(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As Zoé and Lucien Bergeret reminisce about their childhood in Saint-Omer, Zoé asks her brother if he remembers Putois. His enthusiastically affirmative reply leads to a recital, by sister and brother speaking alternately, of a complete physical description of Putois. Lucien’s teenage daughter, Pauline, listens to this recital in amazement and asks why they have memorized this curious piece of prose and why they recite it with such pious solemnity. Amused by Pauline’s question, Lucien and Zoé explain that the description of Putois is a revered text in the Bergeret family because Putois was the most familiar figure of their childhood, even though he did not exist—or rather, had a special kind of existence. Putois was “born” at a mature age, invented by their mother when Lucien and Zoé were young children and the family was living quietly in the northern French town of Saint-Omer. Their peaceful life was interrupted when they were “discovered” by a great-aunt of Madame Bergeret, named Madame Cornouiller, who insisted that the Bergerets must dine with her every Sunday, as is done in the best families. This social obligation quickly proved to be so boring that the Bergerets began to look for polite pretexts to decline the imperious Madame Cornouiller’s standing invitation.

After exhausting such obvious excuses as illness, the desperate Madame Bergeret one day blurted out that they could not come the next Sunday because they were expecting their gardener. Asked who their gardener was, Madame Bergeret invented the name Putois. Certain that she knew this person, Madame Cornouiller cautioned Madame Bergeret to beware of Putois, because he was considered a lazy good-for-nothing and a vagabond. That was how Putois came to exist,...

(The entire section is 716 words.)