Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
Adrien Sixte grows up in a peculiar way. His hardworking father wants him to study for one of the professions. However, despite the boy’s early promise in school, he never studies at a university. His indulgent parents allow him to spend ten lonely years in study. In 1868, at the age of twenty-nine, Adrien publishes a five-hundred-page work called The Psychology of God. By the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Adrien has become the most discussed philosopher in France. He follows his first study with two more books, The Anatomy of the Will and The Theory of the Passions, which are even more provocative than his first.
Soon after the death of his parents, Adrien settles into a regular routine in Paris. So faithful is he to his schedule that the inhabitants of the quarter can set their watches by his movements. He spends eight hours of every twenty-four hours in work, takes two walks each day, receives callers (chiefly students) on one afternoon in the week, and on another afternoon makes calls on other scholars. By patient labor and brilliant insight, he develops to his complete satisfaction his deterministic theory that each effect comes from a cause, and that if all causes are known, results can be predicted accurately. He applies his theory to all forms of human activity, to vices as well as to virtues.
One day, neighbors are startled to see Adrien leave his apartment hurriedly at an unusual hour. To his great consternation, he has received a notice to appear before a magistrate in the affair of Robert Greslou, one of his students, and he also has a letter from Robert’s mother saying that she will visit him that very day at four o’clock on an urgent matter.
The sophisticated judge is incredulous when he learns that Adrien never reads the newspapers. The celebrated savant had not heard of Greslou’s imprisonment after being charged with the murder of Charlotte de Jussat. Adrien soon learns that the suspect has been arrested on purely circumstantial evidence, that the proof of his guilt or innocence may well be only psychological. Hence, Adrien, the master, must testify as to his disciple’s ideas on psychological experience. Adrien explains that if a chemist can analyze water into hydrogen and oxygen, he can synthesize hydrogen and oxygen into water. Similarly, if a psychological result can be analyzed into its causes, the result can be reproduced by those same causes; that is, by the scientific method, one can predict human behavior. The judge is interested and inquires if his theory applies to vices. Adrien says that it does, for, psychologically, vices are forms of behavior that are as interesting and valid as social virtues.
When he returns home, Adrien finds Robert’s mother waiting for him. She protests her son’s innocence and begs Adrien to save her boy. Adrien remembers Robert as a precocious student of philosophy, but he really knows little of him as a person. The mother begs Adrien to help and gives him a manuscript written by Robert while in jail. The manuscript includes a note of instruction: If Adrien reads the document, he must agree to not try to save Robert; if the condition is unacceptable, he must burn the manuscript immediately. With many misgivings, Adrien takes the document and reads it. It is a minute and detailed account of Robert’s upbringing, his studies, and his experiences in the Jussat home.
Robert’s story is as follows: Always brilliant, Robert does outstanding work in school, and early in his studies shows a pronounced talent in psychology. Most of his time is devoted to study, but a developing sensuality shows itself sporadically. Since he has grown up at Clermont, he lacks some of the polish imparted at Paris; in consequence, he fails an examination. While awaiting another opportunity to enter the university, Robert accepts a year’s appointment as tutor to Lucien de Jussat.
At the Jussat country home, Robert finds an interesting household. Lucien, his pupil, is a simple thirteen-year-old boy. André, the older brother, is an army officer fond of hunting and riding. The father is a hypochondriac. Charlotte, the daughter of the family, is a beautiful nineteen-year-old woman.
Robert soon begins the studied seduction of Charlotte. He has three reasons for such a step. First, he conceives a distaste for André and wants to put him in his place. Second, his developed sexuality makes the project attractive. Finally, and probably most important, he wants to test his theory that if he can determine the causes leading to love and sexual desire, he can produce desire by providing the causes. Robert keeps careful notes on procedures and results.
Robert knows that pity is close to love. Consequently, he arouses the pity of Charlotte by mysterious allusions to his painful past. Then, by carefully selecting a list of novels for her to read, he sets about inflaming her desire for passionate, romantic love. Robert, however, is too hasty. He makes an impassioned avowal to Charlotte and frightens her into leaving for Paris. Just as Robert begins to despair of accomplishing his purpose, the illness of Lucien recalls Charlotte. Robert writes her a note telling her of his intention to commit suicide. He prepares the strychnine and waits. When Charlotte comes, he shows her the poison and proposes a suicide pact. Charlotte accepts, provided she can be the first to die. They spend the night together. Robert has triumphed.
Next morning, Robert repudiates the pact, prompted in part by a real love for Charlotte. The next day, she threatens to call her brother if Robert attempts to stop her own attempt at suicide, for she has read Robert’s notes and knows she is simply the object of an experiment. After writing a letter to her brother André, telling him of her intended suicide, she drinks the strychnine. Robert is arrested soon afterward on suspicion of murder.
Adrien comes to the end of the manuscript and begins to feel a moral responsibility for his disciple’s act. Disregarding the pledge implicit in his reading, he sends an anonymous note to André asking him if he intends to let Robert be convicted of murder by concealing Charlotte’s letter. André resolves to tell the truth and, in a painful courtroom scene, Robert is acquitted.
Immediately after the trial, André goes to look for Robert. Scarcely able to resist, since he has been ready to die with Charlotte’s secret safe, Robert meets André willingly. On the street, André pulls out a gun and shoots Robert in the head. Robert’s mother mourns beside the coffin; Adrien also mourns because he accepts moral responsibility for the teachings that have prompted his disciple’s deed.
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