Céline’s Expresses Interwar Cynicism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of the Night radiated an earthy vigor and alternately shocked and inspired readers with its exuberant expressions of disgust for civilization.

Summary of Event

The son of hard-pressed lower-middle-class Parisian shopkeepers, Louis-Ferdinand Destouches borrowed his pen name of Céline from his grandmother before making the transition from doctor to novelist in the 1930’s. His maiden novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of the Night, 1934), vaulted him into the front ranks of the French literary scene, typically eliciting polarized reactions of either enthusiastic praise or vehement criticism from reviewers. Supporters contended that Céline had squarely faced the hypocrisy and degradation of modern social life with unprecedented candor and sensitivity, whereas one of the many detractors who rejected the novel as lowbrow and morally corrupt wisecracked that a tax levied on each of the myriad obscenities in the book would make a major dent in France’s ballooning budget deficit. Subsequent novels by Céline would differ from Journey to the End of the Night in various ways, but his maiden work established his lifelong pattern of writing darkly humorous picaresque novels featuring argot-peppered prose and a spirit of outspoken and often truculent pessimism. [kw]Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night Expresses Interwar Cynicism (1932)[Célines Journey to the End of the Night Expresses Interwar Cynicism (1932)] [kw]Journey to the End of the Night Expresses Interwar Cynicism, Céline’s (1932) [kw]Interwar Cynicism, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night Expresses (1932) [kw]Cynicism, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night Expresses Interwar (1932) Journey to the End of the Night (Céline) [g]France;1932: Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night Expresses Interwar Cynicism[07920] [c]Literature;1932: Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night Expresses Interwar Cynicism[07920] Céline, Louis-Ferdinand Zola, Émile Dostoevski, Fyodor

Like other picaresque novels, Journey to the End of the Night follows the footloose peregrinations of a dominant protagonist. Ferdinand Bardamu doubles as narrator and protagonist, and the many resonances of his life story with Céline’s make him at least a semiautobiographical figure. Bardamu’s life mirrors Céline’s as follows: He suffers a serious injury while fighting against Germany as a volunteer in World War I and soon comes to dismiss war as a totally absurd and vain ritual; he goes to Africa, where he experiences revulsion at both European colonialism and native folkways; he voyages to America, where he works for a period in the intimidating atmosphere of mammoth auto plants and indulges in flings with American women of low repute; and he returns across the Atlantic to France, where he settles down as a doctor in a seedy working-class neighborhood of Paris. Although the careful reader cannot go so far as to assume a relationship of absolute identity between Céline and Bardamu, the close overlap between the life stories of author and protagonist has persuaded most reviewers and interpreters to identify the major attitudes and values of Bardamu with those of Céline, even if many of the minor details in Bardamu’s life bear the mark of poetic license. Indeed, Céline’s subsequent novels would continue to adopt the first book’s strange mixture of plodding confessional autobiography and mercurial, hallucinatory disjunctiveness.

The hallucinatory quality of Journey to the End of the Night emerges early in the novel. After Bardamu startles a somewhat conservative interlocutor at a Paris café with an outspoken exposition of his cynical and pessimistic view of the ordinary citizen as but a galley slave for the rich at the top of the social pyramid, a parade of men enlisting for military service in World War I rounds a street corner in the two young men’s direction. Supposedly overcome by the spectacle of a largely female crowd lining both sides of the street and cheering the marching men, Bardamu impulsively leaps up from his chair and hurries to join the procession of enlistees. Although the reader gradually becomes accustomed to the mercurial impulsiveness of Céline’s picaro, Bardamu’s cocksure rejection of his civilization as disgustingly corrupt and exploitative sits very uneasily beside the ebullient optimism with which he decides to defend his country. To say that this abrupt turn in attitude lacks verisimilitude would be understating the case, for Bardamu’s apparent amnesia regarding what he has just been saying about a world of galley slaves reminds one more of a dream or hallucination than of a plausible state of waking consciousness.

