Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1246
When Germinie Lacerteux is left an orphan at the age of four, her sisters take care of her. At the age of fourteen, she is sent to Paris to live with an older sister who has settled with her husband in the city. Not wishing to pay for all the expenses of the child from their own meager income, the sister and her husband find Germinie a job as a waitress in a café. She has been working in the café for several months when she becomes pregnant. Germinie suffers many indignities at the hands of her relatives because she will not tell them that she has been raped by one of the waiters; they think she must have invited seduction. Her child is born dead, and giving birth almost kills Germinie. Finally, a retired actor takes pity on her and hires her as a maid and companion. For Germinie, this is a step up in the world, but the old actor dies within a few months. Germinie then fills a host of positions as maid to kept women and boarding school mistresses.
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One day, Mademoiselle de Varandeuil’s maid dies suddenly. Through the influence of her sister, Germinie is given the position. Mademoiselle de Varandeuil is an old maid whose father prevented her from being anything but a servant to him until his death, so that she now has few friends and acquaintances. Other members of her family have died, and she is an old woman. She has a sufficient income to live fairly comfortably, but she cannot afford many extravagances. In her old age, she needs someone to look after her, as much a companion as a maidservant.
For a time after her entry into Mademoiselle de Varandeuil’s service, Germinie is a devoted Christian. She spends a great deal of time at church and goes to confession regularly. Through her devotions, she falls in love with a young priest, but he, sensing her state of mind, sends her to another confessor and refuses to speak to her. With that, Germinie’s devotions cease.
Germinie’s next devotion is to her sister’s niece, who had been left in her care when the mother died. Germinie’s happiness, however, is short-lived, for another sister takes the child to Africa. When word comes by letter that the child is ill and the sister’s husband out of work, Germinie sends everything she can spare to aid the stricken child and the family that is taking care of her. After depriving herself of necessities for two years, Germinie learns that the child died shortly after leaving Paris and that the letters from her sister and her husband were a ruse to get Germinie’s hard-earned money.
About that time, a dairy store opens very close to the house in which Germinie lives with Mademoiselle de Varandeuil. In her dealings with the store, Germinie finds a friend in Madame Jupillon, the proprietress. Madame Jupillon has a son, who is at a trade school learning to become a glove maker. Germinie is quite impressed by the youngster and often goes with his mother to see him on visiting days. One day, when Madame Jupillon is ill, Germinie goes to the school by herself. Upon arriving, she learns that the young man is in trouble because some questionable books have been found in his possession. Germinie helps him out of his difficulty, but when she tries to lecture him, she finds herself unable to do so.
Soon Germinie realizes that she has a great deal of affection for the young man, who is ten years her junior. In order to be near him and to have company, she spends a lot of time with the Jupillons, who take advantage of her willingness to help in the store. She is exceedingly jealous when the young man is attracted to a woman of notoriety, and she does everything she can to keep the two apart. By her actions, she leaves herself open to his advances.
Germinie is extremely happy as the lover of young Jupillon. She soon discovers, however, that Jupillon spends much time in the company of other women. To help keep him for herself, Germinie spends all of her money to buy him a place in which to open his own business, meanwhile providing him with an apartment of his own. Shortly after she did so much for him, Germinie is turned away from Jupillon’s door by another woman who has become his mistress. In the meantime, Germinie discovers she is pregnant and gives birth to a baby daughter. Because it is impossible to keep the child at home while acting as Mademoiselle de Varandeuil’s maidservant, Germinie farms out the child. The death of the baby a few months later brings Germinie great sorrow.
Some time after she was turned out by Jupillon, the young man is unfortunate enough to be called for military service. He has no money to secure his release, but he knows that he can get the money from Germinie, who still loves him. After some trepidation, Germinie goes into debt to keep her false lover near her. She is compelled to borrow so much money that the bare interest on it takes everything she can spare from her small income.
As the years pass, Jupillon takes less and less interest in Germinie, so that she finally gives him up and turns to liquor for comfort. Drunkenness becomes her one joy, although she manages to keep the secret of her vice to herself; old Mademoiselle de Varandeuil never even guesses the truth. Everyone notices, however, that she becomes slovenly in her appearance and in her work. Mademoiselle de Varandeuil keeps her on only because the old woman cannot stand the thought of a new servant in the house. Germinie has two grave problems: She has no one to love, and she is miserably in debt because of a man who cares nothing for her.
When Germinie is approaching the age of forty, she meets a man in his fifties, a painter, and takes him as a lover. She does not love Gautruche except as an object upon which to lavish her pent-up affections. Before long, she feels much better, behaves much better, and is a better servant to her mistress. Gautruche, however, sees her only as a servant for himself, and he believes that she will be only too happy to leave her job and marry him. Much to his surprise, she refuses his offer of marriage, and the two part forever. Once again, Germinie is left with no one who cares for her or upon whom she can lavish her affections. In desperation, she begins picking up any man she can find on the streets. One night, as she roams Paris looking for a lover, she sees Jupillon. She follows him to a house and spends the night outside in the rain, while waiting for a chance to see him again. The next morning, she is desperately ill with pleurisy. She keeps on working in spite of her illness, but Mademoiselle de Varandeuil finally sends her to a hospital, where Germinie dies. After her death, all of her secrets become known, for everyone to whom she owed money attempts to collect from her employer. At first, Mademoiselle de Varandeuil is outraged; then she comes to realize the agony and frustration of Germinie’s life and feels only pity for the wretched woman.