"Bonjour Tristesse": The divided self
How Françoise Sagan's novel shows that our sense of self shapes our sense of ethics
There is a moment in Françoise Sagan’s novel, Bonjour Tristesse, in which seventeen-year-old Cécile discovers how life fractures a person, forcing them to remake the broken halves into something like a whole. “For the first time in my life,” she says, “this ‘self’ of mine seemed to divide in two and I was quite astonished to discover such a duality within me.”
This observation comes, not incidentally, in the first paragraph of the second part of this short novel; the structure of the book reflects the structural division within its central character. At a narrative level, this is the story of a young woman and her sybaritic father, Raymond, who spend a summer at a beach house. Raymond exercises for vanity, and Cécile avoids her studies, languorously reflecting that the sand pouring through her fingers is “trickling away like time, and that it [is] facile to think like that and that it [is] pleasant having facile thoughts.”
On a thematic level, this is a novel about what happens when a person lacks a fixed sense of self. The line connecting the dots of premise and theme is the plot, in which the lazy hedonism of their summer is interrupted by the arrival of Anne, a woman whose fundamental opposition to the way our father-daughter duo live is summed up in the social circles Anne belongs to:
“She spent her time with people who were sharp, intelligent and discreet, whereas the people we spent time with were noisy and insatiable.”
The only expectations Cécile and Raymond have of their acquaintances is “they be either good-looking or amusing”, while Anne demands more of her friends, and will demand much more of Raymond, whom she becomes engaged to, and of Cécile. This cardinal division between two radically different lifestyles leads to further divides, like the hairline fractures in glass radiating out from a shattered hole in a window.
In a story full of duplicitousness, divided selves, and a lead character who is not fully sure of who she is or even who she wants to be, one of the most immediately arresting questions is whether the teenaged Cécile is her father’s daughter or lover. The old joke has a commercial open with the word, “SEX!” and immediately follow that with, “Now that we’ve got your attention...” But that advert would be outcompeted for viewer interest by the one that starts with, “INCEST!” Sex (and likewise love) is always more interesting between two people who shouldn’t, according to some strong convention, be doing it together. Star-crossed lovers evoke romance; overly-familiar families evoke disgust; both captivate our attention.
The suggestion of Freudian father-love is only ever beneath the surface, apart from one moment mid-novel in which Cécile concedes to the reader that “it would be possible to endow me with ... an incestuous love for my father” – but this is only to insist that the real reason for her obsession with Raymond’s love life is the summer heat and her reading. This of course only serves to invoke the suspicion that this young lady doth protest too much. Although the intimation of improper intimacy between Cécile and Raymond remains a textual layer beneath other layers, like Hemingway’s famous iceberg, it is a notion that has occurred to and captivated readers since the book’s first publication. It is also essential to the novel’s key storyline: Cécile’s machinations to rid herself, her father, and their hedonistic lifestyle of the new mother-figure, Anne.
During this period in her life when the sensible road would lead her through a summer of studies to secure a place in the Sorbonne, here she is acting out her own Electra complex; wanting to be her father’s lover, whether knowingly or not, she sees herself in competition with the mother-figure. A girl is supposed to have gone through this mythical stage of childhood development by the age of six (if it happens at all – but we are in the realm of literature, in which poetic theories hold as much sway as the hard science of biology). Cécile is over ten years late, and this lack of emotional development reaches far more widely into her life than this psychosexual complex.
Cécile’s mother died years earlier, but she is also fatherless in many ways. Her father’s reaction on picking her up from boarding school is not parental (though it is, like so much else here, divided). First, he is embarrassed to see her with “plaits and ... wearing a horrid dark-coloured dress”; later, there is his “burst of sudden, triumphant joy ... because I was going to be for him the dearest, most marvellous of toys.” Any paternal education he might offer is restricted to how one lives “a life of luxury and indulgence”.
