The Vagabond, written by Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, is a story of romance set in turn-of-the-century Paris and several provincial towns. The novel was published in France in 1911 and later published in 1955 for the English audience. The Vagabond is recognized as one of Colette’s best-known pre-war work, her post-war works being better known. The novel definitely sits high on history’s literary shelf. Using such elements as style, technique, theme, an uncomplicated theme and supernumerary characters, Colette dramatizes the life of her Parisian heroine, thus creating a masterpiece of literary history.
Divorced after eight years of her husband’s faithlessness and cruelty, Renee Nere has been struggling to support herself as a music-hall performer for the past three years. The first part of the three parts of the book opens as she waits in her dressing room until it is time for her to perform. She checks her make-up in the mirror that she hates to face, then goes off to perform, no longer and anxious, but confident and controlled ().
In this first section of the novel, Renee’s life as an artist is delineated: her work as a dancer, her casual relations with her fellow performers, the small apartment that she shares with her maid, Blandine, and her dog Fossett, and her introduction to Maxime Dufferein-Chautel. Maxime presents himself at her dressing-room door one evening, and Renee dismisses him as an awkward intruder, charming and respectful as he seems to be. She more formally meets him again after a private engagement arranged by his brother. Night after night, Renee’s admirer watches her from the front row and patiently waits for her ().
With her old friend Hamond acting as a go-between, Renee and Maxime slowly and slightly become more friendly. Maxime visits her; she acknowledges that she has an admirer, but nothing more. Eventually, their acquaintance deepens, but not into intimacy, despite Maxime’s pleas. This continues until Renee signs a contract for a six-week tour with Brague, her mentor, and his pupil. Now she must decide between Maxime and her career, as she recognizes that she cannot allow him to accompany her and is not yet ready to give up the wandering life, which somehow suits her. She then lies, promising to give herself to Maxime, but not until the tour is over. Renee leaves Paris, full of both hope and regret ().
The concluding third of the novel recounts Renee’s travels from one place to another. This part of the story is told primarily in the form of letters to Maxime, sprinkled with accounts of performances, and thoughts about her relationship with him. The book ends with her final letter to him and the thoughts that she directs toward him as she leaves the letter are unfinished ().
The Vagabond was the first novel that Colette wrote without the actual or claimed collaboration of her first husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, commonly known as Willy. Already a noted and admired writer at the time of its publication, Colette with this novel was acknowledged by French readers as one of the most prominent and talented writers of her time (Kingcaid 117). The book is unquestionably autobiographical in many ways-the facts of the heroine’s life, the character of her first husband, and the qualities of the heroine herself (Marks 21). Colette creates a world that has the authenticity of experience and the impact of shared emotions and ideas in The Vagabond. Joan Hinde Stewart, renowned critic, states, “The Vagabond…reads as a remarkably just and debonair study of a female consciousness waking to the possibility of independence-a feminist novel to shame, in its subtlety, the feminists” (qtd. in Strand 113). The language of the book is richly sensuous (Strand 113) full of physical and natural images (Strand 114) and both sensitive and straightforward. The descriptions of the characters intensely give the reader a familiarity with each of the characters so that he or she may grasp more easily the content of each of the character’s qualities. The voice of the author is as distinctive and distinguished as was the woman who wrote the novel. Although it is not one of Colette’s most popular or best-known works, it deserves a wide and attentive audience (Strand 113).
Because the novel was translated, the genuine diction and sentence structure may have been somewhat confused (Strand 112). Although Colette’s diction and sentence structure was not, her style was truly authentic. Her style has been praised as “precise, evocative and” of course “sensual” (Kingcaid 118). The novel is marked by “sensitive descriptions of nature, sexual frankness, and a flair of the theater” (Kingcaid 118). The cliché, “theatre was meant to be viewed, not read” is overridden by the way Colette uses her personal knowledge of and experience in the theatre to enhance the plot of the novel. By combining elements of theatrical writing, narrative voice, and natural story-writing talent, Colette is refulgent in her unmatched style, developed by no other author.
In that the narrator is the major protagonist, she is unmistakably reliable. With a combined first and third point of view, there is a tremendous effect on the structure of the novel. The intruding narrative devices of letters and internal narratives provide for an authentic literary technique that sets the novel apart from average turn-of-the-century romance novels. The presentation of personality in each of the characters is divine in that each of them possesses strong but varied qualities. Tough, brave, sensitive, and straightforward, Renee is the center of the novel, and all other characters help to reveal her persona to the reader. In that the plot of the novel is one that many readers can become familiar with, the emotional devices affect the reader’s basic understanding of its true meaning.
All of the characters are really superfluous, except for the central figure, the “vagabond,” Renee. The epithet that gives the book its title personifies its theme: Only by wandering in pursuit of the achievement of her talents, by treasuring her solitude and privacy, by keeping relationships casual and temporary, can a woman attain the independence she seeks (Kingcaid 113). The factors that balance against this achievement are not as important as the nature of the woman herself, who possesses the determination and self-knowledge that enable her to work toward her goal despite its pain and cost. The novel clearly indicates that the effort is worth the battle and that any other outcome would render the woman’s life meaningless and servile (Kingcaid 115).
In combining her precise style, authentic technique, unparalleled structure, and pellucid theme, Colette created a turn-of-the-century masterpiece. Her ability to write is demonstrated in this work in that she has used such key elements to provide for a truly developed yet entirely understandable work of fiction. The significance of her heroine’s life is not expressed as a universal truth about the lives of all women, but Colette does appear to suggest that women do well to examine closely their morals and motivations, and those of men as well. It is important to recognize the theme and all of its components and sidelights so that the novel may be fully grasped and read for its true meaning, rather than its external interpretation.
Colette, Sidonie Gabrielle. The Vagabond. New York: Farrar, Straus, and
Kingcaid, Renee. “Sidelights of Sidonie Colette.” Contemporary Authors.
Vol. 131; 113-118.
Marks, Elaine. Colette. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1960. 3-22.
Strand, Dana. Colette: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne
Publishers, 1995. 112-114.