Unachievable Masculinity in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover

Nanni Mann

In this essay Nanni Mann embarks on an in-depth exploration of the actions and motivations of the young girl in Maguerite Duras’s The Lover and its film adaptation by Jean-Jacques Annaud, attaching these to theories of masculinity. Mann adeptly combines autonomous analysis with existing theories to provide a study which confidently handles often complex and difficult issues.


Unachievable Masculinity as Driving Force in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover

‘Desire’ is a word that appears repeatedly in Marguerite Duras’s 1984 novel The Lover. Paired with scenes of sexual pleasure in both the novel and the 1992 film version by Jean-Jacques Annaud, it is easy to fall into a trap of identifying desire as a need for sexual satisfaction and to focus on this sexual pleasure as the driving force and main theme in the novel. In this essay I will argue that the young girl’s actions are not driven by sexual desire, but that her actions and relationship with the Chinese are a result of her unsatisfiable desire to support her family by aiming to masculinize herself and to replace the lack of a patriarch in the family. I will support my argument by looking at the socio-economic context of colonial Indochina, conducting a short psychoanalytical study of text and author and through close examination of the book. Additionally I will support my points by using the 1992 film adaptation by Jean-Jacques Annaud as a cinematic analysis of the original text.

Duras, who has made a point of ‘deliberately confusing the borderline between fact and fiction to arouse discussion and disagreement concerning the real-life content of her novels’[i], has done the same in this novel, labelling The Lover a fictional autobiography. This leads me to believe that while not everything in the written text may be factual, the reader may attribute biographical information of Marguerite Duras’s life to the past and future not detailed in the novel. This allows the reader to analyse the young girl in more depth. In light of this we can apply the death of the author’s father as having been the same in the literary character’s life.

Duras’s/the girl’s father died when she was only four years old[ii], leaving the child fatherless in the middle of the phallic/oedipal stage[iii]. During the phallic stage of psychosexual development ‘the little girl considers herself, if only momentarily, as castrated, in the sense of deprived of the phallus, by someone, in the first instance by her mother […] and then by her father.’[iv] With the death of the father occurring at this stage, the transference of blame never took place, putting additional tension on the already existing ‘love-hate relationship’[v] between the child and the same-sex parent. This troubled relationship leads to some ambivalent desires for the young girl. Duras as an author has picked these issues up repeatedly throughout her novels in order to work through the problematic relationship with her mother. She has done this so often that she describes her mother in The Lover as having ‘become just something you write without difficulty, cursive writing.’ [vi]

Her relationship with the man from Cholon is partially a result of her father’s death. The Chinese man is the only option she has to establish financial security for the family, which has been left in poverty. However she goes about this the wrong way, firstly by choosing a man who was never able to give her permanent financial security through marriage and also by sleeping with the man, thus removing any chance of a possible future marriage. This lack of cultural understanding could be argued to also be a result of the father’s death, who according to Lacan ‘represents cultural norms, laws, language, and power.’[vii] With the death of the father, there is no representation of these, leaving the girl with a lack of understanding thereof. 

Her relationship with the man puts shame on her and the mother but her good intentions towards her family, in particular her mother and younger brother, are repeatedly clarified in the text and so is her interest in the man’s wealth in particular. When she first meets the man from Cholon, he talks and she is listening, ‘watching out for anything to do with his wealth, for indications as to how many millions he had.’[viii] This knowledge gap between the reader and the lover does not exist for long, however, because the young girl soon lets her lover know of her intentions when she tells him that ‘[…] poverty had knocked down the walls of the family and we were all left outside, each one fending for himself. Shameless, that’s what we were. That’s how I came to be here with you.’[ix]

This need for saving the mother has a strong physical effect on the girl. Freud’s model of the psyche is divided into three elements, the first of which is the Id. The Id is the ‘completely unconscious part of the psyche that serves as a storehouse of our desires, wishes and fears. The Id houses the libido; the source of psychosexual energy.’[x] In light of this it can be argued that the desire to save her mother is rooted in the Id and drives her libidinal attraction to the man from Cholon. As we can see in the novel she begins to desire him when fear of her mother’s death overcomes her.[xi] The film version also highlights this aspect; showing the two lovers in bed together, consummating their relationship while the young girl shouts out that she is not yet ready to be without the mother.

