Death and the Diary: Analysis of Philippe Lejeune’s ‘How Do Diaries End?’


This paper is an analysis of Philippe Lejeune’s paper, How Do Diaries End?, produced as a result of preparation for a 1997 exhibition entitled A Diary Of One’s Own at the Lyon Public Library.

Lejeune’s paper was published in Biography, vol. 24, issue 1, Winter 2001, and translated into English by Victoria Lodewick.

The paper was originally published in Geneses du Je: Manuscrits et autobiographie, sous la direction de Philippe Lejeune et Catherin Viollet. Paris: CNRS Edinions, 2000, pp209-238.

Philippe Lejeune defines the life of a diary as having different phases – or, more simply, like a story – as having a ‘beginning’, a ‘middle’ and an ‘end’. He identifies the paradox of diaries almost always having a well-defined beginning, having by their very nature a middle, but often lacking a well-rounded end. “It is rare to begin one without saying so,” writes Lejeune, before wondering whether “similar rituals existed for ending a diary.”

Often, he writes, the end of the diary is not written by the diary’s author, and that the author will often not know that this page “would be the last.” Since such de facto endings to diaries can be ruled out as unintended, Lejeune turns his search to other reasons for diaries coming to an end.

He identifies four distinct endings as:

  • A voluntary and explicit stop (to a journal that has not been destroyed)
  • The destruction of a diary
  • A rereading (perhaps with subsequent annotation or indexing)
  • Publication

Lejeune explains that, as far as French texts on the diary go, this problem of an ending is ignored. ‘How-to’ manuals on the writing of a diary stop short of instructing a diarist on how to end a diary – “it would be like writing a treatise on suicide,” says Lejeune. The subject of suicide – and more broadly, of death – is ever-present in his piece.

For simplicity, journals with predetermined endings are ignored here – travel journals, or those recording temporary periods such as a project or a pregnancy, are all defined by the limited length of the events themselves. They will come to an end when the event itself does; the author will live on.

Lejeune explains that the currency and continuity of writing a ‘life-long’ or ‘all-purpose’ diary is a sort of renewal of life expectancy – in writing today’s entry, tomorrow’s will surely follow. “All journal writing assumes the intention to write at least one more time,” he explains. “The diarist is protected from death by the idea that the diary will continue.”

Lejeune describes this paradox as entering into “a phantasmagoric space where writing runs into death,” which we can understand as a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat scenario whereby the diarist is neither alive nor dead – only the diary itself which is constant.

Any sort of closure, he explains, can come not just from the very definite ending, but also from the limitations of the medium itself. Finishing a page, or a whole notebook, can give the author cause to review what has filled the preceding space.

Although Lejeune concentrates on the paper journal (or, at least, makes no distinction between paper and online journals), he asserts that the addition of loose pages – or the infinite space of a computer file – can help ease this “obligation of filling in and the need to stop.”

Indeed, continuity is often preferred, and he cites the diary of a young girl who, upon completion of one notebook, specifically chooses to continue her journal in a new, identical notebook, “to give the impression of forever starting over.”

Lejeune makes the important distinction, too, between autobiography and diary. “Autobiography,” he argues, “is virtually finished as soon as it begins… All autobiography is finishable.” The diary, conversely, is “unfinishable”. Again, here Lejeune asserts that there is always a “time lived beyond the writing.”

Lejeune admits that his ideal subject, the ‘all-purpose’, ‘life-long’ journal is just one of the varieties of diaries – “and not the most common one.” “People who remain faithful unto death to one and the same diary are rare.”

He describes the more common, fragmented and short-lived, journals as “passing fancies”. He explains “there are periods with a diary and periods without.” This discontinuity is inherent in the diary form, he says, mirroring the ebb and flow of life’s crises.

Lejeune identifies two distinct types of diarist:

  • Those who write habitually, every day, and “who suffer when they skip a day”, catching up when they feel they are behind
  • Those who write “more or less regularly”, whenever they feel the need

In the latter, Lejeune asks whether a large gap in entries could be seen as an ‘ending’? He thinks not, as the act of adding a new entry will once again restore the continuity. The diary is not finished – it is merely ‘on hold.’

On the other hand, the longer a journal is left ignored, the more ‘finished’ it may become – to the point that the author may realize that if the need to keep a diary has finished, thus the diary itself must end.

