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January 18, 2023


#Duras Moderato Cantabile…her best novella

by NancyElin

Author: M. Duras (1914 – 1996)
Title: Moderato Cantabile
Published: 1958
Contents: 8 chapters, 117 pages (novella)
Language: French. – ENGLISH translation available  ISBN: 9781847490520
Trivia: M. Duras is a penname for Marguerite Donnadieu.
Trivia: Duras’s adult life was also marked by personal challenges, including a recurring struggle with alcoholism. 


1. Explain the title of the book. In what way is it suitable to the story?
Moderato Cantabile is a musical term. Moderato means being within reasonable limits and Cantabile means songlike. Unfortunately for Ann Desbaresdes alcohol amplified her song and moved her actions beyond reasonable limits.

2. What is the predominant element in the story?
Character – Ann is in a constant state of boredom and despair.

3. Who is the single main character about. whom the story centers?
Mme. Anne Desbaresdes (haute-bourgeoisie)
M. Chauvin (ouvrier, blue collar worker)

4. What sort of conflict confronts the leading character?
a. External – Ann is bored with her life and is looking for and adventure.
b. Internal – In her mind Ann is a ‘double’ in the ‘crime passionnel’. She takes the place of the murder victim.

5. How is the conflict resolved?
This intense platonic affair with Ann as an object of desire abruptly ends.

6. How does the author handle characterization?
a. Combination: Ann’s conversations and behavior provide the signals to help us understand her state of mind. Ironically the ‘non-dits’ in the book when she says ‘nothing’ tell us even more!

7. Who tells the story? What point of view is used?
a.Third person omniscient

8. Where does the primary action take place?
The story takes place in a seaside village that remains nameless.

9. What is the timeline?
Nine days

10. How does the story get started? What is the initial incident?
Mme. Desbaresdes follows her weekly routine taking her son to piano lessons.

11. Briefly describe the rising action of the story.
Ann sees the victim of a ‘crime passionnel’ dead in a café. Later she meets Chauvin in the same café. They spend many hours drinking together. Ann insists that Chauvin (also witness to the killing) repeat his version the story. Why does a man kill the one he loves?

12. What is the high point, or climax, of the story?
Chauvin ends the platonic affair.

13. Discuss the falling action or close of the story.
Anne and Chauvin meet and exchange words during their last rendez-vous….powerful ending.

14. Does this story create any special mood?
Danger and risks: Ann becomes attracted to this ‘working class man ’ but knows she is taking many risks. Alcohol blurs these barriers and she dares to get closer to M. Chauvin even though she knows little about him.

15. Is this story realistic or true to life?
Yes. If you read the biography of Marguerite Duras you will understand her connection to alcohol. It brought her ‘outside herself ‘ as it did for Anne Desbaresdes. Duras wrote about a female alcoholic…from her own experience.

16. Are the events presented in flashback or in chronological order? (structure)
The relationship between Anne and Chauvin parallels the murdered woman and her killer/lover. The story remains in the present but in Anne/Chauvin’s conversation the murder is repeated. The desire that destroyed them is relived.

17. What is the general theme of the story?
Some people spend their like looking for happiness…others want only desire…but social position limits one’s life, desires and love. The thematic message is:

18. Did you identify with any of the characters?
Ann represents people who feel restricted within a social class.They are trapped in their lives and search for imagined… temporary escape from the dull grayness of it all.

19. Does this story contain any of the following elements?
Symbol: house on the Boulevard de la Mer, which itself represents the social divide between the working- and middle-classes
Symbol: alcohol, wine in France not simply the drink of the elite. Anne uses wine as a means of crossing the social barriers.
Symbol: troènes (green hedge) – in chapter 4 represent the demons that Anne is fighting. Anne slips into a drunken delirium and the ‘troénes’ are always surrounding her house, crying, crying. She has to shut the window to stop hearing them. (pg 63-66)
Symbol: magnolia flower represents her self worth – Ann wears this flower. The more she becomes involved with Chauvin…..the more the flower wilts. (pg 108)

20. Does the story contain a single effect or impression on me?
Gestures tell us Anne is going over the edge “ses mains recommencèrent à trembler”. The alcohol is losing its effect on her. Despite the wine she keeps slipping further into fear, emotion and the ‘allusion à son existence.” Chauvin speaks to her. She hears nothing. She replies: “Morte” she smiles joyfully. When I read this I didn’t understand what Anne meant. After reading the ending….I understood her mindset.

21. Name one major personality trait of the leading character.
Dependancy on alcohol: Anne is living on borrowed happiness.


Duras is a master of ‘gestures’ that reveal the isolated side of Ann.
Ann does not sip her wine slowly while conversing with the gentleman
…..she drinks her wine in one gulp.
Strong point: Anne’s state of mind when she enters the café (hands trembling) and the the ‘smile of deliverance’ on her face after her first drink.
Duras describes Anne’s face after her 7th glass of wine: “son visage chavirait sous l’effet du vin”.
Her face capsized.
Strong point: Chauvin uses alcohol to manipulate the relationship with Anne. He has raised her hopes of love….only to have it all come crashing down upon her. His behavior is mental abuse in its most subtle form.
Weak point: I had difficult following Duras’s writing style. Anne’s thoughts become blurred in a drunken haze.

Last thoughts: This is not an easy book to read…you have to stick with it.
There is very little action and the story revolves around a woman in crisis.
I had to struggle through a a few strange drunken fantasies that did not make sense
(pg 64 streaming consciousness that Anne reaches after her 5th drink).
What I did enjoy was the vivd and depressing description of a woman struggling with alcohol.
She dramatically represented the character’s by speech, actions and gestures.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 18 2023

    Always meant to read Duras in French and I think I have this book upstairs. Sounds rather like a melancholy film and interesting to know if the author drank as she wrote.

    • Jan 18 2023

      This is not an easy book in French…none of her books are easy…but I hope this outline can help anyone who is willing to give Duras a chance in French. Reading A. Gide at the moment….won Nobel Prize so his writing is going to be intense.


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