Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961
Death on the Installment Plan takes the form of a review by an adult Ferdinand of his boyhood and adolescence. Ferdinand’s reminiscence reveals the harsh, cruel world in which he grew up and shows the germination of his present attitude and temperament. In the opening fifty pages, Louis-Ferdinand Céline introduces the narrator as a gloomy, disillusioned doctor who views medicine cynically and is irritated by his patients. Employed at the Linuty Foundation Clinic, he is surrounded by sickness and corruption. His cousin, a doctor at a venereal disease clinic, is dying of cirrhosis of the liver, and his typist wants to be an abortionist. Ferdinand is gravely ill when the novel begins. His mother comes to visit him, and it is a vicious quarrel with her, not warm maternal-filial feelings, which conjures up his childhood memories and initiates the flashback that constitutes the novel.
It is a grim childhood, as one after another of the numerous recalled incidents and episodes of his childhood evocatively indicate. He grew up in a filthy apartment in a glass-encased passage in Paris, to which the action turns: There is no warmth, no love in his home. Ferdinand is constantly beaten and abused by his father, Auguste, an insurance clerk who, a failure himself, belittles his son. His mother, Clemence, runs a clothing shop, and though she has aspirations for her son and is solicitous of his welfare, she provides little emotional or material comfort and constantly nags him. His grandmother, Caroline, is one of two family members who show him any affection or kindness, but she soon dies. She secretly buys for him a copy of Illustrated Adventure Stories, of which his father disapproves. In it, he discovers the story of King Krogold, which inspires him to create his own King Krogold stories, set in a fictional world into which, as a child and later as an adult, he often escapes. Uncle Edouard, whose joviality and optimism contrast sharply with the gloom of this household, displays some interest in young Ferdinand. The other uncles and aunts, a grotesque bunch, care little for him. The neighbors, generally repulsive, are no warmer than Ferdinand’s relatives, and their harsh treatment of him makes him more withdrawn. There are many instances in which his painful, negative experiences cause him to vomit, to defecate in his pants, and to masturbate. The only happy period of his childhood is a short vacation the family spends at Dieppe, but even this respite is marred by his brush with death by drowning.
A poor student, he manages to be graduated from elementary school and begins searching all over Paris for employment. When he does find work, his employers take advantage of him. He is fired from his first position as a stockboy and from his second as a clerk for a jeweler, whose wife introduces him to passionate, animal sexuality and later falsely and deliberately accuses him of theft. Unable to hold a job, he is abused and chastised by his parents. This is a period of great anguish for him. Hoping to make something of him, his parents accept a loan from Uncle Edouard which enables them to send him to learn English at Meanwell College in England.
At the college, where Ferdinand spends eight months, he refuses to speak in French or English, associating only with the retarded Jongkind. Nevertheless, life at the college is better than at home, and though Ferdinand isolates himself, he does not find his life to be unpleasant. The college, run by a strict headmaster, Merrywin, is close to financial collapse. The headmaster’s wife, Nora, seduces Ferdinand, who is entranced by her beauty. A moral but sexually frustrated woman, she feels guilty about her infidelity with Ferdinand and commits suicide. Her suicide has a profound effect on Ferdinand and marks his passage from childhood into adolescence. The school fails soon after Nora’s suicide and Merrywin goes insane. Ferdinand returns to Paris, leaving behind a world that, only slightly more pleasant than his home, is portrayed through disgusting images of filth and nausea, passion and rage, despondency and defeat.
Back in Paris, Ferdinand tries unsuccessfully to find work. Constantly abused by his father, he eventually strikes him, almost causing his death. Thrown out of the house, he is rescued by Uncle Edouard, who introduces him to Courtial des Pereires, an eccentric inventor, editor, and philosopher. For the last half of the novel, Ferdinand’s life is dominated by Courtial. When they first meet, Courtial is editor of a popular magazine, Genitron, whose subscribers are themselves quixotic minor inventors. Courtial flees Paris when some of his subscriber-inventors who were cheated by him sack his office. He acquires a farm and, with his wife and Ferdinand at his side, tries his hand at novel agricultural and educational practices: He cultivates vegetables by passing electric shocks through the soil and runs a pension for underprivileged children who, exposed to both mental and manual activities, are expected to become model citizens. Both experiments fail: The vegetables rot away, the children are delinquents, and the neighboring farmers become antagonistic. With everything crumbling around him, Courtial commits suicide.
Ferdinand is once more left on his own. Distraught and discouraged, he once again is rescued by Uncle Edouard, who provides him with a home and tries to rally his spirit. He is grateful to his uncle, but he does not want to be a burden on him or on anyone else, including his parents, who have given up on him since his fight with his father. Now about seventeen, he decides to join the army, and the novel ends where Céline’s first novel, Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932; Journey to the End of the Night, 1934) begins.