Analysis of The Lover by Marguerite Duras and Simple Passion by Annie Erneaux

The Lover by Marguerite Duras and Simple Passion by Annie Erneaux are feminist novels, written by French women who live in a patriarchal world, but write in the way that the choose subverting patriarchy. However, one could say that patriarchy is represented throughout both novels: both of the protagonists are women who have love affairs that are illicit and both play with the conventions of the novel. What is more interesting is how the two authors subvert patriarchy: both protagonists are speaking autobiographically self-referentially as writers rather than tempering their story through an uninvolved narrator—at least most of the time: Duras’ narrator switches back and forth between first and third person narration. Both authors/narrators are not concerned about the judgment of others even if they do acknowledge it, and both have no regrets about subverting the patriarchal norms. In those places where the subversion occurs, the patriarchal nature of society is made quite obvious and both protagonists are able to claim their position as members of society equal in attitude to their male counterparts.

Duras and Erneaux write in a format that fits their stories. Erneaux’s format is the most conventional. She leaves large white spaces to give readers the sense of time passing between times she is with her lover and the times she obsesses over him. Other than the white spaces, her narrative format is fairly straightforward. Duras, however, subverts a patriarchal norm of orderly time. Her narrative skips around in time without signaling to readers when the events take place. Readers must keep track of the different parts of her life and the events that occur to be able to track her narrative. However, she manages to tell her story without giving away the ending until it is the end. John Hillis Miller, writing in Daedalus, says narration “Flashbacks and retracings of particular events from different perspectives produce a jagged, cubist rendering that suggests that any human event consists of the linguistic perspectives on it. These perspectives are in turn discontinuous, fragmented, as the events move forward in time” (Miller 93). Duras’ story of a young girl who feels neglected by her mother, suffering from poverty and rejection at her school because an older man has seduced her with money, would exist in the girl’s mind as fragments. When the memories of the suffering caused by the events recounted in the novel are recalled, it would be in pieces just as Duras tells the story, which may or may not be autobiographical.

Both Duras and Erneaux suggest that their novels are autobiographical, and that is where another patriarchal norm is subverted. If these are true stories, where is the shame these women should be suffering over their illicit affairs? Patriarchal culture says that women should not feel like men about love affairs especially illicit ones. Men can “love and leave them” so to speak with no strings, no messiness, just over. The older lover that Duras’ protagonist has surely went on with his life, and though he may have missed Duras’ protagonist, he most likely did not feel shame over being a pedophile. The lover that the Erneaux’s protagonist takes was married. He did not seem to have any hesitation over having an affair, and other than being afraid of getting caught, he never felt shame over it either, or at least not that the narrator conveys. But, of course, the novel is not about him (another subversion of patriarchy). The narrator—the protagonist—also does not feel shame. She may regret having entered into the affair as she talks about reliving a trip to Venice where she had vacationed just before meeting the man with whom she becomes obsessed. “Throughout this period, all my thoughts and all my actions involved the repetition of history. I wanted to turn the present back into the past, opening on to happiness” (Erneaux 44). Yet she does not say that she would chose differently and not enter into the affair. She just wants to relive it now that is over. No regrets, just bittersweet memories.

The prerequisite shame that women in a patriarchal society should feel over not protecting their reputations and their sexual wellbeing is absent from both The Lover and Simple Passion. This is because both Duras and Erneaux give their protagonists (who may be themselves) the freedom to be human without the baggage of feeling guilt or shame over something that occurred in their past. Thomas J. Scheff of Sociological Theory defines shame as “A large family of emotions that includes many cognates and variants, most notably embarrassment, humiliation, and related feelings such as shyness that involve reactions to rejection or feelings of failure feelings of failure” (Scheff 96). Neither protagonist feels like a failure. The point of the autobiographical nature of the novels is to recount experiences that women have and keep silent because patriarchal society tells them they should feel shame. “Especially important for social control is a positive variant, a sense of shame. That is, shame figures in most social interaction because although members may only occasionally feel shame, they are constantly anticipating it” (Scheff 97). They constantly anticipate it because society judges the actions of people and relegate some of those actions to the “shameful” category. Duras and Erneaux say that women do not have to feel ashamed about having sex with someone that patriarchal society has told them they should not have.

