Janet Lewis

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What cultural issues are brought out and explored in The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis?

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The Wife of Martin Guerre is set in Renaissance France, particularly in a peasant, and bucolic feudal setting. It is 1539, in the French village of Artigues in the Pyrenees, and this is where the two main characters, Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols are married by the Catholic Church at the age of eleven. Martin and Bertrande had been promised to each other,as children often were in that time, as a surety for the family's economic progress. Martin escapes shortly after the marriage, and shows up years later after an impostor, claiming to be Martin, has usurped his place in the household. All these facts make for an interesting study in cultural issues. 

First, we have the culturally-unique sense of duty to the family. Martin Guerre lies to his family and escapes the set up under which he is brought up. This is a direct breach to the sense of duty imposed to young males, and it is also an act of insubordination and disloyalty to the family, as well as to Bertrande.

However, a second issue comes as a result of the first, and it is quite unfair: the wifely expectation of being loyal to a husband, even if he leaves, cheats, lies, or does whatever against the woman. This is chauvinism at its best considering that, when Martin Guerre finally shows up, he accuses his wife of sinning against him and humiliating him by accepting the impostor's claim that he is Martin Guerre.

Dry your tears, Madame. They cannot, and they ought not, move my pity. [...]The error into which you plunged could only have been caused by willful blindness. You, and you only, Madame, are answerable for the dishonor which has befallen me.

Furthermore, there is the cultural issue of extreme Catholicism and the insistence of following guidelines which, either do not make sense, or blind us to reality. Poor Bertrande suspects from the start that the man who shows up as Martin Guerre is an impostor. She even confronts him about this, to which he answers:

When I was in Brittany,” [replies] her husband, “I heard a strange story of a man who was also a wolf, and there may also have been times when the soul of one man inhabited the body of another. But it is also notorious that men who have been great sinners have become saints. What would become of us all if we had no power to turn from evil toward good?

Even Martin Guerre's own family tells Bertrande to quit her wondering and to accept this man as Martin! Hence, her Catholic sense of duty, her meagre role within a chauvinistic family, and the sense of loyalty to her husband make Bertrande accept the impostor...and even fall in love with him. However, Bertrande simply cannot win.

The example of my sisters and my uncle can be no excuse for you, Madame, who knew me better than any living soul.

As the real Martin Guerre shows up, the impostor confesses and is sent away. Meanwhile, Bertrand is stuck between the duty to serve her true husband, the love she feels for the impostor, and the fact that she will undoubtedly be deemed an adulteress from now on. This combination of issues are culturally-bound to the sense of commitment and duty that is specifically bestowed upon women, and to the social expectations imposed on them as "the weaker gender".


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