24 pages 48 minutes read

Marguerite Duras

The Lover

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1984

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Summary and Study Guide


The Lover (L’amant in the original French) by Marguerite Duras was published in 1984. It is a semi-autobiographical novel that recounts a young girl’s affair with a wealthy, older Chinese man in French-colonized Vietnam. The novel explores themes of colonialism, femininity, and poverty through the unnamed narrator’s experiences with the lover. The Lover won the 1984 Prix Goncourt, an award for French literature, and was adapted into a film of the same name in 1992. The edition referenced in this summary is the 1985 English version translated by Barbara Bray and published by Pantheon Books.

Plot Summary

The Lover is semi-autobiographical. It has discontinuous narration that follows the narrator’s free associative thought process. This plot summary follows the timeline of events the novel covers and not the discontinuous timeline presented by the narrator. The narrator begins by describing an image of herself. She holds it in her mind from her youth in French-colonial Saigon. In the image, her 15-year-old self crosses the Mekong River on a ferry wearing a secondhand dress, heeled shoes, and a man’s hat. This is moments before she meets the lover for the first time and begins an affair with him.

The lover, a wealthy and influential Chinese man living in the colonized city, notices the narrator on the ferry and approaches her. They talk briefly before leaving in his car. He begins driving her from her boarding school to high school each day, until eventually they return to his house. There they have sex, and the narrator describes to him the poverty her family lives in. They cannot afford new clothes or to leave the colony, but because they are white, they are in no danger of running out of food. The lover’s own significant fortune is tied to the business dealings of his father. The lover is bound to obey his father if he wishes to have access to that money. The lover claims that he is in love with the narrator; the narrator claims that she desires him for his money.

They begin an affair that includes expensive dinners, both alone and with the narrator’s family. The narrator’s family is disdainful of the lover both for his race and his inappropriate contact with the underage narrator. They accept the lover’s financial generosity without acknowledging him. The narrator, too, follows her eldest brother’s lead and doesn’t acknowledge the lover when they are all in public. Her eldest brother’s abusive, controlling hold over the family has contributed to their poverty as their mother tries to support her son well into adulthood. The narrator desires financial and social independence.

As rumors of the affair spread, the vice-principal of the narrator’s boarding school questions her. Her mother defends her, then privately beats her for ruining her chances at marrying a man in the colonies. The narrator often compares herself ironically to the depressed, socially rigid women living in Saigon, wanting to find more freedom in her life than marriage in the colonies.

The lover’s father pressures him to break contact with the narrator. The narrator agrees with the lover’s father and does not want to marry the lover; she only wants access to his money. She prepares to leave Saigon for France. The lover is distraught but cannot convince his father nor the narrator that he should marry the narrator. After the narrator leaves colonial Vietnam, the lover is married to a Chinese heiress.

The narrator begins a life in France unconnected from her family or past in Saigon. She learns of her younger brother’s death during World War II, then her mother’s death, and finally her elder brother’s. She hints at having a son of her own and a living husband but does not describe them in detail. Instead, she describes two of the society women she is friends with in Paris. These relationships suggest that she has achieved the financial independence she longed for in Saigon. The novel ends with the lover visiting Paris with his new wife decades after the end of his affair with the narrator. The lover confesses that he still loves her and always will. She gives no response.