(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Monsieur Alfred Caravan is an aged chief clerk in a government office; he has trod the same circuit as commuter and drudge for some thirty years, for which service he is awarded a lapel pin by the bureaucracy. He is fat and officious, with an atrophied mind and a deeply ingrained dread of his superiors. One hot July night, he and his friend Dr. Chenet travel from Paris to their home at Courbevoie on the Neuilly steam-tram, as usual; they pause once more to tipple at the cafe, and part. At home (the story focuses comically and cruelly on the bureaucrat’s so-called home life), in a minuscule apartment, Caravan greets his lean wife, a compulsive housekeeper and cleaner, and later encounters his filthy young children, who usually play in the neighborhood gutter. Tedious talk rehearses Caravan’s being passed over—again—for a better job at the office. He is henpecked by his wife, while both in turn are domineered by Madame Caravan, Alfred’s quarrelsome ninety-year-old mother, who is housed above them.

The narrator has caustically observed earlier that Caravan’s ceaseless round of tedious conduct never alters, that nothing has transpired to disrupt his boring existence. However, the story is devoted precisely to relating one very unusual alteration, for, as all are sitting down to dinner, Rosalie the maid hysterically announces that Mama Caravan has collapsed upstairs. Dr. Chenet is summoned, the mother is pronounced dead, and a round of hysteria and lamentation commences—mechanical and sincere on Caravan’s part, halfhearted and improvised on the part of...

(The entire section is 643 words.)