Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605
As The Horseman on the Roof opens, Angelo Pardi is riding into the Rhone valley during the summer of 1838. The heat is oppressive, and everyone suffers from thirst. Then people begin to die. At first, the deaths do not draw unusual attention, but soon it becomes clear that a cholera epidemic has begun. People become frightened, and their attempts to protect themselves make travel difficult. Angelo meets a young doctor who tries to save as many lives as he can, even to the point of searching out cholera victims who have hidden themselves away to die. Angelo helps him eagerly, though their efforts fail time after time. Finally, the young doctor himself becomes a victim. Angelo is unable to keep him alive.
He takes up his travels again after the doctor’s death. After getting past a group of soldiers and several roadblocks manned by citizens, Angelo makes his way into Manosque, where he expects to find his foster brother Giuseppe. Instead, he finds himself trapped by a mob; he is accused of poisoning the well and his life is threatened. To escape the mob’s wrath, Angelo makes his way onto the rooftops, where he lives for the next several days.
From his position above the city, Angelo watches the progress of the epidemic. In a brief expedition into one of the houses, he meets Pauline, Marquise de Theus, who—unafraid and clearly in control of the situation—makes tea for him. Angelo, frightened that he might have brought cholera into the house, leaves; he does not encounter Pauline again until much later.
When he finally comes down from the rooftops, the first person whom Angelo meets is a nun, who has taken upon herself the job of washing the dead bodies of cholera victims. Again, as with the young doctor, Angelo cheerfully and energetically accepts the role of assistant.
Soon after, Angelo leaves the streets of Manosque, which are almost abandoned, and searches the surrounding hills for Giuseppe. Angelo finds his foster brother with several people who have taken refuge outdoors to escape the cholera; for a while it seems as if they have succeeded. When cholera begins to strike the community, however, Angelo and Giuseppe decide that they should make their separate ways back to Italy. They establish a rendezvous and set out on their journeys.
Angelo reencounters Pauline when they have both been stopped by a roadblock. The soldiers have orders to keep people off the roads, in order to prevent the spread of cholera. Traveling together, Angelo and Pauline make a formidable pair, however, and they are able to outwit, outfight, and outbluff any who try to stop them. Indeed, when they are captured and put into quarantine, they escape easily, although Angelo is disappointed that he did not get to display more of his soldierly skills in the escape.
Shortly before the end of the novel, Angelo and Pauline meet a country doctor whose explanation of cholera—he connects the disease to pride—helps make Jean Giono’s symbolic intentions clearer. The two travelers, who have a great respect, admiration, and affection for each other, although they have not become lovers, set out on the final leg of their journey. Just when their spirits are highest, however, Pauline collapses: Cholera has finally caught up with her, too. Angelo ministers to her through the night, using all the skills he learned from the young doctor, and in the morning she is weak but clearly out of danger. Angelo sees that she arrives safely home, and as the novel ends, he is filled with joy that he will soon see Italy.