So the groundwork is laid for explaining why Cécile’s identity is so fragile, so susceptible to the tearing and dividing it will undergo during this summer of frivolity and seriousness, of superficiality and studiousness, of first love and first sex and final days of youthful innocence. Now, let’s return to the ill-fated scheme to banish Anne, and the tragedy this leads to.
Anne was a friend to Cécile’s mother back in the day, and had taken a hand briefly in Cécile’s early formation by introducing her to “elegance and [her] first flirtation”. Having given the girl some lessons in life and a taste of maturity, Anne is the object of some gratitude from Cécile. However, Anne also evokes horror when it is announced she will be joining them for the summer – the reason for this apparently contrary reaction comes down to Anne’s world-weary aloofness and her serious pose against frivolity.
“Anne gave things a certain shape and words a certain sense that my father and I preferred to disregard. She set the standards for good taste and discretion ...”
Anne orders Cécile to study hard every day, at the expense of spending time lounging on the beach or in the pleasurable, recently discovered pastime she enjoys with her boyfriend, Cyril. Cécile is also under Anne’s command to eat more and care more about passing her university entrance exam in the autumn. Cécile’s predictions for her summer with Anne were accurate: “As soon as Anne arrived, complete relaxation would no longer be possible ... Because of her I was entering a world of reproaches and guilt.”
The expectant reader, still early in the novel (Anne is introduced as a source of conflict on page 4), might well assume that the shape of this story will involve a primary antagonism between the self-indulgent teenager and the ruthless stepmother as a kind of Parisian Miss Havisham. A didactic novel might be set up this way, but Sagan has set up a moral chess game in Bonjour Tristesse in which she plays both sides of the board. Sagan once said, “I never make moral judgments ... The only morality for a novelist is the morality of his esthétique.”
Instead of all-consuming conflict between Cécile and Anne, the real conflict is within Cécile herself, as she struggles to find a landing place for her feelings about the newcomer, the new rules, and the new self emerging in response to this new way of living. In a single page, we watch Cécile wrestle herself for dominance of character, at times a grateful young adult who appreciates the maturing effect Anne has on her, and other times a spiteful child who resents Anne for making it impossible to live apathetically.
“The way she gestured to [Raymond], isn’t that love, and isn’t it a kind of love he’ll not find again? And the way she smiled at me with that trace of anxiety in her eyes, how could I resent her for it? ... She is cold whereas we are warm-hearted ...Only we two are truly alive and she is going to insinuate herself between us with her impassiveness. She is going to warm herself by gradually drawing from us our lovely, carefree warmth. She is going to rub us of everything like a beautiful serpent. ... But this is ridiculous! It’s Anne, intelligent Anne, the person who has taken care of you.”
Each of these two versions of Cécile has an idea of how the future will be, and within each picture of the future is an image of who she will be – a hardworking student and doting daughter who goes on to a life not unlike the sophisticated if somewhat staid life Anne has led, or femme fatale in a bar who sidles up to an attractive man “just as world-weary as [she] was” to wistfully recount the lovers she’s laid and the loves she’s lost.
It is here that the novel, for me, finds its philosophical bedrock, the foundational subject of deepest and most profound examination: the relationship between one’s identity and one’s set of ethics.
Somewhere in the midst of my re-reading Bonjour Tristesse, I took a break to listen to one of my favourite podcasts, Beyond the Screenplay, which devotes itself to analysing the craft of writing stories for cinema. This particular episode was deconstructing Gone Girl and its psychopathic central character who thinks murder, suicide, and false criminal allegations fall within the same category as cheating on a partner. Tricia Aurand commented on the way that, amongst the many identities we take on with different friends and associates, our self-identity (“How we act when we are alone”) is vital to forming a coherent set of ethics to determine our behaviour:
“Our ethical code is usually about, ‘I can’t act that way because that doesn’t square with my version of myself. I don’t want to be a bad person, a cruel person, or a dishonest person ... I’m a good person because I do this and I’m generous, and brave.’ ... That idea of our Self governs what we’re capable of ... Someone like Amy [the character in Gone Girl] does not have that vision of herself that restricts and bounds what she’s willing to do or not do.”
