The Human Comedy in Paulette Poujol Oriol's Novels and Short Stories

By Vitiello, Joëlle | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Human Comedy in Paulette Poujol Oriol's Novels and Short Stories


Vitiello, Joëlle, Journal of Haitian Studies


Paulette Poujol Oriol (1926-2011) holds a unique place in Haitian literature and intellectual life. She was not only a writer, but also a teacher and a theater director who influenced generations of Haitians. She published two novels - Le Creuset (1980) and Le Passage (1996) - and two collections of short stories - La Fleur rouge (1992) and Madan Marye et sept autres nouvelles (2008). A voracious reader, literature was part of her daily life.1 She found important life lessons in books, and was especially influenced by nineteeth-century French authors such as Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas. Their characters and scenes reminded her of people and situations in Haiti. Honoré de Balzac wrote about "the Human Comedy" he witnessed in postRevolutionary French society. Poujol Oriol found in this "human comedy" universal aspects of human behavior across class, gender, or place.

Like Balzac or Zola, Poujol Oriol uses a critical yet sympathetic gaze when she writes about the society in which she lives. In some cases, it is almost as if she rewrites one of the nineteenth-century stories with a Haitian twist. She describes socio-economic classes with details that constitute a meaningful index of class. Poujol Oriol is especially successful in representing the way that characters from different social backgrounds interact, mix, and live together.

"LE COLLIER" AND "LA PARURE"

An example of this influence can be seen in Poujol Oriol's "Le Collier" ("The Necklace"), which evokes Maupassant's "La Parure" ("The Diamond Necklace"). In both stories, a young woman of modest means borrows a friend's beautiful necklace for a ball and loses it. In Maupassant's version, the young woman and her husband work themselves to death to replace the necklace which turns out to have been a fake. The joke in Maupassant's case is on the young couple. In Poujol Oriol's version, the young woman who has borrowed the necklace from her friend is accused of stealing it. She and her husband also work very hard to reimburse the owner. When they finally earn enough, after much hardship, they find out that the owner of the necklace did not even bother to open the bag containing the reimbursement and discarded it with total indifference. Paulette Poujol Oriol does not accept such behavior. Rather than end the story with the humiliation of the poor, she interrupts it with a line of dots to indicate that there is a break in the narrative. The story ends with two addenda. First, a newspaper headline reporting the murder of a rich lady (the owner of the necklace). The headline is followed by a comment from an unnamed narrator who remarks that the murder remains unsolved. The suggested revenge of the humiliated couple appears as poetic justice. The efforts of the couple to repay the lost jewel underline their honesty, yet they don't hesitate to murder the lady who made a mockery of their many years' labor. The story reveals the arrogance of the upper class characters as in Maupassant's story, but Poujol Oriol evokes the reader's sympathy for the hard-working couple by contrasting the off-handed cruelty of the rich woman. Without the text being explicit, we understand that the situation led the poor husband to murder. Though the punishment may be extreme, the reader understands the lesson about fairness and kindness toward the less fortunate.

"Le Collier" is strong example of Poujol Oriol's writing style, in which she explores in depth social injustices and intolerances due to class or race differences. The story has a chute, an abrupt narrative conclusion to the story that summarizes the ending, in the form of a statement that contains a moral. Often, the conclusions of Poujol Oriol's stories contain attempts to address and correct social injustices, and portray feefings of abandonment, envy, fear of loneliness, and hunger that are universal. Yet, her narratives also contain situations specific to Haitian culture and society, as suggested by Jean Price-Mars in So Spoke the Uncle. …

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