The main motif of Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant (The Lover) is the remembrance of the protagonist’s first love. Nevertheless, the plot reflects an interplay between different pairs of binaries: creation and destruction, presence and absence, in addition to reality and void. The French writer was always concerned with these topics which she usually explored in her work both on psychological and metaphysical levels. In the novel, human relationships are built upon these oppositional lines to such an extent that even the text itself seems the product of the interplay between these binaries.
L'Amant won the Prix Goncourt, an award for the best novels in French literature, in 1984 and was the book responsible for her international success. The inspiration of the story is clearly autobiographical, but the author explicitly said that she did not consider the work to be an autobiographical novel. Even though Duras tried to disassociate herself from L’Amant, she identifies with the narrator’s experience and the novel is said to be a key work in understanding Duras (Sankey, 2014).
One of the main features of the story is the “dislocated temporal structure of the narrative” since there is a main narrative which follows the love affair between a young fifteen-year-old girl with a Chinese man in his late twenties, before she leaves for France (Sankey, 2014, p. 180). Nonetheless, the main plot is continuously interrupted by the girl’s anecdotes from other times and different locations. This non-linear storytelling defies conventional narrative structures. According to French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1983), the temporal dimension was a fundamental element of the narrative act. He even studied the relationship between time and narrative in non-fictional or fictional works, that is, the narrative of historical works and novels. He considered human time to be the source of the narrative act: “the attempt to come to grips with the paradoxes of human experience of time and to remake/rewrite time in man/woman’s image.” (Sankey, 2014, p. 180).
For Duras, the “image” is the notion that represents the positive and creative side of the dialectic since it is a term often repeated in the book. In this way, a book is constituted by a series of images that the narrator summarizes to study their evolution or their present self (Mema, 2019). The creative use of the image is associated with the role of describing oneself in the novel; therefore, a long time ago, the young teenage protagonist had already appreciated writing “as a means of liberation and of self-creation”. Thus, L’Amant is the positive result of the primordial existential choice. The image is the key to the beginning of the novel: the story starts with the evocation of the protagonist’s lover which makes the narrator contrast her past appearance to her mature looks (Sankey, 2014). This phenomenon establishes the framework of the novel: there is an outward point of view that leads the protagonist to a self-discovery journey. Hence, the narrator is able to assess the choices of her life “by contemplating the echoes it has evoked in others.” (Hellerstein, 1991, p. 45).
Interestingly, the narrator prefers her present face with signs of aging to her youthful and conventional beauty. This is a paradox that offers a central idea to the story: the remembrance of a life lived to the fullest. For Duras, this existence is more valuable and rewarding than one protected from pain and feelings. In this way, the reader understands that the narrator has suffered various tragedies in her life, yet she feels grateful because this is what made her a complete and complex individual. Duras combines continuously negative and positive sides of existence which, in the end, are intrinsically connected (Ladimer, 2009). Therefore, one cannot live a completely rewarding and happy life hadn't there been any traumatic and painful experiences. For example, the damaging love affair of the narrator has had an immensely positive and creative impact on her life.
As the plot unfolds, there are several flashbacks and flash-forwards to different moments in time until the novel arrives at the turning point: the meeting of the heroine and the lover. This is the exact moment when the narrator’s fears and problems come together, from her sexuality to the role imposed on her by her family (Ladimer, 2009). In this way, the lover becomes the agent of the heroine’s liberation since he is the first outward force that allows her to develop her persona independently from her family. During their love affair, her self-discovery unfolds on different levels: external appearance, sexual awareness and autonomy. In the end, she is able to cut the familiar ties that torture her and, finally, the narrator can create her inner world (Mema, 2019).
L'Amant often showcases the subtle interplay between the fixed “image” and its consequences, that is, the actions that bring the “image” to life and follow the wide range of events of the narrator’s life. The novel is characterized by its symbolism that is fundamentally embodied by the sea, an element that appears both at the beginning and the end. Duras creates a cyclical pattern in which the sea is responsible for the meeting of the heroine and the love and their final separation when she leaves for France on a ship. At first, the lover approaches the heroine from a distance on a ferry, whereas, in the end, he must contemplate her ship pulling away. Both boat trips symbolize a rite of passage in which the heroine has completed her coming-of-age process and, therefore, moves to another destiny. Once again, the heroine’s triumphal self-discovery is accompanied by a destructive element: the end of her first affair.
Finally, the novel closes the love story with a last phone call from the lover to the heroine. Several years later, he gets married and travels with his wife to Paris where he telephones her for the last time. In this scene, there is not any visible “image” since both communicate remotely, and the lover cannot see the aging signs on her face (Ruddy, 2006). In a way, time has not passed for either of them because they remain two voices from the past. Therefore, another negative side is shown at the end: an abyss that distances both characters. To a certain extent, the narrator’s story serves as a means to compensate for the distance that destroyed their relationship, that is, “a way to bridge the abyss and to realize the positive potential of a complex experience.” (Hellerstein, 1991, p. 55).
In conclusion, Marguerite Duras creates a complex narration based upon binaries that clash on both a metaphysical and a psychological level. However, although cruel and raw at first, the story presents a positive final note on human relationships and existence. For Duras, real emotion and happiness cannot exist if there is no real suffering or destruction. Living life to the fullest means accepting all hardships of life and bravely confronting them. In the end, the French author creates a coming-of-age narrative by depicting a love affair that will haunt the lover and the heroine forever.
Hellerstein, N. S. (1991). “Image” and Absence in Marguerite Duras’ “L’Amant.” Modern Language Studies, 21(2), 45–56. https://doi.org/10.2307/3194870
Ladimer, B. (2009). Wartime Writings, or the Imaginary Lover of Marguerite Duras. Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature, 33(1). https://doi.org/10.4148/2334-4415.1694
Mema, L. (2019). Un nouveau langage pour peupler le corps dans L’Amant, Marguerite Duras / A new language to inhabit the body in the Lover, Marguerite Duras. Caligrama (Belo Horizonte, Brazil), 24(3), 87–. https://doi.org/10.17851/2238-38188.8.131.52-103
Ricoeur, P. (1983). Temps et récit. Éditions du Seuil.
Ruddy, K. (2006). The Ambivalence of Colonial Desire in Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover.” Feminist Review, 82, 76–95. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3874448
Sankey, M. (2014). Time and autobiography in L'amant by marguerite duras. Australian Journal of French Studies, 51(2), 178-190. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/time-autobiography-lamant-marguerite-duras/docview/1554559268/se-2
Figure 1. Photograph of Marguerite Duras. [Photo]. Retrieved from https://www.elespanol.com/el-cultural/letras/20140404/marguerite-duras-escritura-absoluta/19248428_0.html
Figure 2. Caravaggio. (1594). Narcissus. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://medium.com/thinksheet/symbols-in-art-mirrors-reflections-31199c2e7660
Figure 3. Klimt, G. (1907). The Kiss. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_beso_%28Gustav_Klimt%29
Figure 4. Magritte, R. (1928). The Lovers. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://www.theartist.me/art/26-paintings-theme-of-love-in-art/