“You are alone with the greatest pain you have ever known.”
The novella La Femme de Gilles is a tragic tale of adultery. Set before WWI, the story focuses on Elisa who is happily married to factory worker Gilles. Elisa and Gilles have twin daughters, and when the story begins, Elisa is pregnant with a third child. She’s still deliriously in love with her husband, and life seems simple–yet rich and satisfying to Elise. But one day, she begins to notice a vague change in her husband’s behaviour, and after observing him closely, she concludes that he’s having an affair with her younger, flighty sister, Victorine.
Just how Elise responds to this devastating information is the heart of this perfect, tragic story. Author Madeleine Bourdouxhe details each shatteringly painful stage of Elise’s gradual recognition of her husband’s adultery, and also explores the consequences as Elise submerges her rage and jealousy: “her monotonous existence, which had once ran quite naturally on a course of happiness, now ran, just as naturally on a course of misery.”
Gilles’ blind selfishness and Victorine’s spiteful willfulness are in contrast in Elisa’s struggle to keep Gilles no matter the cost. Elisa struggles to maintain a semblance of the life she used to have, and desperately tries to gain “an outer equilibrium in a world of household objects.” Bourdouxhe recreates Elise’s mental state with incredible detail while implementing her minimalist style. The result is a startling tale of the contrasts of love–Gilles’ selfish, mad physical passion for the elusive Victorine and Elisa’s quiet self-destructive sacrifice. All of this mad passion is set against the external world–frozen landscapes and quiet French countryside. As Gilles’ affair with Victorine enters various phases, Elisa finds herself cast into various roles–all undesired, and all equally painful, and her deep love, satisfying marriage and peace-of-mind are lost forever. Translated by Faith Evans, La Femme de Gilles is must-read for all those who enjoyed the marvelous film adaptation–Gilles’ Wife. If you enjoy the novels of Jean Rhys, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy La Femme de Gilles.