Erneaux herself talks about the way that she has been attacked over her writing. In a Feminist Review article of which she shares authorship with Lorraine Day and Lyn Thomas, Erneaux says

Critics, mainly men, mainly Parisians, have attacked what I write. They charge me with writing in a way that is obscene on two levels, social and sexual. Social, because in some of my texts my subject is the inequality of social conditions, of cultures; sexual because in Passion Simple, I described - calmly and precisely - the passion of a mature woman, lived in adolescent, 'romantic' mode, but also very physically - without the emotional framework, the moral judgement, without precisely the romantic conventions which are expected from a woman writer. (Day, Thomas and Erneaux 100)

In several places in Simple Passion it seems as if there should be some declaration of regret, guilt or shame, but the protagonist never claims any of those emotions. She admits she is obsessed with the man and she admits that she enjoys the obsession. “I knew that nothing in my life (having children, passing exams, traveling to faraway countries) had ever meant as much to me as lying in bed with that man in the middle of the afternoon” (Erneaux 8). She is not embarrassed by it and the memories of it do not cause the type of moral discomfort many critics apparently believe it should. In fact, she views it as the best experience of her life.

It is precisely that attitude of the protagonist that causes patriarchal culture to become upset over Simple Passion. Worse is the fact that Erneaux claims it is autobiographical. Thomas and Emma Webb, writing in Feminist Review talk about how French (and patriarchal) culture assign low status to autobiography and “the gendered nature of the response to a woman writer, who is subjected to particular notions of propriety in French culture. . . .The fact that a 'respectable' woman writer and teacher had depicted herself in the throes of an intensely sexual passion was considered particularly scandalous, indicating the very different moral standards applied to men and women in French culture” (Thomas and Webb 36). However, it is not just French culture that views women in that way. It is the whole of patriarchy that finds women behaving like men scandalous.

Erneaux’s novel is inherently feminist in that it takes place within her home and she hurries around cleaning up before A. appears and then lingers in the remnants of their passion, not rushing to clean up after he has gone. Michelle Scatton-Tessier of Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature points out, “Passion's narrator identifies strongly with her house to the extent that she appears to view it as a second layer of protection (after clothing). Her lodging is a direct reflection of her self-image; it provokes positive, as well as negative, feelings throughout the narrative” (Scatton-Tessier 137). Feminism is rooted in the domestic, and Erneaux’s protagonist places herself firmly there indicating that the novel is not about the lover, but about her and her affair, making the lover more of an extraneous detail. When the protagonist does leave her home it is to return to a place where she had an abortion years before, another activity which, in patriarchal society, one should not be revealing to the world and about which one should feel great shame.

Duras’ protagonist also ignores the expectations of patriarchal culture. Not only does she have an affair when she is only fifteen years old, she also crosses racial boundaries that are in place in the patriarchal culture in which she lives. The novel contains more of a story than just an illicit love affair though. The novel has historical, cultural and political aspects because of the setting in Vietnam during the Vietnam War era. Partly because of the setting in time and place, and the way that Duras plays with time to render a more realistic telling of her story, it is difficult to judge the actions of the young woman protagonist. Laura van den Berg of Lit Hub asks, “Certainly The Lover resists definite moral conclusions—just how are we intended to read this story? Is the narrator undergoing a true sexual awakening? Prostituting herself to save her family from financial ruin? Are her lover’s romantic sentiments at the end to be believed?” (van den Berg). The third-person narrator says, “He says he loves her madly, says it very softly. . . . She could say she doesn’t love him. She says nothing” (Duras 23). She does not speak because she knows that what she does is to better herself and her families circumstances even if she will be looked down upon. She, unlike Erneaux’s protagonist is not after passion; she needs money, and her lover provides that.

In her actions, Duras’ protagonist acts like a man in that she is willing to do anything to get money. Women, in patriarchal society are not supposed to use their bodies for this purpose, but Duras’ protagonist sees no other way. Stephen Chan of Fair Observer, says, “This tension, this ability or desire to step over, to cross, to be an equal on both sides of the divide is the final tragedy of Duras’ novel. The Chinese lover is not allowed to cross over. His own father, a multimillionaire, will not allow him to cross over. White colonial society will not allow him to cross over” (Chan). Of course, the protagonist is ostracized because she chooses to have an affair with an older man with money as if the implications are not quite obvious. The rich Chinese man who robs her of her virginity and youth does not love her enough to buck patriarchal traditions and marry her, and she may not have accepted had he offered. When she writes about it (if it is a true story), it is not until much later, but that is what she wants to do, write. Writing about her own life, especially something as scandalous as an affair with an older man when she is only fifteen, and admitting that she tolerated the affair because it brought her money and comfort is extremely subversive in patriarchy. The fact that she tells the world of her affair herself rather than having it discovered and revealed after her death or by pure accident is even worse.

