Monday, January 28, 2008
The modern current and its confrontational interrogation of traditional modes of world culture gave way to frankness about human sexuality, and writers the world over seized the opportunity to explore sensually related themes in order to discover redeeming qualities about such a topic rendered taboo by conservatives for reasons no less than restrictive, often hypocritical social mores. One such controversial writer is Marguerite Duras in her scathing tale The Lover, whose protagonist, an impoverished French lass barely in her sixteen, learns the truth about love with an older Chinese man with whom she feels mutual sexual desire at the onset. Set in Indochina at the turn of the 20th century, The Lover proves that desire is the one unifying element the keeps humans alive, as may be gleaned in the palpable albeit varying proportions of human contacts made by the narrator with other individuals.
A supportive critique of The Lover which may be found in Critical Guide to French Texts attests to the fact that yes, the young female protagonist does attain certain degrees of contact with her lover the Chinaman, her schoolmate Helene, her mother, and her elder and younger brothers. It helps that her adolescence—her blossoming sexuality—and her feeling of being relatively unloved render her vulnerable to the clutches of desiring for whatever form of love she may have, not to mention the socio-historical milieu in which the protagonist is situated. These factors, nevertheless, make ambivalent impacts to the contact she tries to establish with other characters. Also, these factors offer a tremendous challenge that unloved she may be, the narrator is somewhat capable of reaching out to her fellow individuals.
The narrator has developed initial contact with her lover the China man by virtue of the quintessential desire because she feels unloved, and her escapist stance against a colonial Indochina and an impoverished, oppressive family automatically shoves her into finding love in the nearest available source. When she encounters the China man aboard a ferry cruising in the historic Mekong River, she becomes curious whether she can exercise some power over her life even as she is virtually powerless and her life, out of control because of her social position. Likewise, she is at the brink of womanhood, and it is understandable that she should be interested with her burgeoning sexuality. These factors succeed in making her seek love from the lover: inexperienced yet flirtatious, she rides with him to Saigon, knows him deeper as a rich, educated bachelor, and eventually, makes love with him. She wants to belong to someone, to her life, and to herself.
The white girl’s intense sexual passion with the older Chinese guy has evolved into love because long after they are separated, she—relatively matured at eighteen—realizes on board a France-bound steamer that she loved him immensely. Upon witnessing a young male passenger throw himself onto the sea, she acknowledges her love for him. The separation drama in the scene makes her wistful of her separation from her lover, who could not marry her but assures his undying love for her. Her love is full of obsession, condemned, and suddenly nipped in the bud; the affair is rather impossible, but this impossibility only heightened the erotic presence of her lover.
In spite of their affair’s condemnation because the girl’s family accuses her of attraction only to the guy’s wealth and their colonial society is somewhat intolerant of their age and class difference, she only becomes more impassioned with the one who tears her asunder (who breaks her virginity) but makes her whole all the same, even makes her an entirely different person altogether, not just a precocious child tying hard to be wiser than her age permits.
The narrator’s desire for the Chinese man loosens from their mutual relationship to cover her desire for Helene Lagonelle, her schoolmate. She claims to making a gift of her lover to this schoolmate as her biggest desire.
 She must be drawing pleasure via the substitution of some other woman’s body for her own,
by offering Helene to the lover in order to identify with him as a lover seeing a love object and in the process, to express her imagination of herself making love to Helene. Their desire-laden looks toward one another state their relationship and emotional affinity, as is implicit with the narrator’s direct look at Helene, all with the expression of tenderness and desire for her friend. At the beginning, she is attracted to her because she sympathizes with Helene’s plight. This attraction soon morphs when she thinks of herself, her lover and Helene engaging in a sexual triangle.
Also, the young girl develops a contact with her mother through her longing for her mother’s attention. She wants to assist her in giving protection to her little brother Paolo. Her mother’s overwhelming despair, however, affects the young girl’s frustrated contact with her. Theirs is a matriarchal family, and an insane-like mother with wretched life, marriage, and relationship with her children is not beyond in encouraging her own daughter to whoring in order to sustain the family’s necessities. This frustration of the narrator’s desire to connect is further aggravated by her mother’s nagging, her degradation of her, her projection and general maternal guilt tripping. When the young girl discovers her sexuality, she has begun to dissociate from the mother, which will ultimately lead to her departure from the colony to establish another identity as a writer—a self-construction that spells independence from her mother, a fact that is somehow encouraged by the mother for her daughter to achieve redemption by leaving the colony and her position in the society. Both daughter and mother maintain contact even if they are later dissipated geographically, as is bolstered previously by the narrator’s constant remembrance of her mother especially when she has liaisons with her lover.
The narrator has had contact with the elder brother, despite her loathing for him, when she recognizes the power he holds over her family even with the lover around. She becomes one with him when, idealizing this brother, the members whisk the Chinese guy off their mind, denying his presence often and getting reminded of his existence when they have him take charge of meal bills. The rules laid down by the elder brother are too persistent to make the narrator forget her passion for and perception of the lover. Resembling the mother, she learns to adapt to her brother’s dismissal of weaklings, citing his capacity not only to dominate physically but also to influence the minds of people within his sphere. Her perceptively incestuous relationship with him, her rape by him that can only be insinuated, the bizarre sexual tension between them lessened her complete contact with the elder brother.
Finally, the narrator has developed contact with her younger brother because of her desire to take care of someone she closely resembles in being ‘petit.’ Their relationship has transcended difference for them to identify and to be friends with each other. Even as small kids, they have commonality in experiences, be them their escapades together or their shared torments as victims of their abusive brother. Their closeness is brought about by their desire to antagonize their bully brother, who takes them for mere objects in opposition to him. Their affinity is deemed an assumption of their feminine position with their family’s gendered order.<
In conclusion, the narrator has, indeed, attained genuine yet nuanced contact with other characters in The Lover. She has life, and this continuation to live feeds upon the fact that she desires and is made human by this one unifying power to love. In essence, she is the lover.
 Margeurite Duras Revisited, p. 117.
 Duras: A Beginner’s Guide, p. 39.
 Margeurite Duras Revisited, p. 123.
 Critical Guides to French Texts, p. 46.
 Critical Guides to French Texts, p. 32.