Ferdinand (fehr-dee-NAHN), a doctor and aspiring writer who narrates the novel. Personally as well as professionally disillusioned, he cares for his patients although he believes most human beings are not worth saving and are, in fact, better off dead. The reasons for Ferdinand’s deep-seated pessimism are evident in his account of his childhood and adolescence. Beaten and abused by his petit bourgeois father, exploited by his employers, and disenchanted with women and love, he finds little to admire in his fellow humans and becomes increasingly cynical and cruel as the novel progresses.
Auguste (oh-GEWST), Ferdinand’s father, an insurance clerk and amateur painter. Handsome, vain, pompous, and cruel, he is well educated but emotionally insecure. A failure both personally and professionally, he frequently criticizes his wife and son for their shortcomings while failing to recognize his own. Given to violent outbursts, he constantly abuses his wife and son verbally as well as physically when things do not go his way professionally. He reveals his reactionary politics by blaming his woes on the Freemasons and Jews.
Clémence (klay-MAHNS), Ferdinand’s mother, a shopkeeper. Well intentioned but physically and emotionally fragile, she spends most of her time unsuccessfully attempting to keep the peace between her husband and her son. Ambitious for Ferdinand, she helps him find jobs (which he never holds) and convinces Auguste to let him go to study at Meanwell College in England. As the novel progresses, Clémence’s health eventually is destroyed through overwork and the beatings administered by Auguste.
Caroline, Ferdinand’s maternal grandmother and, like her daughter, a shopkeeper by profession and a tireless worker. One of the novel’s few admirable characters, she is devoted to her daughter and grandson, whom she teaches to read. She protects both of them from Auguste, whom she detests. In her efforts to provide for her family’s needs, Caroline maintains two workers’ cottages. After repairing the plumbing at one of these cottages, she catches pneumonia and dies.
Uncle Édouard (ay-DWAHR), Clémence’s brother who owns a hardware store and is an amateur inventor. Intelligent, successful, and modest as well as kind, Édouard is Ferdinand’s benefactor. He intervenes quietly in family crises to protect his nephew, pays for his schooling in England, and gets him his job with Courtial des Pereires. At the end of the novel, when Ferdinand is completely down on his luck, Édouard takes him in, cares for him, and encourages him to start again.
Roger-Martin Courtial des Pereires
Roger-Martin Courtial des Pereires (roh-ZHAY-mahr-TAN kewr-TYAHL day pehr-AYR), an inventor, editor of Genitron (a journal for inventors), hot air balloon pilot, and, later, experimental farmer and schoolmaster. An eccentric genius with a weakness for horse racing and prostitutes, Courtial is at once generous, egotistical, sophisticated, and naïve. He is a shrewd businessman as well as a hopeless financial manager. He employs Ferdinand as his secretary at Genitron. After the journal’s failure, the two, along with Courtial’s wife, go to the country to start a school for lower-class children and an experimental potato farm. When Courtial’s methods for growing new and better potatoes fail, he commits suicide.
Nora Merrywin, the wife of the headmaster of Meanwell College. Nora is beautiful, kind, and modest, and she quickly inspires Ferdinand’s passion. As Meanwell College gradually loses most of its students to a new school nearby, Nora grows increasingly despondent. In despair, she seduces Ferdinand and then, riddled with guilt and shame, she drowns herself. Although he is nearby and could save her, Ferdinand chooses to...
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watch her die.
Irène (ee-REHN), Courtial’s wife and a former midwife by profession. Although she was attractive as a young woman, she has become physically repugnant as a result of bodily changes brought on by a hysterectomy. A devoted supporter of her husband, she nevertheless chastises him regularly for his infidelities and gambling. She accompanies him in all of his misadventures and is devastated by his suicide.