Duras, like her protagonist in The Lover, does not care what the world says. She writes intentionally and if her writing is viewed as subversive, then that is the way it is viewed. In and interview with Susan Husserl-Kapit, “Duras talks about the creation and nature of her fictional world, one that she sees as the representation of a strictly female vision” (Husserl-Kapit and Duras 424). That explains her lack of concern over whether she follows the conventions of fiction or if she subverts them by moving about through time in a non-linear fashion and switching from first-person to third person narrators.

One could argue that the switching of narrators occurs in moments when it is too difficult for her to talk about the events in her own voice. In those moments, if the story is truly autobiographical and not just framed that way for the purpose of telling the story, it may be too difficult for Duras to express in first person. Having the distance that a third-person narrator provides may make it an easier task. The third-person narrator may also provide a perspective for readers who want to judge the protagonist, or perhaps they will be better able to empathize with Duras’ character if they can see through her eyes. There are arguments for both of these positions throughout the novel. However, patriarchal culture says that a novelist should pick a point of view and stick with it.

Duras and Erneaux both subvert patriarchy in their novels. They both have protagonists who willingly (blatantly?) reveal a story that purportedly comes from their own actual lives. The stories are not the type that polite people in patriarchal society should willingly share as these women writers do. Even if they are not autobiographical stories, they are scandalous and patriarchy has a problem with women being involved in scandal especially if they are well-known and well-respected authors and teachers in Erneaux’s case. Writing about an affair in which the protagonist is obsessed with a married man without guild, or about an affair with an older man of a different race when only fifteen are both not something of which patriarchal culture approves. However, Duras and Erneaux do not care. They take the subversion a step further and fool around with patriarchal conventions of writing by being self-referential, telling a story out of time sequence and switching between narrative points of view. Patriarchy is obvious in The Lover and Simple Passion, but it is obvious because it is subverted so frequently in both works. Pointing out the double standards of patriarchy may cause some people to be appalled, but for those who want equality, pointing it out just reduces its power.

Works Cited

Chan, Stephen. "A Scandalous Novel: Marguerite Duras’ The Lover." 27 August 2017. Fair Observer. Web. 9 November 2019. < >.

Day, Lorraine, Lyn Thomas and Annie Erneaux. "Exploring the Interspace: Recent Dialogues around the Work of Annie Ernaux." Feminist Review 74 (2003): 98-104. JSTOR. 8 November 2019. < >.

Duras, Maurgarite. The Lover. Trans. Barbara Bray. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1984. Print. 9 November 2019.

Erneaux, Annie. Simple Passion. Trans. Tanya Leslie. New York; London; Toronto; Melbourne: Seven Stories Press, 1991. Print. 9 November 2019.

Husserl-Kapit, Susan and Marguerite Duras. "An Interview with Marguerite Duras." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.2 (1975): 423-434. Google Scholar. 9 November 2019. < >.

Miller, John Hillis. "Time in Literature." Daedalus 132.2 (2003): 86-97. JSTOR. 7 November 2019. < >.

Scatton-Tessier, Michelle. "The Public Becomes Personal: From Ernaux's Passion simple to Journal du dehors." Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature 29.1 (2005): 135-150. Google Scholar. 8 November 2019. < >.

Scheff, Thomas J. "Shame and the Social Bond: A Sociological Theory." Sociological Theory 18.1 (2000): 84-99. JSTOR. 8 November 2019. < >.

Thomas, Lyn and Emma Webb. "Writing from Experience: The Place of the Personal in French Feminist Writing." Feminist Review 61 (1999): 27-48. JSTOR. 9 November 2019. < >.

van den Berg, Laura. "A History of Encounters with The Lover." 25 August 2015. Lit Hub. Web. 8 November 2019. < >.