Places: Chéri

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1920 (English translation, 1929)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: c. 1910

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. ChériFrance’s capital city is an essential ingredient in the story of Chéri. In this novel, Colette creates a portrait of Paris in the early twentieth century. During that era, France enjoyed a time of prosperity, progress, and brilliant cultural achievements. Pleasure reigned, and the city was filled with cafés, cabarets, and music halls, as well as the famous Folies Bergère. The construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 seemed to inaugurate this period of peace and prosperity, becoming a symbol of Parisian accomplishment. In this atmosphere of gaiety, frivolity, and creativity, the different classes of Paris mixed together freely and amused themselves with a variety of entertainments. This free-spirited and imaginative period helped create the legend of the French as a race who loved life and knew how to enjoy it. Glamorous Parisian women piled their hair under huge, decorative hats and met with friends and lovers at fine restaurants for gourmet meals, gossip, and intrigue. A general atmosphere of liberality and leisure permitted largesse to be grandly lavished on expensive cocottes and handsome gigolos. Much of the appeal of this novel comes from its evocation of this elegant and hedonistic era. This era in France is remembered by Colette as a shimmering golden time before the onset of the problems of modernity, as demonstrated by World War I and its aftermath. It is in this period that Colette herself was a young woman, enjoying success as a writer and actress. Her novel is based on memories of the era that are both bitterly rueful and sweetly nostalgic, suggesting that the author is looking back on her own youth during a time of plenty and pleasure in a city that was her home for most of her life.

Lonval town house

Lonval town house. Home of Lèa de Lonval on the Avenue Bugeaud in Paris. Although this novel is named after the handsome young gigolo known as Chéri, the character of the forty-nine-year-old courtesan Lèa de Lonval is its true heart. Lèa has been a triumphant success as a frivolous woman, whose many lovers validated her desirability. She has devoted herself entirely to her own beauty, to a life of pleasure, and to running her well-appointed and charming house. Much of the novel deals simply with the sensuous joys of Lèa’s love affair with her far younger lover, Chéri, whom she takes under her wing, making her home a pleasure-palace devoted to his whims. Lèa’s beautiful home, however, is already getting to be old-fashioned. When Lèa surveys her bedroom, the hub of her universe, she realizes that its ostentatious, over-decorated luxury, especially its large brass-and-iron bed, is rapidly becoming out-of-date. As her bedroom is dated, so too her ornate mirror also tells her that she is growing old, that her time as a great beauty is over. Lèa knows that times are changing, and that things will not always be as they are. Chéri himself, suffocated by Lèa’s devotion and beginning to feel the difference in their ages, leaves her establishment for good at the end of the novel, fleeing as if Lèa’s pleasure-palace has become a prison.

*Neuilly

*Neuilly (noh-YEE). Countrified suburb of Paris, where Chéri’s mother and fellow courtesan Charlotte Peloux lives. Like her friend and rival Lèa, Charlotte has made her love life into a profitable venture, but her opulent home has none of the aura of warmth, generosity, or sensuality associated with Lèa’s house in Paris.

*Normandy

*Normandy. Region of France bounded on the north by the English Channel. During summers here, Lèa fattens the pasty-faced and underweight Chéri on corn-fed chicken, cream, and strawberries, and gives him boxing lessons, transforming him gradually into a robust young man.

BibliographyDormann, Geneviève. Colette: A Passion for Life. Translated by David Macey and Jane Brenton. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985. An excellent collection of photos and pictures from Colette’s life. Useful for an author whose work is as autobiographical as hers. Contains some illustrations for an edition of Chéri by artist Marcel Vertès.Lottman, Herbert. Colette: A Life. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. Biography accounting for all Colette’s major works. Provides a summary of the autobiographical content of Chéri and the conditions of its creation.Marks, Elaine. Colette. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1960. Critical biography has remained authoritative over the years. Provides excellent close readings of Chéri and its sequels which Marks terms “parables of experience.”Sarde, Michèle. Colette: Free and Fettered. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: William Morrow, 1980. A definitive biography. Provides a strong feminist perspective on Colette’s life and work.Stewart, Joan Hinde. Colette. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A good introduction to Colette’s work. Analyzes Chéri together with three works which continue its themes and use some of the same characters: The Ripening Seed (1923), The Last of Chéri (1926), and The Break of Day (1928). Contains a selected bibliography.Ward Jouve, Nicole. Colette. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1987. A feminist analysis which addresses the question of “women’s writing” in Colette’s major works. Chéri illustrates an aspect of the power relationship between men and women.
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