Literary and Critical Theory Jean Genet
Mairéad Hanrahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0073


Jean Genet (b. 19 December 1910–d. 15 April 1986) was a 20th-century French poet, novelist, playwright, film director, essayist, and political activist. His work is renowned for its literary experimentation and poetic intensity and for its unequivocal opposition to the norms of bourgeois culture. Genet’s profile was singularly unconventional for a man of letters. His trajectory was far from traditional: abandoned by his mother when seven months old, he was placed in a foster family until his adolescence. He spent much of his teenage years in a reform school, Mettray, before joining the army only to desert soon afterward. Repeatedly convicted over the following decade for petty theft, he began to write in prison at the age of thirty. His use of highly poetic language in conjunction with an extremely explicit, unapologetic treatment of themes such as homosexuality and criminality won him recognition as a major literary figure in a remarkably short space of time. Within ten years, he had published a collection of poems as well as five dense prose texts and two plays, directed a film, and staged a ballet. Moreover, the prestigious publishing house Gallimard had commissioned his “Completed Works” in an unprecedented gesture for a living author, let alone one only forty years old. Genet then published very little over the next five years, before producing three plays in quick succession. Following the suicide of his lover in 1964, Genet claimed that he would write no more and he tore up his manuscripts; although the archives show that he continued to work on a number of projects, he would publish no further major work during his lifetime. He turned to political activism, culminating in 1970 when he accepted an invitation to tour the United States in support of the Black Panthers, and he spent six months with the Palestinian fedayeen in Jordan. By chance, he was one of the first people to enter the camps of Sabra and Shatila after the massacres in 1982; the experience appears to have been decisive in motivating him to return to writing. Although he had been diagnosed with throat cancer in 1979, he spent his final years working on a text about the Palestinian revolution. He died while correcting the proofs of this book, which was published posthumously one month later. He is buried in Larache, Morocco.

Primary Texts

No comprehensive edition of Genet’s work is available to date. Although Gallimard initiated a “Complete Works” astonishingly early in Genet’s writing career, a mere seven years after the publication of his first text, only a few volumes have appeared, all published during his lifetime. Moreover, the Œuvres complètes (Genet 1951, Genet 1953, Genet 1968, and Genet 1979) are incomplete, not only because they do not contain the texts published toward the end of Genet’s life or after his death, but also because they do not include all the major works already in print at the time of their publication. In addition, the first volume is by a different author (Sartre 1963, cited under General Overviews): Genet is exceptional in that his collected works do not belong to him. The editing history of his work is further complicated in that he often continued to revise texts he had already published, sometimes many decades earlier. His theater is the only part of his work for which a satisfactory reference edition exists (see Genet 2002, cited under Plays). For the novels and essays, the Complete Works remain the principal reference edition until a definitive edition establishing the different versions is achieved. Genre, rather than chronology, provided the main initial organizing principle governing the Œuvres complètes, although this became less apparent with the last two volumes, which each combine plays and essays. Genre is in effect the best starting point for any categorization, since the vast majority of Genet’s texts can be clearly classified generically, even if his interest in undermining identities of all sorts is reflected in the way he played constantly with the conventions of the genres he practiced. The following sections thus distinguish the Early Novels and Plays from Genet’s Other Writings.

  • Genet, Jean. Œuvres complètes II. Paris: Gallimard, 1951.

    The volume of Genet’s collected works including his first two novels (Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs and Miracle de la rose) and two poems, “Le Condamné à mort” and “Un Chant d’amour.”

  • Genet, Jean. Œuvres complètes III. Paris: Gallimard, 1953.

    The volume of Genet’s collected works that contains Pompes funèbres and Querelle de Brest, and a poem, “Le Pêcheur du Suquet.”

  • Genet, Jean. Œuvres complètes IV. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.

    The volume of Genet’s collected works containing Le Balcon, Les Bonnes, and Haute surveillance, together with a number of writings about art and theater, notably “Ce qui est resté d’un Rembrandt déchiré en petits carrés bien réguliers, et foutu aux chiottes. . . .”

  • Genet, Jean. Œuvres complètes V. Paris: Gallimard, 1979.

    The last volume to appear as part of the collected works, containing his last two published plays, Les Nègres and Les Paravents, and his most developed reflections on art (“Le Funambule,” “Le Secret de Rembrandt,” and “L’Atelier d’Alberto Giacometti”).

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