Our Lady of the Flowers  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Our Lady of the Flowers[1] is the debut novel of French writer Jean Genet, published in 1944 in French as Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs. The free-flowing, poetic novel is a largely autobiographical account of a man's journey through the Parisian underworld. The characters are drawn after their real-life counterparts, who are mostly homosexuals living on the fringes of society.


Plot summary

The novel tells the story of Divine, a drag queen who, when the novel opens, has died of tuberculosis and been canonised as a result. The narrator tells us that the stories he is telling are mainly to amuse himself whilst he passes his sentence in prison - and the highly erotic, often explicitly sexual, stories are spun to assist his masturbation. Jean-Paul Sartre called it "the epic of masturbation".

Divine lives in an attic room overlooking Montmartre cemetery, which he shares with various lovers, the most important of which is a pimp called Darling Daintyfoot. One day Darling brings home a young hoodlum and murderer, dubbed Our Lady of the Flowers. Our Lady is eventually arrested and tried, and executed. Death and ecstasy accompany the acts of every character, as Genet performs a transvaluation of all values, making betrayal the highest moral value, murder an act of virtue and sexual appeal.

Publication history and reception

Our Lady of the Flowers was written in prison, (as were all his novels) and Genet liked to claim that the first fifty pages were discovered and destroyed - and he had to rewrite it. But Genet's story of the manuscript's destruction was a fabrication or misremembering, as it was actually the initial part of his subsequent novel, The Miracle of the Rose, that was confiscated.

It was initially published anonymously and sold under the counter as homosexual pornography, much to Genet's dismay. He had intended the book as an attack on bourgeois values, but it would be a while before his readership expanded enough to include those he intended to offend. He was championed by Jean Cocteau, who also saved Genet from lifetime imprisonment.

Literary influence

The novel was an enormous influence on the Beats, with its free-flowing, highly poetic language mixed with argot/slang, and its celebration of lowlifes and explicit descriptions of homosexuality. It is elegantly transgressive, and its self-reflexive nature prefigures the approach to language developed later by the post-structuralists. Jacques Derrida wrote on Genet in his book Glas, and Hélène Cixous celebrated his work as an example of ecriture feminine. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote his famous Saint Genet as an analysis of Genet's work and life but most especically of Our Lady of the Flowers. Our Lady of the Flowers made Genet, in Sartre's mind at least, a posterchild of existentialism and most especially an embodiment of that philosophy's views on freedom.


Lindsay Kemp did a production of Flowers. A pantomime for Jean Genet (based on Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet) in 1974 at the Bush Theatre, London; he subsequently toured it in the USA and Australia.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Our Lady of the Flowers" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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