Love and the Developing and Unstable Female Sense of Self
Lord Byron, in his epic poem "Don Juan," famously noted that although love may be an all-consuming passion for men and women, only for women does it provide the reason for their existence, only for women does love constitute their reason for the self's existence alone. Although this point-of-view may be said to be that of a misogynist, both Marguerite Duras' The Lover and Love in a Small Town provide the same textual narrative for the reader, as did Byron's 19th century version of the young, dashing Don Juan. Both author's works suggest that, only by being exposed to a new, sexually awakened sense of body and self, does a woman gains her full identity as a human being.
Marguerite Duras presents a vision of forbidden love that on its surface may seem to challenge the reader's conventional assumptions of identity. Her heroine becomes involved with a man of another race and ethnic identity. Yet her novel is still fundamentally guided by the principle that the nature of what is a mature, adult 'woman' is a physical and societal absence, or a 'lacking,' as the philosopher Jacques Lacan might call it. A phallus that is fulfilled by a male body can only fill this physical, psychic, and societal lack.
Thus, Duras' work is ultimately not so different from the narrative of the more conventional romance, Love in a Small Town.
This story offers a far more conventional narrative, telling the tale of a frustrated working wife and mother. Its presentation of the 'lack' within the heart of the central character and her confined existence may be more obvious. Yet both The Lover and Love in a Small Town essentially tell the same story of identity fulfillment, of an unstable sense of female self that is solidified only in the presence of the male touch and the male gaze.
At the beginning of The Lover, the central protagonist, often thought to be a stand-in for Duras herself, notes that "one day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me." Note the significance, incidentally, of the public nature of this act of recognition, a recognition of the self that does not initially occur in private. "He introduced himself and said: 'I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.'" Duras highlights the beauty of the face that will soon become so significant over the course of the narrative, as the young woman of her narrative enters into a relationship with an older man, a man who, incidentally, is not described as ravaged in contrast to the young woman's beauty.
In this beginning as well, the woman who narrates the tale is immediately recognized by the reader from the outside as incomplete, old, lacking in the conventional ideals of the woman as young and beautiful. The scenario is essentially a fantasy creation for the narrator. An old woman who is "ravaged" finds beauty in the mirror, in the eyes, of a man. The man both constructs a mirror of a kind of beauty for the older woman, yet tears her down as well, calling her "ravaged," that is marked by the life she has lead. 'Knowing' a woman is constructed as knowing a woman only by sight, and this startling evaluation of the female's appearance in such blunt terms is not even questioned in the narrative structure.
Leslie Hill has noted in her book, Marguerite Duras: Apocalyptic Desires that for this French author, "the body is not a mode of self-identity: the body is a figure of madness, not self-possession. It is...reverse of an essence or nature; it is a name for that which provokes crisis in the realm of representation by producing irreducible difference." (Hill 30). A body articulates only in its ability to be held up against another body, in relation to a male body, rather than existing in and of itself.
The difference in this encounter is the difference between how a woman is seen by a man and by society. How the woman sees herself is unspoken. The man approves the woman's appearance. Society sees the woman as ravaged. That is all, the text implies, the reader needs to know about her beauty. The contrast or "difference" that is struck is also how a young woman is seen in relation to her older self by society, a contrast that will continue over the course of the novel.
Thus, the female body, rather than establishing itself as an identity though its ravaged nature, by itself alone, or even rather than by the narrator explaining to the reader what the history of her life has been, physically, and how her face may look to her own self and own eyes, instead presents her body through the eyes of another individual, through the eyes of a man whom articulates how he, and then how the rest of society sees her. This encounter suggests that narrator does not possess the body, society's eyes and male posses it instead and either withhold or confirm approval.
Even when the narrator does eventually give a background of her earlier life as a beauty to the reader, the protagonist, presumed to be autobiographical, only comes to life in a series of contrasts, of her own identity with her lover's identity. This identity is constructed through a series of differences. The young woman is French. Her lover is Chinese. She is unmarried, he is promised to another. The young woman is naive. He is experienced.
Contrasts exist throughout the text of the novel, and further illuminate its theme that a woman is not complete until she is physically joined to a man. For instance, the dryness of the woman's mother in her soul and sexual life is contrasted with the fluid rushing of the Mekong River nearby, and of the home being cleaned with the waters of river. (Duras 60-2). The woman's mother, who is frustrated sexually, is described as a "desert" because of this while her daughter's love becomes rich and fluid when placed in contact with a male, whom is an extension of the land and environment. (Duras 45) The girl only experiences an emotional awakening when her body experiences a sexual awakening. "Kisses on the body bring tears. Almost like a consolation. At home I don't cry. But that day in that room, tears console [me]." (Duras 45-46) Her lover is like an emotional mother to her, because of his male ability to touch her in a life-generating fashion, unlike the girl's biological mother
Carol Hoffman's Forgetting and Marguerite Duras stresses, "the repetition of situations, events, memories, and words abounds in Duras' texts." (Hoffman 35) The contrast between dryness and wet fertility runs through the text, true. However, rather than being an instability of memory in general, or even autobiography in particular, this unstable aspect relates to the establishment of identity in the formation of a love relationship that temporarily relieves the anxiety of that loss of identity. But when the male gaze is removed, that identity goes away, only to be reawakened again in the reflection of the woman in the eyes of another man.
Furthermore, the fact that this love relationship is with an 'other' and a forbidden 'other' at that, means that even when she is in a relationship, the girl's sense of self does not even wholly stabilize, even on a temporary basis, as it might were she involved with a man who was able to 'recognize' her in public, as a Frenchwoman and wife. Hoffman states that Duras' "repetition seems to emphasize the changing, unstable aspect of memory and language and move the reader to question his or her own memory and examine the dynamics of forgetting.... Memory is seen as volatile and impossible. It is a movement toward the ever-elusive and often painful 'impossible,' the 'vide' ['void'/'emptiness'], the 'manque' ['lack'], what Jacques Lacan called 'le reel' [the real]." (35)
However, Hoffman's quote neglects to embrace the fact that the absence of the real in Duras is not simply a general state, but endemic to the female own physical essence and being, in the absence of recognition in the eyes and the physical touch of the male body. When in contact with a female body, or a male who attempts to inhibit her sexuality, that recognition goes away. "My lover's denied in just that weak body, just that weakness which transports me with pleasure. In my brother's presence he becomes an unmentionable outrage." (Duras 49) Hoffman states that "it is a remembering that destroys memory and leads to a new memory, which can replace the last only fleetingly and without substance... A refusal of convention or disguise, as a unity of thought and will,…