After a war wound allows Bardamu to cheat the heavy odds against him at the battlefront and to return alive to convalesce in Paris, he has an affair with a young American woman, whom he eventually comes to despise. A subsequent trip to a French colony in sub-Saharan Africa seems to reinforce his jaundiced view of civilization as a whole, although he singles out a certain French petty official for adulatory praise, likening the man to an angel because of his selfless devotion to a young woman. Later on in the novel during Bardamu’s wanderings in America, he briefly shows obeisance to another model of selflessness, on this occasion the familiar popular archetype of the prostitute with a heart of gold, specifically the elusive and hastily sketched figure of Molly. Céline’s view of the human condition thus shows itself as highly polarized: The narrator views himself and the great majority of fellow humans as despicably selfish exploiters, while a tiny minority of saintlike and selfless characters such as Molly and the French official stand in stark contrast to the malevolent multitude. Given the relish with which Céline describes the failings of the majority and the brevity and sketchiness with which he portrays the tiny angelic minority, however, one can only conclude that the novelist attributes far more vitality and genuine significance to the wretched and ignoble majority.

Although Bardamu takes Molly as his lover and seems satisfied with her as a partner, his wanderlust knows no bounds, and both he and his American paramour soon agree that the two of them must part for no other reason than his yearning for the road. Soon back in France, Bardamu takes up the practice of medicine in the same seedy neighborhood that houses Léon Robinson, his old war buddy and fellow pessimistic cynic.

Robinson comes across as something of an alter ego or double for Bardamu. Robinson abruptly veers in and out of the narrative from beginning to end as Bardamu’s companion in avoiding the front lines in war, sampling American factory life in Detroit, and hustling jobs and approachable women in a grim working-class Parisian neighborhood. Both men harbor too much bitterness toward their society to take the step of partially integrating themselves with it by settling down and raising families. As the two escort their paramours on a double date to a cheap amusement park, the reader encounters yet another example of a coarse and callow sensibility bent on perpetually extending the joyful irresponsibility of adolescent drifting while indulging in paranoid fantasies about a cruel society forever victimizing the innocent. When Robinson’s lover suspects that she means little more to him than one of the passing entertainments at the amusement park, she begins to insist that he show some commitment to their relationship of several months and talk about how it might be made permanent. Robinson merely scoffs at this idea with a cackle. When he notices how furious his lover has become, he tries to gloss over things by insisting that he has nothing personal against her but simply has an aversion to sullying himself with what he views as the hypocritical conventions of love and marriage. When he sinks into a sullen silence in response to her increasingly overwrought demands that he follow through with the implied commitment he has made to her over the past several months, she finally goes berserk and shoots him in the abdomen, at which point she flees the scene. Like many of Céline’s characters, she abruptly slips out of the narrative, never to be heard of again.

Instead of rushing Robinson to a hospital, where inconvenient questions from the despised police might be asked, Bardamu and his paramour carry the bleeding and half-conscious man to a bed in the narrator’s sanatorium ward. Simply assuming that Robinson has no chance of surviving, Bardamu holds his dying sidekick’s hand while waiting for internal hemorrhaging to finish him off. The thoughts that run through Bardamu’s mind at this point well represent the caustically antihumanistic tenor of Céline’s pessimism, for Bardamu confesses that he feels less pity for the dying Robinson, his best friend, than he would have felt for a dying dog. After all, Bardamu muses, a dog is not sly, whereas Robinson was sly, as are humans in general. Were the word “sly” replaced with the word “sinful,” Céline would appear much like one of the religious zealots who pontificate about the utter depravity of man and the impossible state of the world as a vale of tears. As Céline rules out the possibility of efficacious intervention on the part of either human or supernatural forces, however, his views wind up even more acridly bitter and negative. It is hardly surprising that he can find no more appropriate line with which to end Journey to the End of the Night than “Let us hear no more of all this.”


Heavily pessimistic fiction can hardly be considered rare, as any reader of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels or Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series could attest. Novels such as Hardy’s and Zola’s, however, offer the reader at least the possibility of a satisfactory resolution and also present the onset of disillusionment as a gradual development governed by intelligible relations of cause and effect. In contrast, Journey to the End of the Night does not even attempt to present an incremental rise in disillusionment of the protagonist; instead, the book offers the reader an antiheroic picaro who seems astonishingly free of “illusions” about wretched humankind from the very outset. Just a few pages into the novel, Bardamu self-assuredly likens the lot of both himself and the vast majority of humans to the miserable fate of galley slaves, who must row like the devil in a stinking ship’s hold while the captain lounges on the breezy deck with a perfumed and nubile young woman on his lap. Rather than witnessing Bardamu’s increasing understanding of human suffering over time, the reader of Journey to the End of the Night observes merely a repetitious piling up of anecdotes, vignettes, and pronouncements on the theme of human degradation and vileness.

