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Marguerite Duras

From Women in European History


Marguerite Duras

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Critical Biography written by: Ashley Finch

Critical Biography based on: Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994.

Critical Biography

Marguerite Duras was famous for her work as a French writer, a film director, and her battle with alcoholism. But in her memoirs, she doesn't discuss her experiences with writing, film, or her devastating battle with alcoholism. Instead, she focuses on her experiences during World War II. There are two stories in particular that she spends a lot of time talking about in her collections of memoirs, an autobiographical essay from her time working with the PCF, Parti communiste francais, and another that encompasses both the time she spent waiting for her husband, Robert Anthelme, to return from the war and the time it took to nurse him back to health from the typhus that he contracted while he was held prisoner by the Germans in Bergen-Belsen holding camp. These two stories, while important for gaining a deeper insight into the events surrounding World War II in France, are also important for understanding gender roles that were taken on during this time period. Through Duras’ two main memoirs, which are contained within War: The Memoir, we can see that although she adopted some practices that were typical of a wife in the 1940’s (e.g. nursing her sick husband back to health after the war, waiting for him to return with bated breath, working a secretarial job during the war), she also actively defied the stereotypical gender roles for women during her time period (e.g. divorcing her husband to marry his best friend, actively participating in the French Resistance).

Her most widely known memoir, and the one that I will address first, is entitled The War. This memoir was written during the time that Marguerite Duras spent waiting for her husband to return from Bergen-Belsen holding camp, it encompasses her horrors nursing him back to health from a bout of typhus and her subsequent request for a divorce after he recovered from typhus and regained some of his strength. This was also the first, and primary, story contained within her compilation, The War: A Memoir. Even though this story is chronologically the last rather than the first that Duras wrote, it is important to address this particular memoir first in order to obtain a clear understanding of Marguerite Duras: her courage, her stability, and her endurance. She chose to place this story first in her memoir compilation and I will stay true to that format with this critical biography in an attempt to accurately describe her life in the order that she wanted it told.

After men returned from the war, their wives were expected to take care of them and Marguerite Duras fulfilled this duty willingly, but after conforming so typically to those expected gender roles she shook things up completely by divorcing her husband as soon as he was well again and almost immediately after her returned from Bergen-Belsen.

Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz or Majdanek. [1] The prisoners in Bergen-Belsen didn’t die by way of gas chambers, torture, shooting, or medical experiments. Instead, starvation, disease epidemics, and general neglect killed the thousands of prisoners who died at Bergen-Belsen. Marguerite Duras’ husband was also affected by the disease epidemics. He was almost a casualty of the typhus [2] that he contracted while he was a political prisoner in Bergen-Belsen. He was so sick that when they brought the doctor in to see him after his return to France, he didn’t immediately recognize that the body he saw was living. “And then he realized: the form wasn’t dead yet, it was hovering between life and death, and he, the doctor, had been called in to try to keep it alive.” [3] Despite Anthelme's near-death state, Duras slowly nursed him back to health.[4] She was the perfect wife, despite the fact that that may not have been her ultimate goal. Even though she clearly did not feel as a wife to Anthelme, she deeply cared about him. She helped him get to the bathroom because of his dysentery, she spoon-fed him gruel when he couldn’t eat anything else for fear of it killing him, and she prepared meal after meal for him when he finally was healthy enough to eat solid food. On the surface, it appeared as though she conformed perfectly to her role as a wife, even though it was difficult, and at times almost impossible. And then she told him that she wanted a divorce.[5] She deeply cared for Robert Anthelme, as a close friend and confidante, but she no longer cared for him as a wife cares for a husband. For that reason, she had loved him enough to nurse him back to health after the war (a clearly difficult feat), but she did not want to stay married to him.

It is safe to say that her decision to request a divorce from her husband almost immediately after he recovered from his near-death experience with typhus and days after he received the news that his sister had died during the war was not typical. She writes, “Another day I told him we had to get a divorce, that I wanted a child by D. … I said that even if D. hadn’t existed I wouldn’t have lived with him again.”[6] If Marguerite Duras had been fulfilling traditional gender roles, she would not have left her husband. She would not have requested a divorce. She would not have left him for a man that she describes as his “best friend.”[7] Instead, she would have stayed married to Anthelme, especially since she loved him enough to nurse him back to health.

