Gaston Lachaille is the heir to a sugar fortune so large that he's bored of making money. In fact, he's fashionably bored of everything around him, from the fact that leaves are always green to the fact that the Eiffel Tower is always 90 stories high, day after day. His uncle, full of enthusiasm for life, can't convince him otherwise:
HONORÉ: The river Seine!
GASTON: All it can do is flow…
HONORÉ: But think of wine!
GASTON: It's red or white.
HONORE: But think of girls!
GASTON: It's either yes or no./And if it's no or if it's yes/it simply couldn't matter less.
Poor Gaston—too much money, all those parties and vacations, travels to exotic locations, that string of beautiful mistresses. No wonder he's unhappy.
So why is Gaston so bored? Is is just not cool to admit that life is good or show enthusiasm for anything?
Gaston's bored because he's born into a life where all these parties and mistresses are just societal expectations. He feels under a lot of social pressure to live this life, so it's nothing he can enjoy. Everyone else in society is under similar pressure to be a certain way, so it is tiresome; he's had it with the artifice. As Honoré says, women can give you everything but surprises. Gaston knows his life will be the same day after day. He's just playing a role, same as his mistresses. He doesn't feel he has any more options than they do; both are locked into their roles and have to play them.
Unless you were born wealthy or managed to marry a rich man, a woman's options were pretty limited in Paris in 1900. If even you did manage to get lucky, you were still considered your guy's property and had little rights of your own. (Women didn't officially get the vote in France until 1944, the year Colette wrote Gigi.)
Gaston fits right in to this world. He has a rep for being a ladies' man who goes from gal to gal, showering each mistress with gifts and attention until he gets tired of them and moves on to his next conquest. He's not happy with this life, but it's not because he thinks women deserve better. He's got a cynical attitude towards women—they're a bore.
GASTON (singing): Oh, she's gay tonight/oh, so gay tonight!/A gigantic romantic cliché tonight!/How she blushes/How she gushes/How she fills me with ennui!
Ennui means boredom. Deep, boring boredom.
Gaston can be a bit of a narcissistic jerk, actually. Women are just burdensome for him, what with all their demands and needs. He watches his mistress Liane at dinner at Maxims, angry that she's not devoting every second of her attention to him. When he catches Liane flirting with her skating instructor, he can't believe she'd choose another man over him, a working man no less, even though his own MO has been to go from woman to woman.
To cover up the fact that Liane's about to dump him for her instructor, he publicly humiliates her and buys off her boyfriend. All the society papers note that Gaston broke it off with Liane, and Gaston goes off on a mad streak of partying and womanizing, making sure to be seen with a different woman every night so he doesn't become a laughingstock to the rest of his social circle. Dumped for a skating teacher, indeed! A humiliated Liane is left to make a suicide gesture, which Gaston and Honoree have a good laugh about.
When Gigi turns him down at first, Gaston's shocked. How could a poor girl with no options say no to him—Gaston Lachaille?? He's never been turned down; he's too rich. He was only trying to help Gigi, sweet guy. He has nothing but her best interests at heart:
GASTON: My heart was touched. I wanted to help her. I offered her everything: house, car, servants, clothes, and me!
GASTON She turned me down.
HONORÉ: Turned you down?
GASTON: Turned me down!
HONORÉ: It is impossible!
GASTON: It is not impossible, it just happened! I was refused, rejected, rebuffed and... repudiated!
SHMOOP: Quelle horreur!
The pattern continues when Mamita and Alicia, alarmed about Gigi's reputation being ruined before she even has one, inform Gaston that he can't be seen in public with her anymore unless he makes a suitable offer to take Gigi as his next mistress, and keep her in clothes and jewels, set her up in a fancy apartment, etc. Gaston is incredulous. Who is Mamita waiting for?
GASTON: But forgive me if I wonder, Madame…who are you keeping her for? Some underpaid bank clerk who'll marry her and give her four children in three years?
He storms out in a huff. Storming out in a huff is Gaston's signature move.
