Annie Ernaux | Critical Essay by Loraine Day

This literature criticism consists of approximately 20 pages of analysis & critique of Annie Ernaux.
This section contains 5,882 words
(approx. 20 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Loraine Day

SOURCE: "Class, Sexuality, and Subjectivity in Annie Ernaux's Les Armoires vides," in Contemporary French Fiction by Women: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Margaret Atack and Phil Powrie, Manchester University Press, 1990, pp. 41-55.

In the essay below, Day examines Ernaux's treatment of social stature, sexuality, feminine subjectivity, women's rights, and personal identity in Cleaned Out.

The construction of female subjectivity within the network of social relations has been of prime concern to feminists working from a variety of different theoretical perspectives: psychoanalytical, sociological, historical, Marxist and anthropological. The privileged place accorded to issues relating to sexuality within feminist theoretical investigations of female subjectivity is scarcely surprising, given the role that this has played in the oppression of women. However, it is important to remember that female subjectivity is not a monolithic structure: women live their sexuality differently according to their nationality, race, class and generation, and relations of class, race and generation may well be as important, or in some cases more important than sexuality in the construction of female subjectivity. As in recent feminist theoretical analysis, problems relating to sexuality are often prominent in female-authored imaginative works (particularly novels) which explore feminine identity, but other aspects of social relations frequently assume considerable importance as crucial formative influences. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that literary works which represent the interlocking network of social relations through which subjectivity is formed may illuminate areas of feminist enquiry which have proved resistant to theoretical analysis, for example the articulation of class and gender oppression, of women's collusion in their oppression. Despite the problematical nature of the relationship between literature and reality (even the most resolutely 'realistic' literature can only be a subjective version of reality), imaginative writing is of interest to feminism because it is one of the major domains of cultural representation. It is through representation that we interpret our experience and construct meaning (words and images allow us to recount or picture our relationship to the world), and we are constructed as subjects partly through our exposure to the cultural representations which surround us. Feminists have understood that there is an essential connection between the representational practices and the power structures of a given society: representational practices may reinforce or challenge the status quo, but are never 'innocent' or neutral. Literary and other representations are of special interest if they are produced by women, not because this guarantees their feminist credentials, which it clearly does not, but because they reveal some of the ways in which women submit to, collude in or refuse the definitions and norms of feminine existence which have currency in their society.

This study will examine Les Armoires vides, a novel by Annie Ernaux which focuses on the social construction of subjectivity and the articulation between sexuality and class. The narrative has a fundamentally interrogative function and form: the female narrator, speaking from a position of near despair, seeks to untie the knot which constitutes her subjectivity, to elucidate for herself the processes and experiences which have made her what she is. Problems of psychosexual development are foregrounded, as the crisis which, within the fiction, motivates the enquiry is an unplanned pregnancy and the back-street abortion to which the narrator has recourse. Relations of class and generation also figure prominently in the text, through the representation of the narrator's struggle for autonomy and independence from her parents, a struggle which is embittered by the narrator's determination to escape from the lower-class environment to which her parents belong. The precise historical setting is carefully established, with the main focus falling on France in the 1950s and early 1960s. Les Armoires vides draws attention to the vulnerability of women in a society which sanctions male dominance and denies women the right to control their sexuality, and highlights the class hierarchy which structured French society in those decades, as indeed it has continued to do, with modifications, through the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s. The novel was in preparation in 1972 and 1973, and was published in 1974, at a time when the campaign to legalise abortion and to enhance the accessibility of contraception (legalised in 1967 but still not widely and easily available in 1974) had achieved a high level of momentum, but when its success was by no means guaranteed (the Loi Veil on reform of the 1920 abortion law became operative on a provisional basis in January 1975, but was not ratified until five years later).

