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Sex and Materialism: Comparitive Essay

Giovanni’s Room

Giovanni’s Room begins with David standing in a great house in the south of France, looking at his reflection in the window as night falls. As he stands, drinking what will be the first of many drinks before the night ends, he casts his mind back over the chain of events leading him to this “most terrible morning of my life.” On this morning, his former lover Giovanni will die on the guillotine. The novel, divided into two parts, is one long retrospective view of David’s life, a series of brooding flashbacks that rehearse the story of his failed attempt to resolve his sexual identity crisis and understand his betrayal of Giovanni. With his former fiancée headed back home and his former lover sentenced to death, David is left alone to sort out his past life in order to see what he can make of his future. His nightlong vigil leaves him facing the dawn with a “dreadful weight of hope.”

While he regards his face in the darkening glass, he conjures up images of his early years in America, particularly his first homosexual experience with a young friend, Joey. He has always refused to admit the significance of this potent and defining event, lying to himself and everyone else to evade the shame of the “beast” inside that threatens to condemn him to an “unnatural” life. He fears the force of his awakened sexuality and adopts a pattern of flight to avoid coming to terms with it—flight from an interfering aunt and a distant, adulterous father, from meaningless friendships and pointless jobs. He finally flees his country, with the half-formed thought that in Europe, in Paris, he will discover and understand this identity that has so far only frightened and confused him.


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In Paris, David falls in with the vaguely bohemian crowd of young expatriates, flirting occasionally with the gay world he knows through an older homosexual acquaintance, Jacques, but remaining proudly above what he sees as its dirt and shame, yet he is lonely and unsatisfied. Prompted by persistent concerns about his manhood, David rather flippantly asks an American art student, Hella, to marry him. While she is in Spain considering this proposal, however, David meets Giovanni in a seedy gay bar; it is this handsome young Italian bartender who forces David to confront his sexual fears and ambivalent desires. Terrified but ecstatic, David spends the night in Giovanni’s room. He capitulates at last to the “morning stars” of Giovanni’s eyes: “With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes.” So part 1 ends with David’s reluctant but growing acceptance of his homosexuality and Giovanni’s love. In part 2, David turns from that acceptance, and in doing so denies himself and a world of bright possibilities with Giovanni.

The blissful months David and Giovanni have, living together in Giovanni’s crowded little room, are not enough to free David from his confusion. When Hella returns, the room begins to seem claustrophobic and dirty, another thing to flee. He does flee, taking up with Hella again and leaving Giovanni jobless and in great emotional pain. Giovanni’s love is passionate, violent, complete. It both exhilarates and terrifies David because it demands an equal intensity in return. This David cannot give. When they stand, each with a brick in his hand, they could kill each other or embrace each other. It is a decisive moment. David is paralyzed. His only response is flight, and he runs away with Hella. His escape, however, comes at extreme cost: In despair, Giovanni murders Guillaume, his predatory former employer, and is sentenced to death. It is only on this last night of Giovanni’s life that David can confess that he loved Giovanni; but extracted so late, this confession can provide only a filament of hope for David’s future.

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Dura’s The Lover

The Lover has a complex structure that is disguised by its simple sentences and unadorned vocabulary. The novel’s time period shifts between the past and the present, so that the narrator is sometimes an old woman and sometimes an adolescent girl. Similarly, Marguerite Duras writes both in the first person and in the third, which allows the narrator to experience her story as both a participant and a bystander. Repetition is also a favorite strategy. Phrases and even entire scenes are repeated. Major events are also chopped into fragments and intercut with one another. For example, the story of the narrator’s first sexual experience is told twice, each time interrupted by other memories. Interestingly, Duras is also known as a filmmaker, and the fragmentation of The Lover gives the novel the feel of a film montage (a juxtaposition of several shots that creates a single impression).

At times, Duras departs totally from the novel’s main story and introduces completely unrelated characters, such as the social hostesses she knew in Paris during World War II. These digressions challenge the reader to account for their presence. The book’s strongly autobiographical nature is one plausible reason for them. Memoirs not uncommonly appear meandering and unfocused. Another reason has been suggested by the writer Barbara Probst Solomon, who has noted that the digressions tend to occur around emotionally charged moments in the love story. She has theorized that the seemingly unrelated material breaks up the main action of the novel in order to hide facts and emotions that Duras did not want to reveal.

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Whatever real-life events Duras may have left out of The Lover, the novel gives the impression of frankness and courage. The narrator defies the conventions of romantic love as well as traditional gender roles. Not only is she merely fifteen years of age at the beginning of her relationship with the lover, but also she is the seducer rather than the seduced. Duras does not condemn the narrator’s prostitution, nor the fact that her sexual pleasure is inextricably linked to the money her lover gives her.

Duras also reverses standard roles in her handling of racial issues. When the couple first meet, it is the European narrator who is poor and rides the bus, and her Chinese lover who is a millionaire’s son riding in a chauffeured limousine. In a more conventional story, it would be the girl’s family who refused to allow their daughter to marry across racial lines. Instead, the lover’s father opposes the match, so much so that he pays for the narrator’s passage back to France. Through these and other inversions, Duras suggests that class takes precedence over race; skin color is less important than wealth.

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This unconventional portrayal of race and class has been controversial. Some critics have accused Duras of implying that it was the French colonizers, not the resident peoples, who were exploited when portions of Indochina were a French colony. For example, the family’s poverty resulted primarily from a bad real estate deal in which the mother was swindled because she did not know that farmable land was sold only to those who bribed the local officials. Duras also has come under fire for the political views she expresses in The Lover. In one passage, she equates communists with the collaborators who aided the Germans during the occupation of France in World War II. Again, she has been accused of rewriting history, especially given her own background as a former communist who worked against collaborators during the war. She also has been criticized for the novel’s sympathetic portrayal of the Fernandezes, who are described as collaborators. As infuriating as these passages are to some readers, they can be classified as part of the novel’s general strategy of inverting conventions and confounding expectations.