The young girl’s sense of obligation towards the family’s financial well-being is a direct result of the death of the father and the lack of a suitable replacement. With the younger brother’s weakness, her mother’s madness and the older brother’s brutality and lack of obligation, she is the only person in the family capable of filling the part of the patriarch. In order to do this, she needs to masculinise herself.

As Karen Ruddy notes in her study of colonial desire in The Lover, there were strict prohibitions on the sexual and professional behaviour of white women in the colony, and ‘the colonial discourses of sexuality, gender, and race assigned to French women in Indochina [was] the subject-position of the racially and sexually pure guardian of whiteness.’[xii] However, not all white women were enlisted into the service of this representation. Poor and single white women in the colony could either ignore the rules imposed on white females and gain disrespect from the rest of the colony or appropriate the subjectivity of white colonial femininity for themselves.[xiii] Although the girl’s mother ‘continually attempts to reassert this privilege and thereby realign herself with the white community in Indochina’[xiv] to remain an ‘honorary member’ of the white community, the girl herself acts to distance herself from the white elite, signalling this in part through her choice of clothing. She wears hand-me-downs and bargain shoes. Annaud, when introducing the girl character to the audience, also focuses on these signifiers of poverty. Annaud shows close-up shots of the rubbed off coating on her shoes and the lose threads on her dress, before even revealing her face. Through open display of her poverty and sexuality the young girl is now able to reassign her place in society and distance herself from the impositions put on French women in the colony. She now has the partial freedom to follow her subconscious desire of achieving masculinity.

By taking into consideration Lacan’s notes on the phallus as a symbol for sexual and societal power we can argue that the girl is trying to achieve the phallus for which there are multiple implications, once more beginning with the way the girl dresses. ‘The crucial ambiguity of the image lies in the hat.’[xv] The hat bears such importance, that Duras often returns to mention the hat as part of the young woman. She is the girl in the man’s fedora. The hat outwardly signifies that the young woman is not like other women in the colony, neither white or native. By borrowing masculinity from that hat, she shapes herself into the person she wants to be. It makes her feel like she has a choice, that the laws and expectations imposed on her are escapable through fulfilling the masculine image. Duras writes:

[…] Beneath the man’s hat, the thin awkward shape, the inadequacy of childhood, has turned into something else. Has ceased to be a harsh, inescapable imposition of nature. Has become on the contrary, a provoking choice of nature, a choice of the mind. Suddenly it’s deliberate. Suddenly I see myself as another […] available to […] desire.[xvi]

Although outwardly she is still just a girl wearing a man’s hat, it gives her the agency she needs to differentiate herself from other women.

John Calder, in Duras’s obituary, quotes her friend Sonia Orwell as describing Marguerite Duras as ’not like a man, but rather a new kind of woman, stronger than a man’.[xvii] A lot of feminists have taken statements like this as encouragement to read Duras’s text as a piece of feminist writing. However, there are some implications that the young girl is not as critical towards the patriarchy as may be suggested. Ruddy refers to Stoler’s essay ‘Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power’, saying that ‘her research reminds us that colonial desire, as an ambivalent structure of libidinal attraction to and repulsion of the other, must be understood as central to and constituted by the policing of sexual activity, reproduction, and marriage within European communities in the colonies. […] It was primarily through gender-specific sexual sanctions and prohibitions in these European communities that the French secured the racial difference between coloniser and colonised upon which the moral legitimacy of their rule relied’[xviii].

Despite her actions being a threat to the patriarchy and the moral legitimacy of the colony simply labelling the girl as a feminist would be unwise, because every time the girl breaks racial and gendered power structures, she also reinforces them.