Les Armoires vides, the first of Annie Ernaux's novels to be published, is written in the form of an uninterrupted interior monologue tracing the thoughts of the narrator (Denise Lesur, a second-year university student) as she waits for an abortion to take its course. She is anxious, bitter and a prey to conflicting emotions, alternatively blaming herself and others for her situation, despising her parents yet consumed with guilt for the way she has failed and rejected them. The motivation for the narrative is her desperate need to understand more clearly the downward trajectory her life has taken: how did the proud, contented little girl, 'happy from head to toes to be Denise Lesur', become the divided, humiliated young woman whose future and even survival now hang in the balance? As she looks back on her development as a child, adolescent and young woman, sexuality and class emerge as major preoccupations: sexuality because of the nature of the crisis which generates the account, and class because the obsessive desire to escape from her class background retrospectively appears to the narrator to be the fundamental trope of her psyche from early adolescence until the present time of the unfolding narration. She is confident of the link between her present situation as a victim of her own sexuality and her feelings towards her parents and their world: this link is apparent not just because she is frequently tempted to lay the blame for her situation at the feet of her parents, but also because the process of self-analysis through which she hopes to arrive at greater self-understanding invests massively in the attempt to untangle the knot of conflicting emotions which ties her to her parents and to her home environment. Thus Denise's account of herself is rooted in the perception that class awareness and psychosexual development are fundamentally imbricated, feeding into each other in ways that are complex and shifting. In childhood and early adolescence, Denise feared and despised her sexuality, which seemed to fix her firmly in her home environment, to weld her to everything she sought to leave behind; later, sexuality seemed to promise escape from her background and to offer the purity of a freely chosen and self-determined identity. It is this changing and seemingly paradoxical relationship between sexuality and class that I shall examine first. To facilitate subsequent analysis, I shall begin by establishing the essential lines of the story she tells.

Denise Lesur is born to parents who run a small grocery

Cover of 1980 English-language version of Les armoires vides.Cover of 1980 English-language version of Les armoires vides.
store and bar. In early childhood, she is more than content with her lot, happily installed at the centre of a world that she finds harmonious, infinitely pleasurable, protectively all-enveloping. This sense of unity and well-being is rapidly and devastatingly undermined when Denise begins to attend the fee-paying Roman Catholic school which her parents, anxious that she should receive a good education, select in preference to the neighbourhood state school. At school, Denise is immediately projected into an alien world, a world where the habits, behaviour and above all language of her home environment have no currency. The refinement and style which Denise perceives in the existence of her class-mates, and which figure in the books which she increasingly loves to read, exert an irresistible appeal, and she grows more and more contemptuous of her parents' humble existence. Denise learns to hide her shameful 'difference': she maintains a strict silence about her home life, earns the respect of her class-mates for the consistently high marks which she achieves, and above all, she trains herself to speak as the teachers and other girls do, to adopt the language of the books she reads, a discourse retrospectively perceived as 'a system of passwords to gain access to another milieu'. As a teenager, Denise develops a new strategy: a series of intimate relationships with middle-class boys consolidates her growing sense of belonging in the bourgeois world. At university, she has an extended affair with Marc, an impeccably bourgeois student; she becomes pregnant, and although initially this generates a sense of triumph ('I've swallowed the lot, him, the middle-class kid, the good upbringing, the other milieu. Almost one better than first-year exams'), disillusionment follows rapidly: Marc fails to rally round and provide a solution (whether marriage or an abortion in a private clinic); Denise is left to seek out a back-street abortionist, and to reflect on her unhappy situation.

Looking back over her experience, the narrator identifies her first confession, a normal part of school routine, as the incident which more than any other confirmed her sense of isolation at school and definitively closed the door on childhood happiness and unreflecting acceptance of her home environment. The priest's condemnation of the onanistic sexual activity to which she confesses is severe, and it is hardly surprising if the little girl is traumatised by his stern and frightening denunciation of the early stirrings of sexuality. Yet the crushing sense of sin provoked by this incident attaches not so much to the child's sexuality as to her home existence in its entirety. In condemning her embryonic sexuality, for the child the most private and least understood part of her experience, the priest confirms and ratifies the judgment passed on Denise's habits, speech and assumptions by teachers and class-mates. The fundamental sense of impurity which continues to afflict Denise is certainly associated with her inability to repress her sexuality (a particularly violent attack of self-loathing is occasioned by the spontaneous orgasm which she experiences as she sits at home doing her Latin homework!); its centre however does not lie in her sexuality, but in the ever-increasing mortification she feels in belonging to a class which she despises:

I'm left with my old sin which defies classification, neither mortal nor venial, unnamable, a mixture of dirty girl, don't touch that, stolen sweets, stew scraped up from the workmen's serving bowls, lethargic dreams at school and above all, my parents, my background of grotty shopkeepers.