Céline draws heavily on his own life in his portrait of Ferdinand. Despite the many similarities in their temperaments and experiences, however, it must be remembered that Death on the Installment Plan is a work of fiction; the distinction between author and protagonist must be maintained. As a doctor, the adult Ferdinand is cranky, disillusioned, and embittered. There is a mutual disgust between him and his patients and neighbors. He suffers from insomnia, paranoia, and frequent bouts of hallucinations and delirium, the consequence of a wartime wound, of malaria contracted in Africa, and of his traumatic, unhappy childhood. He is also a poet and storyteller, who is preparing a mock medieval romance, The Legend of King Krogold, a work that tells of violence and death but is romantic enough to offer him some measure of escape from his drab and dismal life. As a child, Ferdinand devises similar stories of King Krogold. King Krogold is a medieval warrior; he defeats his enemy, Gwendor the Magnificent, and indiscriminately wreaks havoc on Gwendor’s subjects.
Young Ferdinand is tough, resilient, and filled with curiosity and a lust for life. These qualities help him survive the jungle in which he finds himself. He defends and protects himself with an ingrained hostility. As a boy, he beats his dog, treating it the way his father treats him. As an adolescent, he almost kills his father in a fight. He defecates in his pants to defy his parents and repel them. They perceive him as a total failure, stupid and obnoxious, when in fact he is lonely and in desperate need of comfort and encouragement. Though stubborn, violent, and filthy, he elicits sympathy in the reader, which is augmented by an awareness of his sensitivity and creative imagination. The adult Ferdinand’s review of his life shows how, in many instances, the child is father of the man—though it is difficult to see how the slovenly, barely educated boy will evolve into a physician.
The other important and absorbing character in the novel—and the most important in young Ferdinand’s life—is Courtial des Pereires, the eccentric self-styled genius. Céline depicts him comically and sympathetically as a lovable rogue. Courtial is an idealist who, forced to live in a practical world, is not above using chicanery. He is Ferdinand’s mentor and Ferdinand is his willing disciple. Ferdinand recognizes that he is a clarlatan but is responsive to his infectious zest, ingenuity, and enthusiasm, his dislike of systems, and his striving after truth. While Ferdinand’s parents and friends belittle him, Courtial teaches him to believe in himself and makes him recognize and accept that the price of living is death.
The novel has a full gallery of rich secondary and minor characters, some significant in Céline’s scintillating portrayal of the protagonist’s development, others in his brilliant evocation of the life and times. Ferdinand’s parents are the most important figures in his early life. His father, ironically named Auguste, has little dignity. He wants to be a merchant navy officer but must settle for a post as an insurance clerk with no prospect of advancement. He perceives his son as a burden and is convinced that he will be a thief. Clemence, Ferdinand’s mother, spends her time eking out a living in her shop. Hers is a miserable life. Though her robust husband constantly rebukes her, she admires him and allows him to abuse her puny, unpromising son. She comes to realize that she has inadvertently nurtured her son’s hatred for his father. When Ferdinand leaves home because of the rift with his father, she blames herself. Guilty and depressed, she loses interest in life.
The two figures who exert a positive influence on Ferdinand are Grandmother Caroline and Uncle Edouard. Caroline is understanding, warm, and considerate. After her death, Uncle Edouard takes her place in Ferdinand’s life as the only positive familial influence. He is an optimistic, understanding man, a foil to Ferdinand’s father. Outside the family, Nora Merrywin is one of the more significant characters. She is a moral, affectionate woman. Ferdinand is enthralled by her beauty, perceiving her as a phantasmagoria. She represents a feminine warmth and beauty to which he never was and never again will be exposed.
Flynn, James, ed. Understanding Céline, 1984.
Hanrez, Marc. Céline, 1961.
McCarthy, Patrick. Céline: A Critical Biography, 1975.
Nettlebeck, Colin W. “Journey to the End of Art: The Evolution of the Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline,” in PMLA. LXXXVII (January, 1972),pp. 80-89.
O’Connell, David. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, 1976.
Solomon, Philip. “Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan: The Intoxication of Delirium,” in Yale French Studies. L (1974), pp. 191-203.
Thiher, Allen. Céline: The Novel as Delirium, 1972.
Woodcock, George. “Céline Revived,” in Tamarack Review. XLIV (1967), pp. 94-99.