The degree to which the disjointedly connected episodes in Journey to the End of the Night can be appreciated independently of what occurs before or after in the novel seems extreme even by the loose standards of the picaresque novel; the overall effect is somewhat like that of a series of vaudeville acts united only by the sameness of the lead performer. Céline draws on his mastery of the spoken idiom and theatrical exuberance to forestall the monotony that tends to result from repetitiousness of attitude and disjointedness of incident, but his racy argot and theatricality can rarely make up for the absence of a larger order in the scheme of his novel. In lieu of setting up a structural framework for his novels, Céline draws on the concept of “lacework” to explain his proclivity for articulating an intricate but predictable pattern or motif time and time again, as if he were weaving a piece of lace.

Céline’s antisocial and partly hooliganish picaro stands as an important intermediary between Fyodor Dostoevski’s underground man of Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Letters from the Underworld, 1913; better known as Notes from the Underground) and the rebellious countercultural protagonists common in the works of Henry Miller and such Beat generation novelists as Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and William S. Burroughs. Like Dostoevski’s underground man, Bardamu angrily resents the civilization from which he hails, and he repeatedly lashes both it and himself with partially relevant but greatly overblown accusations of sickness and inequity. Céline goes a step further, however, in jettisoning the decorum of a somewhat restrained and literate narrative persona. It was one thing to allow one’s characters to brawl and spout obscenities, as many a character in Zola’s novels did, but it was quite another to create a narrator who similarly exulted in mouthing expletive-laden argot and slapping defenseless women around.

Although the rough-and-tumble language and brutish antics of Céline’s narrators scandalized many readers at first, more and more writers followed suit with narrative personae similarly contemptuous of decorum and delicate aesthetic sensibilities. As a result, the kind of narrator who had shocked Céline’s readers in the 1930’s became an increasingly familiar figure in European and American fiction by the 1960’s. In more recent years, Céline’s writings have become so accepted within the canon of major modern French writers that passages from his novels have made their way into the very pillar of cultural traditionalism, the national baccalauréat examination.

Céline often referred to his picaros as traveling the “night subway” through the seamy side of modern social life that more genteel writers ignored, falsified, or prettified. Although even many of his admirers have noted the dangers posed by his amoral stance and irrational and intolerant turns of thought, Céline’s important stature and wide influence in the realm of twentieth century fiction can no longer be contested. Journey to the End of the Night (Céline)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Acknowledges Céline’s literary talent in the concluding chapter, “The Morality of Impersonal Narration,” but also emphasizes how the French author’s hard-bitten distrust of virtually all human motivations contradicts his self-assured pronouncements on virtues and vices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouchard, Norma. Céline, Gadda, Beckett: Experimental Writings of the 1930s. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000. Scholarly work examines the writings of the three authors and argues that they contain the roots of what came to be known as postmodernism. Includes a close reading of Journey to the End of the Night.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckley, William K., ed. Critical Essays on Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. One of the most comprehensive volumes of Céline criticism available in English. Contains a representative selection of positive, negative, and neutral evaluations of the novelist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. Journey to the End of the Night. Translated by John H. P. Marks. New York: New Directions, 1960. The standard English translation of Céline’s first and most famous novel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hewitt, Nicholas. The Golden Age of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Leamington Spa, England: Berg, 1987. Survey of Céline’s work includes a chapter on the novelist’s 1920’s nonfiction writings about medical hygiene as significant influences on his fiction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Life of Céline: A Critical Biography. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Comprehensive biography includes substantial discussion of Céline’s works, placing them within the context of his life and times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luce, Stanford L., and William K. Buckley. A Half-Century of Céline: An Annotated Bibliography, 1932-1982. New York: Garland, 1983. One of the most comprehensive bibliographies of Céline criticism available in English.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarthy, Patrick. Céline. London: Allen Lane, 1975. Excellent life-and-works study of Céline illuminates many connections between the author’s major novels and French politics of the 1930’s.

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