In darker moments, it seems to the narrator that her background is a malediction, a mark of Cain which dooms her to ignominy and failure. The pregnancy and abortion signal the triumphant return of everything she had sought to repress, the inevitable punishment for her pride, her self-confidence, her naive belief that she could escape the condition into which she was born.

This early negative assessment of sexuality, when it is identified with the milieu which she despises, is dramatically inverted in Denise's middle teenage years, when she starts to go out with boys. However, in the preliminary stages of this new phase, sexuality remains repressed, precisely because it is associated with the self which the narrator seeks to leave behind: 'a rounded thigh hurriedly concealed, that mustn't come into my plans, only chaste embraces'. However, despite the low priority initially given to sexuality in this new venture, Denise is far from indifferent to the sensual pleasure which she soon experiences. The shame and self-loathing associated with her solitary experiences of sexual arousal in the Rue Clopart (where her parents' business is located) give way to triumphant self-assertion and a sense of purification. The exhilaration she experiences in a series of relationships and encounters draws on a cluster of interconnected emotions. Most importantly perhaps, the novelty and intensity of the world of sensation opened up by these relationships restore her to the centre of her own experience and suppress (if only temporarily) the obsessive comparisons which usually bedevil her existence. She rediscovers the capacity for spontaneous pleasure in her own experience, the untroubled sense of self-coincidence which has eluded her since she first learnt to measure her own existence against that of her class-mates. On a more reflective level, sexual pleasure forges an identity which owes nothing to her parents and family, not only because it defies the maternal interdiction on sexuality, but also because it seems to be self-determined in a way that her academic persona, which she owed to her parents' toil, and perhaps to talents inherited from a clever grandmother, is not. For these reasons, sexual pleasure has a strongly redemptive value, an almost magical power to transform the narrator's subjectivity: 'I feel renewed, weak, stripped of my old sins. As a couple, down the little path, it wasn't dirty'. This reflection implicitly contrasts two modes of specifically sexual pleasure (the solitary pleasure of the Rue Clopart, and the shared pleasure Denise finds in couple relationships), but in reality a much wider field of experience is in question. The sense of purification and grace which illuminates the narrator's existence in this phase of her development derives from her increasingly confident conviction that she is successfully breaking away from the social world inhabited by her parents, and finding her 'true' place in the charmed world of the bourgeoisie. The use of vocabulary and imagery with religious connotations serves to underline the dramatic nature of the shift in Denise's self-perceptions, but also draws attention to the associations and assumptions which inform her fundamental project (to overcome her sense of difference and inferiority): the original sin of inferior social status has as its counterpoint the grace which inevitably accompanies bourgeois existence.

