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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Narrative, thematic and symbolic structures in Celine’s "Voyage au bout de la nuit" Walker, David M.


Adopting certain principles of modern formal criticism, this thesis examines in depth Celine's first and probably most important novel, "Voyage au bout de la nuit". As the text itself is the primary object of study, historical, biographical, and other external referents are not included in this analysis of the novel's significant structures. An attempt is made both to respect the polysemous nature of the literary object and to demonstrate that a deep coherence and unity underlie the novel's apparent formal looseness and fragmentation. Three distinct but interrelated components of the text are analysed: the formal properties of the narrative; the novel's ideational or thematic content; the role of imagery in the production of a work of art that is simultaneously plural and unified. An important structural aspect of the narration is the double narrative focus through which the story is refracted and communicated to the reader. The elements of the anecdote are perceived both by the protagonist and by his older, more experienced self, the narrator-observer. This narrative duality is echoed within the story itself by a number of factors, among them the ambivalent attitude of Bardamu towards his personal quest for truth and knowledge and by implication towards life itself. A somewhat similar ambivalence characterizes the protagonist's relationship with his friend and alter ego, Robinson Léon. This latter's absolute refusal of existence allows him to go to the "end of the night"; Bardamu, on the other hand, appears to compromise with reality. For him, the only possibility of not "being totally defeated by life seems to be in the telling of all that he has seen and experienced. By transforming himself into teller and his adventures into discours, Bardamu may transcend his personal egotism and inauthenticity through an artistic creation which is also a radical denunciation of both man and the world — and thereby justify his existence. In addition to an analysis of point of view, the narration is examined in terms of its seemingly loose episodic structure. A close study of narrative "morphology" and "syntax" reveals that a rigorous pattern underlies the surface formlessness often apparent in novels related to the picaresque genre. The narrative consists of structurally similar episodes which are necessarily linked in a theoretically infinite chain of action and reaction, of confrontation with and escape from the world. A second section of this study attempts to elucidate the principal aspects of the vision of reality expressed in the novel. A "biological" vision informs the work's thématique: man is a prisoner of the body's inevitable impulsion towards dissolution and death. Human nature and behaviour are determined by biological factors, both at the social and metaphysical levels of being-in-the-world. Life is absurd, ridiculous, and intolerable; human activity is characterized by a refusal to confront such truths and by a generalized recourse to role-playing and various forms of inauthentic behaviour. The final section of this study deals with the structure and operation of imagery in the novel. Imagery may function: (a) descriptively (sensual imagery), to create a concrete atmosphere or tone; (b) thematically (figurative imagery), to convey the work's ideational content; (c) productively (symbolic imagery), to organize and in a sense generate the text's capacity to signify. This generative function is carried out by the core images (archetypes) of the Journey and the Night. These extended symbols serve both to provide the text with a deep structural unity and to "produce" the work in all its variety and multiplicity. This study reveals the operation at different levels of the text of a tension or conflict between the tendency towards fragmentation and plurality on one hand, and an opposing movement towards structural unity and coherence. It is perhaps in this interaction of antithetical tendencies — the one arising from the data of existence, the other from the demands of Art — that one can locate the ultimate source of the novel's unquestionable power and greatness.

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