Lejeune cites a diarist who realizes, a month after his wife’s death, that if he no longer feels the need to write in his diary at such a pivotal moment of his life, it “surely proves that this diary is finished, that it no longer responds to my needs.”

Lejeune concludes by defining four distinct functions of the diary – albeit conceding that “there are others, and a real diary fulfills several functions at once.”

The four functions he defines are as follows:

  • To express oneself – divided into two further functions: to release, and to communicate
  • To reflect
  • To freeze time
  • To take pleasure in writing

Writing diaries as a form of release of life’s emotions is seen as a common method of “purifying and cleansing yourself.”

This purification can come in the form of the clarity gained from subsequent rereading, or from the more drastic function of systematic destruction of the diaries themselves – as a way of purging the feelings no longer deemed necessary. Lejeune identifies this as “a sort of spring-cleaning, after which you set out again, lighter.”

Communication is another common diary function, so often identified by the ‘dear diary’ opening to entries (Lejeune cites Anne Frank’s classic “Dear Kitty” here). Thoughts and events are ‘told’ to a diary as opposed to a person or persons. The end to this type of diary can come “simply because this problem has been resolved: you meet a person with whom you can talk or to whom you can write.”

Lejeune further explains how a transition period may be identified in this scenario, whereby a journal will be ‘told’ about the new person – or, conversely, where the new person is introduced to the diary that they will come, in time, to ‘replace’.

Reflection is a similar function to communication and release, allowing the author to ‘quarantine’ events of their life and reflect upon them in a controlled way. Lejeune describes this function as being more important in diaries that are kept a long time. While ‘psychoanalysis’ of one’s life can seem “interminable,” “it is also said you can do it in ‘pieces’.”

Freezing time, Lejeune explains, is building memories and archives of “lived experience” out of the paper entries – “to prevent forgetting,” even “giving life the consistency and continuity it lacks.” The author is seen as a collector, with the items as ‘pieces’ of the life as it is lived. Lejeune says, “ideally,” that the end of such a diary will coincide with the death of its author. He says that stopping the frequent updates of such a diary would be “failure,” and that destruction of it would be “a total failure.”

Lejeune’s final function – to take pleasure in writing – is simple: “one also writes because it is… pleasant.” For the writer, it can be satisfactory to practice writing, drawing inspiration from the events of one’s life. Lejeune argues, however, that the flow of energy can be diverted from the keeping of a diary to other forms of writing, although he concedes that where memory is not the primary function of the diary, this diversion of efforts away from diary-writing is less problematic.

Lejeune then illustrates a few examples of how diaries might end – from interest waning, to the ‘death’ of a “virtual addressee”, to the diary being discovered by an uninvited reader. He also identifies the peculiarity of wishing to ‘wrap up’ a diary as a body of work, almost with a punchline. This is more commonly found, he says, where “the diarist carefully polishes the last line of an entry.”

In closing, Lejeune discusses diaries that come to their end toward the end of the lives of their author. He sees two distinct patterns here – perseverance and resignation – and illustrates them with examples.

Perseverance is seen here as holding your chin up, continuing to prevail – or even writing of your struggle in private, to “spare others” as they support you. A connection is made between writing and living – “while I’m writing, I survive.” Lejeune goes as far as to suggest that, “perhaps a diary sometimes helps you to ‘die well,’ the way religion used to do.”

Resignation, on the other hand, is a more somber side. “You hang your head, you put down your pen.” Lejeune states that although the diary can – and will – end with the death of its author, there is a contradiction here, as the diary will live on, long after its author’s death. “Literary survival is no illusion,” he says. “You will still die, but your diary will not.”

Lejeune talks about diarists who document the bitter end in as much detail as they can – mostly from the perspective of suicide – including the poet Rabearivelo, “who kept a minute-by-minute account of his suicide in his journal, trying to write until the last second.”

Conversely, he also mentions diarists who make no mention of their oncoming death, no matter how clearly it was perceived (or planned), citing Virginia Woolf as one example.

Lejeune has done a magnificent job of detailing the many ways that a diary can end, dealing with some very sensitive issues that go to the very heart of life, happiness and, ultimately, death.

Indeed, as he concludes, “everything comes to an end, even this presentation,” before departing with a cheery, “I hope it has not darkened your morning.”