In the preceding analysis, we have seen that Denise is concerned to work out the connections between her obsession with class difference and her sexual development. However, it is her experience of class which consistently emerges as the dominant factor in the construction of her subjectivity, and which largely determines how she lives her sexuality. With the benefit of hindsight, Denise is able to perceive the array of mutually supportive pressures and influences which lead her to internalise the norms and values of the dominant class in her society, and hence to reject the milieu into which she was born. The story documents the ways in which Denise learns to recognise and value the ideal life style: it is considered the norm by teachers and class-mates, it is represented in textbooks, storybooks and magazines, it is on display in shop windows, in smart restaurants and bars, and in the houses of the well-to-do. She develops a personal barometer for the measurement of social status: families come up to standard if they are genteel (polite in speech, reserved in manner), value privacy and hygiene, accept conventional gender roles and take extended holidays; individuals are judged on their appearance (hairstyle, bearing, dress), mannerisms (way of laughing, eating habits), cultural tastes (choice of newspapers and magazines, preferred authors, sophistication of musical tastes) and above all on their speech (confidence, articulateness, use of irony). On one side of the barrier lie humiliation and defeat, the marginal existence of people like her parents; on the other side, privilege and power crown the magical existence of people like Marc, at ease everywhere, knowing no fear, infinitely free. In submitting to the appeal of the dominant milieu, Denise responds in a fundamentally compliant way: she acts in accordance with her parents' desire for her to better herself, she remodels herself in the pattern of the ideal which is held out to her at school, and which is reinforced by the dominant representational practices of the time and by the distribution of power and prestige which she observes in her society. Her rejection of her home environment is in the logic of the society in which she lives; it is deeply ironic, as Denise herself bitterly recognises, that her teachers should stress her parents' self-sacrifice, and exhort her to show her appreciation, when with their every word and mannerism, these same teachers condemn the world her parents inhabit. A major achievement of Denise's self-analysis is that she comes to understand the difficulty of the situation in which she was placed: 'I've been split in two, that's it, my parents, my family of farmhands and manual workers, and school, books (…). When you're caught between two stools, it drives you to hate. I had to choose'. To the child and the young teenager, social differences seemed to be innate, or else freely chosen; she did not then appreciate (as by implication she now does) the material basis of the refinement she admired, the force of circumstances which largely determines the expectations and norms adopted by people of different social classes:

It never occurred to me that social differences might come from money, I thought it was all innate (…). I thought they'd chosen it, that they were happy. It needs a lot of thought, years of reading and study, not to think like that, especially when you're just a kid, and the system is in full swing.

The gradual advance of intellectual understanding which is here evoked has been reinforced by the more visceral awakening imposed upon Denise by Marc's failure to act with integrity, or even with decency, when he learns of her pregnancy. The galloping disenchantment with the bourgeois world which sweeps through Denise in the wake of her affair with Marc leaves her in limbo, since it nullifies the project (integration into the bourgeoisie) which has occupied her for so long. Profoundly alienated from everything she has tried to achieve, Denise no longer knows who she is or where she is going, and she looks in vain for role models, whether literary or living, to which she might turn for guidance and support.

In 'narrating herself', Denise hopes to organise and structure her perceptions, to understand, and thereby control and contain, experiences which threaten to overwhelm her. This does not mean that with hindsight, Denise is able to resolve contradictions and heal the divisions within her subjectivity. On the contrary, her account involves the confrontation of conflict and ambivalence, and leaves the narrator with a heightened awareness of her instability, fragmentation and loss. The resulting sense of emptiness and dispersion is foregrounded in the title of the novel: having the social and cultural norms of her family to accommodate the cultural baggage of the bourgeoisie, she now perceives the worthlessness of her adopted values [as noted in the epigraph to the novel from a poem by Paul Eluard which states: 'I've stored up false treasures in empty cupboards'].

Denise finds no solution to her personal dilemma, no panacea for the sickness of her society. However, her account is all the more compelling because it avoids facile judgements: the narrator is aware of the heavy social pressures which led her to internalise bourgeois norms, and hence to despise her parents' life style, but she also recognises her own responsibility in giving free rein to elitism and pride, and realises that it was open to her to seek another way forward, to try to fulfil her intellectual potential without turning her back on her family; her parents have sacrificed their own advancement for Denise's benefit, but their ambitions for their daughter lie at the root of her dilemma. Denise's teachers, and the power of the printed word and image, are perhaps most heavily implicated in her apprenticeship to elitism, as she herself presents it, yet even in this sphere Denise recognises that some of her teachers, and some of her reading, have been instrumental in raising her awareness of social injustice. Painful as it is for Denise to turn her back on the ideals and convictions which have been her raison d'être, the process of radical questioning in which she is now engaged represents a step towards greater understanding of herself and her society; it effectively puts an end to the fundamental compliance and uncritical acceptance which have previously typified her attitude to dominant bourgeois ideologies: in deconstructing the experiences which led her to internalise bourgeois ways and values, the narrator lays the foundation for her own relative autonomy.

