Confined to prison for stealing a ring, the narrator begins to relive his wonderful memories of the reformatory at Mettray and the prison at Fontevrault, which was, for the boys, “the sanctuary to which our childhood dreams aspired.” To the narrator, the prison becomes the “universe for which I am meant.”
The narrator tells of sexual assaults made upon him by the older boys at Mettray, of his being a concubine to Villeroy, whom he adored, and to Van Roy, whom he did not. He tells of his one-day “marriage” to Divers (they do not see each other again until fifteen years later, in the disciplinary hall at Fontevrault). He tells of his seduction by Divers; of his desire for Bulkaen, another prisoner at Fontevrault, whom he invested with manly virtues in order to find him worthy of love. Between their assigned tasks, the prisoners develop friendships and love affairs, concoct small comforts, and set up elaborate means of communication.
The miracle of the novel is connected with Harcamone, already at the prison awaiting execution. He is the hero of convict society. “I thus,” says the narrator, “aspired to heavenly glory, and Harcamone had attained it before me, quietly, as the result of murdering a little girl....” Only sixteen years old at the time, Harcamone had raped the frightened child (“the shuddering little bitch”), then strangled her—an act which grants the narrator “the vision of an ascension to the paradise that is offered me.”
The narrator haunts the vicinity of the condemned man’s cell and sees “the burden of saintliness” on Harcamone’s chain transformed “into a garland of white flowers.” As Harcamone approaches death, the narrator has a succession of dream visions, the most impressive of which reveals the center of Harcamone’s heart as “a red rose of monstrous size and beauty.” The action of the book culminates in the execution of one convict, Harcamone, and the shooting of another for trying to escape.