As Ruddy point out, the young girl’s ’subversive mimicry of the role of Woman under colonial patriarchy ends up reinforcing conventional power relations between Western and third world women rather than challenging them.’[xix] On top of this she denies the relationship with the Chinese towards her brother, who acts as a representative of patriarchy. This shows that her desire does not lie in rebelling against the patriarchy. However,the power to deny the relationship and the way she feminizes the Chinese man, while still holding sexual power over him, establishes her as the dominant force in the relationship. Ruddy points out that the girl ‘forces her lover to mime the feminized image of Asian masculinity in the white colonial imagination, an image that constructs Asian men as weak, submissive, subordinate, and at times asexual.’[xx] She describes the man’s thin, hairless, vulnerable body, lacking in strength and muscle, and urges the reader to recognise that there is ‘nothing masculine about him but his sex ’[xxi], which she uses to compensate for her lack of male genitalia. She fantasises about using his sex to sexually please Hélène Lagonelle.

The young girl speaks of Hélène, the only other white girl in her boarding house, with great admiration for her body. ‘What’s the most beautiful of all the things given by God is this body of Hélène Lagonelle’s ‘[xxii]. This physical attraction to the same sex has been picked up by Annaud in his cinematic analysis of the text. We see the two girls lying in bed next to each other, Hélène Lagonelle being completely naked while they discuss the possibilities of prostitution. While the young girl is slowly stroking Hélène’s breasts she proclaims that the men Hélène would prostitute herself with would ‘be lucky’. The sexual desire she feels towards Hélène can’t so easily be brushed off as a homoerotic fantasy or possible homosexual desire as she wants Hélène Lagonelle to do with the Chinese as she does with him. She says: ‘It’s via Hélène Lagonelle’s body, through it, that the ultimate pleasure would pass from him to me.’[xxiii] She speaks here of a transference of his sex to hers. In Annaud’s 1992 film the girl also takes on the masculine part in her relationship with Hélène, when the two dance. The young girl is the matador (a typically and traditionally male role) and leads during dance.

Despite her efforts, the young girl remains largely unsuccessful in her attempts to masculinise herself. In the broader sense she only manages to achieve it within a very private sphere. This is to say that there is a clear differentiation between the private and public sphere in the novel as well as the corresponding film adaptation. The colony - the towns of Indochina - are characters in their own accord in both texts. Annaud shows this beautifully by juxtaposing the silence in the car when the girl and the lover first meet with the noises from the outside. However, the colony frequently overpowers the relationship between the lovers and the girl’s pursuit and makes her feel powerless. The films narrator, voiced by Jeanne Mareau says: ‘The room was dark, […] carried away by the town, my body was in that public noise. Exposed.’ Another implication for the image the girl holds in the eyes of the colony, which is again beautifully displayed in Annaud’s film version, is that even though she desires to satisfy her pursuit, we know that in the eyes of the colony there is no chance of that. Annaud parallels images of the administrator’s wife, who has been rumoured to also have taken a lover, with images of the young girl, putting both of them in similar poses, in order to use the administrator’s wife (who appears in multiple of Duras’s novels) as a foreshadowing of what will happen to the young girl.

Lastly, I would argue that another important factor is that the story establishes the Father as the ultimate force by having a father make the final decision that leads to the end of the relationship between the two lovers. Annaud’s film version establishes the father of the Chinese man as a daunting figure, living in a house that reminds the viewer more of a temple than a residence, thus making the inhabitant a character to worship. Additionally he is the source of the wealth that draws the young girl to the man from Cholon.

Even though I believe that the death of the young girl’s father has had more consequences than I have listed in this essay, I am confident that this essay has established unachievable masculinity as the main driving force in the text. Even though the girl is naturally unsuccessful in her pursuit to masculinize herself, the reasons for this pursuit are what attracted her to the Chinese man in the first place. But despite her being unsuccessful in establishing herself as masculine and in the end failing to replace the father figure in the family, she temporarily borrows the support the family needs through engagement with the Chinese man and his father, establishing the father figure as the support the family needs, to a certain success as the family is finally able to return to France.


