Review: Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Posted on May 11, 2011
by Adam Burgess
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Final Verdict: 3.0 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
Our Lady of the Flowers is existentialism for gay French drag queens. Seriously. The story is narrated by one of its characters, who is retelling the story of his life from prison, except that he is creating the characters and situations in his head (for the most part), and then transplanting personalities he meets in prison to recreate people from his own life. The reader doesn’t really know who the narrator is, except that he’s interacted with these less-than-laudable characters in incredibly intimate ways and possibly his connection to those people is what landed him behind bars. There is a very real pain and longing in this narrator, which comes across in the way he tells his story and by his choice of characters (recreating his mother, for instance, or retelling the story of his first “love”). It was difficult for me to understand the purpose, though, other than a stark portrait of the life of French homosexuals in the 1940s which aided the narrator in adding a certain “spice” to his dull time in prison – much of what he is writing seems to be for his own purpose, to entertain him and to “assist” him. Jean-Paul Sartre called this an “epic of masturbation” for good reason. It is, of course, also about transgression as means to freedom and trans-valuation of morals as means for expression.
3 – Characters well developed.
Darling Daintyfoot, a masculine gay pimp. Divine, his drag queen lover. Our Lady of the Flowers, a thief and murderer. This makes up the core trio of Genet’s story. There is also, of course, the book’s narrator (who does refer to himself as Jean – so we are to assume that the book is at least semi-autobiographical). The reader spends the greatest amount of time with Jean in prison, as he writes his story and comments on the things happening around him, and with Divine – as he (she) seems to be playing the party of betrayed/scorned lover. The two have clear similarities, including doubts about self-image and sensitivity to jealousies. Darling and Our Lady of the Flowers (A.K.A. Danie, A.K.A. Maurice) have distinct personalities as well. Darling is clearly self-absorbed and a bit oblivious. Our Lady is naïve but dangerous. They both seem to be incredible lovers, so though Divine wants to leave their little ménage-a-troise, he (she) can’t seem to pull herself away. Of course, if Jean’s descriptions of the characters, their physical beauties and prowess, and their actions are realistic in anyway, it’s almost hard to blame poor, silly little Divine.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
The language and prose were perhaps the strongest elements of the book. There is an oxymoronic beauty to this story – it is a rather crude, bare tale, but it is told so beautifully, so ethereally, that you almost forget about what exactly it is you’re reading, because it reads so well. That being said, the style leaves a bit to be desired. Although the language is gorgeous and though Genet has a clear mastery of prose, the loftiness (“floweriness”) of it, coupled with the fact that there are no chapter breaks whatsoever, often made it feel as if I were swimming through Jell-O, rather than water. There was fluidity, but also a thickness that became almost oppressive at times and forced me to take many breaks.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.
This “inside-look” at the periphery of French society was certainly interesting and ground-breaking. Never, before this book, had there been such a blatant presentation of gay culture and lifestyle in literature (and thereby, in society). What Genet does with inversion of principals (death as erotic; betrayal a virtue; murder as sexual virility and attraction) is interesting in and of itself, but particularly as a means to an end, the end being liberation and freedom for gays and lesbians. There is a deep fear and sadness woven through this story, spoken softly at times but more often only implied – a fear for one’s physical safety, sadness over one’s lack of legal right. Much of what Genet writes in this book, much of what the French homosexual population was battling in the 1940s is what American culture struggles with now, so for a modern reader it certainly rings true and remains current and effective.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Literature, French Literature, GLBT Lit
“My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught.”
“The despondency that follows makes me feel somewhat like a shipwrecked man who spies a sail, sees himself saved, and suddenly remembers that the lens of his spyglass has a flaw, a blurred spot — the sail he has seen.”
I think Jean Genet WAS Divine in the book: they were one and the same person.
Aspects of him, maybe… if I remember correctly, Jean Genet was the narrator (Genet used his own imprisonment and life experience to create the story) but I’m sure elements of each of the characters is probably indicitive of Genet himself.
This is another book I haven’t read since high school, my freshman year actually. I think it was seeing the cable (HBO I think) movie adaptation of the book that even put it on my radar. I remember it having enough of an impression on me that I did my English research paper over Genet. I think my teacher was completly baffled by the whole thing.
As with a lot classic gay literature, I have always found it to be a bit depressing. Of course I haven’t read any of them in the last 20 some years. Maybe I would have a different appreciation for it now.