Life carries us through various stages of maturity like a ship transporting passengers from one location to another. External situations and struggles shape the individual, unearthing truths and revelations about the self in relation to those situations and struggles. Sexuality and physical desire are just two of many other unearthed revelations that can make themselves known throughout our lives, dug up, as it were, as we traverse the overgrown path of life. With these two revelations, others can be planted and given a chance to grow. In Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover, sexuality is used to illustrate the narrator’s journey into adulthood. This journey reveals the narrator’s complex passionate desires and illustrates how her external circumstances unearth deeper, hidden truths about herself and her family.
From the beginning of the novel, the reader sees the financial desperation of the narrator’s family. It is this financial desperation that leads the narrator to develop a sexual relationship with a much older, much wealthier, Chinese man. She is only fifteen years old, and after seeing the Chinese man’s limousine, a signal of his wealth and prestige, she decides that she will be his mistress. Her mother is a woman emotionally and mentally unavailable to look out for her and her brothers, and so the narrator takes on the responsibility of financial provider. Toward the beginning of the novel, when the narrator has first climbed into the Chinese man’s limousine, she thinks to herself, “She knows something else too, that the time has now probably come when she can no longer escape certain duties toward herself” (35). This signals to the reader that the narrator is stepping into a responsibility with which she shouldn’t have to burden herself (the role of financial provider). She continues this internal monologue, espousing that this connection with the Chinese man is “…what had to happen” (36). This monologue is thought by the narrator as she reflects back on how she came to be in this predicament. Her tone is that of a teenage girl who is being forced to mature far beyond her age. This tone hints strongly at how desperate she feels. As the novel continues, the reader sees the narrator’s intentions more clearly.
After her first sexual encounter with the Chinese man, the narrator’s motives are more definitively stated. She and the Chinese man are lying in bed after having had intercourse, and she reveals to him how poor her family is, how they have no money, and how her oldest brother steals what little money their mother has to visit opium dens. She tells him she was obligated to have sex with him, that she desires him only for his money. He agrees to pay her for the sexual encounter, and their arrangement is finalized (39-40). From this scene, the reader can see more concrete evidence of the narrator’s feeling of desperation. She’s only fifteen years old – that she admits to only being there for his money delivers an overwhelming sense of the narrator’s mental and emotional struggles. In the same scene, the Chinese man says he wishes he could take her away and she says she couldn’t leave her mother “without dying of grief” (40). She is clearly a teenage girl who has taken on the role of parent in the household and who has found no other means of fulfilling that role than prostituting herself.
This sexual relationship with the Chinese lover is not, however, the only manifestation of the narrator’s sexuality. Throughout the novel, the narrator mentions a female student named Helene Lagonelle, a student at the school the narrator sometimes attends. The narrator is highly attracted to Helene, and the implication seems to be that this attraction is unearthed after the narrator begins her sexual relationship with the Chinese man. Towards the middle of the novel, the narrator begins a detailed description of Helene’s body, her skin and how she wears clothing, her innocence. This description leads to extremely visceral fantasies of her and Helene eating each other’s breasts (74). The fantasy leads to another involving the narrator, Helene, and the Chinese man locked in a passionate threesome. “I am worn out with desire for Helene Lagonelle,” the narrator says, “I’d like to give Helene to the man who does that to me so he may do it in turn to her” (74). This reflection seems like nothing more than a fantasy born out of this sexual arousal initiated by her relationship with the Chinese man, but in fact, it reveals another truth in the narrator’s life: she is attracted to both men and women. It’s a truth (but certainly not the only truth) born out of her sexual relationship with the Chinese man.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing truths to come from the narrator’s sexual arrangement with the Chinese man is her sexual attraction for the brother closest to her in age. The reader knows from early in the novel that her oldest brother is a horrible person; this hatred for him is often contrasted with her love for her younger brother, and it’s during a sexual encounter with the Chinese man that this truth begins to be unearthed:
The shadow of a young hunter must have passed through the room too, but that one, yes, I knew about, sometimes he was present in the pleasure and I’d tell the lover from Cholon, talk to him of the other’s body and member, of his indescribable sweetness, of his courage in the forest and on the rivers whose estuaries hold the black panthers. Everything chimed with his desire and made him possess me (100).
Just before this revelation, the narrator uses the word “murderer,” a word associated throughout the novel with her oldest brother. The word “hunter” however is associated with the younger brother, and it is this hunter that features in her fantasy. She describes the pleasure this hunter gives her not only to the reader but to the Chinese man as well, seemingly anxious to bring her brother into this sexual encounter, much like her fantasy with Helene. The reader now has a clear indication that the narrator has experienced some kind of sexual contact with her brother, and the language suggests that this sexual contact has culminated into full intercourse. Later in the novel, the narrator says of her brother, “The wild love I feel for him remains an unfathomable mystery to me” (106). Incest is not directly or concretely stated anywhere in the novel, but there are hints given if one pays attention to the language. These hints add to the image of a young woman desperate for money, desperate for love and acceptance, and desperate for a sense of belonging that she doesn’t have in her life at home.
Life is a series of actions and reactions. Humans are changed through circumstance. Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover provides a glimpse into the narrator’s life, a glimpse that not only reveals how the narrator changes and adapts through each circumstance, but also how her entire life is shaped by these circumstances and adaptations. The financial desperation of her home life leads her to prostitution, and that single choice leads to everything else the reader sees in the novel. Sexuality reveals not only her bisexual identity but also the sexual connection she has with one of her brothers. While difficult to peruse, this text provides the reader with an opportunity to examine how life shapes the self, and how truths are unearthed as the self reacts to life’s circumstances.
Duras, Marguerite. The Lover. Random House, Inc. and William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1985.