Writing a Literary Commentary
Help with commentary writing
Below is a sample commentary written on an extract from Simenon's Coup de Lune.
Note that the commentary follows the structure set out in the Study Skills Handbook , pp. 15 - 17. You should also consult the departmental advice on commentary writing found at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/french/current/ug/assessment/commentarywriting/
Coup de lune commentary
The extract is taken from the recommended Livre de poche edition, Pp 97 – 99, from ‘Pourquoi tout était-il si beau ce matin-là’ to ‘Et en passant, elle prit une seconde banane.’ Download the extract here
Read the commentary through carefully. Note how I have organised my analysis in the 'detailed analysis' section. What do you think of my approach? There are many ways to organise a detailed analysis (you might look at a passage chronologically, you might trace the development of different themes, you might organise your thoughts around different formal / structural features). My commentary is thus not a template, but an example of one approach. The key point to remember is that your analysis should:
- seek to link form (the structure of the passage, its stylistic features, its vocabulary, and so forth) with content (the mood generated, the action presented);
- focus on the extract given rather than stray into a general discussion of the work;
- aim to give an even coverage of the passage (do not focus on one moment in it at the expense of analysing other sections).
INTRODUCTION A : CONTEXT
The passage opens just as Timar has embarked upon his journey to the concession which he has purchased with Adèle and depicts a brief stop-off at a village; a stop-off that will be crucial to the novel’s dénouement. It follows accounts of Timar’s self-doubt and experience of dépaysement in Libreville . There is thus a change of mood at this point in the text, as Timar endeavours to face new encounters (of the indigenous tribes of Gabon, and of the White colonial impact upon them) with optimism.
INTRODUCTION B: STYLISTIC AND THEMATIC OVERVIEW
The passage employs devices that are typical of Simenon’s realist / naturalistic style: third person narrative, interior monologue and direct discourse, in order to give the reader different perspectives on Timar’s experience of the journey to a new and unknown space. Simenon combines ethnographic details about local geography, behaviour and habits with stylistic features typical of the detective novel (the mysterious, unexplained behaviour of Adèle). The passage represents the clash of cultures between Black Africa and White colonisers through the actions and reactions of the two central characters, Adèle and Timar.
On three occasions in the extract the narrator shows the reader Timar’s interior world via Style Indirect Libre (free indirect speech) (lines 1 – 4; 41 – 43; 50 – 51). On each occasion T’s status as the novice in the company, naïve and comparatively uninitiated to his environment, is emphasised through questions and exclamations. Lines 1 – 4 show T to be possessed of a spirit of adventure which can be contrasted with the lethargy that took hold of him in Libreville , where the extreme heat and the rigours of the environment had oppressed him. At this point the weather and the terrain accord with his mood and his optimistic self-interrogation betrays a belief that he may be able to master his environment. In lines 41 – 43 T’s reflections turn to Adèle’s arrogant appropriation of a banana being sold at the village market. Here the use of exclamation emphasises T’s incredulity, directed not towards the act of theft itself but towards the passivity of the villagers. He marvels rather enthusiastically at the power of the coloniser to do what s/he likes. Finally, the free indirect speech used in lines 50 – 51 shows T interrogating Adèle’s behaviour. The questioning here reveals the lack of equality or transparency in the relationship: T is the ingénu whose ignorance of what Adèle is up to betrays his weakness.
Each instance of free indirect speech invites the reader to draw conclusions from T’s evident surprise and confusion. The narrator shows, rather than explains, his state of mind, and the ironic distance established allows the reader to weigh up and scrutinise T’s vulnerability: the reader suspects him to be over-optimistic, perhaps foolishly tempted at this point by the lure of White power, whilst all the while he is likely to be being deceived by a manipulative woman. His attitude appears to court disappointment, or worse; the spontaneity and energy of his responses are likely to increase the reader’s sympathy for him. We hope for his success, but anticipate his fall.
The brief moments of direct speech employed in the passage further contribute to these impressions: Timar is shown to be passive and uncertain: he alone amongst the travellers has no idea why he has stopped: Adèle barks instructions at him (lines 45 and 76), and his question to the African driver reveals that he is party to plans that have not been divulged to Timar. The communications are brief and abrupt, in contrast to the more elaborate passages of description that characterise the depiction of the village itself.
The third-person narrative moves between action and description. The narration follows Timar from the river to the village. The use of the ambiguous ‘on’ in line 5 serves to connect the narrator and the reader with the journeying party, and the timeless ‘un certain moment’ allows the reader to experience the random quality of the events that occur. A series of past historics move the action on (depicting the mooring of the boat and Adèle’s purposeful journey to the hut.) A number of adverbial expressions add to the impression that she has come to the village for a reason (résolument, sans hésiter, soudain, lines 44 – 49). In contrast, Timar’s efforts at action – his distribution of cigarettes to the Africans – is much more haphazard. Whilst Adèle is surreptitious, disappearing and appearing abruptly, Timar draws attention to himself, and the ‘calme […] absolu’ (23) of the market is replaced with verbs of noise and movement (73) as the African women scrabble for cigarettes around him.
The passages describing the geography of the village and the activities of its inhabitants show an attention to ethnographic detail (8 – 12; 21 – 35; 52 – 62). Along with this ethnographic focus, these passages emphasise cultural difference, both contemplating and interrogating fascination with the other. There is particular focus on the nakedness of the African women depicted (9 – 11, 32, 57). This perhaps invites comparison with Western culture that associates nakedness, particularly female nakedness, with sin. It might also be thought to draw on the colonial ideology that both exoticised the other and perceived African people's closeness to nature as evidence of their less-civilised social status. Timar is the medium through which this fascination with the other is expressed: he is transfixed by the novel sight of the woman’s breasts in line 12, and also drawn to the breastfeeding mother (33) and the amorous young couple in lines 53 – 62. Along with Timar, the reader is introduced to the details of village life – food, drink, smoking – in lines 27 – 32, and the depiction of awe and harmony (24 – 29) is redolent of an attractive, Eden-like order. The subsequent paragraph (36 – 43) shows this scene rudely interrupted by Adèle’s exploitative act of theft of the banana. The narrator also draws specific attention to the problematic presence of the White coloniser (‘aucun contact entre ceux-ci et les indigènes. Pas un salut’) and thereby emphasises the alien quality of Timar and Adèle. Timar’s ready identification with the Africans depicted – particularly his sensitivity to the young couple whose happiness links with the harmony of the environment – differentiates him from Adèle, however.
In conclusion, the passage emphasises and further develops Timar’s role as the exploited, ignorant outsider. This status is confirmed later in the text in the courtroom scene in which he relives the moment in the village and becomes aware of the extent of Adèle’s scheming: ‘Pendant qu’il regardait la belle fille nue, au village, Adèle pénétrait la case du capita, lui offrait une grosse récompense s’il trouvait un coupable parmi ses hommes et lui remettait le revolver qu’elle avait apporté’ (p. 172). The passage thus plays a key role in the ensuing action of the text: we should also note that Timar later returns to the village and sleeps with the large-breasted girl at the quayside described here (pp. 142 – 43). Within the passage itself, the juxtaposition of Timar’s evident confusion with the passivity of the African villagers encourages the reader to connect their exploited states. Timar also shows an emerging alertness to his environment and to the lives of the villagers he witnesses, an alertness which becomes more developed at later points in the text (particularly during his journey back down the river, pp. 133 - 136), and which may be said to deliver an anti-colonialist message.