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The (W)hole in the Text: A Hermeneutic Reading of Marguerite Duras's La Pluie d'ete

From: Romance Notes
Volume 53, Number 1, 2013
pp. 3-10 | 10.1353/rmc.2013.0007

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Marguerite Duras's complex and varied oeuvre certainly escapes any single interpretation, just as it does any single genre classification. The body of critical literature on Duras is extensive, emerging principally from a context of poststructuralism and postmodernism. Nevertheless, Christiane Blot-Labarrère reminds us that "en même temps, on pressent qu'il reste encore à dire et à écrire .... C'est la marque des œuvres d'importance" ("Entretien" 75-76). A similar call for the continual interpretation of literary works resides at the heart of the hermeneutic project: for Hans Georg Gadamer, a literary work continually opens itself up to new interpretations which could not have been anticipated by its author or contemporary readers. Interestingly, while hermeneutics as an analytical approach is conspicuously absent from the critical literature on Duras, one of her less critically commented texts, La Pluie d'été, actually offers a meta-reflection on the hermeneutic process. Duras self-consciously explores the tenets of hermeneutics through the devices of the plot and invites the reader to approach the text this way. Much like the characters in the story who adopt hermeneutic ways of understanding each other, the reader can employ similar means to achieve new understandings of the novel.

Quite an enigma, the fragmented story of La Pluie d'été developed out of Duras's 1971 children's short story "Ah Ernesto!" With the help of Jean Mascolo and Jean-Marc Turine, Duras made the story into a film, "Les Enfants," in 1984. Subsequently she rewrote it once again and in 1990 it was published as the short novel La Pluie d'été. The principal story line of the novel follows an immigrant family whose numerous children do not attend school. One day, the youngest child discovers a charred book with a hole burned through the middle of it. The eldest son, Ernesto, begins to read the book even though he has never been taught to do so. A teacher advises the parents to send Ernesto to school, but he leaves school after only a few days. In spite of leaving the classroom, Ernesto continues to learn, on his own terms. Eventually, he abandons his family for the university and ultimately for international fame. While the language that Duras utilizes in this short novel is easy to read, the meaning of the book is elusive. Many situations in La Pluie d'été resist understanding. Characters talk to each other and try to understand each other, but neither they nor we always comprehend what is being said. I propose that if we adopt a hermeneutic approach to La Pluie d'été, then we can reach a deeper and more complete understanding of the novel. Of course, like any interpretive approach to a complex text, hermeneutics does not explain all facets of the novel. But it does offer a compelling way to understand some of the most difficult passages. And, in fact, we the readers will see ourselves mirroring what the main character Ernesto does in his quest for knowledge, as we attempt to fill in the holes in the narrative and try to assemble the parts into a coherent whole.

Originally hermeneutics was the art and science of interpreting Scripture. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, figures such as August Ernesti (note that the name of the main character in the novel, Ernesto, differs by only one letter), Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey transformed hermeneutics into the basis of a general methodology of textual interpretation for the humanities. At the center of the methodology is the hermeneutic circle, which refers to the interpretive idea that by a dialectical interaction between the whole text and its parts, each gives the other meaning. In other words, an individual concept derives its meaning from the context, or horizon, within which it stands; and the horizon is composed of the individual elements to which it gives meaning.

More recently, with the contributions of thinkers like Martin Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer, hermeneutics has developed into a philosophical system. In Gadamer's hermeneutics, understanding is always a form of dialogue, and meaning is produced in the interplay between text and reader or between speakers engaged in dialogue. Whenever we engage...


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