Excerpt: Orphans & French Masculinity in the Interwar Era

When researching French masculinity, it quickly becomes apparent that on some level every
stereotype—the seducer, the adulterer, the drinker, the connoisseur, the philosopher, the artist, the
swordsman, the braggart—bears truth.  (1) In fact, various scholars have agreed that Cyrano de
Bergerac, “…swashbuckler, poet, unsophisticated lover and universal character; the most
accomplished expression of gallantry for Frenchwomen,” serves as an icon of nineteenth century
French maleness on the cusp of modern martial masculinity. (2)

But manhood, and many social institutions, would undergo great change throughout Europe
as science—beacon of hope at the end of the 1800s, a great force to improve the quality of life—
created weapons that would decimate many parts of France and inflict upon all European nations
a brutal loss of life previously unimaginable.  The devastation permanently altered the social,
political and economic landscape in Europe.  The battles of World War I slaughtered nine million
men, with one-third of them leaving a widow and average of two children.  In France, the Great
War robbed 700,000 children of their fathers and more than a million “wards of the state,” a term
that could mean either orphan, child without father or child of a permanently disabled man.  With
about 1.5 million men dead, an entire generation in France grew up without a father (3)(which would make them orphans as the French orphelin means simply “child without father” unlike its
English equivalent).

In the midst of this fatherless phenomenon, French masculinity shifted shying farther from
traditional martial masculinity even as the country sought to restore its former paternalistic glory.
Literary themes of the early twentieth century and interwar era discuss the societal struggles
caused by absent father figures, floundering government and the threat posed by neighboring
Germany, but how does the generation of fatherless boys contribute to France’s changing
expectations for men?  Did French war orphans fit the traditional male gender roles or did they
become “a pampered bunch of wimps” from single-parent households led by women? (4)

With this in mind, one potential answer to whether or not single mothers reared a generation
of wimps is this:  It was neither the absence of paternal role models nor the actions of French
mothers that created a generation of men who would not subscribe to martial masculinity of the
previous age.  A societal backlash against the sufferings of the Great War caused this shift,
potentially exaggerated in war orphans because of their familial loss.  The orphan’s experience
served as an allegory for France as a whole as it dealt with altered masculine roles; fatherless
orphans did not cause the change.

To examine this idea, one must establish a selection of men who lost their fathers in World
War I.  This seems simple enough.  Search some prominent historical figures and politicians,
seeking those born between 1905 to 1910.  I skimmed hundreds of biographies in encyclopedias,
academic databases and even, in quasi-desperation, Wikipédia (French Wikipedia).  Articles in French yielded the best results, as could be expected, especially when searching terms like
“pupilles de la nation” (wards of the state) and “mères de deuil” (mothers in mourning).  But,
with a limited time frame for this particular project, I could only locate two orphans to use as my
case studies:  author Albert Camus and playwright/ actor Jean-Louis Barrault.
For Camus and Barrault, their status as orphans altered their interior attitudes regarding
masculinity, not the behaviors that would define them.  War orphans cannot be blamed for the
wimpish state of French manhood after the Great War, because the war had changed French
maleness for the entire nation.  War orphans were one voice among many reacting to the loss of
traditional masculine honor codes.  Barrault and Camus, like their artistic peers, lamented this
lack of masculine definition.

Of course, the experiences of two men do not lead to firm conclusions.  But these two men,
thanks to their creative sensibilities, have contemplated these questions of what it means to have
a father and what makes someone a man.  Raised in different family environments on different
continents, these two men came to many of the same conclusions.  If coupled with the
observations of significant playwrights of the Interwar era, the experiences of Camus and
Barrault verify the cultural context of the 1920s and 1930s.  Orphans articulated the dilemma of
shifting masculinity which continued into World War II with the French surrender.

ENDNOTES
(1) My title plays tribute to one of the World War I postcards featured in Marie-Monique Huss’ book, Histoires de Famille 1914-1918. (Paris: Noesis, 2000) Le petit poussin is the little chick on one postcard expressing his hope that he will one day become a great rooster of Gaul. (213)  Why the rooster?  According to the French president’s official web site (www.elysee.fr) The rooster is one of the symbols of the French republic because of its appearance on the coins of the Gauls. It is often used by foreigners today to represent the French in sporting events.  “Le coq apparaît dès l’Antiquité sur des monnaies gauloises…Il est surtout utilisé à l’étranger pour évoquer la France, notamment comme emblème sportif.”

(2) The quotes comes from Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (Paris: Bookking International, 1993). This quote comes from the back cover of an edition purchased in Paris in 1995: “Cyrano de Bergerac, héros au grand nez et coeur d’enfant, bretteur et poète, amoureux ingénu, est un personnage universel; c’est l’expression la plus accomplie du panache à la française.” Scholars who have cited him include Robert A. Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) labeling Cyrano de Bergerac as an example of French panache, modesty, and swordsmanship (226) and Huss in Histoires de Famille calls him moral, elegant and displaying the appropriate war scars to be a proper French male (117).

(3) Olivier Faron, Les enfants du deuil: orphelins et pupilles de la nation de la Première Guerre mondiale, 1914-1941 (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2001), 13.

(4) The idea for this paper came from Jean-Pierre Lalande’s Twentieth Century French Theatre class at Moravian College in fall 2008. From my notes on Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, 22 October 2008: “Hémon- represente les hommes pragmatiques… ‘je ne vive pas sans elle [sic]’ ‘that’s totally stupid.’ stereotype of a spoiled young man. a né [sic] après la première guerre. 1920- pampered bunch of wimps- Hémon. No 45-year-olds in 1942. lost generation, les jeunes ne sont pas capable.”

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