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Posted March 26, 2001
Les Armoires vides Ernaux's first book, the novel entitled Les Armoires vides is perhaps the clearest example of her preoccupations as a writer containing in embryo all the themes Ernaux will pursue in her later work. Its narrator is a young woman called Denise Lesur who is a second-year literature student. An unplanned pregnancy has led her to a back-street abortion clinic and it is there that she decides to relate the story of her life so far. Denise's story is, typically, one of migration from a social class (uneducated rural lower middle-class) to another (educated urban bourgeoisie) and of the confusions engendered by this shift. She describes herself as: `Baisée de tous les côtés' (Les Armoires vides p.17), and the story she tells is her attempt to understand the alienation she feels at sea between two different worlds. Denise's parents own and run a `café-épicerie' in small-town Normandy just like the parents in La Place and Une Femme. She enjoys a carefree childhood with them and the other children from the neighbourhood until she reaches school-age. Her parents who themselves have experienced social mobility, moving from the peasantry to the lower middle- classes, are anxious that she too should do well and send her to the local fee-paying school, the école libre. It is at the école libre that Denise's feelings of estrangement begin. Denise soon becomes aware of the social differences which set her apart from the other children and of her own inferiority: `Je me sentais lourde, poisseuse, face à leur aisance, à leur facilité, les filles de l'école libre' (Les Armoires vides p.61). In order to feel more at home in her new world Denise is obliged to erase all traces of her own culture. She learns to modify her behaviour and tastes by adopting those of her middle-class fellow students. She begins to detest: `le bal musette avec accordéon, le petit coup de blanc, les films de Fernandel, les concerts de l'harmonie municipale, tout ce que l'on aime chez moi' (Les Armoires vides p.130) and aspires to: `le monde des surboums, des blue-jeans, du coca-cola' (Les Armoires vides p.130) of her classmates. Her identification with this milieu continues throughout school and university. As she grows older and becomes more sexually aware she begins to see relationships with middle-class boys as a way of strengthening her sense of belonging to this milieu. Her sense of truly having arrived occurs one day when: `un garçon du collège a dit de moi , ça m'a fait cent fois plus de plaisir qu'un vingt sur vingt en math' (Les Armoires vides p.127). Later, at university her sense of having escaped her origins is crushed when she meets Marc, a law student of impeccable cultural credentials. She feels that she is: `une arriviste de la culture ... Rien qu'une fille de cafetier qui veut s'en sortir' (Les Armoires vides p.168). Her sense of failure is compounded when she discovers she is pregnant and that Marc is unwilling to stand by her. At the end of her story, Denise has come to an understanding of the alienation and the feelings of anger she has experienced for so much of her life: J'ai été coupée en deux, c'est ça ... Le cul entre deux chaises, ça pousse à la haine. (Les Armoires vides p.181). She has understood that the pejorative estimation placed on the working-class culture of her parents has obliged her to distance herself from it. She is aware, however, of the irreconciliable differences which forever set her apart from the middle-class milieu to which she aspires.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.