According to Simone de Beauvoir, a woman is defined by that which is lacking in the man she is interacting with, and when she is no longer needed to aid in his transcendence, “she suffers from finding no truly demanding task, no real aim. Consumed in her solitude and sterility, she may deny and destroy herself.” It is the role that the female characters depicted in Michel Houellebecq’s novel The Elementary Particles (Vintage, 2001) seem to play in the relationships they have forged with the men who control their fates. Although the three main female characters in the novel are sexually useful in their youth, they lose that utility with age, are tossed aside and easily replaced with no regard to their feelings or their future place in life.
Christiane foreshadows her own fate with Bruno, as well as the fates of Annabelle and Janine. Women, according to Christiane,
live a lot longer and suffer a lot more (than men). They try to trade on their looks, even when they know their bodies are sad and ugly. They get hurt but they do it anyway, because they cannot give up the need to be loved. That’s one delusion they’ll keep to the bitter end. Once she’s past a certain age, a woman might get to rub up against some cocks, but she has no chance of being loved. (117)
Christiane exists solely for satisfying the physical needs of the man she is with. She prides herself in her ability to give a great oral sex and even carries a picture of her ex-husband’s erect penis in her wallet, a testament to her skill. She apologizes for being a biology professor when she gets too scientific, but she brags about how much satisfaction she receives when pleasing her ex-husband. Despite her mastery in physical pleasure, he eventually leaves her for a younger woman. In her relationship with Bruno, Christiane adopts the same fatal role. Once she is paralyzed, Bruno leaves her disabled body, since it cannot serve his needs anymore, and she takes her life.
Chapter 11 forewarns Annabelle’s tragic life, which she lives also as a “privileged Other.” Even her mother experiences a “painful shock” upon realizing her daughter’s beauty and the consequences Annabelle must suffer because of it: “Great beauty seems invariably to portend some tragic fate” (50). We are told that despite the fact that Annabelle is patiently waiting for Michel to touch and kiss her, marking her as his, at the end, she will be deflowered not by Michel, but by “some filthy low-life in what proves to be the first step in an irrevocable decline” (50). Her decline, that is. Her first of many lovers is Dave, a degenerate who brags about his 500 female conquests, impregnates Annabelle, aids in her getting an abortion, and quickly moves on to another prey. Annabelle spends the next 23 years of her life serving the needs of men through her beauty and sex appeal. As an older and wasted version of the once beautiful Annabelle, she is diagnosed with cancer, forced to have an abortion, has her reproductive organs removed, and finally commits suicide.
The character of Janine Ceccaldi is a bit more complicated in establishing as an unfortunate Other, because the narrator clearly defines Janine, rechristened as Jane, (Michel and Bruno’s mother), as a “precursor” rather than as a “symptomatic” character, like her father, Martin, who was happy and uncomplicated. A “precursor” personality, Jane is “well adapted to the time and way of life” in which she exists, and yet remains “anxious to surpass them by adopting new customs, or proselytizing ideas still regarded as marginal.” Precursors are brilliant “revolutionaries” and “prophets,” and as such, Jane is produced from a different mold than that of the marginal role of woman. Because of this, and because she chooses to abandon her children in search for freedom from responsibilities and the pursuit of sexual pleasure, it may be argued that Jane, unlike Christiane and Annabelle, is free-spirited, independent, and does not appear to be a model representative of the Other. In fact, the new species, presented as the dominant narrative voice of the novel, exuberantly reveres Jane.
Having established her as a “precursor” archetype, they praise and depict her character as that of one who deserves a lengthy and detailed description of her life and tribulations. The narrator feels compelled to stress the admiration he has for Jane, not only because she is a woman and the mother of their creator, Michel, but most importantly, because she is a “precursor,” a challenger of the norms and limitations placed upon her sex. The new species places precursors on a pedestal “as their lives are often tortuous or confused.” They are the “catalyst(s)…of some sort of social breakdown” (20). Jane is portrayed as such a “catalyst,” and the social conventions that she exposes and explodes are those of the prescribed roles for women during the 1920’s in Europe.
Born in 1928, Jane is far from the stereotypical female character shaped by the norms and epochs of her generation. She is brilliant and does not suppress her intelligence to accommodate or humble herself before men. She is independent, ambitious, and revolutionary. She does not subscribe to the prescribed attitude for girls and women during the twentieth century. She doesn’t hold onto her virginity like a treasure or reward to be given to the one who woos and wins her affections, or as the token of her chastity and morality, waiting for a man to purchase it from her through the guise of marriage. She places no importance upon her virginity, or the restrictions this signifier is meant to place upon Jane and her gender. In addition to this, Jane tries both marriage and motherhood, but soon discovers that these two institutions, which are formed to isolate and confine women, go in opposition to her radical and freedom-loving disposition. Impervious to the rules that are created to repress her, Jane pursues her desires and ambitions, uninhibited, with arrogance, aggression, and resolve.
It is also stated toward the end of her life, that Jane “had chosen to die” (208), at the point in which she has experienced all that is humanly possible, and successfully achieved great spiritual enlightenment. Her death is an act of will. Up until her death, Jane’s strong character demonstrates masculine qualities, such as independence, sexual appetite, autonomy, brilliance, ambition, and liberation, and the new species venerate her for it. By appropriating the qualities of the sex that renders women’s existence infinitesimal, their actions insignificant, and their voices silent, Jane is defiantly redefining herself and the conventions of patriarchy.
The narrator, an improved version of humanity, uses the voice and life of its feminine creator, Michel, as the vehicle through which it relates the pessimistic dangers of the old world from which it has transcended. Michel, through the narrator, admits that men are the sources of all that is wrong with our world. Men and their predilection for violence are to blame for the wars and the destructiveness that exists. Women are the ideal creatures because of their loving, rational, compassionate, and intelligent nature. It is with their plight that the narrator seems to empathize. Women are depicted as the victims of this savage and animalistic society, which preys on the sexual usefulness of their youth and then discards them when, older, they can no longer serve as the required Other.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.