts. Genet claims that this demands of him a lyrical style when describing a sordid and abject lifestyle:
I want to rehabilitate this period by writing of it with the names of things most noble. My victory is verbal.
Genet argues that the act of putting his past into beautiful language itself is a way of reinterpreting and changing the meaning of his past, revealing wretchedness as worthy of dignity.
Yet Genet does not wish to gild his experience to the point that it is made false. He insists that what he captures through lyricism is the truth. Through his writing,
I wanted to affirm [my criminal life] in its exact sordidness, and the most sordid signs became for me signs of grandeur.
Genet is thus perhaps offering a new concept of realism, of what it would mean to capture reality truthfully and in its “nakedness.” He distinguishes reality, or truth, from fact:
Was what I wrote true? False? Only this book of love will be real. What of the facts that served as its pretext? I must be their repository. It is not [the facts] that I am restoring.
Truth, according to Genet, comes from subjective experience and from interpretation—which can only be revealed through language’s ability to capture a singular version of reality. The subject of his writing is ultimately himself, the interior locus of experience.
Crime and Saintliness
Throughout the novel, the language of sanctity and religiosity pervades Genet’s depiction of a life of crime. Genet often compares a crime to a religious act:
The nervousness provoked by fear, and… anxiety, makes for a state akin to religious moods… [A feeling of] total presence… imparts [to the act] the value of a religious rite.
More importantly, Genet claims to see Christ-like attributes in the wretched and poor. He believes in the nobility that comes from humility, which “merges the poor person with God.” Thus, the more a criminal has “fallen,” the more abject and humiliated he is, the closer he comes to a divine state. Thus his fall is really an “ascension.” Christ, like the outcast, damns himself and casts himself low in order to ensure his and his brothers’ moral rectitude. Such saintly rectitude does not derive from conventional morality but departs from it in its passionate love for the outsider.
Finally, Genet claims that his role as writer is sacred, even saintly. Genet’s definition of saintliness reflects his aesthetic project in general:
Saintliness means turning pain to good account.
For Genet, artistic creation is a Christ-like act. Such creation springs out of love for the wretched and from the desire to lift them up through language, to ennoble and redeem their lives by sacrificing himself as a pure artistic vessel.
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