Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060
The narrator of the book first meets Dominique de Bray at Villeneuve. Dominique lives at the large Château des Trembles with his wife and two children. The mayor of the commune, he is shy, unpretentious, and a friend to all in the community. On St. Hubert’s Day, Dominique is visited by Olivier d’Orsel, a wealthy, solitary man with captivating manners and a passion for luxury, who retired from social life. A few days after his visit, Olivier tries to commit suicide. This event leads Dominique to tell the narrator about himself.
Orphaned at an early age, Dominique grew up at Villeneuve. In his youth, he became a lover of the outdoors. He was cared for by Madame Ceyssac, his aunt, who provided him with a tutor named Augustin. The two differed greatly in temperament. Dominique was emotional, wild, and loved nature; Augustin was well-read, exact, practical, and apparently oblivious to nature. When he was not tutoring Dominique, he would remain in his room, writing plays and letters. After four years, the time came for Dominique to go away to school. Augustin went to Paris with high hopes of his own success.
Dominique went to live with Madame Ceyssac in her mansion at Ormesson. At school he befriended young Olivier d’Orsel, who also had an estate near Les Trembles. Dominique, who was a good student, helped Olivier with his schoolwork. Too shy to admit it, Dominique fell in love with Madeleine, Olivier’s cousin. At night he would spend his time writing poetry. He also kept up a correspondence with Augustin, who warned him against confusing Olivier’s love of pleasure with the true goals in life.
Dominique was surprised when Madeleine married Monsieur de Nièvres, a well-established gentleman. After the ceremony Dominique was in despair because he realized that he loved a married woman. After graduation, Dominique and Olivier went to Paris. There they saw Augustin, who grew to like Olivier but had no esteem for him. Olivier, in turn, esteemed Augustin without liking him.
Dominique, trying to forget his love for Madeleine, buried himself in his literary work. He went to libraries and lectures, and he read through the small hours of the night in the belief that the austere routine was good for him. After a few months, however, he burned his writings because he thought them stale and mediocre. Olivier, who saw what Dominique did, told him to find other amusements and affections. Augustin, on the other hand, simply said that he would have to begin again. Augustin, who experienced setbacks of his own, never complained. Having guessed Dominique’s love problem, he told him to solve it by plunging into continuous work.
In spite of Augustin’s advice and example, Dominique found it impossible to settle to his work. Through Olivier, he met a woman whom he saw steadily for two months. Then he learned that Nièvres and Madeleine were going to Ormesson, and he invited them to Les Trembles for the holidays. Although he never told Madeleine about his love for her, those were happy months for Dominique. That winter Nièvres and Madeleine decided to go to Paris.
Eventually Dominique wanted to make Madeleine admit that they loved each other, but the harder he tried to draw an admission from her the more she pretended to be quite unaware of his intention. One day, when he was determined to tell her of his love, he saw tears in her eyes; he understood then that there was nothing more to be said.
After that day their relationship became relaxed and natural, and Madeleine, wanting to encourage Dominique in his work, began to meet him at the risk of compromising her reputation. After a time, Dominique realized that Madeleine was about to surrender herself to him. He then stopped seeing her, and she became gloomy and irritable. Her reactions made Dominique realize that he deeply troubled her conscience.
Meanwhile, Augustin married. Visiting Augustin in his home, Dominique saw the near-poverty but great happiness in which his former tutor lived. At the same time Olivier, deeply involved with the woman he was seeing, began to hate the world and himself. It became evident that Julie, Madeleine’s younger sister, loved Olivier. Olivier, however, claimed that happiness was a myth and refused to think of marrying her; his attitude led to a loss of confidence between Dominique and Olivier.
One night, while Dominique and Madeleine were attending the opera, Dominique caught the glance of his former mistress. Madeleine saw the exchange and later told Dominique that he was torturing her and breaking her heart. That night Dominique, determined to deal honestly with Madeleine, decided to claim her. For the next three weeks, however, she was not at home to him. Frustrated, Dominique moved to new quarters and, as a final effort, tried to escape the life of emotions and concentrate on the logical disciplines of the mind. He read much, saved his money, and published anonymously two volumes of his youthful poetry. He also wrote some political books that were immediately successful. When he evaluated his talents, however, he concluded that he was a distinguished mediocrity.
Several months later, Olivier told Dominique that there was unhappiness at Nièvres, where Madeleine was staying. Julie was ill, and Madeleine herself was not well. Dominique went to Nièvres at once and there found Julie recovering. No longer needed as her sister’s nurse, Madeleine, with disregard for propriety, shared three days of supreme happiness with Dominique.
On impulse, after Madeleine led him in a dangerous ride on horseback, Dominique decided to leave as he came, without premeditation or calculation. When he was helping her to fold a large shawl that evening, Madeleine half-fainted into his arms, and they kissed. Dominique felt very sorry for her and let her go. After dinner, Madeleine told him that, although she would always love him, she wanted him to go away, to get married, to take up a new life. That was the last Dominique saw of Madeleine. He returned to Les Trembles and settled down to a quiet country life.
Dominique tells the narrator that the years brought forgiveness and understanding. Augustin, he says, became a respected figure in Paris. Dominique never repented his early retirement; he feels, in fact, that his life is merely beginning.