Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a semi-autobiographical story of forbidden love between a 15-year-old French girl and her 27-year-old Chinese lover, the son of a millionaire. The nameless young woman, the narrator of this story, comes from an abusive family, and this causes her to be emotionally shut down. Thus Duras has the difficult task of rendering emotion on the page via a character who doesn’t have easy access to her emotions. Throughout this story, Duras deploys silence as a way of expressing emotion.
Silence can be bliss, it can be inviting, it can be peaceful. Or it can be an act of violence, and in this novel we see it used in very aggressive ways. Here is how Duras describes the meeting between the young woman’s family (mother and two brothers) and her lover:
These evenings are all the same. My brothers gorge themselves without saying a word to him. They don’t look at him either. They can’t. They’re incapable of it. If they could, if they could make the effort to see him, they’d be capable of studying, of observing the elementary rules of society. (50)
All of the emotional information (greed, hostility, disdain, denial) is given via the narrator’s interior monologue, giving us a blow-by-blow account of her thoughts as she watches her brothers. The sentences are carefully put together, with each sentence raising the stakes. We start at a low point of energy in the first sentence (these evenings are all the same). We learn in the second sentence that the brothers don’t speak to him, in the third sentence that they don’t look at him and in the fourth sentence that they’re incapable of engaging with him. The narrator ends the paragraph with a long sentence in which she speculates that if her brothers made the effort, all they could manage would be politeness. This last sentence captures how shut down the narrator is with her focus on the forms of social engagement, rather than its emotional content.