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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1318

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Blue Boy is a fictionalized autobiography of Jean Giono’s boyhood. Although much of the story is seen through the eyes of the young Jean, the novel is written in the lyrical style and language and with the voluptuousness and mystical insight which characterize Giono’s greatest works. Sensuousness, the benign figure of Jean’s father, Pere Jean, and an intensely tender and loving regard for human suffering and for the beauties of the world provide a unity of tone and subject matter.

The first five chapters are dominated by three powerful influences on the young boy: his father, the life in a courtyard where “the night stayed from morning till evening,” and music. Blue Boy is both the moving story of a father’s subtle cultivation, enfranchisement, and liberation of a beloved son, and a son’s loving tribute to his father.

Jean’s earliest memories are of his father with his blue cobbler’s apron sitting in his workroom with “a shoe in one hand and the awl in the other” talking with men who have come to him not for new boots but for help, who have come to be healed. By his example and later by his words, Pere Jean encourages his son to become a healer, to use his gift with words to minister to human suffering and loneliness: “I tell you that you must put out the wounds. If, when you get to be a man, you know these two things, poetry and the science of extinguishing wounds, then you will be a man.”

That the world is full of suffering and loneliness Jean’s father does not have to tell him; the youth is preternaturally sensitive to the existence of grief and struggle around him. Jean spends many solitary hours looking down from the windows of his apartment at the dark well of a sheep court and into the windows and doors of other apartments which open onto that courtyard. For the dreaming, imaginative child, the guardian of this pitiful court is a lady whose face “dampness had traced on the walls,” whose eyes are the green of mildew, a lady who, like the living inhabitants of the court, is “humanly beautiful and sad.” The child does not know what to make of his perceptions, for he does not truly understand pain or suffering, and he spends much of his time being “borne away into the wide world” of his imagination. Nevertheless, when he hears the songs of the Passion according to Saint John by Johann Sebastian Bach, Jean imagines that “all the inhabitants of our poor sheep court were wailing.”

Jean responds to the songs of his father’s nightingale and to other music with such rapt attention that his father arranges for him to hear classical concerts played by two poor neighbors, Decidement and Madame-la-Reine, upon a violin and a flute. The child succumbs completely to “the intoxication of listening,” demonstrating not only an intense sensuousness but also an innate capacity for transforming the language of music into words. He knows that the music of Mozart and Bach comes from the “very center of grief,” but he also knows that there is celebration in the music—joy and pride and liberty.

The beginning of chapter 6 records the “sounds, the colors, the odors” which accompany the onset of a serious illness and Jean’s descent into the “interior passages” of time. When he recovers, Jean is sent to live with a shepherd and his wife, Pere and Madame Massot, in Corbieres, a small mountain village, in order to regain his health, to learn “to see things as a whole. And to get some muscle.” In the lush olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields, and pastures, the delicate, pampered child of dark tenements and city streets grows to the verge of manhood among shepherds, farmers, simple village folk, and animals. The turbulence, the vitality, the beauty, the tragedy of life flow forth all around and within him.

When the dark man of the sheep court, a former priest, comes to Corbieres to serve as his tutor, Jean, the intellectual, the artist, the sensualist, thrives. Under the dark man’s tutelage, Jean learns to respect the separateness and integrity of “the forms and life all about.” Jean’s pastoral vision of the harmony of life has its roots in the dark man’s conviction that one has only to stoop and drink from the fountain of life to “have accomplished his work.” Furthermore, the priest brings the world of the Iliad, of literature, alive for the boy. The vital, joyous, tragic world of Provence becomes inextricably linked for Jean with the heroic world of the Greeks, of men worthy of joy and sorrow and struggle. The boy also comes to see that the study of literature can, and should, lead to self-knowledge, to a richer understanding of and commitment to life.

Jean’s sexual awakening also takes place at Corbieres: “For the first time,...the odor of women reached me.... Then the song of the earth and waters changed its register.” Jean is exhilarated, intoxicated, and saddened by his discovery. He is slightly more aware of his essential isolation after this moment, and he understands that “there is in sensuousness a kind of cosmic joy”; he also understands, however, “that the gestures that were so natural and simple for me were ugly, hypocritical, weighted with a sort of black slime for others.”

By the time his father comes to take Jean back home, the boy has, as his father suspects, matured enough to be able to “see”; he is no longer a dreamy imaginative child. Pere Jean is concerned that when his son actually “sees” the poverty and misery of his working-class tenement, Jean will despair. Pere Jean warns the youth not to put his trust solely in what he “sees and hears, reason,” for it is with reason “that a man puts the rope around his neck.” Pere Jean asserts that hope and the human heart are far stronger than suffering, than poverty, than reason. In spite of his father’s words, Jean is deeply troubled by the pain and suffering he perceives all around him when he returns home. The sheep court and all the neighborhood “smelled of defeat and slavery. In this camp of the vanquished nothing remained but submission and death.”

The final chapter develops the image of the dark courtyard as a well of consciousness, self-awareness, and self-knowledge into which Jean plunges deeper and deeper. An aging Italian aristocrat, Franchesc Odripano, comes to live in a room long closed, a room in which “the darkness had hardened.” From this man, as from his father, Jean learns that it is possible to live with dignity and beauty and love amid the wounds of human life, to “belong to the sheep court” and yet to be clean and pure and undefeated. Franchesc Odripano is dedicated to life, to calling out loudly and bravely “the sound that comes from the heart,” in spite of the fact that he knows that he can “no longer be heard” in this base world.

The novel concludes with “bitter and exalted” visions of Pere Jean’s and Franchesc Odripano’s descents into death, of the glory of the natural world, and of the horrid, inevitable triumph of sterility and reason. The novel, Jean’s childhood, and the vital, medieval world of Pere Jean and his neighbors and friends in the village of Manosque end with the onset of World War I, the bloody child of man’s senseless union with “things without thighs” and the grotesque father of the horrible mediocrity of the twentieth century. Jean, to his endless regret, sets out for the war “without any great feeling of emotion, simply because...[he] was young, and over all young men they were blowing a wind that sang of pirates and the ocean sail.”