Sexuality as liberator and labor: Marguerite Duras' novella the Lover vs. Dark Spring by Unica Zurn
The potency of sexuality as a metaphor in literature derives from its simultaneous ability to represent both new life and death. It can lead to the birth of a new human being, but it also implies a death of an old identity and self -- and of course, all human beings who are born eventually die. In the French author Marguerite Duras' novella the Lover, sexuality is a life-giving force that enables the heroine to escape the confining world of her friends, family, and culture. It gives her a new identity that remains with her forever after, even when her life is difficult and she grows old. In contrast, Dark Spring by Unica Zurn, sexuality for the adolescent girl is intertwined with her descent into depression, despair, and dissociative mental illness. Zurn's protagonist feels pursued by her budding sexuality throughout the work, and her misery only ends in her self-induced demise: the twelve-year-old narrator commits suicide by jumping through a window.
In both female-authored works, sexuality is a vehicle of self-expression, and helps define the emerging character of the still-unformed young protagonist. But Duras' unnamed narrator uses her relationship with an older man from another culture to solidify her independence and autonomy, while the actions of Dark Spring are done 'to' the central character. The character feels attacked by the world around her, and seems incapable of reacting in ways that are not self-destructive.
Adolescent, transgressive sexuality is represented as a kind of 'healing' and life-defining force in the Lover. The Lover is set in French Indochina. Emotionally estranged from her depressed mother, the narrator asserts her desire by taking a lover at the age of fifteen -- a Chinese man who is her senior, as well as a cultural outsider to her world. This experience, as well as her loss, alienates her from her school friends. The affair marks her permanently, as delightful as it was: "Very early in my life it was too late. At eighteen it was already too late. I aged. This aging was brutal. It spread over my features, one by one. I saw this aging of my face with the same sort of interest I might have taken, for example, in the reading of a book. That new face, I kept it. it's kept the same contours, but it's like it is destroyed. I have a destroyed face" (Duras 2). This destruction is not entirely negative; rather it symbolizes the separation of the narrator from others and her greater wisdom. Unlike those Frenchwomen who believed what they heard about Asians, Duras' narrator ignores conventional beliefs. Rather than worrying about ruining her reputation, she dons her mother's silk dress, wears high heels and make-up, and does everything she can to appear older and mature in the eyes of men. When she first meets her lover, the son of a Chinese millionaire, she is going back to boarding school. But she looks nothing like a child: she is ostentatiously dressed in gold lame shoes and a man's hat.
There is clearly a deep and pressing need motivating the impulses of the narrator to vie for male attention. The narrator's father is has died, leaving her mother to raise the family, alone in a strange land. Rather than bringing them closer together, death divides the family: "My younger brother died in three days, of bronchial pneumonia. His heart gave out. It was then that I left my mother. It was during the Japanese occupation. Everything came to an end that day. I never asked her any more questions about our childhood, about herself. She died, for me, of my younger brother's death. So did my elder brother. I never got over the horror they inspired in me then. They don't mean anything to me any more. I don't know any more about them since that day" (Duras 26). Her mother had openly favored her sons, leaving the narrator in an emotionally barren state. Her mother works as a school administrator, and the girl wants nothing to do with a life of women or of…