As Denise's account clearly demonstrates, she is aware that her sense of humiliation through class permeates the way she lives her sexuality; at the same time, she is very conscious of the way in which her attitudes to class have been socially constructed. To what extent are social and cultural factors also implicated in the construction of her sexuality? The high valuation which Denise places on sexual pleasure derives at least in part from her perception of it as a sign of defiance (it marks her rejection of her parents' values) and as a privileged area of experience capable of generating a new, self-determined identity. It is evident that these notions rest on the prior acceptance of a conception of sexuality as a transgressive experience which has special importance in the life of the individual. Michel Foucault has traced the history of these ideas, showing how they have come to permeate Western culture; they surface here in the messages about sexuality which Denise receives at school and at home. The cultural endorsement of heterosexuality, and indeed marriage, is so familiar that it can easily pass unnoticed (this is true even in the 1990s, when couple relationships and family structures are much more diverse than they were in the 1950s and 1960s); Denise's account mentions children's games and rhymes, schoolbooks, magazines and novels which contain representations of heterosexuality and portray marriage as the normal and desirable form of adult sexual relations. Denise's use of her sexuality as a strategy in the negotiation of an improved social situation follows a well-established pattern insofar as heterosexual relationships (especially marriage) are an accepted path to social elevation for women. In similar vein, as a young teenager, Denise was fascinated by stories of girls who turn to prostitution to escape the trap of a wretched existence.

What are the modalities of female desire in this insistently heterosexual context? Denise's account includes a cluster of references which associates female sexuality with pain and humiliation, and identifies women as objects to be used and abused by men. Denise has a clear recollection of sexual arousal at a young age (perhaps only five or six or a little older), triggered by the gossip which she overheard in the shop. In her reconstruction of these incidents, the stories which have such a profound effect on her focus on situations in which a woman has a sexual encounter with two or three men. The woman concerned would be heavily censured by Denise's mother and her interlocutor, but with mounting excitement, Denise would imagine the men's fingers and hands exploring the woman's body, relaxed and compliant as the illicit caresses multiply. She remembers Bouboule, a regular in the bar and a favourite of hers, taking her by the hair and pulling her towards him, holding her so tightly and closely that it hurt, and refusing to heed her (half-hearted?) protests until she gave him a kiss. A game which she used to play with her best friend Monette has also left a lasting impression: they would act out a quarrel between a man and wife, with the man beating his wife and insulting her: 'dirty bitch, slag'. This pattern of female submission in the face of male assertiveness and aggression recurs in Denise's account of an illusionist's act which she witnessed at a local fair when she was five or six. The illusion in question is a variation on one which will be familiar to most, if not all, readers: a radiant lady was locked in a silver box by some men, who then proceeded to plunge sabres into the box. The narrator is unable to remember whether or not she saw the woman emerge from the box, but she does recall 'the clashing of knives, straight into her stomach, diagonally into the small of her back, all the points coming together just above the hairline'. The imagined terrible fate of this lady is played out again, in a very different vein, in the story of Maria Goretti, which is held forth as an example to Denise and her class-mates. Maria Goretti was an Italian girl who, at the age of twelve, was stabbed to death by a neighbour and would-be rapist of nineteen; she was canonised in 1950. The New Catholic Encyclopaedia offers the following account of her martyrdom:

Alessandro (…) sought in vain to seduce Maria and threatened her with death if she revealed his designs. On July 5, 1902, Alessandro entered the Goretti home with a dagger during the mother's absence. Maria repulsed his advances and told him: 'No, God does not wish it. It is a sin. You would go to hell for it.' The youth then stabbed the girl repeatedly. She died the next day (…) after forgiving her murderer.

