Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718
The narrator, a shadowy figure who often seems to be following the other characters, though he never reveals more than that about himself.
Étienne Marcel (ay-TYEHN), a Parisian bank employee. Étienne is at first a one-dimensional character, but after being observed by Pierre Le Grand, he acquires three dimensions and begins to question things. He is a typical Parisian who works in the center of the city and returns every day by train to his house in the suburbs. He is married, has a son, and eats a disgusting meal every day in a cafeteria. This routine is broken after Pierre sees him nearly run over in front of a train station. Étienne then stops at a suburb, Blagny, where, in a café, he meets the other characters and becomes embroiled in the question of the treasure behind Old Taupe’s door. Étienne becomes a near-philosopher as he awakens to questions about the world (such as the reason for two rubber ducks swimming in a shop window), especially with the help of Pierre. At the novel’s end, he is drafted into the army when the French and Etruscans declare war on each other, leaving his wife to disappear and his son in the hands of the evil Bébé Toutout.
Pierre Le Grand
Pierre Le Grand, an observer and thinker. He is an enigmatic character who, upon being asked if he is a novelist, declares that he is a character. He is the only character conscious of Étienne’s transformations and may appear under other names in the novel, such as Pierre Troc. He is something of a philosophical midwife to Étienne in helping him to learn to think. He also is involved in the comic misunderstanding when people begin to believe that Old Taupe has a fortune hidden behind his door.
Madame Sidonie Cloche
Madame Sidonie Cloche (see-doh-NEE kohsh), a midwife and an abortionist. She is another observer, taking special pleasure in seeing people run over. She is instrumental in fostering the belief that Old Taupe has a fortune and gets the young servant girl Ernestine to marry him for his supposed money. A meddling old woman who is vaguely criminal, she shows up at the end of the novel during the French-Etruscan War as Queen of the Etruscans. She is unhappy about being a character in a novel.
Dominique Belhôtel (doh-mee-NEEK behl-oh-TEHL), a café proprietor, a brother of Madame Cloche. He owns the café in which Étienne stops one day for French fries. Another rather dubious figure, he achieves his ambition when he buys a brothel in order to have enough money for his son Clovis to become an engineer when he grows up.
Saturnin Belhôtel (sat-tur-NAN), a brother of Madame Cloche who works as a concierge. He has ambitions of being a writer and confides in Narcense, who lives in his hotel.
Old Taupe (tohp), a bum. Taupe clearly has no means of support except selling junk. He lives by a railroad track where he has placed a door, behind which the others believe he has a fortune. He marries the young servant girl Ernestine in a wedding feast at the café.
Narcense (nahr-SAWNS), a musician and would-be writer. Narcense is unemployed and spends most of his time pursuing women in the street. Alberte, Étienne’s wife, attracts him to their suburb, where he spends time trying to meet her.
Bébé Toutout (bay-BAY tew-TEW), a parasitic dwarf. He imposes himself on the Marcel household and goes to live there. Another figure associated with evil, the dwarf helps set up a brothel in the house after Étienne leaves for the war.
Théo (tay-OH), Étienne’s son. A typical adolescent in some respects, he prefers looking at obscene photographs to reading philosophy and is interested primarily in sex. He befriends Bébé Toutout and tries to thwart Narcense.
Alberte (al-BEHRT), Étienne’s wife. She is very attractive and has men pursuing her constantly, especially Narcense.
Madame Pigeonnier (pee-zheeohn-YAY), a neighbor of Étienne. She is attractive and interested in Théo.
Jupiter, a dog. This poor pet has the misfortune of leaping onto a coffin during a funeral and is hanged.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
Etienne is the most frequently mentioned character in The Bark Tree. His near brush with death helps him turn from puppet into person; he provides valuable commentary on the predicaments of the other characters; and he survives until the end of the book, when most of the others have vanished. Like the others, he is a common sort of person who does not cause events but to whom things happen. He attempts to make sense out of the meaningless events that form his life yet never manages to do so. Friends such as the innkeeper, Saturnin, and Mme Cloche simply confuse him further with their eccentric explanations of circumstances. As one of society’s “little people,” he finds himself at the mercy of others, especially the King of France, who involves the French in the absurd war. One of the sole survivors of the war, Etienne has no idea why he was spared, nor does he understand why the war ended: It has happened, he has survived, and now he will leave for home.
Pierre is another important character, but he is far more aware of the discontinuity of life around him. Instead of dwelling upon such inconsequential items as potato peelers and ducks (the stuff of Etienne’s musings), Pierre thinks about the nature of reality and decides that it is irrational. In fact, Pierre is the one who notices that the little banker, Etienne, undergoes a transformation from nonentity to person after the near accident which left another person dead. Pierre’s artistic power of observation allows Etienne to become a true, rounded character. As he watches Etienne in the train car, the cab driver imagines the banker changing from a flat cutout to a moving, breathing creation—his own. By doing so, Pierre takes the place of Queneau,his own creator.
Bebe Toutout, unlike Etienne and Pierre, is repulsive. A wizened dwarf, he tries to make others unhappy and thrives on their confusion and fear. Among other things, he is a child molester, swindler, braggart, liar, pornographer, and thug. As an agent of evil, he makes an already unstable world even more unpredictable.
Mme Cloche, the gossipmonger, is another negative character, one whose life is given over to lewd thoughts and bawdy jokes. She pushes young Ernestine into marriage with Old Taupe, hoping somehow to benefit from the fortune she is sure Ernestine will find in Old Taupe’s mattress. When Ernestine marries the ugly miser and discovers that there is no hidden treasure, Mme Cloche maliciously nags the girl about her “folly,” As the girl lies dying, Mme Cloche gives her only ten minutes in which to tell her life story.
Like Mme Cloche and Bebe, young Theo is an agent of destruction. A boy whom Saturnin would like to hang, Theo is a constant irritant to most of the novel’s characters, as he lusts after older women, tortures animals, and steals. This young menace stirs up the others with his antics, if nothing else providing them with an incentive to forget temporarily their boredom.
Ernestine is a foil to Bebe, Theo, Mme Cloche, and the other, minor negative characters in The Bark Tree, for she is innocent, caring, and sensitive. She alone elicits compassion from the other characters, when she dies at such an early age. Her soliloquy, in which she talks about the random things which made up her life and about how disposable she is, resonates throughout The Bark Tree. Her anguish and sensitivity, as well as her acute self-awareness, make her a kind of modern martyr who suffers a meaningless death after living a pathetically brief and absurd life. The memory of her death stays with the friends present at the time.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22
Guicharnaud, Jacques. Raymond Queneau, 1965.
Mercier, Vivian. The New Novel from Queneau to Pinget, 1971.
Shorley, Christopher. Queneau’s Fiction, 1985.
Thiher, Allen. Raymond Queneau, 1985.
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