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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

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...

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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 his wife—and some species of chaos is come at last. All, including the doctor, brokenly attempt to complete their meal, and, absentmindedly, they eat and (especially) drink too much. Caravan and Chenet wander out into the fresh air for relief. Caravan conjures up sentimental remembrances of things past, and he even visits his cafe to solicit sympathy, but none is forthcoming from the busy customers.

Subsequently, back home and in bed, Caravan submits to his wife’s plans. Because Mama has died intestate and because his estranged sister will want the best leftovers for herself, the two must “salvage” and secure any heirlooms at once, in the middle of the night. They tiptoe upstairs and confiscate Mama’s monstrous ugly clock, which depicts a girl in gilt bronze playing cup-and-ball, and a heavy chest of drawers with a marble top. Mama’s clothes are summarily packed in a wooden crate. Next day, notices are sent everywhere, and all the nosey neighborhood comes to inspect the deceased; even the children’s dirty ruffian friends sneak in and take a peek. Finally, Madame and Monsieur Braux, Caravan’s sister and her socialist husband, are telegraphed and asked to come from Charenton. Exhausted, the whole family sits down to dinner once again; the lamp runs out of oil; and, only twenty-four hours after her demise, it is discovered that Mama (who often suffered from fainting fits) has revived. Pandemonium ensues as everyone rushes upstairs. Dazed and sulky, Mama is back to normal—and hungry. The entire family is courteous beyond measure. Then, as all descend on the crowded stairs, the rival sister and her husband appear. Fighting ensues; Mama demands her possessions back and arranges a visit with the sister. The men quarrel lustily about politics. Dr. Chenet reappears, delighted to encounter in Mama such a medical recovery; he abruptly resumes eating and drinking. Caravan’s wife quarrels with the sister and her husband; the tension increases until the relatives depart. The Caravans at the close are left, briefly, alone. However, they are filled with grief and terror about the renewed presence of Mama, and fearful of Alfred’s employers, because Caravan has, in all the hurly-burly, managed to miss a day at the office and now has lost his excuse for the absence.

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