Presumably, the figure of Maria Goretti was considered a suitable model for young girls because of her purity, maidenly honour and fortitude in the face of evil. The narrator remembers the distraught faces of her class-mates as the story unfolded, but recalls a very different reaction in herself: 'While the others listen (…) with horror, I dream of the wild, sinful boy the stupid girl wouldn't even kiss.' Significantly, the illusionist's trick and the story of Maria Goretti are brought together when Denise evokes another vivid childhood memory. One afternoon, Denise and Monette (now both about ten) tease their friend Michel by pulling down his shorts and holding him captive while they investigate intimate parts of his anatomy. The boy offers little if any resistance, but as his penis stiffens beneath their touch, he surprises them with a breathless 'Which one do I screw?' Further developments are prevented by the arrival of Monette's mother, but Denise has not forgotten the heavy-limbed torpor of the walk home, nor her instantaneous reaction to Michel's crudely suggestive remark: 'Swords crossed in all directions, Saint Maria Goretti.'

While it seems probable that these formulations express as much alarm as erotic excitement (of course the two are not mutually exclusive), they certainly suggest that Denise's childhood perception of the female role in sexual relationships with men involves pain and submission to masculine aggression. Indeed, it is by no means clear that this conception of female sexuality has been outgrown by the adult narrator, who on several occasions notes (without elaboration or special emphasis) the contiguity of sexual pleasure and pain, and whose most developed relationship, with Marc, is profoundly masochistic on her part. However, as she reconstructs her sexual and affective experience, Denise does not immediately identify masochism in herself. Indeed, the debagging of Michel, her active pursuit of boys, and her resentment of the male prerogative to initiate and pace a relationship, suggest an assertiveness which does not sit easily with the image of female docility and submission. It is only when she confronts the most painful area of her sexual history, the affair with Marc, that she comes to understand the intensely masochistic nature of her attachment to him, and to perceive the humiliation (at first verbal, later perhaps also physical) she had accepted, even sought, as a sign of his superiority over her. Why does this masochism surface only with Marc? By the time she meets Marc, Denise has behind her a string of relationships with middle-class boys, selected precisely for what she perceives to be their superiority over her. Although she experiences occasional feelings of inadequacy in comparing her own accomplishments with those of her boyfriends, Denise keeps these feelings under tight control, always maintaining her sense of purpose and autonomy, and nurturing her growing sense of self-esteem. Only with Marc does she abandon self-restraint and submit to the power which he holds by virtue of his class dominance. It is possible that Denise's subjection to Marc may be explained by her perception of him as superlatively bourgeois ('so superior that I won't resist him'), or indeed by a sadistic streak in Marc; but it is tempting to speculate that once Denise allows her sexuality free rein, as she does only with Marc, an internalised model of female humiliation overcomes the assertive tendencies she has previously displayed. If this is the case, then Denise's submission to Marc may be seen as a manifestation of internalised oppression through class and gender. The two kinds of oppression coexist and reinforce each other, and Denise is doubly handicapped in relation to Marc and others of his sex and class.

Despite the many difficulties attaching to the subject of masochism, it is clear that female masochism in heterosexual relationships is problematical insofar as it is complicit with male dominance in other spheres, and insofar as it is the sign and product of a cultural imbalance: it may well be the case, as psychoanalysis suggests, that both sexes have an infantile history of aggression and passivity, sadism and masochism, but the gradual internalisation of cultural norms militates against the possibility that these different positions will remain equally accessible to men and to women. Women need to be aware of the force of cultural representations of sexuality, and aware of the ease with which an oppressive model of female sexuality may be internalised. Denise successfully deconstructs the processes leading to the internalisation of class hierarchy, but the social construction of sexuality and gender is not the specific focus of her attention. However, as readers we are free to make the connections which the narrator has yet to discover (and which the author might not have consciously confronted, at the time of writing), we are free to extend Denise's analysis by applying her insights regarding the social construction of attitudes to class to the rich material on sexuality and gender which her account also features.

An Excerpt from Cleaned Out

I've got to stay on my back, on my stomach, spread my legs, push up, squat down, pre-abortion gymnastics. How he'd laugh, the rotten little bourgeois jerk … Feel my stomach, imagine how it'll feel when it's set off, like a shell exploding, a balloon at the fairground or a popping geyser.