This was a game-changer for how I was reading Bonjour Tristesse. I suddenly saw how Cécile’s wavering commitment to her own plan – from revelling in her own hard-heartedness to repulsed at her callous outlook – and her ever-shifting justifications for the plan – from pure self-interest to loving care for her father – are intimately connected to her unstable sense of self.
When Cécile encounters one of her father’s recent ex-lovers and sees that bringing her back into her father’s affections will rid them of Anne, she tries to convince her mark that Anne and her father must not marry. But in saying what needs to be said to convince this recently scorned woman (named Elsa) to steal Raymond back, Cécile notes, “I was actually expressing my own feelings, no doubt in a crude, elementary form, but it corresponded to what I believe.” We see here that what she feels ethically justified in doing is an expression of what she takes to be her true self.
When Cécile experiences her first rush of remorse for this scheming, she decides both to cancel that plan with Elsa and to study hard for her upcoming exam. What is the link between these two things? What does her reversal on splitting up her father and Anne have to do with whether she commits herself to her studies? Both are features of the person she, in this moment, takes as her identity. She is someone who cannot hurt Anne because she cares for Anne, and because she cares for Anne, she is willing to do what Anne wants of her, which is to take university seriously.
The following day, Cécile seeks out Elsa to call a stop to their scheming. At the same time, her casual lover, Cyril, proposes. Cécile begins this scene wanting to treat Anne well and not wanting to marry Cyril. However, she leaves the scene having established how Anne will be ejected from the story and “euphoric” in dreaming of how she will one day marry her boyfriend. This see-sawing will continue throughout the story, teetering more recklessly until the tragic ending.
Committing to a single line of action means committing to a unified sense of self. When I behave in a way that breaks an established code of behaviour, a code on which I had built my identity, I feel shame and label this breaking of my own code as being “unethical”. Here, “unethical” means out of synch with the values that define who I am, with shame being the name we give to the moral discomfort and narrative friction caused by contradicting our own life story.
It is possible to circumvent this discomfort by changing my identity to make sense of this otherwise incongruent behaviour. I can straighten the story out by altering my character, so that while I wasn’t the kind of person who did X before, I am now. I rewrite my life story so that my latest action is no longer out of line with the kind of person I take myself to be.
I have known a few people who have opted, over and over again, for this option. These people tell a new story about who they are seemingly every six months. Sometimes it comes about because they want something out of line with their current values, and their will-power and/or self-identity is so insubstantial they bend to the force of whim rather than stand fast against it. Other times it is simply because they fail – as all humans do – and the pain of reconciling themselves to their own failure is worse than the effort of overhauling their identity. In all cases, they never strike me as very happy people.
Cécile, too, comes out of her story burdened by what she has done and who she has been. The joy and frivolity of the start of Summer have been abandoned, or have abandoned her, and she finishes her story greeting her heartache by its name: Bonjour tristesse. Hello sadness.
But there is hope for the rest of us. There is a way out of the madness of chasing selves, of being buffeted from one identity to another, of spinning and bouncing like some pinball ego careening from one version of a personality to another. We can commit to a unity of the self, a hard-won freedom, rather than being slaves to circumstance, tossed from one set of ethics and values to another. And reading has long been a vital tool for many of us in this endeavour.
Early in Bonjour Tristesse, Cécile notes of herself, “Love of pleasure seems to be the only consistent side of my character.” She wonders about the reason for this superficiality of identity. “Is it because I have not read enough?”
Readers experience the lives of others as if performed for us in a kind of hypothetical experiment. I don’t need to actually become a self-centred narcissist willing to hurt others – I can “experience” this vicariously when I pick up Bonjour Tristesse. I can try on this and an infinite number of other ways of being through books, and books can also add to the repertoire of my Self. I can discover additional aspects of an identity, which contribute to, rather than contradict, my self-identity. Books can give me myself, and they can save me from myself. Bonjour bonheur.
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• Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan (1954)
• Episode 9: Gone Girl, Beyond the Screenplay [podcast] (2019)