The divorce is only one way that Marguerite Duras pushed the boundaries of gender roles during World War II, there are other instances of her gender defiance in The War. Before she recounts the story of Robert Anthelme coming home, she tells the story of her own suffering while he was gone. On the one hand she is a loving wife who spends her time reading lists of names of soldiers that have been brought home from the war and those who have perished in it (an activity that she describes as common for wives who had family in the war). She waits patiently for her husband to return home and seeks the assistance of a close male friend (the one she would eventually leave her husband for) for support during Anthelme’s absence. On the other hand, she had enough courage to start a newspaper in September 1944 called Libres[8] in order to communicate information about movements of prisoners to their family and friends. Though she was participating in classic "women's work" like writing for families, she still pushed boundaries by using forged papers and sheer diligence to get access to the information that she needed to publish her newspaper. One day she was told that she couldn’t stay and talk to the prisoners at the Gare d’Orsay because the rules didn’t allow unofficial services at the train station. She responded, “That’s not a good enough reason.”[9] and proceeded to slip in to a line of prisoners in order to obtain information. She was also told that her work with the newspaper and her publishing of “Nazi atrocities”[10] was “dangerous”[11], but she pressed on until the war was over and she had to focus on nursing her sick husband back to health.

Marguerite Duras made it clear through this memoir that, though she was constantly in emotional and mental anguish over the imprisonment of her husband, she was a strong woman. She had to have been strong to keep up a newspaper that reported on dangerous issues like Nazi war crimes and emotionally involved stories of lost family members. But, after reading the next memoir in her compilation, entitled Monsieur X, Here Called Pierre Rabier, and understanding her often dangerous position in the French Resistance it is easy to see that, though it may not have been the common thing to do, she was a strong woman both in the beginning of the war and at the end.

In the preface of this memoir, Duras makes it abundantly clear that she feels this memoir is important for the description of Rabier as a human being solely intended for dispensation of reward and punishment. She saw him as subhuman, not capable of the same emotions that other human beings were capable of. This description makes it easier to understand how some of the men who carried out punishment in the Nazi party may have acted and how others reacted to their cold nature. She writes, “They [her friends] decided it ought to be published because of the description of Rabier” [12] However, in my opinion the memoir is important for another reason. It is an important memoir because of the description of Marguerite Duras herself.

When Marguerite Duras wrote Monsieur X, Here Called Pierre Rabier, she was involved in the “vast and complex network” that was the French Resistance.[13] Whether she knew it or not, she was involved in a group encompassing more than 400,000 people, most of whom were men.[14] The Germans had recently captured her husband and Duras was still under the impression that if she sent him packages, he would be able to obtain them. Her initial meeting with Rabier was an attempt to send Anthelme a food parcel. She was unable to obtain a parcel permit and her only hope of getting him the parcel was via a German examining officer. She had hope that Rabier would be her key to delivering the parcel to her husband. This was the beginning of her tumultuous relationship with Rabier. Rabier was part of the Gestapo and Duras was an active part of the French Resistance, along with her arrested husband. During every meeting with Rabier, she expressed at the very least the knowledge that he could arrest her and at the most a fear that he would arrest her and punish her husband and her comrades for their affiliation with her.

But their meetings continued. At this time, Marguerite Duras was in close contact with Francois Morland, a member of the resistance who created a network of spies during the war and was the mastermind behind getting his good friend and fellow resistance member Robert Anthelme home safe, though incredibly ill, from Bergen-Belsen. Morland demanded the Duras stay in close contact with Rabier.[15] Despite the incredible risk and danger involved with her meetings with him, she continued to attend them. She was driven by a motivation to help the resistance, but more importantly she was encouraged by the connection that Rabier allowed her to have with her husband. Rabier was the only link between Duras and Anthelme. Even though Duras was planning to divorce her husband when he got back from the war, she still conformed to traditional gender roles by expertly maintaing her only link to her husband. But her relationship with Rabier not only assisted in maintaining a link with her husband, it also facilitated her advancement in the French resistance.

The typical woman would not have been such a strong figure in the resistance; she would not have acted as a spy during a war when blowing her cover would have meant imprisonment or death. Duras even goes so far as to promise Morland that she would help in the initiative to kill Rabier.[16] Her strength of character is astounding as is the level of trust that Francois Morland and the other resistance members have for her. Though males were dominating the French Resistance because they were “…people who, when captured, usually stood up under torture”[17], Marguerite Duras was obviously considered strong enough to endure the punishment that she could have received it she would have been caught by Rabier. This is incredible because it shows how important she was to the resistance and how much the men in the resistance trusted her, even though she was a woman. Given the fact that she doesn’t seem to find this important (she focuses more on Rabier’s nature than her spy status), this might suggest that women had a larger role in the resistance than historians’ previously thought.