Just what I deserved, punishment administered by an intermediary. The whole thing triggered by a small red tube. Twenty years to come to this. No one's fault. Only myself to blame, from beginning to end. Who? First I was the storekeeper's daughter, always top of the class. Then a great big lump wearing socks on Sundays, the scholarship student. Then screwed up by a backstreet abortionist, and that might be the end of it. Me amid the cans of beans in the shop window, the tan coat I wore for three years, all the books—did you read this one?—the flattened grass at the July fair, the gentle hand, no you mustn't … People everywhere, reeling, gesticulating. They come closer, purple-faced, arms swinging free, they come from all over, old guys always in debt, loonies from the old people's home next door, dirty old men always touching you, the ones who buy cans of corned beef on credit. They knew I despised them, the Lesur girl who was good for serving the potatoes. Now they've got their revenge. Secretary, typist, they understand that, girls with white hands, red nails, a bit snooty. But a student, that's way beyond them, what's she studying, literature, a blank, a fog, they give up in bewilderment, just as well, as my old folks wouldn't know how to explain it to them anyway. Cornered. A sudden movement, a splutter like in the medical dictionary, and that'll be the end. They'll find out, they'll go and prattle in the store, eager-eyed, "How did it happen," all lining up behind the counter. A pound of apples, a slice of cheese to get things going. My parents will bustle and feign ignorance, "Anything more?" All the customers rooted to the spot on the cracked flagstones, with their methylated alcohol and cheap vinegar, pushing against each other for fear of missing something. A cyst in the wrong place, a tumor, a vein somewhere that burst. Squash all the rumors. You can't kid these busybodies. I know them only too well. I've so often seen them come to buy their supper, beg a week's credit, talk about their problems, human dignity, modesty, decency, not in their vocabulary. I've watched them from childhood to college, rooted to the middle of the store, slumped round the tables in the bar, faded wallpaper, full of chatter and always watching. They used to look at me putting on my shirt, washing in the basin in the kitchen, doing my homework at one corner of the table. "What a cute girl, Nina, where d'you get your dress? What you gonna do when you grow up? You gonna be a barmaid? Don't you stick out your tongue or I'll pull down your pants and spank you." All those idiots in the bar would've given me a pounding, would have eaten me alive, if they'd been given a chance. If I hadn't been the bosses' daughter, if I hadn't started to loathe it all from then on, if I had been nice to the old man and woman, "We're your parents, you know." A flood of guilt. I couldn't stand it. Trace it all back to then, call it all up, fit it all together, an assembly line, one thing after another. Explain why I am shut up here in a crummy dorm room, terrified of dying and of what's going to happen. Figure it out, get to the bottom of it all between contractions. Find out where the whole mess began. I don't believe it, I didn't hate them from birth, I didn't always hate my parents, the customers, the store … I hate the others too now, those with an education, the professors, respectable people. I'm sick to death of them. Puke all over them, my education, culture, everything I've learned. Completely fucked up …

Annie Ernaux, in her Cleaned Out, translated by Carol Sanders, Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.

In what ways might Les Armoires vides be said to illuminate feminist enquiry? Firstly, it may be seen to provide a useful corrective to the tendency, in popular feminism, to privilege sexuality over other aspects of social relations. In Les Armoires vides, it is clear that the experience of class is the base line of the narrator's identity, a crucially important element in the construction of her subjectivity; here, at least from the time of Denise's schooldays, sexuality flows in a channel laid down by class awareness. Ultimately, however, in the case of the narrator, oppression through class and oppression through gender are cumulative and mutually reinforcing. Secondly, the novel draws attention to the social construction of subjectivity; it traces (whether explicitly or by implication) the social and cultural factors which lead the narrator to internalise an oppressive model of class and gender relations. Although Les Armoires vides offers no recommendations for the struggle against oppression, the position which it establishes for the reader is one of contestation. As a cultural representation of female subjectivity, it has a part to play in the construction of the reader's own subjective awareness: if the novel enhances the reader's sensitivity to the multi-faceted nature of social oppression, and her capacity to resist the pervasive influence of oppressive ideologies of class and gender, then its value to feminism seems clear.

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