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The debate over The Lover is typical of Duras’ career. Critical opinion of her work has been intensely divided. There are those, sometimes called “Durasophiles,” who have strongly praised her writings for their redefinition of the feminine, especially in matters of sexuality and worldview. Some of them have gone as far as to adopt her writing style in their analyses of her work. The opposing camp has been dubbed “Durasophobes.” They have tended to fall into two groups: those who have thought that Duras pushes the definition of the feminine so far that it becomes masculine, and those who have felt that she does not push it far enough.

Jones’ Corregidora

Corregidora is both an exploration of how sexual and other relationships between men and women can become a battleground for domination and an examination of the ways in which violence done by one generation can continue to inflict itself on future generations.

Throughout the novel, the stories of Ursa’s ancestors are told repeatedly in flashbacks and are identified by the use of italics. These are not the only italicized sections, however; many of Ursa’s memories of Mutt are also presented in italics. This emphasizes the confusion of Ursa’s feelings toward Mutt and Corregidora. This confusion is exacerbated by Mutt’s insulting and abusive actions toward Ursa, actions that recall Corregidora’s treatment of Great Gram and Gram. Even when Ursa and Mutt meet after many years, the sex act between them that closes the novel has an element of hostility that makes Ursa begin to reflect on the inevitability of antagonism between men and women in a sexual relationship.

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The issue of slavery is not nearly so thoroughly investigated in Corregidora, but it is the relationship that establishes the pattern for Ursa’s understanding of male-female relationships. Great Gram and Gram were owned by Corregidora, and thus he had control over them. Great Gram’s sexuality (which Corregidora also tried to control) was the only ability she could use as a weapon against him. Because the records of Corregidora’s Brazilian prostitution operation were all destroyed when slavery was eliminated in Brazil, Ursa, like her mother before her, grew up with the exhortation to reproduce to create evidence that this slavery did in fact exist. In this way, Ursa has learned that she too must use her sexuality as a weapon against slavery.

Beyond that, though, the impulse to dominate one another, so visible in both of Ursa’s marriages, seems to be an impulse to master one another; that is, slavery is a useful metaphor for the destructive aspects of these marriages, especially Ursa’s marriage to Mutt. This becomes eminently clear when, toward the end of their brief marriage, Mutt tells Ursa that he is going to auction her off the next time she performs onstage. Mutt’s explicit meaning is that he is going to sell her as though she were a prostitute, but the image also suggests the public auction of a slave; further, prostitution and slavery are especially linked for Ursa, whose grandmother and great-grandmother were both prostitutes and slaves. The fact that Mutt attempts so aggressively to master Ursa’s sexuality suggests that the linkage between sexuality and domination is not caused only by the particularly horrid facts of Ursa’s background. Instead, the novel seems to imply that this linkage is a more general condition affecting the lives and loves of men and women.

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Corregidora begins with the event that ends Ursa’s first marriage. Her husband, Mutt Thomas, not knowing she is pregnant, knocks her down a stairway in a fit of jealous rage, causing her miscarriage and forcing her to have a hysterectomy. Tadpole McCormick, her employer, and Cat Lawson, her friend, help to nurse Ursa back to health, but neither fully understands how devastating a blow it has been for Ursa to lose the ability to bear a child. The narrative is frequently interrupted by Ursa’s memories of being told about her grandmother and great-grandmother, whom Ursa calls Gram and Great Gram, respectively. Gram and Great Gram endured lives of sexual bondage to Corregidora, a Brazilian slave owner who thus became both Ursa’s grandfather and great-grandfather. It is clear that without the power to fulfill their wish that she reproduce, Ursa now feels unable to avoid dwelling on these painful stories. Further, she focuses her own angers and resentments toward her husband on these stories, and they seem to intensify, so that she feels these memories as strongly as if they were her own.

After being released from the hospital, Ursa stays with Tadpole for a few days, and then with Cat Lawson, until she discovers that Cat is a lesbian. Although Cat had been her most strong-minded friend and best source of advice, Ursa avoids her and moves back in with Tadpole. Feeling rootless, Ursa drifts into a sexual relationship and hastily conceived marriage with Tadpole. The marriage soon begins to crumble under the weight of Ursa’s increasingly paralyzing memories of Gram and Great Gram’s lives, which Ursa has a hard time separating from her own life.

When her second marriage falls apart, Ursa travels home to her mother for a quick visit. For years, her mother had dismissed Ursa’s questions about her father by describing a casual affair that led to a pregnancy. Now Ursa wants the full story, which she gets; more important, however, she and her mother both acknowledge the burdensome weight of their ancestors’ memories. At the end of this section of the novel, Ursa finally wonders, “What had I been doing about my own life?”

As if to answer this question, Ursa begins to focus on her own life in the third section of the novel. In particular, she focuses on the development of her sexuality. In one telling passage, she remembers the revulsion she felt when a childhood friend, May Alice, had a baby out of wedlock; she swore to May Alice that she was never going to have a baby herself. This leads to Ursa’s memories of becoming a singer and to her memories of how Mutt Thomas distinguished himself from the other men who pursued her. Her relationship with Mutt is shown developing from flirtation to intimacy to control in a very quick manner. Mutt becomes obsessed first with trying to control her onstage demeanor—which had originally attracted him to her—and later with wanting to humiliate her. Finally, Mutt’s obsession leads to the incident that begins the novel, in which he knocks Ursa down a flight of stairs.

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JT LeRoy Sarah

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