Rx for Narcissism: Gigi
How is Gaston going to make himself feel less bored and rethink his priorities? Maybe he can join a tech start-up or become a yoga instructor. Or open up an artisanal light bulb place on the Rue de Rivoli. Maybe if he worked a day in his life for a change he'd be in a better mood. Just sayin'.
The only place Gaston doesn't feel bored is when he's with Gigi and her family. He prefers their home-made cassoulet to his fancy dinners at Maxims, and he feels no pressure to act like a sophisticated playboy. It's real. He lets his hair down. He doesn't have to impress anyone. He plays cards, eats candy, rides donkeys, splashes in the ocean. Gigi's a breath of fresh air compared to his mistresses, even though he doesn't think of her as a girlfriend. He sees her as a child—for now. When Mamita scolds Gigi for bouncing around the room and jumping all over Gaston, he says,
GASTON: Let her gush and jabber/let her be enthused!/I cannot remember when I have been more amused!
Gaston loves to see Gigi like this, even though the same behavior in Liane is a turnoff. He saw that as totally faked. Even so, he doesn't totally lose the obnoxiousness when he's with Gigi. He spanks her when she gets too playful and tells her she looks like an organ grinder's monkey when she puts on a fancy dress. But he's lighthearted at Gigi's house; it's his respite from the world as long as Gigi conforms to his expectations of her.
Once Gigi's family finds out that people have been gossiping about Gigi and Gaston on vacation in Trouville, they fast-track her lessons on being a fancy lady. Meanwhile, Gaston, overwhelmed with what he felt about Gigi in Trouville, runs off to Monte Carlo to pull himself together. He he begins to see that he's falling in love with Gigi. When he gets home, he offers to take her to tea, realizing that she's been:
GASTON […] growing up before my eyes./Gigi! While you were trembling on the brink, was out there somewhere blinking at a star?/Oh, Gigi! Have I been standing up too close or back too far?/When did your sparkle turn to fire/and your warmth become desire?
It's really not Gigi that's changed (except for the clothes); it's Gaston. It's his affection that's turned to desire. He has been standing up a little too close to appreciate Gigi's transition to womanhood. He's just never thought of her that way because he's locked in to thinking about relationships in a very prescribed way.
After some more deep thoughts in the park, he runs off to Mamita and Alicia to propose a business arrangement for Gigi to become his well-kept mistress. Gigi refuses at first. She knows Gaston's reputation as a love 'em and leave 'em guy, and she doesn't want to put herself in that position. She relents because she loves him, but she's not happy about it.
Gaston takes Gigi to dinner at Maxim's where, to his dismay, she starts acting like all his other girlfriends. She puts on airs and acts like some French society android. Everyone is watching them. Guess what—it's a bore. He drags her out of the restaurant in disgust, realizing that he doesn't want people staring at Gigi like she's some curiosity. He doesn't want her to pretend to be something she isn't. After storming out of her apartment for another brief period of reflection, he mans up and realizes what he has to do. He asks for Gigi's hand in marriage.
Are we being too hard on poor Gaston? After all, he never really mistreats Gigi when he's just her friend. It's all good-natured, affectionate stuff. He loves to make her happy by bringing her treats, he lets her cheat at cards, he takes her to the beach because she's never been there. He's not kind to his mistresses, but he's kind to Gigi; she's not like the others—she doesn't bore him to death.
He ultimately sees that the arrangement society expects him to have with her won't work for Gigi, and he loves her too much to force the issue. It's hard to imagine that his society friends aren't appalled that he's marrying a girl from a courtesan's family, but he does it anyway. Maybe we're meant to see Gaston's self-important attitude as not really his own personality, but just the way society expects him to behave.
Gigi's insistence on being treated with respect finally gets to him and makes him realize how foolish his life has been up to that point. Unlike Uncle Honoré, he doesn't jump into He wants what's best for Gigi, for her to be her playful, spontaneous self rather than a society specimen. Gaston's finally grown up, too.