The Widow by Georges Simenon was published in 1942 and is an exquisite piece of french noir crime fiction. The entire work is laced with the troubling desires of emotionally and spiritually deranged characters. The prose is beautiful (even in translation), and the lovely descriptions create a picturesque backdrop for despicability; the dregs of sin. Simenon masterfully paints the turmoil of a recently paroled murderer who is searching for his place in a world that refuses to accept him, and contrasts it with the plight of an anxious widow whose family is plotting against her.
Tati Couderc is a somewhat portly widow who has inherited a lovely house and plot of land from her husband. Her trouble-making son Rene is away at war, and her aged and confused father-in-law helps her tend the animals. The sisters of her deceased husband desire the farmhouse for themselves, and have begun charting legal channels to achieve this end. Tati is not foolish, however, and she sexually sedates their father frequently; using sex as a means of ensuring his favor (as one would ensure the love of a dog by giving it treats).
Jean Passerat-Monnoyeur is the disowned son of a wealthy brewer. He killed a man, and but for the wit of his lawyer he would have been decapitated as a result. Released on a spat of lies and legal technicalities, he has recently finished a five year sentence in prison. In the course of his aimless wandering, he encounters Tati on a crowded city bus, and follows her home. She, assuming that he was a foreigner, invites him to work as a farmhand for reasonable pay, room, and board. Intrigued with the bossy, anxious, and energetic woman; and lacking anywhere else to go, he accepts.
The crux of the conflict in the book occurs when Jean, against Tati’s wishes, finds himself helplessly in love with her niece Felicie.
Here is the noir definition:
1) The Seedy Underworld
The gorgeous countryside of a remote and undeveloped France is not a very seedy underworld, but the selfish, violent, and depraved individuals that live there create a perfect noir setting.
2) The Anti-Hero
Jean is a deeply sympathetic anti-hero. The Widow is essentially the tale of his struggle to come to grips with himself; the struggle to discover who he really is. The murder in his past haunts every sleeping moment, and Felicie every waking. Simenon takes us on a powerfully emotional journey with Jean, and his insight into the mind of a murderer is chilling.
3) The Femme Fatale
Felicie is a young and radiant red-head. She has a baby from a previous man to which we are never introduced, and Tati constantly refers to her as a slut and a laz-ab0ut. Initially, Felicie rejects Jean’s interest brutally, but as she sees the depth of her hold on him, she begins to cling to the periphery of his existence. As a femme fatale plot device, she creates the final encounter in the novel.
He thought of Felicie all day long and it was partly Tati’s fault, for he could feel that she too was thinking of her the whole time.
Oddly, there is very little misogyny in this noir crime fiction. Tati has such a strong and abrasive personality that she dominates Jean as if he were a servant.
Jean believes the redemption for his past exists in acceptance. If he can find a home, a place where he is loved and needed, then he can find peace.
The widow Couderc uses sex as a tool of control and domination. She uses it on her father-in-law, and shortly after hiring Jean she uses it on him. But it fails to have the same effect on Jean. Contrarily, Felicie’s mere presence is intoxicating to him, and his desire for her causes him to betray the trust given by Tati.
Jean’s first thought was that they could not remain there, standing among the potatoes, and he led her gently toward the shed, aimlessly still, and still without speaking. Then he kissed her once more and he saw that her eyes were closed, her neck of an unreal whiteness.
It was, truly, as though it had been foreseen from all eternity that they would meet on that evening, at that spot, and that they need say nothing to each other, that they would recognize each other and have only to fulfill their destiny.
7) Loss of Innocence
The recollection of Jean’s childhood is tragic, as he was a friendless and pitiful boy. His instructors were quite cruel and set him apart from the other students because of his wealthy background. This isolated him, and caused him to pretend to be ill for much of his life in order to avoid conflict. When he eventually murdered a man to whom he had lost a fortune at the gambling den, his loss of innocence was complete.
8 ) Racism
There are small racist remarks towards the Polish here and there.
Cigarettes are a part of daily life. Jean often retreats into their hot embrace.
Tati is incredibly emasculating to Jean and the other men in her life. Although she is rather kind, ultimately she’s selfish, bossy, and defiant. Her continually condescending treatment of Jean leads him to the tragic climax at the novel’s conclusion. A climax that may have been avoided if she had not so challenged his manhood.
The Widow was a delightful noir crime fiction to read. I truly enjoyed it.