Marguerite Duras was clearly an important (albeit minor) figure in both the French Resistance and in World War II in terms of how women's roles during that time period are understood. As I have already stated, Duras did not conform to stereotypical gender roles during World War II. In fact, she was highly atypical. Though she did nurse her sick husband back to health, which would have been a typical woman’s job after the war, her other roles in the war and its aftermath were much different. During the war, she was an integral member of the resistance and she even plotted with other resistance members about the assassination of a member of the Gestapo. She worked as a spy for a brief time. She started her own newspaper that addressed controversial issues like Nazi war crimes. Then after the war, she told her husband that she wanted a divorce almost immediately after he was cured of typhus. Finally, years after her experiences in World War II, she became a critically acclaimed author of novels, plays, films, and short narratives. Through her memoirs, it becomes clear that some women, like Duras, strayed from traditional gender roles during World War II and were integral to the success of initiatives like the French resistance.

Notes and References

  1. Rosensaft, Menachem. "The Mass Graves of Bergen-Belsen: Focus for Confrontation." Jewish Social Studies 41 (1979): 158.
  2. Bayne-Jones, S. "Typhus." The American Journal of Nursing 44 (1944): 821-3.
  3. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 55.
  4. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 57-62.
  5. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 63.
  6. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 63.
  7. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 63.
  8. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 11.
  9. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 11.
  10. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 13.
  11. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 13.
  12. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 72.
  13. Wright, Gordon. "Reflections on the French Resistance (1940-1944)." Political Science Quarterly 77 (1962): 337.
  14. Wright, Gordon. "Reflections on the French Resistance (1940-1944)." Political Science Quarterly 77 (1962): 338.
  15. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 79
  16. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994: 81.
  17. Wright, Gordon. "Reflections on the French Resistance (1940-1944)." Political Science Quarterly 77 (1962): 339.

Annotated Bibliography

1. Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. London: The New Press, 1994.

This book is the initial autobiography that describes Marguerite Duras' experiences with the war. She explains everything in great detail, from her excruciating experience waiting for her husband while he was at Bergen-Belsen to her own hardships living in France during the war. This autobiography is important for understanding the burdens that many people suffered while living "free" in cities that were occupied by the Nazis and waiting for their loved ones to come home. It provides a different perspective on the suffering that Nazi occupation caused, which is important to understanding the vast suffering caused by the war.

2. Duras, Marguerite. Wartime Writings:1943-1949. Translation by Linda Coverdale. London: The New Press, 2008.

This book provides another, similar autobiography that can be compared with The War: A Memoir. Since the stories written are also about Marguerite Duras' life and her involvement in the war, they provide new and interesting insight into areas that were not fully covered by her initial autobiography. They also happen to be clearer and easier to read than her other memoirs, so they paint a less emotional, but more detailed picture of her experience in the war. This book is important for understanding more fully the life of Marguerite Duras and her experiences within the context of World War II.

3. Bayne-Jones, S. "Typhus." The American Journal of Nursing 44 (1944): 821-3.

This article addresses the different types of typhus, the germs that cause typhus, and the symptoms of typhus fever. The author successfully explains the different stages of the disease, from onset to potential fatality. Since Marguerite Duras extensively explains her husband's bout of typhus in her autobiography, it is important to understand the process of the disease. This assists in better comprehension of the magnitude of typhus that her husband suffered from as well as a more complete understanding of the breadth of disease at concentration camps.

4. Rosensaft, Menachem. "The Mass Graves of Bergen-Belsen: Focus for Confrontation." Jewish Social Studies 41 (1979): 155-186.

This article examines the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen by discussing the kinds of people that were kept at Bergen-Belsen in addition to the way that people were treated while they were alive, and how many eventually died in the camp. This is the camp where Marguerite Duras' husband was housed and eventually returned from, debilitated by typhus. This article is important for understanding the kind of camp where her husband was kept and the atrocities that occurred there.

5. Ross, George. "Party Decline and Changing Party Systems: France and the French Communist Party." Comparative Politics 25 (1992): 43-61.

This article talks about the French Communist Party and the affect it had on France during World War II. In her memoirs, Duras writes extensively about her involvement in the PCF, or Parti Communiste Francais. This article gives insight into how the PCF functioned, what their goals where, and their eventual decline. It is important to understand the influence that the PCF had both within and without France in order to completely understand Duras' memoirs.

6. Wright, Gordon. "Reflections on the French Resistance (1940-1944)." Political Science Quarterly 77 (1962): 336-49.

This article is a summary of the French Resistance, from 1940-1944. Both Marguerite Duras and her husband, Robert Anthelme, were connected to the French Resistance and Anthelme's connection with this politically motivated group was what eventually sent him to Bergen-Belsen. This article is important to understanding Marguerite Duras and her husband's political ideals and their motivations during the war.

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