Barker ‘96, Anne N. ‘“Misty Water-Coloured Memories…” The Fictional Nature of Autobiography in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover’, Undergraduate Review, 8: 1, (1995), 25-32

Bennett, A. & Royle, N., 'Desire', in Andrew Bennett & Nicholas Royle An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. (Harlow, U.K.: Pearson/ Longman, 2009), 207-215

Calder, John, Obituary: Marguerite Duras (4 March 1996) <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-marguerite-duras-1340299.html> [accessed 11 January 2015]

Duras, Marguerite, The Lover (London: Flamingo, 1986)

Gorton, Kristyn, ‘desire, Duras, and melancholia: theorizing desire after the ‘affective turn’’, Feminist Review, 89, (2008), 16-33

Haaken, Janice, ‘The Recovery of Memory, Fantasy and Desire: Feminist Approaches to Sexual Abuse and Psychic Trauma’, Signs, 21: 4, Feminist Theory and Practice, (1996), 1069-1094

Hamm, Peter, "Ich war die Zweideutigkeit in Person" (17 November 2007) <http://www.zeit.de/2007/47/L-Duras> [accessed 11 January 2015]

Kamber, Peter, ‘Liebe, Schmerz und Tod bei Marguerite Duras’, DER ALLTAG. Sensationsblatt des Gewöhnlichen, 1, (1986), 68-76

Lacan, Jacques, ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ http://wayanswardhani.lecture.ub.ac.id/files/2013/04/Lacan-3.pdf

Li, Lin, ‘Duras and “I”: Characterization of Feminist “I” in Marguerite Duras’s Autobiography: The Lover’,Canadian Social Science, 3: 1 (2007), 91-94

Murphy, Carol J., ‘New Narrative Regions: the Role of Desire in the Films and Novels of Marguerite Duras’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 12: 2 (1984), 122-128

No Name, Chapter 3: Section 4: Freuds Stages of Psychosexual Development <http://allpsych.com/psychology101/sexual_development/> [accessed 14 January 2015]

Pifalo, Terry, ‘Jogging the Cogs: Trauma-Focused Art Therapy and and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Sexually Abused Children’, Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 24: 4, (2007), 170-175

Ruddy, Karen, ‘The Ambivalences of colonial Desire in Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover”’, Feminist Review, 82, (2006), 76-95

Siegel, Kristi , Introduction to Modern Literary Theory (January 2006) <http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm#psycho> [accessed 14 January 2015]


'The Lover, dir. by Jean-Jacques Annaud (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1992)

[i] John Calder, Obituary: Marguerite Duras (4 March 1996) <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-marguerite-duras-1340299.html> [accessed 11 January 2015].

[ii] Peter Kamber, ‘Liebe, Schmerz und Tod bei Marguerite Duras’, DER ALLTAG. Sensationsblatt des Gewöhnlichen, 1, (1986), p. 69.

[iii] No Name, Chapter 3: Section 4: Freuds Stages of Psychosexual Development <http://allpsych.com/psychology101/sexual_development/> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[iv] [iv] Lacan, Jacques, ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ http://wayanswardhani.lecture.ub.ac.id/files/2013/04/Lacan-3.pdf, p.1303.

[v] Lacan, ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ p. 1303 (footnote).

[vi] Marguerite Duras, The Lover (London: Flamingo, 1986), p. 32.

[vii] Kristi Siegel , Introduction to Modern Literary Theory (January 2006) <http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm#psycho> [accessed 14 January 2015].

[viii] Duras, The Lover, p. 38.

[ix] Ibid., p. 49.

[x] Siegel , Introduction to Modern Literary Theory.

[xi] Duras, The Lover, p. 49.

[xii] Karen Ruddy ‘The Ambivalences of colonial Desire in Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover”’, Feminist Review, 82, (2006), p. 83 + 84.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 86.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 86.

[xv] Duras, The Lover, p. 16.

[xvi] Ibid., p. 16.

[xvii] Calder, Obituary: Marguerite Duras.

[xviii] A.L. Stoler, referred to in Ruddy ‘The Ambivalences of colonial Desire in Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover”’, p.84.

[xix] Ruddy ‘The Ambivalences of colonial Desire in Marguerite Duras’s “The Lover”’, p. 91.

[xx] Ibid., p.91.

[xxi] Duras, The Lover, p. 42.

[xxii] Ibid., pp. 76+77.

[xxiii] Duras, The Lover, p. 79.



Nanni Mann


brightONLINE student literary journal

26 Nov 2015